Sermon – 12/01/2013

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe Connolly

Keep Awake

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“Therefore, keep awake— be vigilant, for you do not know the day on which your Savior is coming.” — Matthew 24:42.

Many of you know the Nichols family who used to be members here. However, some of you do not know them, since they moved to Western Pennsylvania about— my memory says five or six years ago. Needless to say, some of you were not attending this church that long ago.

Micah Nichols, one of four brothers, must have been in Middle School (or maybe still in Elementary School) depending on when the family left when the family left at that point. I presume that since I know he is now a Rotary Exchange Student and he is a Senior in High School.

Now, of all the places one could be a Rotary Exchange Student, Micah certainly wound up in one of the most exotic and perhaps even a little dangerous since there has been a little violence in the capital earlier this week. He is currently in Thailand. I know this because I am Micah’s Facebook friend.

And not only does he post on Facebook he writes an occasional blog. And just so I say this out loud, I have told him by e-mail he is a magnificent writer. He writes well, he is a keen observer and his insights are interesting. Well, Micah added a post to his blog just a couple of days ago and it contained yet another fascinating observation.

In what he wrote he first noted his Thai language abilities are coming along nicely. They are not yet what he would call great— and knowing Micah my bet is he has high standards for determining what is great— they are not what he would yet call great but they are improving.

After a couple of months in country he can understand much, as he listens to conversation in Thai. It is always a good feeling, he said, to realize you can understand what people are saying, even without dedicating your total focus to it.

As to the fascinating observation he made, this is a direct quote from that recent blog post of Micah Nichols: “Something mildly interesting about Thai culture is that there is no such thing as sarcasm. Being an American, a lot of my humor is sarcastic. This causes some definite communication issues and certainly makes Thai people think I’m absolutely insane.”

“For example, someone will tell me about how busy their day will be. I might say something along the lines of ‘oh, that should be fun, right?’ I normally get strange looks in response— but I think I’m slowly training my host family to understand sarcastic humor.” [1] (Slight pause.)

I have another Facebook friend who is fond of occasionally posting picture with a single sarcastic phrase attached. He posted some this week. The pictures from this week were interesting from a historical perspective, given the season. They were pictures of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade taken in the 1930s.

Back in the 1930s the parade had what we might think of as some pretty bizarre balloons. In part because these photos got posted, I’ve done research about the parade. And I think the balloons and floats in the parade back then in the 30s and even some photos from some later dates were pretty strange when seen through today’s eyes.

There are several peculiar strange dragons— balloons— which traversed the parade route in different years. I found them quite off-putting. There is one of a disembodied head. So you can see a couple of these pictures, let me pass out a sheet with some of them on it. [Pause as the pastor passes out sheets with pictures on it.  Click here to see the pictures.]

[The pastor keeps talking as the pictures are passed out: “two sides on these; two different sheets— one has tinted picturers on it, the other doesn’t.” The pastor returns to the pulpit.]

Some of those seem pretty strange, right— with today’s eyes, at least. Well, my friend who posted this on Facebook is in the habit as I suggested of posting a number of strange pictures, not just these from the parade.

And he posts strange pictures with some regularity. The caption he gives them is always the same. The caption is meant to be sarcastic, I’m sure. He posts a strange picture and then he proclaims: “Further Proof of the Apocalypse.” Proof of the Apocalypse? (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Gospel we have come to know as Matthew: “Therefore, keep awake— be vigilant, for you do not know the day on which your Savior is coming.” (Slight pause.)

So, let’s ask the obvious question: is this text meant to be apocalyptic? Is this text meant to be about the end of time in the modern sense, in our sense? Or, for our purposes today, would it be more accurate to take the words in this text as sarcastic? (Slight pause.)

I want to be careful here. I have no need to demythologize these words, to make them too modern, to take all the interesting imagery found in the passage in such a way as to render the words meaningless and, therefore, useless. To do so would be to rob the images of the early Christian witness they were meant to be and are.

But taken in the context of the times in which they were written, the witness was not intended to convey despair. Taken in the context of the times, New Testament times, this is a witness about hope. But how can that be since, when we look at this text with our modern eyes, it is easy to read fear into them? (Slight pause.)

Just like sarcasm does not come across in a Thai culture, in the culture of New Testament times, these words are not meant to convey a message about fear. They would not have even understood— they— the people in New Testament times— would have even understood what seeing these words as fearful was about. This is witness is about hope for them. This is a witness, you see, about the consummating activity of God.

Indeed, we need to carefully listen to the witness of the text. And we do need to allow the symbols found therein to evoke in us a sense of urgency. We do need to allow the symbols found therein to create some expectancy about the future God might have for us and a sense of anticipation about the future God might have for humanity.

How so? This passage, you see, begins and ends with declarations that the hour in which the hope of God is fully realized but cannot be known— the hour cannot be known. And the fact that Jesus and the angels are not privy to the time should provide a sharp warning against speculation and any overeagerness to seek some kind of hidden message. In fact, any claim to special insight about the future based on this passage merely exposes human arrogance and pretense.

Therefore, we need to acknowledge there is actually a positive word in the very unknowable-ness of the hour. We need to be reminded that we should not live as speculators guessing about the future nor as prospectors hunting for gold nuggets in the text. We need to live as a people to whom a promise has been given.

And we need to count on the reliability of the One who makes promises of hope. You see, it is not that the future is somehow mysteriously shrouded and that armchair predictors of the apocalypse must seek to break the secret code and discover when the end will be. The promises God makes do not depend on the natural possibilities inherent in the past or the present. [2]

All of which is to say, taken in the context of the times in which this was written, this is not a warning of any kind. This is not about, as some today might have it— this is not about being afraid because the end is near. This is about being aware that doing the work of God right now is a necessary component of the Christian way of living.

And what does doing the work of God right now mean for us today? It means feeding the hungry— something we participated in just last week— sheltering the homeless, clothing those in tatters, welcoming the alien in our midst, offering adequate healthcare for everyone.

Therefore, doing the will of God means offering a word of hope. That— offering hope— is the message of Advent promise. And the Advent promise is the promise of the Messiah— God in our midst. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I hope this is clear: our culture effects our understandings— just like sarcasm won’t make sense in Thai there are things which won’t make sense in our culture becasue it’s alien to us. An example: as you know, it was cold yesterday, in the single digits. Today it supposed to be over 40. But Bonnie and I came here from Maine. What the culture in Maine says is when you see single digits expect that to last for several weeks— sometimes below single digits for several weeks. My point is we need to examine how the culture informs us. A friend of mine said when he found out we were going to Norwich, ‘Oh, you’re going to the tropics, aren’t you? Does a language accommodate sarcasm? If not, you will not get the jokes. Is the message of God meant to be one of hope? If your cultural tendencies steer you away from hope and toward fear, you will not be able to grasp that God offers hope.”

BENEDICTION: Let us know and understand that our hope is in God. May we carry the peace of God where ever we go. Let us share that peace and that hope, which is God’s, with all whom we meet. For God reigns and the joy of God’s love is a present reality. Amen.

[1] Used with permission.

[2] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV, by Walter Brueggemann (Editor) , Charles B. Cousar (Editor) , Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Editor) , James D. Newsome Jr. (Editor) — this from the electronic version, which is exactly the same as the print version.


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