We Wait for Redemption – Advent 1 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people.

Sermon Text

            Advent breaks upon us, like the first rays of light shining out on the horizon. Dawn is coming for the world, the arrival of the true source of all goodness. God returning to God’s people, and all things being set right in a rush of grace and justice and mercy. The dawning of a new era of God’s presence on earth with us. We look to the skies, we wait for the night to pass into the day, we wait for Christ to come and be among us. Advent, the season of arrival, is for us a season in which we wait.

            Anticipating the next act of God is nothing new. From the moment that humanity first found itself apart from God, it has looked for God to come to be among them. Though we stray from God, the call of the Spirit upon our life always brings us back to looking for more of God. We long to see God here, with us, and we long to benefit from the presence of God in all the ways that we possibly could.

            The brokenness of the world around us demands that something happen to set the world straight. God reaching down and scooping us out of it would be one thing, but we are offered something much better. God’s work was not to pull us out of the darkness of the world but to transform darkness into light, evil into good. God’s work in creation was to redeem it from its fallen state, not to abandon some of it and rescue others. As we wait for Christmas and for the fullest celebration of God coming to be with us, we do so with anticipation of a world set right.

            Our scripture for today, from the book of Isaiah, is written after the Babylonian Captivity of Judah had ended. The Kingdom was not functioning at its fullest potential just yet, but people had returned to their ancestral home and were finding their way back into patterns of life their grandparents had known. How surprising then, that they discovered that the world was not magically made better because they moved back into their ancient home.

            The final chunk of Isaiah is a mixture of prophecy describing God’s goodness and Judah’s continual failure to live as they ought to. In biting terms, the prophet describes the land of Judah as a place filled with cruelty, where the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Returning to the land of blessing which benefited them in the past was not enough to wash away the wickedness of the people’s hearts. Simply moving location or changing our situation will always do nothing unless our heart is likewise changed. The people, now several generations removed from the original Babylonian exiles, find themselves falling into the same pitfalls that their ancestors did.

            God, the covenant partner of all the faithful, expresses frustration at this through the prophet. “Though you are free from Babylon, you are not free from your sins!” The people have been freed from the empire that had enslaved them, but they were not willing to live into the freedom that they had been offered. What was God to do? Another exile? Another punishment or plague?

            God’s response to the continued rebellion of the faithful was to extend still more grace to them. The promise of the final chapters of Isaiah is that all will be made new, that the Heaven’s the Earth, and even the people themselves will be renewed. In the midst of the promises God makes to God’s people, our scripture for today breaks out. A powerful prayer to God to come and act, to come and redeem God’s people from the troubles that they face – both the problems of the world around them and that they cause for themselves.

            The opening line of our scripture, “tear open the Heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake…” Is meant to bring to mind in its hearers the Song of Deborah (Judges 5.) After overcoming the Canaanites that had threatened the Israelites, Deborah saw God as their deliverer – not her or anyone else involved. She describes God moving mountains to clear the way for God’s people. God’s love for God’s people was such that nothing – not even the mountains were willing to get in between the two.

            The prophet recalls the goodness of God but identifies that things are not as they should be. While immediately recalling the Babylonian exile in citing that God became angry and, “hid” from Judah, the reality is that human sin is never tied to a single era or action. Since the Garden humanity has transgressed, and in the process of our sinning we find ourselves removed from the presence of God. Does God hide? Or do we simply cease to look? The two feel much like one another and in the prophet’s prayer we see God given particular agency over the relationship.

            There are several things in life that can darken our view of God and seemingly hide God away from us. When we live our lives wrongly, chasing after darkness and not light, we will find it hard to see God. Likewise, when disaster overtakes us, and we are propelled into a place of uncertainty we can lose track of God. However, no matter how we find ourselves pushed away from the divine presence; we feel the need to find it again. God, the source of life, is what we need to truly be alive. When we feel cut off, for any reason, then we feel lesser because of it.

            God’s promise then to us is that we can be made alive, that the present darkness is not forever, that redemption awaits us even when we stray as far as we could ever dream away from God’s goodness. We are offered redemption through being remade into the image of what God would have us be. No longer are we the, “filthy cloth,” but washed clean and made beautiful. No longer do we “fade away” like leaves, but we are filled with life and made to shine out in beauty. Revivification is one thing, restoration to what was, but we are pushed somehow farther and given more life and more goodness than we ever had before.

