Sermon for December 1, 2002
1 (Isaiah 64:1-9, I Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-27)
The lessons speak about waking up at the end of time, and
they remind me of a story I heard once about Pastor Brown in southern Indiana.
Pastor Brown was a Methodist preacher who had a special gift for making people
feel at ease. When he was in the room, everything calmed down. He was gentle
and quiet and easy going, and when he preached he was soothing and relaxing.
Pastor Brown's gift was greatly appreciated. It seems that in southern Indiana, people were leading very hectic lives, running from here to there, cramming as much as possible into the little time that they had, working more and more hours, keeping their schedules as busy as possible, learning to multi-task in order to get everything done. And such people needed on Sunday a soothing voice to help them relax and feel for a few minutes at least a sense of calming balm.
And Pastor Brown was needed throughout his career in the methodist circuit in many different parishes as well. Churches in southern Indiana had a tendency to have conflict and disagreements about a host of topics. It seems that as people were more and more busy, they were more and more cantankerous in church, too. There were fights about the dimming of the lights, and the hymns, and when the doors were locked, and whether or not there could be balloons in the sanctuary, and who could and could not be members. There were many church conflicts. Often the methodist bishop would assign Pastor Brown to a particularly hostile place because he knew that after a year or two, things would calm down, people would get less agitated, and people would begin to relax and feel the quiet presence of God again in their lives.
Yes, Pastor Brown had a good gift of the spirit as we say. His special talent was putting people to sleep during the sermon, making sure that he talked long enough that everyone who needed it got a good rest. He was not only able to put to sleep Frank and George who always went to sleep in this little congregation no matter who was preaching. He often was able to put to sleep the entire first seven rows as well as the complete bass and tenor sections of the little chancel choir. And when they sang the hymn at the end of the sermon, everyone would awaken refreshed from their slumber.
Late one summer, Pastor Brown decided that he needed to improve on his preaching. So he went to a preacher training event up north in Indianapolis. There for two days he learned how to be a better preacher. In the fall, after thanksgiving, he decided to he would try to preach the best sermon he had ever preached in his entire life.
So when the text from Mark 13 came, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory," he prepared with extra care.
On Sunday morning he was in great form. Frank and George fell asleep before the opening prayer. By the second paragraph all the choir was asleep, along with the first ten rows. And by mid-sermon everyone was dosing off. By the third point in the sermon, everyone in the congregation was fast asleep. And then Pastor Brown did the impossible: with the summary paragraph, he himself fell asleep right there in the pulpit. He slumped over the pulpit Bible and then laid down on the floor of the pulpit. Everyone slept and slept. For almost twelve hours.
It was close to midnight when a teenage boy in the back woke up to go to the bathroom. And as teenage boys are, he made enough noise to waken the entire row, and then slowly everyone woke again. People went to check their watches and saw that it was almost twelve and time to go home. But then they looked outside and they realized that it was completely dark. A few of the more Biblically literate of the people remembered that Mark 13, the passage Pastor Brown was preaching, quoted Jesus: In those days, at the end of time, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven. The noon time darkness was interpreted as the coming end of the ages. And for quite a few hours the entire congregation was caught in fear, afraid to leave the building because it was the end of the world, and if Christ were coming soon, there would be no better place to be than in church. The congregation sang hymns and said prayers through the rest of the night.
After six hours or so, one of the pre-schoolers noticed that the sky was getting lighter in the east. She turned and asked her mother for breakfast, and wondered if it was time to go to daycare. Her mother and then everyone else noticed the dawning light. Slowly it dawned on them that they must have slept for many hours, and then had spent a dark night together in the church. A new day was dawning. It was time to have a little breakfast, and then to take care of the tasks of the day. It was Monday morning. It was time to wake.
In our hectic and conflicted time, compounded by the busyness
of the season, there is nothing we need more than the opportunity to rest in
the Lord. For many of us having just a little quiet time to ourselves, to relax,
may be the most important way Christ can come to us this holiday season. In
Madison, we are all so busy, and there are so many issues about which we struggle,
that the church can and must be that one place where people find peace and rest
from all the labor. Come to me all who labor and I will give you rest. My yoke
is easy, and my burden is light. And all pastors, not only Pastor Brown, need
to be a calming influence in a hectic world of chaos and conflict.
But it is possible to be so concerned about finding our own peace, that we miss the peace of the Lord when it comes. It is possible to be so relaxed in the Lord that we do not hear the call of God to awaken to do the task at hand. It is possible to be so filled with the need to rest that we use all our time with God to unwind instead of letting God's presence wind us up again for a different kind of tension, the tension that comes with mission.
May I suggest to you, that it is time for all of us to surely enjoy the peaceful presence of God and to surely appreciate the quiet in our own congregation right now. But this time of rest is also a time for us, like the doorkeeper in story, to listen carefully, to keep alert for the possibilities for new mission in your own personal life, in this congregation, and this location.
Make this advent a time to awaken to the call of the Lord. Here, in this place, we experience peace. Here in this place, we have made it through many darker nights, together. Here in this place we have calmed our fears with songs. Here in this place, we are seeing the first streaks of new dawn. Let's have a little breakfast, a little bread, a little wine, and then let's awaken to what God wants from each of us this week.
The words of Jesus remind us today to be alert for the many ways God enters our life, to be aware of God's presence in our midst, and to awaken to new possibilities for mission together.