Homily for the First Sunday of Advent 2015
At one point in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking Malcolm Gladwell describes the state of heightened awareness that police officers are trained to feel in moments when the have to burst through a door into a hallway or a house where they feel that their life is going to be in danger. What happens, as he describes it, is that an encounter that might take just a few seconds or even less seems to slow down. Time slows as the officer become so incredibly alert and sensitive to every piece of information that they take in, that within a matter of seconds, they see so much more and hear so much more than we normally would in that amount of time. Their attention is so perfectly attuned because lives may well depend on it.
In this state of heightened awareness, the officers for those fractions of a second perceive and process everything around them. In the best of circumstances, of course. Let me ask you a fairly pointed question: Is this the way most of us live our lives, awake and aware to every little thing popping around us?
Probably not. In fact, perhaps we should think instead about what the opposite of that heightened state of awareness would be. The image that comes to mind is instead that of the sleepwalker.
Isn’t sleepwalking the exact opposite of being aware of your surroundings? To move through your home, or perhaps outside, or through your life kinetically active but consciously – well, not consciously at all? Actively snoozing?
We are closer to sleepwalkers than we want to admit. We often go through the motions unaware of so much that goes on around us. Goodness, many in our world seem to go through the motions without much knowledge of what’s going on within themselves, to say nothing of what’s going on beyond themselves.
Today we talk about the promise that God has made to us, a promise to be with us, to be among us. But I would suggest that in terms of our awareness of how that promise unfolds in our lives, we’re often sleepwalking. So if our gospel lesson does not jar us a little, then we aren’t even awake enough to hear it for what it is. The gospel of Luke gives us a strong word of warning and even alarm: to be alert, to be awake, and to know where we are being lulled to sleep in our every day lives.
Jesus says this: “Be alert at all times. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of this life. Be alert. Be on guard. Do not be weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness and worry. These things stand in the way of our relationship with God. These things stand in the way of our awareness of the presence of God around us. These things – dissipation, drunkenness and worry – consume our attention, and even protect us from the words of challenge that God might be speaking to us. If we’re distracted, if we’re drunk, if we’re worried, we can’t hear others and we can’t hear God. But we can probably hear our own voices just fine.
We can even categorize these three words Jesus gives us, dissipation, drunkenness and worry, as sins. I don’t mean sins in the way we were taught growing up: those bad little things we do. Rather, we can think of some sins as those things, those choices in our lives that turn us away from God, that make us less aware of how God is here, now. Choices that seem benign enough but actually anesthetize the part of us that is holy, that connects us to God.
Now, sins are often organized by list in order to be known and avoided. Some clever churchman many centuries ago figured out and named the 7 deadly sins – you’ve probably heard of them: Lust, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath and Pride. (You know I’d forgotten what they were and had to look them up – Wikipedia is surprisingly helpful). This list is more positive and helpful than we might think. How many of the ills of the world could be cured if we all took some responsibility for naming sin when we fall into it?
And I’ve heard of other lists of sins. I once heard a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon called the “4 Postmodern Sins.” I can’t tell you what they were, because I heard it years ago on a cassette tape and as you know, we can’t play those anymore. But I do know that it was an Advent sermon, and it had much to do with remaining awake.
I remember years ago when I was as a chaplain in the pediatric hospital, meeting a young man whose infant might not have made it through the night. He remained by her side refusing to rest and let his eyes close. There was nothing he could do – he happened to be a Marine which helped with the awake part, but he was not a doctor. All he had to give was his attention. I returned to him in the morning, when the child’s sickness had turned for the better and the sun was rising, and there we was, awake as ever with his cup of coffee and the joy of the morning. There are moments in our lives when you stay awake. You stay awake.
The truth is that there are many such moments in our lives, more than realize. So Jesus tells us, stay awake. Be alert and on guard. Do not be weighed down with the things that put you to sleep (and now we’re getting to a list of sins that I’d like to name). I want to call these the Three Sleepy Sins. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. Stay awake. Do not fall into the seemingly benign traps of this world.
Let’s talk about those three sleepy sins. I’ll start with the first one that Jesus names: dissipation. Now, if you’re thinking about things that you maybe are doing that you need to cut back on, I’m guessing that dissipation is not what comes to mind. But Jesus names it.
Literally, dissipation means to disperse, to disintegrate. I think that in the spiritual sense, that means that something vital and God-given that is going to waste. We’ve been given many gifts, and perhaps by misuse, by inattention, by not being in good spiritual practice, we lose pieces of what we have, and when that happens we lose sight of where God is.
