March 12, 2023

"Stay Awake"

Matthew 26:36-46

This morning's sermon title is "Stay Awake." I appreciate the irony of this focus falling on Spring Forward time for Daylight savings. We have lost an hour of sleep, so staying awake through the sermon may be challenging. As I often say, there are no coincidences with God. Thanks for teeing that one up, God of the universe!

Today's passage is about Jesus' struggle with going to the cross and the disciples' inability to stay awake while praying. They could follow the first part of what he asked, "Remain here with me." However, the "staying awake, remaining alert" part didn't go so well.

In my twenty-five years of youth ministry, I can remember getting to experience what we youth pastors called "ALL NIGHTERS." The flashbacks are coming to me as I preach. We often combined youth groups, with at least 50 high schoolers crammed into a workout gym we rented for the evening, staying up all night. In each room of the gym, we set up all kinds of fun activities and games. It was SO much fun trying to keep up with teens, many of whom were already hopped up on soda or caffeinated energy drinks and who spent a good portion of the night up anyway while we adults longed for sleep and struggled to keep going. The food at these events was pizza and soda. I would make it until about 4 am, playing basketball with the kids. Then my stomach would start to feel queasy, and I would have a mild headache and need to find somewhere to lie down while placing someone else in charge. Even great love and faith can't always keep sleepy eyes open. Having done nearly twenty of these events in my youth ministry, I would say having to stay up for those all-nighters was a big reason I decided to stop doing youth ministry exclusively.

In today's passage, Jesus also seems to be having an all-nighter. Let's review the passage together and see what we can learn. As we begin in verse 26, Jesus is deeply distressed. The Passover Supper went horribly wrong, with one friend betraying him and feeling no support from his other friends during an incredibly stressful time. After Judas left, Jesus got up from the meal and took his innermost circle, his closest friends, and his squad with him- Peter, James, and John. These are the same three disciples he brought with him up the mountain when he met with Moses and Elijah and was transfigured. As he drew closer to his coming painful death, Jesus needed his closest friends with him for support.

This passage demonstrates the humanity of Jesus. Some Christians may refuse to believe Jesus was distressed in any way. He was the Son of God and was God. How could he feel this way? The words translated as distressed in this case, Ademoneo Ademoneo, means, "To be in distress of mind, to be full of much heaviness," which, according to Theologian Frederick Dale Brunner, describes depression. Bruner states, "Jesus' depression also means that all depression is not sin. His depression teaches that in depressing situations, one faithful response is depression."

The other word used to describe him, ademos, ademos, is translated as "confused." The word literally means "not at home" and "bewildered, stunned, at a loss." Did Jesus think that, as God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son, Isaac, God would provide an alternative?

Then Jesus says, "My soul is so deeply troubled I feel like I could die." In one sense, these are stunning admissions that the Messiah, the Son of David, and the son of God could feel in such a way. Yet in another sense, it helps us understand that Jesus was both human and God, both fleshly and divine. This passage stresses Jesus' true humanity, his free obedience. He didn't lean on his godly side to say yes to the cross. It also speaks of his courage. He didn't get a pass on the human struggle, but eventually was faithful to his calling, despite the horror facing him." Brunner states, "If you take away Jesus' humanity, you take away humanity's salvation" Christ's humanity was on full display as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Hebrews 5:7  The Message version says, "While he lived on earth, anticipating his death, Jesus cried out in pain and sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God. Because he honored God, God answered him. Though he was God's Son, he learned trust and obedience by what he suffered…."

Jesus's response to these feelings of pain and sorrow is to go and pray. Praying when distressed is a good example for us to follow when we feel the same way. At times in my life, when all of life was crumbling, and I felt like riding through a slow train wreck, I prayed. I prayed a lot through those times, turning t God and asking for strength and for God to act.

