Sermon: Beyond Fear and Hyper-Vigilance

This sermon, by Sheri Hostetler, was given on the First Sunday of Advent during our worship series, “Wilderness and Womb: We are the Ones Being Born.” It’s based on Mark 13:24-37.

Jerome and Patrick adopted DeeDee because when they walked through the kennels at the animal shelter in Alameda, the only dog that wasn’t jumping up and down and barking madly was DeeDee. Instead, DeeDee sat there calmly, looking up at them with her liquid brown eyes. I thought 6-year-old Patrick and his father had been going to the shelter on an exploratory mission, just to try on the thought of adopting a dog in, say, a month or two. Instead, Patrick called me from the shelter and said: “Mommy, her name is DeeDee, and I love her.”

And so, DeeDee came to live with us that day. For about a week, she did her calm, liquid brown eye act. And then, she started barking. All the time. If anybody walked by on the sidewalk, which happens often, she barked. If that person was walking a dog, she’d bark even louder. God forbid that someone walk up on our porch and ring our doorbell to signal that a package had arrived. DeeDee would lose her … word I won’t say in a sermon. And all of you who have been to my home know what happens if you dare walk through our door — loud, piercing barking that lasts for what seem like a long time. This actually happens to us, too, as we walk up to our own door. 

All of this barking was driving me crazy, and I started resenting DeeDee until one day when I picked her up as she was barking maniacally at a visitor who had just entered our house. Her heart was beating so fast, and she was quivering. She was really afraid. The shelter had found DeeDee wandering the streets of Alameda. I wondered if the loss of the home she had known — the security of a safe bed, the certainty of knowing where her next meal would come from — had now made her fearful, hyper-vigilant, scanning the environment for the next threat.

This might sound weird, but I thought of DeeDee when I read this passage from Mark. It’s opening verses — which are layering apocalyptic image upon apocalyptic image from the Hebrew scriptures — these verses describe a world in which the most stable parts of the cosmos have changed. Neither the sun nor the moon give light, and the stars fall from the sky. It’s a world in which nothing is stable. And the text seems to be counseling hyper-vigilance: Beware! Keep alert! Stay awake! You don’t know what’s going to happen next!

Doesn’t that sound like 2020? I think we’re all feeling a bit like DeeDee this year: hyper-vigilant and fearful. Is it safe to fly home for Thanksgiving for my family’s annual holiday get-together? Can I walk outside my door without getting COVID? Can I walk outside without damaging my lungs from wildfire smoke? Will I need to evacuate my home? Will the sun ever shine today (remember that day)? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to find a job? Is our democracy going to survive this election?

Let’s take a deep breath.

I’ve never known a year in which our collective psychic state so closely matches the beginning of the Advent season. That’s because, in the Christian calendar, Advent always begins with apocalyptic Scriptures, texts that seem to be describing the end of the world as we know it and that are rife with fear and instability. Why begin a season where we are anticipating the birth of Christ child with such fear and trembling? Why pair Apocalypse with Advent? 

Mark and the other Gospel writers are saying very clearly that Jesus’ arrival — the Incarnation, the Divine coming to earth in human form — is an apocalyptic event. Jesus’ birth marks the end of an old age and the beginning of a new age. The end of one world and the beginning of another And this idea or meme that the end of an old age and the birth of a new age being will be marked by cosmic cataclysm and instability is a common one in Mark’s time and been for at least 200 years or more. It shows up a lot in Scripture.

Now, I’ve always thought of this old age and new age sequentially — as describing chronological time, chronos time, for those of you who remember my sermon from a couple of weeks ago. First there’s the old age, then Jesus, and then the new age. And, actually I have some problems with that — it can very quickly lead to anti-Jewish Christian triumphalism.

