Do you remember that scene in Mary Poppins when she sings Jane and Michael to sleep? It had been a full day as any day with Poppins is – full of play and laughter, of magic and favorite things. She sits in a high-backed nursery chair, mending a toy, singing: Stay awake, don’t rest your head/Don’t lie down upon your bed/While the moon drifts in the skies/Stay awake, don’t close your eyes. Julie Andrews’ voice rang in my ears this week as I considered our text, dreamily wanting to enter sleep so innocently, surrounded by peace and gentleness.
Instead – my entrance into sleep and I’m guessing yours, too, is fractured by the buzzing and beeping of phones, of the late night news reminding us that tragedy and terror hides in plain sight all around us. We’re so keyed up from the day that to fall asleep sometimes requires a cocktail or a cocktail of efforts – melatonin and Ambien and programmable mattresses. We’ve spent our days consuming information and are over-full come night. Want to see the score of the game next to every other score of every other game? There’s an app for that. Want your phone to buzz every time a news story breaks? Or how about when anyone responds to your Facebook feed or Snapchat story or Instagram post? Can do! Or if you want to watch the news at any hour? No problem – cable TV has you covered. The internet never goes to sleep and it seems that journalists don’t sleep now, either.
It isn’t only technology that threatens our rest. For some of us, as soon as our heads hit the pillow, the thoughts come racing in – yesterday’s missteps, today’s unmet needs, tomorrow’s to dos. We’re equally kept awake by the desire to be better, to achieve. All the factors that define success in our shared culture – where our kids go to school, how much money we make, where we live, what we wear and do and drive – all of those factors entangle themselves in our brains and shutting them off to get some well-needed sleep is a forgotten dream. And then, for some of us, the feelings we’ve kept at bay all day rush us, the levees of our hearts breaking under the cover of darkness – the loneliness, the disappointment, the fear. We realize that she’s never coming back or he can’t hear what you’re saying or your body is not going to heal from this. All of this – or really any of this – leaves a person anxious – anxious and ready, desperate for some peace.
When we hear of the bridesmaids in this morning’s passage, we hear of ten women who were anxious, too. This parable is not about a wedding just as the parable about the fig tree is not about figs. A parable points to something beyond our earthly realm – points to the kingdom of God and in this case, that kingdom of God looks like Jesus’ return. When this passage was written, Matthew’s community was very tired of waiting, the anxiety rife within Christ’s followers. He said he would be back! Where is he? Jesus knew we would be anxious so before he died and rose again, he told his followers – stay awake. Be ready! Pay attention to what matters, Jesus says. What matters is that I said I was coming – do you want to see me when I get to you or not? I will show back up – keep your eyes open.
If I were a bridesmaid in this parable, I would’ve been the one who had enough oil. At least that’s what I like to tell myself. But how many times has Christ been right there, right in front of me – in members of my family, in you, in friends – and I have been running around trying to get everything in order so that I can see him when all I had to do was stop and look? It is easy to excuse all of this stuff we do – this preparing and planning and getting things in order, making lists and checking them twice, working long hours, answering emails at the dinner table, sneaking a peek at our phones while driving because that text message needs a response, putting off calling home because there’s never a “good” time – it is easy to excuse it all because we tell ourselves we’re busy and we have things we have to do. We HAVE to be awake because we’re going to miss something – we’re going to miss what we’re supposed to do. And isn’t that what Jesus is saying in his parable? Stay awake! Be ready! Have it all together, people – I’m coming back and I’m coming for you! But I think Jesus and I – maybe Jesus and we – have different definitions of what “staying awake” means. My friend Rob puts it this way: “Rather than into an exhausting struggle to stay awake, the parable invites hearers into an awakening, a growing awareness of the world around them – and God’s coming into it.”
I don’t often preach about the humble privilege I hold here, as I walk alongside our youth and watch them awaken to the world around them. I am protective of their stories and their hearts because I know my vantage point is one that comes with great trust and I hold that with the gravitas it deserves. As of late, though, I am more and more compelled to share with you what I see from where I stand – stand among them, next to them – definitely not over them because I’m about as big as a sixth grader – but what I see as our younger members try to navigate their worlds. Their truth is a truth that I believe we are all bearing right now, in some way or another. It is a truth that is not easy to say and so our young people often express it in anxiety and anger and eye-rolling and sleeping until noon and giving you the silent treatment. But it is a truth that needs to be said. We need to wake up and see what is right in front of us – our people need us. Need us – need us to stop filling their worlds with stuff that has to get done, grades that have to get made, practices that have to be attended, places they have to be, phones that are always on, always. Our people are tired of holding all of these expectations and anxieties and yes – even their phones – and they just want to rest. They are tired and want to rest because they want to be awake and ready for what really matters. They want to be awake and ready to be with you and they can’t because their worlds are too full of stuff that requires them to be awake and elsewhere. And the thing is, I think we just really want to be awake and with them, too, but think that we have to do all this other stuff in our waking hours because that’s what’s expected. And it is. In this kingdom of earth. But in the kingdom of heaven?
This lesson is not only for those with little and not as little ones underfoot. Last Sunday’s harrowing event in Texas is but one of an endless stream of cries for mercy and for broken relationships and broken hearts to be made whole again, for someone to be awake enough to see the pain before it is exercised in a most violent way. There is not a soul on this earth who does not need someone to be awake to their needs and their hurts and their hopes. There is not a soul on this earth who does not need a relationship, a lifeline in the stormy sea of everything that threatens to consume us. The world is hungry for attention, for us to stay awake and notice one another. To take our eyes off the screens and the emails and the expectations and look up – look at one another and see the truth. But I know this is hard to do because I’m just as tired as you.
But, I am comforted by the Good News and the Good News is, we are not alone. Christ is already breaking into our world, to our time and is ever awake to us. Christ wants to be in relationship with you. That’s it. That’s the whole thing – Christ is God incarnate – born in human flesh so that the Lord our God can be in relationship with you, with me, with us. “So wake up, my sweet children,” Jesus is saying! Wake up and see what I see – that those relationships in your life – the relationship with Christ, with those of your family, your friends, your neighbors, those who are strangers and not yet friends, those who are hurting and suffering and waiting for someone to notice them, those who are ignored and oppressed – all those relationships are what we need to be awake for. This other stuff? It truly is just stuff. It is filling our time but not filling our heart. Be with the people, Christ says. Be with me.
I’m reminded of a story I heard on Radiolab about a family with an autistic son. It comes to my mind when I think of the time that Christ spends pursuing us, calling us to be awake and paying attention to what truly matters. The child in the story is Ron Kaufman. In 1981, his father, Barry, was interviewed on the local news by a young Oprah. Barry tells Oprah, “We had a child who was diagnosed as incurably ill – something called ‘autism.’” Barry goes on to tell Oprah how Ron won’t look he and his wife in the eye anymore so they decide to sit down on the bathroom floor and rock with their son and hope that he will make eye contact with them. For days and weeks and months, they sat with their child, rocking back and forth, until one blessed day, their son turned his head. Kaufmann continues to tell Oprah:
“And he actually looked at us. It took 900 hours before he ever gave us eye contact on his own. When he looked at us, we cheered, we cried. Somebody else might look at us and say, ‘You’re crazy,’ But we’re not. We just got this little boy. It took us 900 friggin’ hours but he just looked at us for three seconds. My God!”.
We just got this little boy, Barry says. We’ve just got each other – each other and a Savior who is ever awake to us. May we wake up and do the same. In the name of the one who brings crazy, patient love to bear on all our lives. Amen.