So, as Jesus went to pray, his innermost circle of friends was by his side in this time of great distress. Author of our Lenten book, the Desert of Compassion, Rev. Rachel M. Srubas, writes, "' Stay awake with me,' he had asked, but they didn't. They couldn't tolerate witnessing his distress or feeling their own, so they escaped into unconsciousness, fulfilling Jesus' tragic prediction, 'You will all become deserters because of me this night.'" (Mat 26:31)

Why were they unable to keep their eyes open? Why were their "eyes heavy," as it says in the passage? Up to this point in Matthew, they have experienced a lot. Jesus sent them out in Matthew 10 to cure the sick and cast out demons. They repeatedly heard Jesus predict his suffering and death and had more questions than answers. The dinner they had just left was a tense and taxing affair. There was more. James and John seemed to understand that Jesus would ascend to a throne of power and that perhaps they could end up on either side of the throne, ruling with him as his royal advisors. (Matthew 20:20-28) Now it seemed that idea was way off, replaced by some death wish. Perhaps these three were overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Srubas believes they were suffering compassion fatigue. She writes," Their inability to stay awake and their desertion of Jesus suggests to me that the disciples were suffering from conditions that present-day clinicians call empathic distress, burnout, compassion fatigue."

What s compassion fatigue? Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is "The physical and mental exhaustion withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time."

Perhaps the three were experiencing compassion fatigue, brought on by emotional exhaustion.

What happened to the three disciples can happen to us as well. We are fragile and worn out after three years of political turmoil, pandemic, and fire destruction. Our spirits might want to offer compassion, but our flesh, like the disciples, may also be weak.

Despite that, Jesus wants us to stay awake and be compassionate not just during Lent but over our entire lives. What, then, can we do? How can we follow this task as modern-day disciples?

Here are a few ways to strengthen our compassion, remain awake, and look for others who are suffering in some way.

  1. Take care of your faith. Take time to pray. The three didn't and were out of gas. Jesus said to Peter to stay awake and to pray, but he didn't and soon was sawing logs. Prayer is the lifeblood of faith, something we are called to do often. We pray consistently to strengthen our connection to God at reasonable times and times of trial, and our hearts are filled with God's compassionate Spirit. So consider your prayer life right now. Theologian Corrie Ten Boon wrote, "Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?"
  2. Be in worship and fellowship with others. Study the Word, fed by it on Sundays and during the week. Focus on the daily devotionals in your email inbox. Come to the sanctuary or chapel during the week for quiet. Use the church as a resource for your faith and store up those compassion reserves. Being in a community can help you strengthen your faith!
  3. Take care of yourself as well. Jesus went away from the crowds and disciples often to be alone with God- to recharge, rest and refill his compassion. We are called to follow his example. Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Mark 12:30-31), so love yourself! Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Get enough sleep. Take walks. Do fun things! Do what you need to do to recharge your compassion.
  4. Watch what sources you listen to for news and information. Is there more of a spirit of judgment or compassion underneath the news you hear or read? Limit your time with those sources. I get a newsfeed on my computer search screen, supposedly tailored to the news I want to read. It is often slanted and angry about certain people in politics. I have learned not to click on those kinds of stories. I would suggest reading the paper, but we are still in a bit of a flux with that situation.

Following these and other ideas can fill us with enough compassion to stay awake and see the suffering of others around us.

There's been a lot of talk lately in political circles on what it means to be "woke" and whether or not that is a good thing. What does it mean to be "woke?" According to Wikipedia Dictionary, "Woke (/ˈwoʊk/ WOHK) is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, a broader awareness of social inequalities and a need for social justice.”

I know the term is politically loaded. So let me replace that word with AWAKE. If today's message is to be alert and awake, if being awake means seeing the injustices around us, seeing inequality, bigotry, oppression, helping the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, then I guess I am awake, not from a political sense, but from a faithful one. I am a disciple of Jesus, and he wants me to stay awake!

In closing, let me suggest that when our hearts are full of compassion, they can act like an alarm on our bedside tables and keep us awake. I overslept a bit one-morning last week and have an alarm that will beep again after ten minutes if I don't reach to turn it off. That snooze alarm woke me up. So fill up your compassion and use it as a snooze alarm so that you can be awake to the suffering around you. Amen.

Closing prayer by Srubas - A rewriting of the serenity prayer:

God give me the even-tempered-ness to accept Jesus at his most challenging, the humility to be transformed by his grace, and the discernment to live with compassion toward myself and others. Amen.

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