Meditations / Sermons

January 18, 2009
Watch Night

SACRED READING

Acts 16: 19-26:
19 When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, "These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose.

A SERMON by Monica A. Coleman

In many African American churches, we spend New Year’s Eve in church.  We have a worship service that begins sometime between 7 pm and 10 pm and usually goes through midnight and into the New Year.  We have come to call this “Watch Night” service.  Some say the tradition traces back to Moravian Christian communities in the 1700s that gathered to thank God for the blessings of the previous year and to seek God’s favor in the coming year.  But there is a particular story that goes along with Watch Night Services in the African American tradition.  On New Year’s Eve in 1862, there was a rumor going around.  It had been a tough year for the country.  Indeed it had been a tough several years for the country.  The country was at war with itself.  There were competing values between large portions of the population.  Competing values about which political party was best equipped to run the country; competing values about the role of presidential power and the rights of states; competing values about how the economy should be run; competing values about who should have and who should have not; competing values about granting the same rights to everyone who lived in the country; in fact, competing values about who was fully human, and who was not.  This was almost 150 years ago in the middle of the U. S. civil war, but it sounds so eerily familiar.  Today, there are competing values between large portions of our population.  There are competing values about which political party is best equipped to run the country; competing values about the role of the president versus the rights of the states – giving those controversial, difficult decisions over the states to avoid mandates that advocate for justice.  Today, there are competing values about how the economy should be run – and this is not just about bailouts and buyouts, but about whether we should support a system that is designed to make the rich richer and requires an unemployed impoverished poor.  Yes, today we are still in a country with competing values about who should have and who should have not; and we still argue about whether or not immigrants will get the same rights as citizens, and whether or not committed same-gender loving persons will get the same rights as heterosexually married persons.  And yes, I believe that ultimately, we have competing values about who is fully human and who is not.  On this New Year’s Eve, we too stood in the midst of our own civil war.

History seems to tell us that enslaved Americans of African descent came together regularly on New Year’s Eve for years.  On the first day of each year, the slave owner would tally up his property and make financial decisions for the New Year.  At that time, he (for it was usually a he) might sell or trade slaves to settle debts or make profits in the New Year.  The slaves knew that a new year might bring a new circumstance, a new plantation or a new owner.  The New Year might well have brought separation from lovers, parents, siblings, children and friends.  So they gathered together to relish in community.  They gathered together to spend time with people they loved just one more time.  They gathered together to pray for their futures and their fates.

But on New Year’s Eve in 1862, there was a rumor going around.  There was a rumor that President Abraham Lincoln might sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st.  There was a rumor that slavery would end.  There was a rumor that change was going to come.  There were rumors of freedom.  And so the enslaved Americans of African descent gathered together – in homes, in churches, in hush arbors – and they watched and they prayed.  They watched through the night and they prayed for freedom.  They watched through the night and they prayed for freedom.

We find a somewhat similar situation in the story of Acts.  Paul and Silas have been wrongly imprisoned.  In fact, the story goes that they are imprisoned because they freed a slave girl from her bondage to her owners.  Without a trial, Paul and Silas were beaten severely and thrown into jail.  They didn’t know what their fate would be.  They didn’t know what was going to happen to them.  And the scripture says that there in their prisons, in their night-time situations, they began to pray and to sing.  They watched and prayed.  They watched through the night and prayed for freedom.  They watched through the night and prayed for freedom.

Well these stories can sound a bit extreme in today’s context.  Although none of us sitting here are literally enslaved or imprisoned, we still have our nights.  The night is a time of oppression.  The night is a time of injustice.  The night is a time of working hard and seeing little reward.  The night is giving more than you even have to give.  The night is a time of sadness.  The night is a time of sorrow.  The night is often a time of loneliness.  I don’t know about the kind of year you’ve had – and for me, it’s been about 2 years – but I’ve seen some nights.  I’ve been betrayed by friends and trusted ones.  I’ve known discrimination.  I’ve lost my father.  I’ve lost a relationship and a family.  I’ve worked hard and felt as if I was seeing little reward.  I’ve cried at night.  I know the night. 