But Scripture scholar Ched Myers says we should not be thinking of this old age-new age as sequential time (from Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus). Instead, he says, when we’re talking about this old age-new age metaphor, we’re in  kairos time — we’re in archetypal time, in mythical time. In kairos time, these two ages coexist at the same time in human history, each with their own respective pasts and potential futures. There’s the old order, the old age, which is a metaphor for a social order and a social vision built on domination. And then there’s the new order, the new age, which is metaphor for a social order and a social vision built on liberation. These two ages co-exist at the same time: domination and liberation. We know that from our own time, don’t we? Gospel writers like Mark are trying to highlight this dualism between old and new, between evil and good, between domination and liberation. Because they want us — the listener — to choose between them, to clarify our allegiances in the historical struggle between fundamentally different social visions, between domination and liberation.

As preparation for our Advent planning retreat, the Worship Committee not only read the Gospel passages for Advent, we also read an article called “Preparing for the End of the World As We Know It” by a group called the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective. The collective is a group of scholars, artists, activists and Indigenous knowledge keepers from the Global North and South. I chose this article because I saw so much alignment between the apocalyptic worldview in Mark and the worldview of this collective.

They write that a decolonial future — that is, the new age of liberation — will only be made possible “with… the end of the world as we know it (that is, the old age of domination) which is a world that has been built and is maintained by different forms of violence and unsustainability… (a world that is) inherently unethical and unsustainable, premised on radicalized forms of exploitation and dispossession and ecological extraction.” Ecological extraction here means extracting “resources” from the earth — gas, oil, gold, minerals, wood products topsoil, fish, etc. — in an unsustainable way, in a way that does not try to keep the ecological balance of life intact.

The collective goes on: “We have come to see the violence and unsustainability of the world as we know it (that is, the old age), which maintains the comforts and securities we enjoy, as something that… needs to die with integrity. This needs to happen so that we can heal and open up the possibility for another potentially wiser world to come into being (that is, the new age), a world that exceeds what we can currently imagine.”

So how do we live in the in-between time? How do we live between the old age that needs to die and the new age that has not yet been fully born? I think this year, in particular, has made many of us feel like DeeDee roaming the streets, having lost the security and certainty and comfort of our old home, looking for the new. But, unlike DeeDee, maybe fear and hyper-vigilance are not our only options. 

So, I want to offer some spiritual stances that are alternatives to fear and hypervigilance that come from our Scripture today. I want to give full credit to the wonderful Tuesday morning lectio divine group, who reflected on this Scripture  together last week and found these pearls of wisdom within it.

Wisdom #1: Don’t get complacent. You don’t need to be hypervigilant, but neither should you be, “It’s all OK now that the election is over.” Or: “I’d rather not think about that.” Or: “Let me distract myself with this!” Now is not that time. 

Wisdom #2: Keep doing your job. In our Scripture, Jesus says that we need to be alert like servants in a house, each with their own work, who keep on doing that work even when the master of the house leaves because they never know when the master is going to come back. In this story, we are clearly meant to identify with the servants, not the master of the house. And the guidance for us is clear: Keep doing your job. You don’t have to do it all. But you do have to do the job that’s been given to you to do.

Wisdom #3: Swap the verb “beware” for “be aware” if you need to. When we “beware,” we may become overly fearful and hyper vigilant and start engaging in useless panic-driven behaviors like barking at your human as they come up the steps to the house you share together. Instead, be aware of where the Divine is at work in your life and in the world. Instead of doom scrolling or listening to news that makes you feel anxious and crazy but isn’t “actionable,” how about focusing attention on where liberation and new life are already happening?

Wisdom #4: Become comfortable with not knowing. “Not knowing” runs through this passage: “But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son.” And: “You do not know when the master of the house will come.” All we know is: Thing are changing. The certainty and security we thought we had is no more, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. But how can you become more comfortable with not knowing? Perhaps our last pearl of wisdom will help.

Wisdom #5: Focus on what is eternal. Beth told us that, in Nez Perce, the verb “awake” is the same word as the adjectives “alive,” “with soul,” “animate.” So, when she hears the phrase “be awake” in this passage, she hears it as be alive, be attentive to that which animates our soul, be attentive to that which is eternally alive. Even if the cosmos is changing and stars are falling, we can tend to that which is eternally alive and everlasting.  What might be born in us, if we do that?  Amen.