Stay Woke!

Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



“Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,” (Mark 13:35)

The world took a dramatic and dark turn in 1933. This is the year that the faux populist Nazi party trampled its way to power. The reasons are many. There was German resentment. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, many longed for a strong leader who could help restore the nation to its “prior glory.” There was economic anxiety. Many so-called pro-Germans exploited the Depression and blamed it on internationalism in general, and the Treaty of Versailles in particular.

And there was heightened racism. If only the “true Germans,” the so-called Aryan race, could reclaim their rightful place in German society, they could make Germany great again.

No longer would the League of Nations bully Germany into submission. The Deutsche Volk were tired of who they regarded as feckless and effeminate leaders. They were fed up with what they perceived as a soft and conciliatory leadership class. They needed vigor — a forceful leader who could establish law by decree and power by pronouncement. They needed a strong man — someone who exuded authority who didn't apologize for his race pride. They needed a fearless Führer. They found him in Adolf Hitler.

Within weeks of becoming Chancellor, Adolf Hitler went about his unification and synchronization campaign. Hitler attacked the media. He blasted the media as untrustworthy. In his words, it was controlled by the “Jewish elite.”

Hitler purged government jobs. His “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” decreed that all government employees must be of “Aryan stock.”

And he attacked the academy. That spring, the German Student Association led the “Action against the Un-German Spirit” rally at the University of Berlin and other campuses. Students held a bonfire, and a wide range of authors went up in smoke. Helen Keller, Jack London and Albert Einstein were burned to ashes. This act led the Jewish turned Lutheran poet Heinrich Heine to make a chilling yet prescient pronouncement. “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people.”

After going after the media, the civil service, and the academy, there was one final place for Hitler to turn his sights. He went after the church. The Führer Principle decreed that all Jews, and even those of Jewish descent that had converted to Christianity, should be expelled from communion.

Church leaders sympathetic to the Nazi movement helped to establish a German Christian Church. In an odd twist of theological irony, they referred to themselves as the “positive Christian movement.”

Not all church leaders agreed with Hitler about everything. But many liked his commitment to “law and order.” Some thought him a little excessive and eccentric, but they desired a strong national church. They cynically believed that aligning with the Nazi’s was the best means to attain this goal. Then there were those naive Christian leaders who believed that if the Church’s prestige was restored, they could then influence the Führer in a more credible direction. They would have Christian influence on Hitler. Woe unto those who are willing to compromise their principles to get close to power. Woe to those willing to concede to injustice in the name of safety and security.

I offer this scene and this particular historical setting to frame today’s scripture lesson. We find it in the gospel of Mark. The late New Testament scholar Daryl Schmidt referred to the book of Mark as the "wartime gospel.” Believed to be the original gospel, the writer penned the gospel around the time of the Jewish war of revolt against Rome—around 70 CE. In the decades following Jesus’s crucifixion, hostilities escalated between the Roman Empire and Jewish Palestine. Rome selected harsh governors for the region. Rome began to desecrate Jerusalem and the Temple with Roman iconography. Civil unrest ensued. Jewish rebellion led to Roman reprisals. Rome seized the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and executed five-thousand Judeans.

The thirteenth chapter of Mark captures this destruction by having Jesus narrate these tragic events. Start at the beginning of the chapter. Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. “Do you see these buildings? Not one stone will be left. All will be torn down.” Jesus then encourages his disciples to remain calm. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t fret. These are just birth pangs that will usher in a new age. And then just when it appears darkest, the Son of Man will return with all glory to restore justice and righteousness. This is why you must stand watch. Do not fall asleep. For you do not know the day or the hour that peace and justice will return, but its return is predicated on your vigilance.

Jesus is giving his disciples a social history of protest. Stay calm in the face of violent resistance. Stay clear-headed when attacks come your way. Be prepared to stay committed to the cause of justice when injustice and persecution appear ubiquitous. Great change always comes at great cost. Negative resistance defines the history of positive progress.

I can hear the voice of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I can hear the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.”

And I can hear the voice of Shirley Chisholm, “You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”

Hence, Jesus tells his disciples, “Beware. Keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his own work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on watch. Therefore, keep awake. For you do not know when the master of the house will come.”

Be alert. Be diligent with your work. And, most importantly, as the young people put it, “Stay woke!”

To stay woke is to stay alert, particularly during times of turmoil. To stay woke is to stay informed of the issues, particularly when the popular media only knows how to feed either liberal or conservative talking points. And to stay woke is to take responsibility, knowing that positive change lies in the power of our hands.

Jesus tells his disciples in the face of heartbreak and seeming defeat, “Stay woke.” Be alert. Be informed. Take responsibility. This may be what God is telling us today. In this season of Advent. In this season of waiting and preparation. We must stay woke. We must use our intellect and our moral imaginations to envision and pursue a better world.

The late Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it quite eloquently. In our search for meaning, we often wonder what we should expect from life. This is the wrong question. We ought to ask of each moment what life expects from us. Each day and each hour life poses questions in the form of ethical challenges. We can slumber, sleep, and hit the snooze button. Or we can wake up and embrace the exam that life sets before us. We can bear our unique and collective burden with Herculean strength. We can face life’s difficult challenges with moral courage. It does not matter how dark the day or dismal the night. We find life’s meaning, purpose, and our resolve in God’s call to fight for justice and stand for righteousness. In the words of Nietzsche, “She who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

This is why we must first wake up our moral imaginations. For our ability to dream and envision will serve as our North Star for ethical action.

Envision a world where we view charity as an insufficient form of trickle down pity. This will inspire us to fight for a world that distributes material resources broadly and widely; a world where no sick person is untreated; no hungry child unfed; and no able-bodied person will be under or unemployed. Envision!

Envision a world where all women and men, whether in rural Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico or Palestine/New Mexico, North Korea, or Nigeria can learn eagerly, love safely, worship freely, live peaceably, work productively, earn adequately, and thus prosper intentionally. Envision!

Wake up and envision a world defined by random acts of kindness; senseless compassion; unbridled cooperation; indiscriminate education, and loving legislation.

Envision a world where teachers’ unions have more clout on Capitol Hill than the NRA, working families have more influence over lawmakers than corporations, and quality public education is as accessible as state of the art prisons.

Wake up to dream. Wake up to design air castles furnished with hopes and aspirations of a more just future. We are what we aspire to be.

This is why the tragedy in life is not in our failures. Failure is a prerequisite of any success. The real tragedy of life is in our complacency. It's not trying to do too much, but rather doing too little. Not living above our ability or means, but in living below our capacity.

Will there be difficult moments? Yes. Will we make mistakes? Absolutely. Will friends and loved ones question your judgment and try to get you just to go along and get along? You better believe it. But don’t you let anyone lull you back to sleep with the soothing lullabies of conformity. In the words of the great preacher and educator Benjamin Elijah Mays, “I would rather go to hell by choice than to stumble into heaven by following the crowd.”

Be alert. Be informed. Be responsible. Stay woke!

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