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18 November 2011

Ewigkeitssonntag/Christ the King: Staying Awake

There once was a monastery that was known to be very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. "It has been ten years," said the head monk. "What are the two words you would like to speak?..."

"Bed... hard..." said the monk.

"I see," replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk's office. "It has been ten more years," said the head monk. "What are the two words you would like to speak?"

"Food... stinks..." said the monk.

"I see," replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, "What are your two words now, after these ten years?"

"I... quit!" said the monk.

"Well, I can see why," replied the head monk. "All you ever do is complain."
Imagine you have taken a vow of silence.  Now imagine having to wait ten years until you can speak -- and then all you are able to say are two words; those two words will need to sum up all your living, all your longing, all that is truly important to you -- for it will be another ten years until you will be allowed to speak another two words.  Keeping silence has a way of bringing into focus what counts. This last Sunday in the Church Year is about focusing on what counts. 

In German Lutheranism this Sunday was known as Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead), and is now known as Ewigkeitssonntag (Eternity Sunday); in the ELCA we call it "Christ the King Sunday", following the custom of the Roman Church. When in the gospel texts Jesus is called "The King of the Jews", it's a way to mock him. Those mocking him see nothing but a little man who's gotten into the way of their schemes. But -- no matter whether what we call the last Sunday in the Church Year -- what we know and celebrate this Sunday is that he is not only the King of the Jews, but also the king of the outcasts, the king of the marginalized, the king of you and me, the king of the very cosmos.

Begin of J.S. Bach's setting of the chorale

As we are about to make the transition toward Advent and Christmas, we are invited to focus on what counts.  One way to do just that is, as the German Church does on this Sunday, to sing Philip Nicolai's "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme", here in the translation of Carl Daw (which surpasses Catherine Winkworth's standard translation in accuracy): 

“Sleepers, wake!” A voice astounds us,
the shout of rampart guards surrounds us:
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight's peace their cry has broken,
their urgent summons clearly spoken:
“The time has come, O maidens wise!
Rise up, and give us light;
the Bridegroom is in sight.
Your lamps prepare and hasten there,
that you the wedding feast may share.”

Wakefulness is a major theme of this last Sunday before the Church Year begins anew. Just as the parable of the ten virgins (on which the above hymn is based) speaks of wakefulness, Luke speaks of it in Chapter 12:

35 “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  (V35, NKJV; VV36-40 NRSV)

Let your waist be girded ... All our modern translations have decided that the Greek of verse 35 ("the loins having been girded") would be unintelligible for modern readers; thus they came up with inane phrases such as "Be dressed for action" or "Be dressed for service". In the process, the old metaphor was lost. "Let your loins be girded" refers to the practice of tucking the ends of the long flowing outer garment into the belt to shorten it in preparation for activities such as running.  In addition, the modern translations obscure the close connection with a key Old Testament Passage:
This is how you shall eat [the Passover Lamb]: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. (Exodus 12:11)

The reference to Israel's exodus is crucial.  The urgency is similar: Just as being ready to march at any given moment was expected of the People of God when they were about to escape from the Egyptian oppressors, such readiness is expected of us when it comes to embrace the New World of God.

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; ... he will fasten his belt ... and he will come and serve them. ... The picture changes in v. 37. There it is the master, not the servants, who "is girded" and serves the slaves. The master serving the slave -- this is a difficult picture for us to capture; it turns our normal picture of religion upside down: While most of us grew up with the idea that it is the followers' duty to serve God, to offer something to God, Jesus tells us here that faith means being served by God and receiving gifts from God!  I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's statement: "However inanely and blindly we are seeking the kingdom of heaven, it is also seeking us."

If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. ... When we are told in church that we should be ready, often the first things that come to mind are judgment and punishment. But v. 38 simply states that we should stay awake so we can participate in what the King has prepared for us!

The kingdom is seeking us; the king is inviting us.  When the king returns, that will be the exodus of those among the People of God who manage to stay awake.  He wants to take us away from this world marked by noise and unrest and injustice, away from what we know, away to the glorious wedding feast, a feast of victory and joy, a feast of reunion and homecoming. You and I, he wants us there.

The Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi issued his own call to wakefulness; "Don't go back to sleep" he called it.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you -- dont' go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want -- don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open -- don't go back to sleep.

- Going back to sleep means to become satisfied with the lures of this temporary world; staying awake means to never forget the eternal hunger, the hunger that can only be stilled in the "kingdom", the New World of God.

- Going back to sleep means to settle and to give up; staying awake means living in this world, but not of it.

- Going back to sleep means to shut the door in God's face; staying awake means to expect that the door to that New World of God is wide open, if then we are willing to face the fact that's it's all new and mysterious, and that we are not in charge.

Alveslohe, Northern Germany: Christuskirche

When this past Sunday I played the organ in my Dad's hometown in Germany, I performed Buxtehude's prelude on the old chorale tune "Salvation Unto Us Has Come".  Some of my relatives who were in church that morning said they weren't sure whether what I had played was "Salvation Unto Us" or "Wake, Awake".

Their statement confirmed what I had discovered but not shared with them:  that in the midst of what looks like ordinary secondary and tertiary voices that show up only when the tune is silent, Buxtehude managed to sneak in a few phrases from "Wake Awake", as if to say that singing of our salvation never can be complete without a reminder to stay awake.  Singing of salvation and remembering that we must stay awake belong together. 

It has been said that the three poisons that keep us spiritually "asleep" and beholden to this world are greed, anger and delusion: If we remain caught in our ego's greed for more stuff, its angry quest for being right, and its delusions of grandeur, the world will succeed in making us believe that there is nothing else out there. 

The best way to "detox" from greed, anger and delusion is to remember home. "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14).  To remember home is to remember the values of our God; as the People of God we replace greed, anger and delusion with moral and ethical standards, meditation and wisdom.  We follow that Morning Star of which we will soon sing again:

Star whose light shines o'er me,
Rock on which I stand,
Guide who goes before me
To my fatherland,
Daily bread reviving,
Spring that cheers my heart,
Goal to which I'm striving
All, O Lord, Thou art!

Luke 12:35-40; Exodus 12:11; Hebrews 13:14

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