Today’s scripture readings:
If you have a millennial in your life—or even if you don’t—you’re probably familiar with the term “woke.” As in, “We have a moral obligation to stay woke and challenge injustice,” or, “He read one book about racism and now he thinks he’s woke,” or, “Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood, because he uses his status to create space for artists of color.” (That last one is actually a real quote from a journalist who covers Hollywood and the media.)
“Woke” is a term that has its roots in the Civil Rights movement and has become a buzzword in the past few years after a spate of killings of unarmed black men. In its original usage, of course, the word “woke” refers to the state of being awake and not asleep. But as the word has found new meaning in activist circles, dictionaries have added another definition. “Woke” now also means being “alert to injustice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, or “aware of and actively attentive to important facts,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. People who are “woke” are those who are deeply aware of the ways injustice permeates our culture and poisons our institutions, often in ways most people don’t even recognize. Those who are “woke” see things the way they really are, even when others can’t see it. They see that there’s another reality beyond what most of us comprehend.
Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake,” but if he were here today, he might tell us to #staywoke.Tweet
In this Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus says, “In the days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That’s the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.” Before the great flood that wiped out everything that wasn’t on board Noah’s ship, folks were just going about their business. Jesus says they were eating and drinking—not excessively, but just everyday meals that met their basic needs, the kinds of meals they ate day after day after ordinary day. And Jesus says they were “marrying and giving in marriage.” People were born, they grew up, they got married, lived life, and then died, just as people had been doing generation after generation, forever. Life in the days of Noah was all so very normal and routine. It seems people presumed that life would continue on exactly as it always had forever into the future, so they just went through the motions, doing the things people always do when they expect things to keep going along as they’ve always gone. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the flood came and wiped everything out. Nobody saw it coming. The status quo was so deeply entrenched that they couldn’t imagine anything would ever be any different than it always had been before. So Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t let this happen to you. Keep awake.”
What would it mean for us to keep awake? I wonder if it means living each day with the end of the story in mind. Maybe that’s why on this First Sunday of Advent we begin the new liturgical year with this apocalyptic Gospel lesson about the end times when God’s peace and justice reign once and for all, so that everything we say and do during the rest of the year is framed by a particular vision of the future. It’s like watching a movie a second time after you’ve already seen it once and know how it ends. When you know the end of the story, you watch the film differently the second time through, picking up on things you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, all because you know where things are headed and what to be looking for. Keeping awake means seeing things others might miss because they’re not paying attention or they don’t know what to be looking for. Keeping awake means seeing things the way they really are, even when others can’t see it, recognizing that there’s another reality beyond what most of us comprehend.
How many of us “sleep” through life, resigned to life as it is now, unable to imagine a different kind of future? How many of us have convinced ourselves that nothing could ever change, that there’s no way to fix what’s broken because this is just the way it is and that’s how it’s going to be forever?
Last year, a week before the midterm elections, the Washington Post asked readers to explain why they choose not to vote. I bet a lot of what they had to say sounds familiar to you. One person said, “My simple vote cannot adequately express the rage… and contempt I feel for those already in government…. The system is carefully optimized to care for those who already have; the have-nots will always have to fend for themselves.” Someone else said, “I don’t vote because the winners of most races I’m eligible to vote in are predetermined.” Another said, “Every politician is the same, so what does it matter?”
Jesus says, “Keep awake.” A new thing is about to happen and if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. Many of you know that Gloria Dei is a member of ISAIAH, a statewide, faith-based community organizing group that advocates for racial and economic justice. Last year, in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, ISAIAH woke up. They recognized the way things have always been wasn’t working, and they believed something better was possible. So they got to work. ISAIAH organized hundreds of house parties to hear about people’s struggles, and out of that emerged what they called a “Faith Agenda.” It was a plan to build a multiracial democracy that honors every person’s dignity and to create an economy where every person can thrive. Then ISAIAH organized over 5,000 people to attend precinct caucuses, most of whom had never done anything like this before and were brand new to the process. Those 5,000 people showed up at the caucuses with ISAIAH’s Faith Agenda in hand, and while they were there, they talked with their neighbors and their elected officials about their vision for the future.
Most of the people ISAIAH organized to participate in caucuses were people who had previously been resigned to the status quo and couldn’t imagine anything better. Now these people were awake. They had a new vision, and they lived as though they expected it to become reality. And their efforts made a difference. It turns out legislators notice when 5,000 people show up at caucuses united around a shared vision. Seven of the first ten bills introduced in the House of Representatives this session were bills addressing specific policy goals in the Faith Agenda. All of this happened because people woke up and took the future into their hands. (By the way, as we prepare for one of the most consequential elections of our lives in 2020, ISAIAH will be working to turn people out to caucuses again this year, and I hope you’ll join us when you see the invitation to be part of it.)
It was June of 1965, two years after he had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to drag. He had been invited to give the commencement address at Oberlin College, and he took advantage of that opportunity to encourage the audience to stay woke. He said:
“There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order… The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development.… The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.”
King’s message to the crowd gathered that day is the same message Jesus had for his disciples, and it’s a message that’s as relevant today as ever: Keep awake. Don’t sleep through this time. We know how this story ends. Maybe it’s hard to imagine it now, but God’s justice will prevail on earth, and you won’t want to miss it. So keep your eyes open. Don’t fall asleep. Keep awake.
Andrew Belonsky, “MLK Jr. On Getting ‘Woke’ in 1965,” on In Case You’re Interested,” published January 21, 2019, accessed November 30, 2019, https://incaseyoureinterested.com/2019/01/21/mlk-jr-on-getting-woke-audio/.
Kaitlin Coward and Mili Mitra, “Americans will head to the polls in a week. Here’s why some won’t.” in The Washington Post, published October 30, 2018, accessed November 30, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americans-will-head-to-the-polls-in-a-week-heres-why-some-wont/2018/10/30/58ff25ea-db95-11e8-b732-3c72cbf131f2_story.html.
Lexico.com, s.v. “woke,” accessed November 27, 2019, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/woke.
Merriam-Webster.com, s.v. “woke,” accessed November 27, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/woke.