On Being Awake
After my mother died and my father got kicked out of the assisted-living center for smoking in the bathroom—now that right there is a sentence I never thought I’d say—I was carrying Dad’s mattress up a flight of stairs to his new apartment and hurt my back. I actually heard a noise, felt something shift in my spine, and had this sharp pain, which didn’t go away. Joan told me to go to the doctor, forgetting I have a doctorate in humane letters, so I began a self-administered course of treatment—a strict regimen of complaining, avoiding physical exertion, trusting things would eventually get better without any effort or exercise on my part.
This course of treatment had worked well for me in the past. There would be a period of pain and discomfort, which I gradually adjusted to, until it was more bearable, and I could resume my life. But this time it didn’t work, so I went to a chiropractor who put me in a headlock, threw me around the room, then popped my back. I felt somewhat better, and was relieved to be healed without any effort. Then he had the nerve to tell me I was weak and out-of-shape and that if I didn’t start exercising, I would hurt my back all over again, so he sent me to a physical therapist named Gabriella, who at first I thought might be a terrorist, so fierce was her determination to destroy me. But I’ve been going twice a week for the past three months and am feeling a bit better.
I’m even starting to like Gabriella. She’s from Trinidad. She says, “You Americans just want to take a pill and immediately feel better. But you can’t do that. You must work. It takes time.”
I said, “There’s a pill I can take?”
So this week I’ve been thinking about discipline. That’s an interesting word—discipline. Along with the word disciple, it is derived from the Latin word discipulus, which means student, pupil, or follower. There are several meanings of the word discipline. We can say someone lacks discipline, which is to say they lack any sense of self-control or self-regulation. I’ll use it in a sentence. If I had more discipline, I would exercise and my back wouldn’t hurt. So there’s that meaning of the word discipline.
But there’s another meaning, and it is that other meaning, I want to explore this morning. This is discipline as a branch of knowledge, a field, or subject, or a specialty. I’ll use it in a sentence. Gabriella is an expert in the discipline of physical therapy.
It is this meaning I want to connect to the word disciple. When Jesus went around inviting people to be his disciples, he was asking them to undertake a discipline, in this instance the discipline, the specialty, of living in and alerting others to God’s presence and priorities in the world.
Because, let’s be honest, too often we go through life as if we’re sleep-walking. We become gradually accustomed to injustice, acclimated to hardheartedness—our own and others, we make our peace with indifference. So Jesus urged people to awaken from their moral and spiritual slumber and become aware. This is what prophets do. They try to awaken us when we have fallen into an existential coma.
When Jesus lived among us, he invited a small number of people to discipleship, to undertake the discipline of living in and alerting others to God’s presence in the world. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t invite everyone to discipleship. There were some people who had been so indifferent for so long, so dispirited for so long, they could not be roused.
To be a disciple is to be fully awake, fully involved. Here’s an example, and a contrast: I was talking with a woman about the school shooting in Noblesville, and she said, “We can’t just give in to this. We must figure out why this is happening and what can be done about it. And we will.”
An hour later, I was talking with a man about it, and he said, “These shootings are the price we pay to live in a free country. There’s nothing we can do.” One person had not become accustomed to violence, had not become indifferent, while another person had given up, and could not be roused to do anything about it.
Jesus went looking for people like that woman, who could help him awaken people like that man. I think the Spirit is still doing that. I think the Spirit is still looking for people who are wide awake, who haven’t caved in, who haven’t given up. And the Spirit uses those awakened people to revive the people who have fallen asleep, people who have ignored their responsibility to do good.
I was talking with a man not long ago who’d left his church. He’d gone there forever, but then they got a new pastor and this new pastor spoke about current issues. It upset the man, who said the new pastor was being political. So he quit his church and began attending another church. He said, “The pastor at my new church isn’t political.”
I said, “You realize that not being political is a political choice, don’t you? It means the pastor in your new church has decided to remain silent about injustice, silent about the dismantling of democracy, silent about racism. The pastor in your church has made a deliberate decision to remain asleep, to be indifferent, right when Jesus needs us to be awake, and needs us to care.”
To be a disciple is to be awake. It is to embrace the discipline of living in and alerting others to God’s presence and priorities in the world. That is, of necessity, a political act.
Don’t forget, friends, when Jesus lived and preached about God’s priorities, when he lived out God’s kingdom among us, he was arrested by the government, underwent a government trial, was judged guilty by the government, then sentenced to a government death. His life was a political life. His witness a political witness.
The Christian life is a call to a discipline. It is an undertaking. Sometimes it takes us where we do not want to go, to do difficult things while we are there, and then sometimes to suffer. The alternative is to remain asleep, to persist in indifference, to surrender hope. We can still do that, we can still abdicate our moral and spiritual responsibilities and call ourselves Americans. Many today are doing just that. But if we do that, what we cannot call ourselves are followers of Jesus.