“Do I wake or sleep?”

Text: Mark 14:26-42 (Jesus prays in Gethsemane)

Video of this sermon posted to Facebook

I got the idea for this reflection when I woke up last Sunday afternoon from a nap. I was glad to have slept for an hour, and it felt like I could sleep a lot longer. But dimly, I realized this might be a poor decision. So I crawled out of bed, took the dog for a walk, and settled in for an evening of watching the Academy Awards.

Waking up from the nap helped me reflect on the discomfort we feel when we get up before we are completely rested. The other side of this is the discomfort we feel when we want to fall asleep but are unable to do so.

Sometimes, circumstances demand that we wake up whether rested or not. At other times, we are unable to fall asleep even when we are desperate for rest.

Today’s Gospel story is about sleeping and waking. Jesus wants his friends to stay awake with him as he prays during the hours before his betrayal. Nevertheless, they fall asleep, and so on three separate occasions, Jesus rouses Peter and the others from their slumber.

It isn’t clear to me why Jesus wants his friends to stay awake. Is he looking for support in his distress? Does he want them to witness his betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Temple authorities?

Jesus has brought his friends to Jerusalem from Galilee. Three times on the road, he told them that he would be arrested and killed; but Peter and the others don’t understand . Jesus implies that death is at the heart of his Good News. But they don’t get it.

Because Jesus wakes them, Peter does witness the arrest. But Peter misses Jesus’ death the next day. According to Mark, of the friends who followed Jesus from Galilee, only Mary Magdalene and a few other women are present when he is crucified and buried.

But surely Peter witnesses the resurrection? Matthew, Luke, and John say “yes.” But Mark, which is the first Gospel to be written and the one we are reading this Lent, says only Mary and two other women come to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Mark writes that the three of them flee from the tomb in fear and tell no one.

Does this mean that Jesus’ work had been in vain? He had proclaimed the realm of God; created a movement based on this message; and healed people in Galilee. He led a welcoming and inclusive community; and he taught that the way to new life was to take up one’s cross. But his friends didn’t understand this, and they fell asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake. Even when Jesus woke them, they missed his death and resurrection.

This outline of the Gospel of Mark might seem discouraging, but I find Grace in it. It can be difficult to understand Jesus, today as much as then. Nevertheless, we gather to reflect on the stories. The friends of Jesus must have found a way to follow him despite their incomprehension and fear or we would never have heard of them.

Fear and incomprehension are not a barrier to following Jesus because the path of death and resurrection is an inevitable one, I believe. Even the sleepiest of us will stumble onto it eventually. We may not understand it, but death and new life keep appearing in our hearts, families, and world regardless.

I have compassion for Peter and the others who sleep because, like them, we are often fearful and therefore unaware of what is going on.

Do I really want to know the toll that aging has taken on my body? Do I really want to know about environmental damage? Do I really want to know about the successes of racist politicians as in the elections in Italy last week? Often, I am afraid to know such things; and so I may stay both oblivious to what is happening and anxious about it. Because of these fears, I may have trouble staying awake during the day and trouble going to sleep at night.

Some people advise us to not dwell on things we can’t change. For instance, there is not a lot we can do about aging bodies, environmental damage, or the rise of racism. So why pay attention to these things?

I understand this perspective. It might help us avoid despair in the face of personal and social change.

But we also can’t change many of the things we love – things like the beauty of a sunset, the emotions we feel when listening to music, or the connections we create when we reach out to our neighbours. Because we love such experiences, we may be moved to engage with reality in all its colours.

We can also join faith communities that pursue love and justice. We may not be able to instantly create the world we want. But working with others who follow Jesus can help us resist the voices of those who would have us sell our souls for values that are not loving.

But can we really know what is going on? The news media are an obvious source, but they are prone to sensationalism, and so I am often skeptical of them.

Other sources are available. We can look inside our bodies, hearts and minds and notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that flow through us.

We can have deep conversations with loved ones at home and church.

We can pay attention to the works of creative artists. Novelists, poets, and musicians often explore reality at levels much deeper than news media.

We can also join movements for peace with justice. Their failures might discourage us; but sometimes they reveal shifts that encourage us, as with the success of the #metoo movement this past year.

The path of Jesus helps us to face both what we like and don’t like. It shows how facing fearful realities can lead us closer to Love.

All of us need sleep, and all of us crave moments in which we are aware of love and joy. Fear can interfere with both.

Happily, by stumbling onto paths of death and new life we learn that our fears need not disturb our sleep or cloud our consciousness.

In any blessed moment, we can accept the Grace to face reality, die to old ways, and wake up to love in a deeper way. And at the end of life, we trust that everyone rises to new life within the Heart of Love from which we have come.

Whether we wake or sleep, we belong to God. And for this antidote to fear, I offer endless thanks and praise.