Sermon and Worship Service Archive

Keeping Awake in the Darkness

The Rev. Dr. William Rich
December 1, 2019

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Trinity Church in the City of Boston

The Rev. Dr. William Rich

December 1, 2019

Advent 1,


Come down, O Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine.  And as thou seekest me, may I have Thy grace to be awake so that I may see Thee and greet Thee and love Thee where Thou meetest me. Amen.

Stay awake. Keep awake. Watch words for not only Advent, but for the Christian life. There are times when it's easy to stay awake. Waiting for God's appearance in joy is always easier than waiting for God's appearance in fearful places. Perhaps like me, you have memories from your childhood where staying awake was not only easy, but going to sleep was nearly impossible. In the small town in West Virginia where I was raised, I could not go to sleep on the Friday night after Thanksgiving because I knew what was going to happen. The next morning on Saturday, the town workers would have decorated the streets of downtown Fairmont, and I knew that my family was going to go downtown.  And I was going to get to see all the greenery and all the lights, and it was exciting. I couldn't sleep that Friday night. I suspect more of you have memories of how hard it was to sleep on Christmas Eve when you were a child. I remember actually using toothpicks to try to prop my eyelids open in the hope that I might see Santa Claus if I stayed awake. Waiting for something that is joyful, something in which you know that God is appearing, and that will bring goodness to you, is easy,

But it's harder to stay awake when God's appearing comes in difficult places. Maybe you know about that too. I think we all do. There's a movie that's just come out about Mr. Rogers. Maybe some of you have seen it. I saw it Friday night and it rearranged, what I'm about to say to you. At the center of the story in this movie, of course, is Mr. Rogers.  But the other main character is a writer from the magazine, Esquire, whose name is Lloyd Vogel. Lloyd has been assigned a task of writing a 400 word piece about Mr. Rogers for an issue that Esquire is calling. Who is your hero? Lloyd doesn't want to do the story. In his snarky, arrogant way, he thinks it's beneath him.

But he goes and meets Mr. Rogers, and they have encounter after encounter after encounter.  At the center of their encounters is an encounter that Lloyd has had with his father,  from whom he is estranged. In fact, they've had a fight, a fist fight at Lloyd's sister's wedding. Lloyd has a cut cross the bridge of his nose. Mr. Rogers notices, doesn't probe too hard, but wants to know what's up.

And what is up? We find out as the story unfolds that Lloyd's father abandoned the family, when Lloyd's mother was dying, and fled. Lloyd was left to be the one who took care of her in the hospital and was there in her agonizing death throes. He's never gotten over it.

Maybe you know about something like this in your life, something that rocked you, that you haven't quite been able to get over. One of the central scenes in the movie reveals Lloyd's father coming to visit Lloyd’s family, seeking reconciliation with his son. Lloyd is married and has a young son. His father has brought his new wife. Lloyd wants nothing to do with them. He says, in effect, you've brought her to introduce her to me. Fine.  That’s done. Now go.  And he explodes in anger about the death of his mother and how Lloyd's father abandoned the family.

As Lloyd is exploding in anger, his father has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. Lloyd and his wife and young son, a babe in arms, go to the hospital. Lloyd does not want to be there. It reminds him of two things. First, it reminds him of being in a hospital with his mother as she was dying. He doesn't want to remember that.  And second, being there reminds him of the fact that he and his father are at odds with each other, and Lloyd doesn’t want to be there with his father, because he wants nothing to do with reconciliation.

Lloyd stays briefly at the hospital, and then turns to his wife and says, “I've got to go. I have to fly to Pittsburgh to finish interviewing Mr. Rogers.” In effect, he's running away, just as his father had.

Mr. Rogers, as you may imagine, is a kind of Christ figure in this movie. (You may or may not know that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister.)  When Lloyd flees to Pittsburgh, he and Mr. Rogers have a conversation about fatherhood and what it's like to raise children. Well, Lloyd says, I imagine it must've been difficult for your sons to have you as a father. Mr. Rogers agrees and says, yes, it was difficult for them and particularly for one who until recently has never mentioned me to anyone.  Obliquely, Mr. Rogers mentions how hard it is to deal with sadness and anger, for fathers and for sons.  

Waking up to the opportunity he has missed with his father, Lloyd flies back to New York, and he visits his father. There is a kind of reconciliation. But lest you think it is all sweetness and light, it is just a kind of reconciliation.

I imagine you want to stay awake for Christmas morning, for the goodness and the joy that many of us experience on that day.

But do you want to stay awake during Advent – and the rest of your life – for these other kinds of meetings with God? Because surely just as God appears in joy, God appears in painful and fearful places, sad and angry places, places we would rather not be

But if we don't go there, if we don't stay awake and go there to those places, we will miss something. We will miss an opportunity, an opportunity to learn that the same Jesus who spoke the words in this morning's Gospel also speaks other words in the next chapter. Words that you know well about where you might find him. He says he's going to appear in the least of his brothers and sisters: in the hungry whom you might feed, in the thirsty to whom you might give drink,  in the stranger that you might welcome like your estranged father, or your estranged co-worker, or the person here in church or in the wider world who makes you feel sad or angry, and from who you are estranged. In the naked to whom you might give clothes, and in the sick and those in prison, whom you might visit – or from whom you might flee.

It takes courage to go to these fearful places, and to do so, we need a Christ figure. In fact, we need thee Christ to help us go there. Maybe you have a Mr. Rogers in your life who will help you to go to those fearful places, but if you don't, you have Jesus himself who encourages you and says, don't miss this opportunity. Don't miss it. And who says: if you miss it, as Lloyd did in his first chance, don't miss it the second chance… because you will have a second chance.

It is easy to rejoice in the lights that appear and the decorations that appear. And I would not take that away from you. Rejoice again. I say, rejoice

But do not miss the other places where God is appearing even now: in your life, in my life, in our nation's life. God is trying to light up the darkness, and if you are not willing to go into the darkness, you will not see that. Nor will I.

Yes, we will fail. As Lloyd failed at first to go into the darkness.  But God will appear again and again, and invite us through a Mr. Rogers – or through someone or something – to try again.

Try again. Keep awake.

For you do not know at what hour or in what place

your Lord might greet you. Amen.

                                             “Staying Awake in the Darkness” – 12.1.2019 – Advent I - WW Rich