            We have talked several times about the things that have happened in this year and oftentimes it seems like this is the worst year we could ever dream of. However, even in the midst of that, we must not pretend that an awful year can keep us from the love of God. Disaster shows us who we are, pushes back layers of pretention and posturing and opens us up to show the true content of our heart. For the people of Judah who had their own disasters, who found that coming home and being restored to life were not one and the same, it revealed that they were far from what they ought to have been.

            The prayer of the prophet offers a final word of hope. After describing God as a potter who can reform the clay of our being into its proper shape, the prophet calls to mind one final scripture from Judah’s past. The book of Lamentations, perhaps the most barren book of the Bible, ends with a cry for help. “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:9)

            The prophet’s prayer in Isaiah 64 seeks to soothe the troubled heart of Lamentations 5. God, do not be angry. God, consider that we are you people. The prayer of the prophets often contains the truth of God hidden away in their intercession. God will not remain angry. God will not forget that we are God’s people. No matter what barriers come between us and God – ones that we put up, ones put up against us – they cannot stand forever. God will not utterly reject us, but God will bring us close and set us right. As we wait throughout Advent, we wait for God. We wait for Redemption. We wait for mountains to quake as God comes running to our aid. God our maker will be God our redeemer, and our redeemer will live among us. – Amen

A Holy Kingdom – Lectionary 11/22/2020

Matthew 25:31-46

          “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Sermon Text

            Thanksgiving will be here in a few days, and it will be different for us in a way we have never seen before. We have never had to worry about whether family gatherings will become spreader events until now, never had to worry over whether it was safe for grandparents and grandchildren to mingle with one another. Four days away from us, the day that usually brings about feasting and celebrating, is causing an uneasy feeling in our stomachs already. How can we be thankful in so hard of a year? How can we gather in safety in the midst of an ever-worsening pandemic?

            Ultimately, our answers must be developed individually by each person and family who must make them. While one family may be relatively certain of their ability to gather safely, another will know that this year must be a smaller affair, for the good of all people involved. For some of us, finding the things to be thankful for will be easier than for others. While we as a society and a community have been given ample reason to mourn, there have been flashes of hope and joy despite the darkness that overshadows us. For some of us the light outshines the darkness, for others we simply cannot pretend to be happy right now, nor should we be made to be.

            Thanksgiving is weird this year, everything is weird this year. It would be wrong of us to pretend anything but that reality is off kilter. Even we who know that God has not vacated the throne, that the universe is still guided by its architect, we cannot help but be a little off balance as of late. Thanksgiving is coming, a holiday to pull us out of ourselves and to survey the bounty which God has set before us. How will we be able to celebrate in the midst of tragedy, confusion, and altered plans? We will do so by digging deeper into the faith that has saved us and in accepting that that does not mean pretending all is well.

            This Sunday also celebrates the Reign of Christ, the final Sunday before Advent in which we acknowledge what the wait will be for. For four weeks we will be talking about the dawning of a Kingdom, a Kingdom we inhabit and yet have never seen. Today is the last week we count after the Pentecost, next week the first day we count down from till Christmas. On the edge of the mundane we now begin to approach the sacred and ineffable space of Christ’s arrival into the world – that which occurred long ago and that which we know not the day or hour of.

            Usually, the dates of Thanksgiving and reign of Christ have a week or so between them, but not this year. Why would we think otherwise, but to have our rhythm thrown off with an early Advent? The timing, as much an accident of civic and religious calendars overlapping as anything, nonetheless has the ability to offer us something we would not otherwise immediately grasp. The order of our observances this year allow us to realize that the reality of God sitting on the throne and our ability to give thanks are connected. We are able to give praise and to give thanks in the midst of hardship because we know deep down that God is in control, and as difficult as that reality can be to reconcile with our lived experience it is an endless well of potential and hope.

            God sits on the throne, and God offers us that at the end of all things there will be a setting straight of the crookedness of the world. The illnesses that keep us from our loved ones abolished, the poverty that keeps people from living to their fullest potential erased, and all hardness of heart and brokenness of spirit wiped away with the abundant grace of God who attends to the needs of all who love him. We started the month with All Saints Day, dreaming of Heaven, we will end it with Advent, God coming down to bring heaven to us, today let us find time betwixt and between to give thanks.