Maybe some of you have had some nights this past year. Some times the nights come as part of life.  There will be life, and there will be loss.  Life happens and sometimes the harder side of life happens to us.  Sometimes the night is just part of the cycle of the day.  And other times, the world, other people, usher in the night.  They leave.  They hurt.  They hurt themselves and those around them.  They betray bonds of love, family and community.  Some times, the selfishness, greed and honestly fears of those we know and those we don’t know affect our lives, affect us personally and they bring us to our night time situations. 

And I want to be honest – the night is a hard place.  It’s a hard time.  Because the night changes you.  These kinds of pains, rejections, and losses, they change you.  They can change who you are.  They can change the way you see the world.  They can change the way you operate in the world.  They can make you a little less trusting.  They can make you a little harder around the edges.  They can make you a little less hopeful about other people, the world, yourself, sometimes even God.  The nights can run together and feel like night upon night upon night.  There have been some nights in the last year.  For some of us, we’ve known nights for more than the past year.  We’ve known nights for years.
But there are lessons to be learned, I think from Paul and Silas, lessons to be learned from the 1862 Watch Night experience.  The first is that when people found themselves in a night time situation, they came together.  They found their loved ones, their families, their friends and they gathered wherever they could.  They gathered in churches, in homes, in fields, in backyards, I imagine.  They came together not just out of fear that they might not see one another again.  They came together because in their fear, they knew they needed to see one another.  Let me say that one more time.  They came together not just out of their fear that they might not see each other again.  Rather they came together because in the midst of their fears, they knew they needed to see one another. 

And when they got together, they watched and they prayed.  You know this makes me think about the passage in the gospels when Jesus goes to the Garden on Gethsemane.  And he brings a couple disciples with him and he asks them to stay awake with him through the night and to pray with him.  He asks them to watch and pray with him.  Now, you may know that the disciples fell asleep, but I want to remind you that if Jesus needed his friends, his spiritual community, to watch through his night and pray with him, most surely we do too. 
In our night time situations, we too can gather together and watch and pray with each other.  And I think that Circle of Grace does this really well.  A lot of us have had some night time situations this year.  But Circle of Grace is – at least for me – family.  We are loved ones, family, friends who come together and watch and pray through the night.  Sometimes we gather when it’s night for one of us; and there have been times when it’s been night for several of us at the same time.  Now, I’m an advocate of old-fashioned prayer meetings where you come to church and you light the candles and you stay all night, praying, singing and hoping and falling on your face.  I come from people and churches that do that sort of thing.  But watching through the night can look like a lot of things.  It looks like a sincere questioning about how you are doing.  It looks like a meal after church service.  It looks like a long conversation over coffee.  It looks like a friend coming over to help you clean.  It looks like housing a friend.  It looks like buying groceries and gas for a loved one.  It looks like repeated emails and posting on facebook.  It looks like an answered cell phone call.  It looks like a big long hug.  When we do this here – and we do – over time, with one another, listening to each other’s stories, we become the community that Paul talks about in Romans that weeps when the other is weeping.  We watch through the night.  We watch through the night and pray for freedom.

And so the biblical passage tells us that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.  And this was the time of the early church.  In fact, there really wasn’t an early church.  There were some people, in some houses, who went around talking about God and Jesus.  There weren’t really hymnbooks.  There wasn’t really any contemporary Christian music or gospel sounds.  When it says that they were singing hymns, they were singing the songs of their people; the songs of their tradition.  It was like they were singing what African Americans call spirituals.  They were singing their folk songs.  Now we know that Paul was ethnically Jewish and so songs of his people were the Jewish spirituals.   And we see many of those in the Psalms.  So I imagine that Paul and Silas were singing “I look to the hills from whence cometh my help, my help comes from the Lord,” and “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”  and “As the deer longs for the water, so my soul longs for you Oh God,” and “My tears have been my food day and night and they continually say to me: Where is your God?” and then they get to Psalm 30 and they begin to sing: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Indeed that scripture has been inspiration for many people in their night time situations.  We hope that we just make it through the night, because joy comes in the morning.  We hope that we can hold on until midnight because then our chains will be loosed.  When you are watching through the night and praying for freedom, you just want the night to end so joy can come in the morning.  But the renowned African American preacher H. Beecher Hicks asks an appropriate question in his collection of sermons entitled Preaching through a Storm.  He acknowledges the hope potential of that verse in Psalm 30: weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning, and he asks the question many of us may have asked: “But how long the night?”  How long will it take for freedom to come?  How long will it take for oppression to end?  How long will we have to watch through the night together before we are declared free?  How long before we all feel safe?  How long before we all are treated equally in the eyes of the law?  How long before everyone in the world’s wealthiest country have access to shelter, health care and a decent job?  How long will it hurt this bad?  How long before I can trust again?  Hope again?  Love again?  Breathe deeply again?  Open the walls of my soul again?  How long the night?

