This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany CA on Sunday November 28, 2010.
This last summer, I house-sat for a friend in Richmond, where I took care of a beautiful Samoyed dog named Stogie and three cats. One of my first nights there, I woke up at around 4 am to Stogie barking at something outside the bedroom window. I got out of bed, looked outside and saw a family of 6 raccoons feasting on some cat food that I had left out. I banged on the window and was happy to see that I could frighten away these fearless creatures. But then Stogie started barking again and ran into the living room, where I heard him make quite a commotion. I figured he was just panicking so I walked into the living room to assure him that there was nothing to worry about. And as I stepped into the living room, half-awake and half-dressed, I heard an unusual growl and, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I started to make out the bandit-eyes of a furry intruder. I then started to make out its teeth and claws, which it was very eager to display. One of the raccoons had broken into the house by way of the cat door.
I then walked quickly back into the bedroom and pinched myself, hoping it was all just a bad dream. But I did not wake up and soon had to accept that this raccoon was a real-life thief in the night. And I had to deal with it. So…. I tried to create a trail of cookie crumbs leading out the door for the raccoon to follow, but it was not interested. I then went on the Internet and googled “How to get a raccoon of your house” and found out that basically it’s too hard to get them out because they’re way too clever. So I then called a phone number that was provided on one of the websites and spoke with someone who essentially said that I should try to get rid of it even though I will most likely fail. So with that extremely helpful advice, I decided to pick up a broom and nudge the raccoon out the door. This also failed so I took it up a notch. I made the broom into my sword and charged towards the raccoon while yelling. Stogie came by side, barking. And we chased the raccoon to the open door, but it refused to go out. Instead it ran across the living room to the cat door through which it came in. But by then I had shut it (so that other raccoons wouldn’t come in). So as I tried to open the main door for it to leave, it ran back across the living room into the kitchen, where Stogie and I chased after it, yelling and barking. It became a showdown in the kitchen at 4 in the morning between three ravage beasts. The raccoon puffed itself up to look twice its size. Stogie (who is a pacifist by nature) was almost snarling. And I was holding my broom sword like a wild cave man, ready to attack. I knew the house (which was now our battlefield) was about to become a horrible mess…
This morning we heard Jesus say to his disciples, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Here Jesus is teaching his disciples how to be prepared for his Second Coming, for the Apocalypse, for the end of the world, which many believed was right around the corner. But Jesus is also teaching us how to prepare for unexpected visitors, how to be ready for people or events that come into our lives that might feel apocalyptic, might feel like the end of the world as we know it. Jesus says, “Keep awake.” This does not mean that we should never go to sleep. The other readings we heard this morning help us understand what Christ means. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says, “Now is the time to wake up so let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the prophet Isaiah poetically describes people who are waking up from darkness into this light when he says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Being awake means letting go of our weapons and putting down our walls.
Jesus also says, “Be ready.” In the Greek, this word is het-oy-moy which means “Be ready to receive one who is coming.” Being awake and ready means being open and hospitable and even vulnerable to those things in our lives that we might want to fight against. Those things that threaten to change our world. Being awake and ready means trusting that Christ is present in those unexpected visitors, in that painful news, in that lost job, perhaps even in that illness or in that broken relationship. I am not saying that Christ makes us sick or takes away our jobs. I am saying that Christ is teaching us to be open and awake to the transformative power within these experiences. Christ does not want us to live in constant fear of pain and loss and whatever horrible news we think might be around the corner. Christ wants us to put down our swords and be open to his transformative power, which is at work in those unexpected and sometimes painful experiences. And if we have committed our lives to Christ, we can trust that he is at work in molding us into our best and fullest selves through our encounter with those unexpected visitors.
Now I am not saying that Christ is teaching us to ever remain passive in a relationship that is abusive or in a society is oppressive. The “armor of light” that Paul describes helps us see clearly the oppression and the abuse that we as Christ-followers are called to fight against. There are certainly things that we must resist and condemn and expel. But there are other things that we are simply called to accept (however difficult and painful they may be). And learning to welcome these things and to see Christ’s transformative power within them is what keeping awake and being ready is all about. The Sufi mystic poet Rumi describes what it means to keep awake in his poem “The Guest House.” He writes,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Before the dog (Stogie), the raccoon and I could make a huge mess of the house in our wild animal war, the raccoon retreated behind a shelf. Stogie stopped barking. And I put down my sword. I gave up and decided to fight no more. I finally found the phone number for Animal Services and, as I waited for them to arrive, I looked at the raccoon who peered at me from behind the shelf. Eventually I began to see the raccoon less as a monster to attack and more as a furry friend who was actually kind of cute. The Animal Services man arrived and used a stick that looked kind of like a pruning hook to gently guide the raccoon out the door. Since then, I have decided to name that raccoon after the Sufi Mystic poet, Rumi.
I have had many things disrupt my world like that raccoon and I have only made things worse by trying to fight against them. As we enter this Advent season, Christ invites us to keep awake and to see those “raccoons” that disrupt our lives in a new light, as friends transforming us into our fullest selves and “clearing us out for some new delight.”
This being awake and ready is about being open and hospitable and welcoming to visitors. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for welcoming me as a visitor and as a seminarian. I thank you for not treating me the way I treated the raccoon. Because of your hospitality, I know I have experienced transformation and have grown closer to Christ. So I affirm you in your hospitality and encourage you all to stay open and to “keep awake” in your kindness. Thank you.