What a strange and interesting story, this story of Peter's imprisonment. For many of us in our contemporary moment with spending hours in front of the television set, it might initially strike us as an adventure story, one of Hollywood proportions. Peter, perhaps he looks like Jack Bauer from 24 or Jason Bourne or any other one of those magical male figures who leaps into time and space and through a series of magical actions, manages to escape harm, dodge bullets, and at the end of the day stand boldly on the other side of danger and proclaim a victory.
Now when you first listen to Peter's story, as I did, these are the images that strike your mind; and yet returning to it as we so often do when reading Scripture, we discover a different story in fact. The oddity of it, in fact, grows as you read it over and over again. Listen to it from a different perspective.
Here we find Peter sitting in a cell not knowing what fate awaits him. His best friend has just several days earlier been executed by the authorities. He thinks that perhaps his own execution is pending, and there he is asleep in the cell. If we can extrapolate from what we know about the experience of being in prison, of people who have been tortured, people awaiting their death, the fact that Peter is asleep is perhaps too gentle of a form to put it. When the angel comes to wake Peter up, we discover that it's a bit difficult to awake him. The light has shone in the cell and yet Peter sleeps, so the angel taps him on the shoulder. And it appears as if Peter's waking is still a state of dazed sleeping almost. For the angel has to tell him, "Put on your shoes. Put that belt around you." And you can still feel Peter's sense of being dazed and confused. "Now come on, Peter, put your cloak around you and follow me."
What we know about people in the state that Peter was most obviously in, this dazed sense of disorientation and confusion, wreaks of what we know trauma does to our own psyches. When we're confronted with events of overwhelming violence or when we simply find ourselves in a situation where we don't know how to control the circumstances and we don't know what's awaiting us, it is very easy to get confused. It's very easy to find ourselves falling short of that task that marks most of our daily lives, which is that of making sense of the world around us in a regular kind of story form. That disorientation that descends in those prison moments is one where we realize we don't even have the categories to make sense of what is happening to us.
And Peter's story gets even more remarkable after the arrival of the angel. Standing there in that sense of disorientation, Peter stumbles behind the angel, follows the angel out, and the Scripture passages tell us quite directly that Peter didn't know if it was real. Obviously, Peter thinks he's dreaming. He's following this angel--perhaps Peter wasn't even sure if the angel wasn't a guard who was perhaps taking him to his execution--and yet Peter follows. And the chains fall off his arms, fall off the doors, he walks past squadrons of soldiers, they get to the large iron gate of the city, and it opens before them of its own accord. And there they are standing in the alley on the other side of harm. This escape has happened. An enormous transition has unfolded before our eyes, marked with the full signs of grace in our midst. And then the angel disappears, and here again is one of the most remarkable moments in the passage.
We hear that Peter comes to himself. Literally translated, it gives us the sense that Peter wakes up. And yet when Peter wakes up and looks around him, realizes that he's been freed, what he realizes is that in fact he was never asleep. He was in one of those states of awakening in which the reality in which you find yourself is so confusing and disorienting that it feels like a dream.
There are so many moments in our lives as individuals, in our work lives, in our broad social life together, in the life of our churches in which as we travel through periods of enormous transition, when we find ourselves moving from the prisons of our life into new territory, be it through a move, a new relationship, a job change, be it through in the hardest times, our dealing with (the) enormous loss of a loved one in which our life is literally turned inside out, and the categories we use for ordering our daily life no longer make sense to us. Be it in times of enormous social transition in which the stories we have told about ourselves as a people begin to crumble in our hands, and it becomes very hard to imagine what the future before us looks like.
I remember well in my own life my arrival on the steps of Yale Divinity School in 1981. The summer before coming to Yale I had spent on a tractor in Oklahoma, going back and forth in wheat fields and across large sections of open land and sky. I had had many hours to think about this interesting, if not unimaginable, future that awaited me when I journeyed off into the far country of New England. And yet, when I arrived at Yale, my sense of disorientation was profound. I looked around myself and nothing seemed familiar. The buildings were old, older than anything I had ever lived in in Oklahoma, but even more the voices of the people around me sounded odd to my ears. And there I was sitting in classes where I was hearing words like eschatology--even the mere concept of doing theology was new to me. And I remember after about eight days of this, I stumbled out literally into the parking lot, wondering whether or not I was going to make it--perhaps I had made a terrible mistake--and there sitting off to the side was a John Deere tractor, and I fixated on that John Deere tractor. And I thought, you know, Serene, you are not in the middle of a dream. You are awake. This is really happening. Tractors that were back in Oklahoma follow you to New England; they sit here in the parking lot. Wake up and try to be present in the midst of that dream you feel yourself inhabiting. Try to pay attention and step into this new story as it becomes you.
