Sunday, June 14

“Stay Woke,” Susan Ryder

Mark 14:32-41: They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

Nelson Mandela “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” 


In both Mark and Luke gospels we find the story of Jesus going to the Garden of Gethsemane. He took a few of his closest friends and asked them to stay awake with him and keep watch throughout the night while he spent time alone in prayer, preparing himself the difficult days he was about to face. He was feeling the anguish and pain of what was ahead for himself, his followers, and his movement. We are told he took a break from praying a few times to check on his disciples and discovered they had fallen asleep, failing to keep watch with him. In frustration and disappointment, he asked, “Could you not even stay awake for one hour? Could you not do this one thing?”

In these long days of 2020, many of us can relate to the disciples. We are at the point where we too want to fall asleep. This year so far feels like it has had a million days, and it’s only the middle of June. We are still dealing with the isolation and stress of the coronavirus, which is not, as some people seem to think, almost behind us – as well as the fight for racial justice and the end of systemic racism. Add to that our continued struggle to protect our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, who as recently as Friday had more of their rights stripped away by the current administration – this time healthcare rights – and not coincidentally on the 4th anniversary of the deadly Pulse nightclub massacre.

Some of us, especially those of us who are white skinned, heterosexual and cisgender wish that COVID-19, the protests, discrimination, injustice, and challenging conversations we’ve poured ourselves into these past few weeks would end and allow us to return to our “normal” lives. We are exhausted, and ready to fall back asleep. This is why people of color say over and over to people just joining this work to “Stay woke.” “We tend to show up for the moment but abandon the movement,” says Rev. Cameron Trimble. “But the kind of change we dream of – equality and justice for all – won’t happen after a few days of protesting or even many years of struggle.” One look at the similarity between the summer of 1968, the fall of 1992, and many other years of protest before, after, and in between tell us that.

Yet, Trimble reminds us, “the fight for justice and equality we have been called to on so many levels is transformational – and it demands we must not only march and protest and vote and speak up, but also that we change the way we live. And until then, we must stay awake. I know we are all weary. I feel it too. But I also know that we must keep pushing, keep showing up, keep speaking out, especially in our fatigue. The long arc of the moral universe is bending, but we must keep pushing toward justice.” We must not become discouraged or overwhelmed by the volume of injustice and hatred being thrown our way. We can rest – we need rest, certainly – but as Nelson Mandela said, we can “only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

And this is certainly a long walk through 2020 – many of us wish it would just be over – 2021 has to be better than this! I was actually looking forward to 2020, waaaayyyy back in 2019. 2020 always had such a nice ring to it – it’s an election year, and our 2020 vision was going to make a difference, especially with the November election. As a child I remember thinking, “Wow, in 2020 I am going to turn 60 years old – that is, if I live that long!” And now it’s here, and back in 2019 I was hopeful about turning 60 this year and looking forward to the many more years ahead of me, as age certainly changes the perspective of our youth. I was hopeful about the upcoming election and the changes it would bring, MUST bring, the light that would shine in the darkness, the love that would overcome hate. And then the last few months happened, and now I just wish 2020 would be over, the sooner the better. I feel like I’ve aged 20 years in the past three months. I want to rest, to sleep, and wake up when this mess is all over.

Instead of giving into that, however, I’ve been trying to stay awake. Yes, I need to rest – rest will fuel me for what lies ahead, mentally and emotionally and spiritually. But I also need to “stay woke” – and one way I am doing that is trying to keep myself open and positive to what these days might teach us, how and what we might learn from it all. I’ve been trying to stay awake – and curious, even hopeful. So, for instance – the economy has been shut down for a few months, with businesses closed and only now slowly reopening in some areas. This will be devastating overall to the national and global economy, in spite of how the markets have reacted thus far. But what if, instead of seeing this as a negative in terms of “business as usual,” this gives the world a chance to create a more just, sustainable economy going forward? What might become possible then?

Breanna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders seems to be waking up white folks … what if we stay awake and finally take meaningful steps to protect and honor black and brown lives? What might become possible then? We have been quarantined for three months – in effect we have been in lockdown. What if we rediscover the value of our families and communities during this time? What might become possible then?

Closer to home – we haven’t been able to worship together in person since March 8 – nor have other congregations, of course. And in spite of the foolishness and carelessness of some around the country coming back too soon, we may not be able to gather together on Sundays for the foreseeable future. The Steering Committee voted on Tuesday to remain online for worship at least through the end of August and will reassess as we move through the summer. It seems possible and even probable that will be extended through the end of the year, as many congregations have already decided to do so through the end of 2020, barring medical advances that would make it safe for everyone to be there. Not being together in person has been frustrating and challenging to be sure, and we miss each others faces, hugging and singing together, but what if this experience frees us from the traditional obsession with buildings, and sets us loose in the world? What might become possible then? It seems especially timely as NCC has been considering where our new home will be – now that we’ve been meeting without a space for three months, how might that define what our new space might look like? Some questions Bob and I invited the Steering Committee to consider between now and our August meeting, as we think about a new home, include …
How has COVID-19 impacted us as a congregation?
What have we learned? What have we lost? What have we gained?
What are the possibilities unfolding before us?

Jesus lived in a dark time – during the first century Palestine, he was a member of a peasant class ruled by a foreign government maintained by corrupt local officials. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and the religious elite cooperated with their invaders, making a mockery of the basic tenants of their religion. For Jesus, the heart and soul of Judaism called him to act with compassion for the sake of the most vulnerable, who were being trampled by the powerful; it called for unity while those in power tried to divide; it called for love being more important than law, and for decency and kindness in the face of tyranny. So when he saw that even the leaders within his own faith community were complicit in the degradation of basic humanity – he called it out and fought against it. He courageously resisted. It was a movement, not a moment. He invited people to think about new, creative ways to live together … it was said an eye for an eye, but I say forgive … Are we called to anything less during our own dark times?

A poem by Leslie Dwight helps give me some perspective on all of this, and I’ll share it as my closing words.

 What if 2020 isn’t canceled?
What if 2020 is the year we have been waiting for?
A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw –
that it finally forces us to grow.
A year that screams so loud, finally awakening us
from our ignorant slumber.
A year we finally accept the need for change.
Declare change. Work for change. Become the change.
A year we finally band together, instead of
pushing each other further apart.

2020 isn’t canceled, but rather
it’s the most important year of them all.