            Our scripture today is the third in a line of texts in which Jesus explains where the Kingdom of God can be found. It is found in those who are prepared, even in the moments that they fall asleep on duty, to meet Jesus. It is found in those who steward their worldly possessions well and appropriately make use of God’s gifts. Now today we find that God’s kingdom will be peopled by those who enact the principles of the last two parables. It is all fine and good to talk about being good with money or ready to help, but to actually do things for the benefit of others – that is another thing entirely.

            Christ lays out for us the difficult task of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned. In other words, doing the work that no one else would like to do. The delicate works of love, often categorized as acts of mercy or charity, are the Church’s true mission in the world. When all else passes away, and our ability to love remains with us in the perfection of paradise, it will be these things that demonstrate whether we were able to truly take on our Christian call in this life.

            Love, the oldest and most powerful of all God’s gifts. This is the foundation on which all of creation rests. Without love, we are nothing. Without love everything is left to chance and the whims of passing time. Love invests meaning into anything it touches, and our ability to act in love is ultimately the greatest sign of our adherence to a Christian life. As the hymn goes, “They Shall Know we are Christians by our… love” In the rush of the modern world, with bombardments of bad news available with just a click of the mouse or a flick of the finger, it can be easy for us to be overwhelmed. The sense of dread that fills us, of problems too big to do anything about, or too distant to worry over. Disaster around us, or disaster that happens to us, either are enough to threaten to force us from love and into despair, to lose our footing on the surety of God’s love for us and our need to love one another.

            Our scripture today is not just a warning to get our life together before judgment. It is a reminder that, in the midst of our suffering, Christ is with us. While the primary message of this parable is in line with those we’ve discussed in previous weeks, namely “Be alert and be ready and be righteous,” it is also the first to show us how Christ continually appears to us. The parable is clear that Christ is somehow present when we help those in need – implicitly this means that God never leaves those who are in distress.

            Much like the beatitudes, we are simultaneously given an imperative and an indicative statement. When Jesus said blessed are those who mourn, the statement stands on its own as a statement that God cares for those who suffer loss. It also inspires those not in mourning to empathize with those who are. The same can be said for the blessings of the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and of all those blessed statuses which Christ lists in Matthew 5.

            When someone is without food, without water, naked, alone, in prison, or any dire straight of life, they are especially beloved of God. Though it is not possible, nor advisable, to make a hierarchy of God’s concern for God’s creation, scripture is clear that those who are suffering are those who God desires to be near more than any others. Joy leads us to celebrate, it leads us to dance and sing, but it also risks us becoming blind to the source of our gifts. In suffering, as dark and dismal as it is, it often becomes clearer to us that the one permanent source of goodness in life is God.

            As anyone of us would attest, simply knowing that God is in control is not assurance enough. We know God loves us, we know God reigns, and we know that after Christ comes again all will be set right. Knowing that and feeling it are different things, especially in the midst of a difficult year where everything is up in the air, when daily the list of worries and fears we have, have seemed to multiply exponentially.

            It is not always in triumph that thanksgiving comes into our heart. The elation we feel after some great success or happenstance in our life, after good news or an addition to our life, that is a real and incredible summit from which to praise God. However, Thanksgiving can also be a quiet thing. When we find ourselves sitting in a chair late at night, unable to stop our mind from wandering and our body from rejecting sleep. When nothing has gone right, and the noise of a world in tumult threatens to overtake us. In the moment, just before our eyes shut, when we find a moment of peace – that can be a profound place to give thanks.

            I often think of the song, “Hallelujah.” The song itself can be taken to mean a great many things, but the lyric that lodges in my mind, and comes to me in the darkest moments of my life, is that which describes love like this, “it’s not a cry you can hear at night, it’s not somebody who has seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Love, both the love we show in loving one another and that we render to God in thanksgiving, can be loud and joyful, but it can also be broken and tired.

            This Thanksgiving let us celebrate not as we feel compelled to by culture – with shouts of acclaim and a blindness to our own pain. Instead, let us come to the altar as we are able. If that means we can shout out the praises of God without reservation, then we should do so. However, if it means that we can only bring ourselves to say the Lord’s prayer quietly as we lay ourselves down to sleep, then so be it. Life is never static, and life with God is the same way.