I don’t know.  I don’t know how long our country be will at a war of competing values.  I don’t know how long it be before you stop crying or hurting or being angry.  I don’t know how long the night will be.

I do know that we have a community that watches through the night with each other.  I know that we have a family here at Circle of Grace that tarries, and waits and walks with each other – where you are and wherever you are going.  I know we house, and love and feed each other when we feel lonely, empty and hungry.  We watch through the night together.

I also know another way of watching through the night.  In African American churches, watch night services always include a testimony period.  We will often joke about the older woman who stands up and says the same thing every year: “Giving honor and glory to God who is the head of my life, I just want to thank God for waking me up this morning clothed and my right mind.”  Because there’s always someone who stands up every year to thank God for “making it through just one more year.”  But what happens is this:  Someone will stand up and tell her story.  She’ll talk about something difficult that happened in the last year, and how somehow, even though she didn’t think it was possible, she survived, and that was because of her God and her church family.  And then someone else will stand up and tell his story.  He’ll talk about something difficult that happened in the last year, and how somehow, even though he didn’t think it was possible, he survived, and that was because of God and his church family.  And one after another, people will stand up and tell their stories of how they made it over.

And even in the middle of the night, people remember other nights that have come and gone.  And in the middle of your night, you can hear about someone else’s breaking of day and it’s just enough to keep you watching and praying a little bit longer. 
I think there is something to this.  Allow me to digress for a moment.  In Marita Golden’s book Wild Women Don’t Wear No Blues, Doris Jean Austin tells the story of her rape in an essay called “The Act Behind the Word.”  As she comes to the end of the story, she states that she doesn’t believe in closure.  She says that this event changed her; it changed who she was and how she saw the world.  It doesn’t go away.  She won’t forget it.  The door is never really closed.  But rather she talks about integration.  She says that this event, this story, is now part of her.  It is not all of her, but it part of the many stories that compose her life.  She says, that it is one of her angriest stories, but it is just one of her stories.
This gives me hope.  That the events and experiences and stories that are bringing me to my latest night time situation, will eventually, in time, becomes integrated stories.  They will become testimonies of difficult things that happened, and somehow, even though I didn’t think it was possible, I survived – because of God and my church family.  It gives me hope and my night times and your night times are on their way to being “one of my angrier or sadder stories,” but just one of my many stories.

So I don’t know how long the night, but like that New Year’s Eve in 1862, I hear rumors of freedom.  I hear rumors that our bondage to the things and people and relationship and jobs that inhibit life – will end.  I hear rumors of freedom.  I hear rumors that in the New Year, we might find new family, new circumstances, new places that will broaden and expand who we are and how we love.  I hear rumors of freedom.  I hear rumors that the laughter will outweigh the tears.  I hear rumors of freedom.  I hear rumors that lawyers are working and wheels are turning and things might get just a little less un-just and a little less un-fair for the country’s disenfranchised.  I hear rumors of freedom.  I hear rumors that people who never had hope, have found hope again; that people who didn’t believe, have found faith; that people who were lonely, have found community.  I hear rumors of freedom.  Already I’ve heard rumors of asylum, rumors of healing.  Ah yes, I hear rumors of freedom.

I hear rumors that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. 

It’s morning, Circle of Grace; it’s morning.