Stay woke! It seems today’s readings are about being “woke”. This reading in Matthew is part 2 of this chapter. The beginning is Jesus telling the disciples that the temple will be destroyed. And, today we read what he had to say about the coming of the Son of Man. Basically, “Stay woke.”
As Kenyatta Gilbert (professor of homiletics at Howard University School of Divinity) wrote, “Countless recent events have sought to awaken Christians from spiritual slumber. …violence between police and civilians of color have demoralized peace seekers. Violence is old hat. But when it’s normalized in a society that boasts of progressive strides, people cry out in alarm and lament.”
Professor Gilbert sees Eric Garner’s death at the hands of several police officers as a pivotal moment. Five years later, after no indictments for his death, the man who choked him with his billy club was fired without a pension-minor justice rather late. Gilbert suggests we stay woke-remain vigilant in violent times while adhering to hope. Because we don’t know when Jesus will return.
And, none of us knows how much more time we have here. Recognizing our own mortality and how risky life is is important. When our Russian exchange student was living with us, I went back to Indiana because my mom was dying. When I told Natalia we spread Mom’s ashes with no monument, she said it was important to have a place to visit so young people would be reminded of their own mortality. Maybe that is one value of graveyards. It was important to my mom to visit family graves and decorate them, but she chose not to have one herself. So, recognizing that our time is short, what will we do with the time we have? Stay woke. And keep hoping.
I was reminded of one of Phillip Gulley’s stories from Home to Harmony. Phillip is a Quaker pastor in Central Indiana and Harmony is really Danville, IN near where Jim and I grew up. It is a story of hope. It is about listening, about ignoring our duty, and about hope.
The narrator in this story is Sam Gardner. He talks about visiting his son at school for lunch. He relates how wonderful the lunch trays are with their compartments for each item of food and how much he loved them when he was a child. And, he says they do children a disservice because the world is not orderly like the lunch trays. The world is a place of chaos.
“I had forgotten all about the trays until I went to eat lunch with my son, Levi, the second week of school. I signed in at the office and walked down the hallway toward his classroom.
My son’s class was lined up in the hallway. Mrs. Hester marched us to the cafeteria where the ladies spooned out our food in sections. We sat at a long table. It reminded me of a prison table, where the convicts ate and planned their escapes. I was sandwiched between Levi and a little boy named Adam Fleming.
My son told me about Adam--how Adam’s name was written on the chalkboard at least once a day, how he’d been sent to the principal’s office two times already, how none of the kids liked him.
‘He’s a liar,’ my son reported. ‘And once at recess he kicked Billy Grant right in the stomach. On purpose. If he messes with me, I’ll karate chop him.’
The Flemings lived east of town in a trailer. Adam and his two little sisters and parents had moved to town the year before. Adam’s daddy, Wayne, worked nights at the Kroger waxing floors, and his mother labored at the McDonald’s down near the interstate.
Then early one morning Wayne Fleming came home from work to find the kids asleep and his wife gone. There was a note on the table which read, “Don’t try to find me. I’ve gone away.”
The rumor was that she’d met a trucker and gone west with him. Our thoughts toward her were not charitable. The women from the meeting had been taking food out to the trailer and the lady at the Kroger deli let Wayne take home the day-old bread and the chicken wings that didn’t sell. The nights were hardest, when Wayne would tuck the children into bed and they would cry for their mommy. People said they were better off, but it didn’t feel that way to Adam and his sisters.
Their daddy never knew what to tell them, so he never said anything. He would just hold them until they fell asleep. Then he’d tidy up the trailer and start the laundry and wash the dishes. Then the retired neighbor lady would come sleep on the couch, and Wayne would leave for the Kroger. I knew about all of this as I was kind of their pastor, they’d come to our meeting on Easter before. I’d gone to visit them a time or two and had seen Wayne at Kroger, when I’d go late at night for ice cream. We took to visiting in the aisles and struck up a kind of friendship.
When his wife ran off…, Wayne called to tell me. I had told my son that Adam didn’t have the blessings he had and to treat him nice.
Now Adam was sitting next to Levi and me in the school cafeteria. He said, ‘My daddy sleeps in the daytime. He doesn’t eat lunch.’ I said, ‘Hey, Adam, why don’t I come next week and have lunch with you. Would you like that?’
He said he would. Then he said, ‘My mommy came to eat lunch with me yesterday. Have you met my mommy? She’s a good mommy. She’s real nice.’ Hoping if he said it enough times, it’d be true. I said, ‘I don’t know your mother well, but I bet she’s nice.’ He said, ‘She’s real nice. When I get home from school she has cookies for me. And she buys lots of toys. Anything I want.’
A little girl across the table shrieked, ‘He’s lying. He’s a liar. His mommy’s gone. She ran off.’ ‘Shut you face,’ Adam screamed and lunged at her. I grabbed hold of him and pulled him back. He was shaking with rage. Then he leaned into me and began to cry.
The lunchroom monitor marched over, frowning, and told Adam if he didn’t settle down, he’d have to sit off by himself at the quiet table.
Raw pain alarms us. It reminds us that life isn’t as orderly as we’d hoped. We demand that pain settle down before we shuffle it off to the quiet table. We want pain to stay in its own little section, want to keep it from spilling over into the other parts of life. Just like those lunch trays. Keep pain in its own little compartment.
I held Adam to me, thinking of his mother. Wondering if her joy in running off was worth all this. I thought of Wayne having to teach his children they were still worth loving and worth having. What a large task, when all the evidence seems otherwise.
I thought of the cold evil committed by folks looking to be happy. The World.
I held that little boy to me and thought hopeful thoughts of a New World. Yearning for it as never before.
A world where God has set up housekeeping, where God will live right with us, and we with [God]. [God will] wipe the tears from our eyes, and death will die. No more crying, no more sorrow, no more pain, no more.
I held that crying boy to me and thought my hopeful thoughts.”
This man knows how to prepare for the second coming. He looks forward to the New World and he is doing what he can to ‘stay woke’ to see the pain and injustice in the world: Deaths of men like Eric Garner and the pain of children who can’t quite fit in with the class. He takes time to get to know someone personally just because they came to an Easter service at his meetinghouse. We can follow his example by noticing what is happening around us and holding on to hope. So that when our lives are finished, we can say we did all we could to make life better for those around us and those who will follow in our footsteps.