Princeton University Religious Life

Are We Awake Yet?

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14


Here we are, amazingly to me, on the first Sunday in Advent.  It’s a day when our appointed biblical texts call us to wake up – to rouse ourselves from sleep as we prepare for the coming of Christ.  We cannot be ready for the Messiah’s birth among us if we are snoozing – literally, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually.  I imagine that most of us consider portions of our lives as having been lived at some time or another on cruise control, auto pilot – whatever we want to call it – times when we haven’t been paying close attention, times when our head was in the sand, times when we focused solely on getting something done, times when we thought we were awake and aware but later we learned that we’d missed something very significant that was right under our nose.  This is not how we are to be living, as we read all over the Bible, and in these days of Advent it is really not how we are to be preparing for the coming of Christ.  In Matthew’s Gospel we read, “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  We are cheeky and we respond, “Actually, I know from experience that it will be December 25th.”  That is the Feast of the Nativity, but still we are called to live every day of our lives on highest spiritual alert, aware of everything and everyone, wide awake, and ready for the coming of our Lord. 

When we find ourselves waking from sleep, we are grateful for our new awareness, but it can be very uncomfortable.  We are confident that we have been awake and aware, until we realize that we have not been so.  I think that the recent presidential election was a wake-up call to many, and pointedly uncomfortable.  To some, the election was a lesson in how much the United States has yet to deal with its racism, white supremacy, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and more.  Any number of people were awakened, as if from sleep, to see around them the festering, disgusting disease of prejudice and oppression, things they were sure were a thing of the past: maybe not finished in their entirety, but definitely moving along nicely to the far edge of oblivion.  To these sleepers it was utterly unthinkable that a majority of Americans would vote for a candidate who said so many atrocious things about people of color, women, Muslims, immigrants, and more.  These sleepers are now awake, and wondering who around them must think the same things about them as the candidate whom these others endorsed with their vote.  They are awake, but very uneasy.

Other sleepers are very surprised to wake to find that there are millions of other Americans who believe that their own communities were not only disparaged and disrespected but even threatened by the candidate for whom this sleeper voted.  The candidate said some eyebrow-raising things but that was part of the rhetoric of riling people up to vote.  It shouldn’t be taken seriously.  The 21st Century in America is a place of equity and meritocracy.  Its past prejudices have been eliminated through laws, time, enlightenment, and integration.  These sleepers are stunned and unhappy to find themselves being tied to hateful and prejudicial opinion.

Other sleepers have been awakened by the realization that their struggles to maintain a decent standard of living have gone unnoticed and unappreciated, as has their distaste for what is called “the political class.”  As one of these sleepers told a reporter, “We would have voted for Captain Kangaroo,” instead of any Washington insider. 

Still more sleepers, in diverse cities and in university towns like this one, are startled awake to learn that they are viewed with contempt by those who think that they, urbane people, feel they know better than other Americans what is good for them.  They are now told that they are elitist, smug, condescending, deluded, wrong.  Ouch.  They are taken aback to be told that they apparently think themselves smarter than others.  They struggle to learn what they’ve woken to understand is a necessary humility, while also hardening their determination not to compromise on what they believe are their ethics of equality, inclusion, and pride in every identity.  Some things simply are right, and some are wrong. 

Yet more sleepers claim to have seen all of these dynamics all along, and the recent election only proved them righter than ever.  They are stunned awake and mad to hear from others that their refusal to participate in the election makes them part of the problem or that their disparagement of Trump voters makes them haters themselves. 

There are any number of other demographic cohorts in this country today; I’ve only named a few.  Many of them share a sense of invisibility, anger, not counting, being misunderstood, being right.  Perhaps this is what we have to start with, if we are indeed going to commit ourselves to progress, to making our country truer to its deepest democratic principles, to being a more perfect union.  Many of us have been shaken awake, and I sincerely hope we stay that way.  My own track record isn’t great.  I’ve been thinking recently about 9/11, 15 years ago, and the kind of wakefulness that so many of us were jolted into.  I remember a newspaper article at the time about a first responder in Lower Manhattan who saw a businessman walking in a daze, covered in dust from the fallen buildings, still carrying his briefcase.  The responder asked him if he was ok, if he needed assistance, and the man replied something like, “Actually, I’ve never been more aware in my life.”  In those days I think I was thrust into a much deeper awareness of the world’s suffering, of the fragility of life, of the fact of God.  As the weeks and months wore on I regret to say that the shock that woke me wore off.  I went from being on fire with awareness of even the smallest things to, gradually, cruise control, moving forward without paying attention.  As challenging as recent weeks have been in this country for so many, I hope we remain this awake to one another, to our own assumptions and hopes, to our shared conversation on democracy, and to God’s possibilities for our nation.

This Advent, too, I hope will be a time of rousing ourselves from sleep to become as spiritually awake as possible.  In the U.S. today it is well nigh impossible to miss Christmas.  The trappings are everywhere.  It is very easy to miss the presence of Christ, in Advent and any day.  Our passage from Isaiah says that this prophet “saw” the word of God that he was to proclaim to the people.  That makes me wonder what it means to see God’s work everywhere, to see what is really real and really happening around us.  The prophecy – the word – that Isaiah sees makes him proclaim, “Come, let us walk in the light of God!”  It’s as if God has the lights turned on, always.  We can choose to walk in the light or to walk in the darkness – to wake up and walk in the light or to stumble and slumber in darkness.  In our passage from Romans the author, Paul, tells us to “put on the armor of light;” he says, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  We are to wake up, get up, and clothe ourselves in light.  The bad behaviors that he names are just some of the things we do in darkness but not when we are walking in the light of God.  They are personal choices but they are also things that define how we act in relation to others.  Salvation is, in great part, about who we are to each other, every day.  Christ himself has created the new dawn for each of us to live in.

We are intelligent people, we are well-read, we surround ourselves with thoughtful persons, with stimulations of many kinds, we embrace challenges to the way we think, feel, and believe.  We are good people.  And yet we occasionally are startled to learn how little we know, how myopic is our vision, how much we surround ourselves with people and information that affirm what we already believe.  We do not know how little we know, or how deeply we are sleeping.

What causes you to sleepwalk, to dream?  To miss seeing the world or God your Creator in it?  What do you do to dull your senses, intentionally or not?  Are you busy?  What would it mean for you to wake up, to come to fullest spiritual alertness?  What would it mean for you not to miss any of the Holy Spirit’s ministrations in your life, your world, all the world?  In Advent we receive a special admonition to walk in the bright, bright light of God and Christ.  There, there are no shadows, no places for anything to hide, no place for us to hide, no way to sleep.  We miss nothing.  We ourselves are clothed in light.  We see both the world’s suffering and its savior.  On his behalf we work to make our country and world whole.  We believe the promise that Christ is coming soon to complete all things, and we live in happy wakefulness and readiness for that great day.




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