            God holds us in the palm of God’s hand. Christ is beside us and the Spirit within us. God is on his throne and as we work out how we will gather with family and friends this week, let us allow ourselves to be comforted by that fact. God is near to us and God embraces us. Sometimes, that is enough. Our thanksgiving can simply be accepting the love we are offered and resting in the knowledge that – even when all is not well – something is constant. The love of God is ours forever. – Amen.

Make the Most of your Gifts – Lectionary 11/15/2020

Matthew 25: 14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Sermon Text

            We are all given certain gifts in life. Material, spiritual, or otherwise. Every aspect of our life overlaps in a way that makes it difficult to separate them out from one another. Our beliefs about faith overlap with our beliefs about politics with our beliefs about economics with our beliefs about et cetera and so on and even what-have-you. All these complex networks of belief interface with our God-given abilities and our learned skills, and then are worked out in the resources we have available to us.

            In the same way that we can not separate the sapiential aspects of our life – those invisible qualities of mind and soul – we cannot separate out easily the resources that are available to us. Perhaps we have been given the gift of a good mentor, or of a family with enough money to put us into programs that let us learn more efficiently either job skills or academics. Beyond our developmental years, we have infinite junctions of providence and chance that see us to the place we are in life. Sometimes our innate abilities mesh well with the circumstances we have been handed, sometimes they do not. Think of all the mathematicians who were unable to practice their trade because they lived in subsistence farms. Think of all the amazing craftsmen who were forced to work in a gig economy.

            The interface of our skills – learned or innate – and our resources to work those skills out is where our life occurs. In the liminal spaces where the world within us, encounters the world around us, through the life we live. It is impossible to discuss how we as Christian’s must act, without examining the resources available to us. The Saint with all the fruits of the Spirit, but no material wealth, will have a different role in life than the person with few of them and a great deal of wealth. The life of the Christian does not enjoy a one-size-fits-all job description but must be understood based on all aspects of our life.

            Wealth, whether in the form of paper money, our credit, fiat money, or land holdings all consist of the greatest peril to the Christian life. Jesus spoke a great deal about money throughout his entire ministry on Earth. Mammon, the personification of wealth, was spoken of by Jesus as a false-God that rivaled the God of Israel. More than that, Jesus’ teaching implied that, while it was impossible to truly serve God and Mammon, most people did so. Christianity was a movement that grew primarily among the poor and disenfranchised, finding little purchase with the wealthy – except for those who gave it all away to live in poverty. Jesus was very clear – money in itself was not evil, but it was a sword hanging over the head of any Christian, at any moment threatening to take their eternal life in exchange for a love of material goods.

            The Parable of the Talents is a testament to the need for careful stewardship of wealth. The scenario is drawn in which three slaves are given various amounts of talents. One receives five talents, another two, and finally another receives one. The exact measurement of a talent is unknown, but based on a composite of sources a basic estimate of 33 kgs can be made.[1] Because we are dealing with weight, the talent could be made up of any material but was usually gold or silver. For our purposes, we will assume a talent of silver – a more common currency to use.

            Using this amount, we can come up with several valuations of a talent of silver. For us, in the modern world, 33 kg of silver would be worth $26,929. Not bad at all, most of a year’s wages for a good deal of people. However, in the ancient world, the silver denarius was the base currency of the Roman empire, so it would be better to see how many of those a talent was worth. A talent was worth almost 5,000 denarii, or at least 13.3 years’ worth of salary for the average wage worker. While, again, an interpolation, if we replace one denarius a day with the minimum wage in the US, we will come to $311,000.

            In the ancient world, and to most of us present, to have that much money at one time would be an impossibility. Now imagine that someone else is handed $611,000 and $1,555,000. The extreme amount of money given in each case, to slaves – people with little to no property of their own – was meant to make the eyes of the crowd water. The parable of the talents is not about a small investment being handled by a few servants; it is a massive investment that is to be carefully attended to.