As a teenager I attended Happening, a spiritual renewal weekend much like Cursillo for adults. I remember being a little surprised to be challenged as we were leaving to be intentional about the ways that we consumed media: the books we read, the films we chose to watch. Remember, this was high school in the early 1990’s, pre-internet.
It wasn’t a “moral” thing. We were being asked to read and watch things (of our choosing) that were substantive rather than just fluff. The meaning there was that if we just parked it in front of the television for the rest of our lives and consumed whatever was thrown at us (which is a sad reality for many) well, that’s a quick picture of what dissipation looks like, and we were being taught as youth that this posed a very real danger to our spiritual lives.
Dissipation, by the way, is a scientific term. It’s a term from physics: dissipation is a process by which energy is used or lost without accomplishing useful work. Dissipation is a process by which energy is used or lost without accomplishing useful work. That’s right – Jesus is my physicist. This is a warning against spiritual drift. Against entropy, in which our focus piddles away. We lose our sense of who we are, we fall off the path.
When Jesus then mentions Drunkenness he moves from being asleep to being passed out. There’s a difference, you know. And I don’t think he’s just talking about wine. He is telling his followers that whether it’s gluttony or hedonism or drink or anger or sex, those things that over-stimulate us can well destroy us, and will certainly dull our awareness to God. Addictive behavior – in whatever form it takes – makes us feel so much more alive and vital in the moment, but really is just sleepwalking by another name.
Where do we struggle? Many of us don’t need metaphor to know the struggles of addiction. But drunkenness takes so many forms. Power makes us drunk. Fear makes us drunk. Our desire to project ourselves into the world, and to make it conform to us it becomes a kind of addiction. I think our most painful conflicts with one another have some degree of addictive behavior to them: we get hooked on our need to be right, on our need to be the center of our world.
Do not be weighed down with dissipation: pay attention to how you pay attention. Do not be weighed down with drunkenness: the kingdom of God will not be found with a quick fix. And then of course, do not be weighed down with the worries of this life.
Do not be weighed down with the worries of this life. If you’re like me, you almost have to take a deep breath for this one. This is getting hard. Is Jesus serious? There’s stuff out there to worry about. Did he have any idea then, when he said this, what we would be having to deal with now?
Worry, of course, is what happens when “what is” becomes dominated by the darker versions what “could be.” When what “could be” then becomes contorted and amplified by dissipation and drunkenness, we find ourselves with a very complicated knot of worry to unravel.
I can’t tell you not to worry. And I can’t tell you that of the many that you’re worried about, there aren’t 3 or 4 that warrant some attention. But I can say this: Jesus says very clearly that worry will put us to sleep. It feels like it’s a kind of focused attention that isn’t that at all: it’s a way that our mind shuts itself off to the wonders of God’s presence. Richard Rohr quotes someone as saying that the worries in their head? 96% of those shows are reruns. There’s hardly any original content.
These are all ways that we think we’re more awake and more alive, but in truth are putting us to sleep. They are the three sleepy sins of dissipation, drunkenness and worry. They are particularly dangerous to us because they are in so many ways the normal stuff of real life.
Jesus calls us to wake up. (Though that word “calls” is so nice and so squishy…in today’s modern and safe pulpit we’re not supposed be telling anybody anything. ) Actually, Jesus is not calling anybody. Jesus is saying. Jesus is telling. Jesus is warning: Wake up, he says. Turn off the tv. Put down the glass. Quit your worrying. I’m coming, he says, with the promise of real life. Be alert, for life is happening right now, and you may be missing it. Be awake, because the Kingdom of God is unfolding around you, and the moment is coming when the hungry will be fed and the poor will be uplifted. But the ones lost in distraction or gluttony or worry or wrath or pride might just miss it, or find their own fortunes reversed.
Each of us, each in our own way, knows a little of what it means to be lulled to sleep, to become as blind to the great signs of change, from the roaring of the sea to the sprouts of the fig tree, as we are desensitized to the still small voice of God within us.
We must wake up. Our invitation, in this holy season of Advent, at whatever point of transformation we each find ourselves, is to wake up, to listen, to become more and more aware of the promise God has made to us. This is God’s promise to be with us, to be among us, and to make us whole.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens
The First Sunday of Advent, Year C
November 29, 2015
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Greensboro, North Carolina