That is a story that I often share with new students who walk through the doors of Union each fall, and you can see in their eyes this sense of disorientation. No, they're not coming out of prisons like Peter found himself in--although many of our students are coming out of lives and of events in their lives that have been marked by enormous tragedy and violence. Some of them have just left college and stumbled down the street. Some of them have stumbled out of jobs into a new life, but what they inevitably share is that sense of being dazed, of entering into the quadrangle of Union Theological Seminary and seeing there a blossoming tree that sits right in the middle welcoming all. You look up at these old, Oxford-style buildings and think to yourself, "Where am I? What am I doing here? I must be asleep. This must be a dream." And yet, as you settle into the rhythms of a new life, you begin to awaken into that space in which that world that feels dream life becomes familiar to you.
In such situations what is called forth from us are responses not unlike those of Peter's. In the midst of that dreaming, if we wait for the moment in which we're going to suddenly figure it all out and make a bold decision that we have control of our lives, that we know what's going to happen next, that in great confidence we can step out into the world with the highly rational, well thought-through plan in front of us as to where we're going, well then, if that's what we're waiting for, it seldom comes. What we see in Peter is a willingness to simply stand up, trust and follow. And follow knowing not what awaits you. Follow with the willingness to be surprised by what you encounter. Follow with the willingness to go through each door as it opens or doesn't. A willingness to admit as Peter does that the whole thing doesn't even feel real as we're going through it, and yet to trust that on the other side of that story, perhaps it will make sense to us.
I often think of this story when I think about the plight of the church in North America today. We live in a period of enormous social transition. Much like the Reformation of five hundred years ago, we live in a time in which nation states are being reconfigured, in which we're engaging forms of new technology that literally are rearranging the nerve endings and connections in our brain patterns. New processes of knowledge production, which would have been unimaginable even ten years ago, unfold before us. We live in a time which expanding global markets create worlds that feel oftentimes dreamlike, when sitting here in Atlanta, I cannot only imagine but be in contact with a teenager in Brazil and a retired woman in South Africa.
And in the midst of all of that, our churches are feeling the quakes that come when worlds are turned inside out. The shifting landscape of religion in North America is one that literally feels like at times a seismic tremor. The old, and to many of us much beloved, mainline church feels those tremors as it looks at its own declining numbers, as it looks at the buildings it inhabits and sees gargoyles falling off the edges of towers, at the very moment when the doors are bursting open in our churches, in our society, and yes, even at Union, with students, with parishioners, with people of faith that we don't recognize. In North America, the demographers tell us that the two most quickly growing groups on the religious landscape are Latino Pentecostals, and this odd group called the unaffiliated--the spiritual but not religious. They defy the categories that we use to think about theology in this North American landscape, and yet there we are in a situation where we are called to stay awake, to attend, to attend to, to hear, and to be willing to follow the Spirit that is leading our church.
Now the church is always very good at following when it knows where it's going. We can tell great stories from our tradition of the church boldly stepping out into territory with a prophetic voice of critique and hope marking a path into the future that the church is calling us to step up to the table and partake of. But those are the easy times for the church when compared to those moments in when the church has no idea what is falling out before it. And that is when we as faithful, perhaps traumatized, always confused, Christians caught in moments of deep sleep and overwhelming change, disoriented by all we see around us, have to trust that the angels that will lead this church forward will come. Alas, they are already coming. Our angels are coming in those doors. And the question for us is will we, like Peter, put on our sandals, be willing to obey, and put that belt around our waist and stumble into that dark night, not knowing but trusting that on the other side of that, we'll find Mary and that host of friends who are praying fervently for us as that journey unfolds.
When awakeness feels like a dream, brothers and sisters, that is what faith often feels like. And it is a noble calling for us to take on that state of dream and call it our own. Amen.
Would you join me in prayer.
Most gracious God, keep us mindful that you are a God who stirs us not only through those moments of clarity and vision, but a God who dwells with us in our dreams, in our states of disorientation, in that place of our regular lives where the mystery you set before us each day we know not what it holds, but in you we trust that it is good, that it is yours, and that it is the journey we have been sent on. Amen.