Awaken to Hope

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 29, 2020

Mark 13: 24-37

The beginning of Advent for Christians is a time when we remind ourselves that God is always in the process of coming into the world. Our challenge is to be ready for that when it happens. And to realize it’s always happening. 

Over the last year we have been exploring stories from Matthew’s portrait of Jesus. Today we turn out attention to the story of Jesus found in the Gospel according to Mark. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels. It is a compact story, rather like a handbook on Jesus. The background of Mark is the rebellion against Rome that was centered in Jerusalem. Both Christians and Jews were involved in it. It led to the destruction of the city. 

During times of social and political upheaval it is natural to think in terms of the end of the world or at least as we know it. This is the story of Mark. There’s no time to waste. We won’t worry about when or where Jesus was born – we’ll get on with his story when he starts his work. The earliest versions didn’t even include the resurrection. The tomb was empty – so get out there and spread the word. 

Since we embarked on our last Advent journey, last year around this time, the world as we know it came to an end. It will be some months yet before we get through to the other side. And when we do, it won’t look the same as it did before. 

We will be changed by this journey. 

We will see people in a new light. We will gain a greater appreciation for many things in life. Things like family gatherings, our loved ones and our friends. Things like going to the grocery store and not worrying about someone crowding to close to us. Things like going to a restaurant. 

Or the people that we tended not to think too much about unless we needed their services – and how we’ve come to depend on their services as never before – health care workers and the services they provide. 

Some people used to say, “You’d better study hard in school! You don’t want to end up stacking shelves at Walmart!” After this, that person stacking shelves at Walmart is a hero. Putting food on the shelves is an essential task. That high school girl checking out your groceries, dealing with all kinds of people coming by her till – she’s a hero.

We see people that we didn’t use to pay much attention to, and we realize that they are very important part of the fabric of our society; that without them we could be a lost worse off under the circumstances. 

And we see some people in a new light shines harshly. We see some people as thoughtless and uncaring of their fellow human beings. We see the apocalypse descend upon them and we think, and maybe even say it out loud, “Well, they brought it on themselves. What do you expect?”

People will sometimes ask me, “What is it you do as a minister?”

There were times when the question felt threatening, as in, “How do you justify your existence” or “What are we paying you for?” 

No answer seemed to measure up to the questioner’s expectations. After some time, many years in fact, I decided not to worry about people’s expectations. Probably those expectations were a creation of my imagination, rather than what people really wanted. After some time, it became quite clear what it is I do. And that is, to simply show up. Show up and remind people that God loves them. 

There are so many situations in life where there is little else we can do. 

But my job remains, to one and all, to simply to show up and remind folks that God loves you. If that makes any difference it is that as we give and receive love, we touch upon God’s purpose for our lives. We carry that purpose with us, and we share it others. 

Some people are easy to love and for some who might not be so easy to love, perhaps our way of showing God’s love is to be less judgmental. I don’t know what’s going through that guy’s head. I haven’t walked a mile in her shoes. God loves them as much as God loves anyone. 

Jesus said when the world turns upside down, be ready – keep alert – keep awake. 

A few years ago, during the course of one year, I conducted sixty-eight funerals. In that number there were three murders, a handful of suicides and some tragic endings.

Every time I was asked to conduct a funeral I would go and meet with the deceased person’s loved ones. My aim was to hear their life story. To accomplish that I would ask a few simple questions, and the stories would follow. Some people lived a long time and some people not so long. But not one person who died, ever died without somebody loving them. 

And then I would share their stories, appropriately, at the funeral service. Some stories brought tears, and some brought laughter. Each one reminded people that God is love and that love you feel is how you touch on God’s purpose for life. 

If Jesus said we must be ready for the unexpected hour, then how? He said, “Keep awake,” but what did he mean? 

We mull over what it means to stay awake. If you’re a student you sometimes have to put in extra hours of study; if you work the late shift you have to stay awake for your job; if you’re sitting with a dying loved one, you are alert into the wee hours. 

Last year I was in downtown Minneapolis, waiting to catch a bus to my daughter’s house. It was a bright spring day. A lot of people were out and about; people walking along while looking at their phones. About a half a block up the street a woman was crossing the street, looking at her phone while wearing earbuds. She did not see the train barreling down upon her. She didn’t hear it. A guy sprinted and managed to give her a shove that sent her flying out of harm’s way at the very last second. He risked his life and they both lived to tell the tale. 

To me it was an illustration of how some folks go through life. Focused on what’s in front them and not paying attention to what’s going on around them or in the rest of the world. 

What this story from Mark is telling us is that “staying awake” is to be alert to the realities of life. It’s asking the question, even on the level of the unspoken, “where is God in any of this?” Life is joy and sadness mixed together. It is height and depth, mystery and certainty all wrapped into one. We never know when God might appear in the mix, because God is just as real in the depths as God is real in the heights. 

Perhaps staying awake to realities of life also involves waking ourselves up to the possibilities of God in life. Perhaps not even in a religious sense, but just to the simple sense of there being some hope in life.

Vedran Smajlović is a man known for his practice of hope. In 1992 a group of people had queued up in front of a bakery in the city of Sarajevo. The city was under siege and the bakery was going to sell bread. The people were hungry and desperate. At 4:00 in the afternoon a mortar shell landed in the crowd and twenty-two people were killed. It was one more brutal act in a brutal war. 

Vedran Smajlović was a cellist who had played with Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. One day he took his cello and went to the spot where those twenty-two people had been killed. He played a piece called Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni. It’s just less than nine minutes in length. Each day he returned to that spot at different times of the day and played that piece for 22 days. 

Vedran Smajlović could have easily been shot by the snipers who were thick in Sarajevo. But he wasn’t. His twenty-two day concert was a memorable enactment of hope. The world was reawakened to a sense of hope.  

The poet George Herbert once wrote: “He that believes in hope dances without music.”

This is a good picture for a life of faith. To hope in God’s grace is to move to a rhythm that other people may not hear. It is to act out a drama that others cannot imagine. It is to glide through life guided by a tune that plays only in your own heart.

The hopes of our faith make no sense from the outside. It’s a rough world, with forces that try to dominate our lives. But we hope in a God of truth and justice to have the final word.

In a world where violence and force always seem to win the day, we hope in a force of love that is the supreme power. In a world where wealth and status seem to have the upper hand over desperate, needy people, we hope that poverty and innocence have God’s special blessing.

Having hope means constantly expecting a different kind of future, even when history seems to confirm our fears. Hope is for those who feel the pain of the world. Hope is for those who agonize at human cruelty. Hope is for those who hear the cries of homeless and hungry children, and cry along with them.

In a world where hope seems so far away, we are a people of hope. We listen for the voice of angels in the wind. We stretch to see the first light of a new day on the horizon. We long for a new birth of grace in every human heart. We wait. We listen. We hope. Amen.

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