            It seems that the amount of money, being as ridiculously high as it was, was meant to put at a distance the amount of money in the parable while simultaneously bringing the meaning closer. If Jesus had said, and I will use modern money for our example, that one person was given $75,000 the next $50,000 and the next $30,000 then we as the audience would fixate on those dollar amounts. We would say, “Well, I make $40,000 a year, so not much is expected of me.” If we made less than Jesus’ estimate, we would not even think about what responsibilities we had.

            However, by making the amounts of money untenable to most people, Jesus was saying that the amount of money is inconsequential. What we receive in life, whether it be $5 or $300,000 is something we must be responsible with. We cannot waste it, but neither can we let it rot – locked away and gathering dust. The material goods we receive – whether for our wage or as a gift – all rightfully belong to God at the end of things. Not just in tithes or gifts to Churches, but in service to all of humanity, and the denial of our own selfishness.

            We see in this Parable, two slaves who are able to use their money well. Though the Parable imagines a business dealing, our faith demands we see something more grounded to our daily life. The wise slaves give freely to those in need, they invest in programs that help the poor and powerless of the world. They spend their money to benefit those around them, to better themselves for ministry and service through education and training. They live their life with one hand on the pulse of the world around them, knowing exactly what it needs, and the other reaching into their pockets to make sure that that need is met.

            The third slave, they are not so wise. They are afraid of mishandling money, so they store it away. We can imagine they take some out here and there, to pay for expenses or occasional purchases, but they always make sure to replace it as quickly as possible. They sit on a mound of dirt that hides a fortune, and they never let it see the light of day. The precious metals become tarnished and worn, and at the end of his time as steward he has nothing to show but the initial investment that was made.

            We often tie this parable to our modern understanding of, “Talents,” that is the skills we innately have. This is apt, because the word we use today, comes from an interpretation of this parable that comes about in the middle ages.[2] However, if we remove the economic context of this parable, we miss the point of it. Jesus is using money for a reason here, we should think of the parable in economic terms, at least in part. To focus only on God’s immaterial gifts, is to deny the fact we have a financial responsibility as Christians.

            John Wesley wrote a beautiful sermon on how we are to handle wealth as Christians, and it is usually summarized in three bullet points.[3] Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can. The Christian should be industrious, as much as they are safely able. They should be thrifty, enough to ensure they have the means to provide for themselves and their family. However, they must be willing to turn over their wealth to the purposes of God, whenever they present themselves. Despite receiving a salary of something like $150,000 a year, and despite handling much more than that as the head of Methodism in England. John Wesley died with about $20 to his name, if that.[4] He did not die poor, he died having wasted nothing and given much.

            While a separate sermon could be given on action based responses to this parable, we will sit in the monetary considerations today. Not because I want you to tithe more, our churches are pretty faithful about that. Not because of any particular need to guilt anyone about recent purchases or bank statements, I have no idea how anyone here spends their money. However, I lift up this economical reading – that asks that, regardless of income we think of how we use our money, because it is a necessary teaching.

            Jesus told us that we are to live a life divorced from love of wealth. Not only that, but we are told that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. While we think of ourselves as people of little means, we must acknowledge our global wealth. Very few gathered here, though I will not deny it is possible, will find themselves below the top 1% of global wealth. We are rich in terms of the world, and though we live in a society that demands much of us and our pocketbooks, we must remember that we are not people given one talent or even two. To the rest of the world, we look like we have five all together.

            So, think about the weight of the money in your pocket, in your bank account. Be responsible in using it, in saving it, and giving it. However, remember that our love is not for the clinking of coin or the accumulation of wealth, but the salvation of souls and freedom of the oppressed.

[1] John William Humphrey, John Peter Oleson, Andrew Neil Sherwood, Greek and Roman technology, p. 487.

[2] “Talent” in The Online Etymology Dictionary. Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/talent

[3] John Wesley. “The Use of Money.” In John Wesley’s Sermons. (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1991.)

[4] Charles Edward White, “Four Lessons on Money from One of the World’s Richest Preachers” Christian History 19 (1988): 24.

Stay Awake – Lectionary 11/08/2020

Matthew 25: 1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.

The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Sermon Text

            Weddings are a time for celebration. In the ancient world, the bringing together of families meant many things. It meant that heirs would be born, that business could be conducted. It meant that a feast would be held and that the community could eat and that distant relatives could gather to share news. The festivities would have involved the entire village, sometimes an entire tribe. Marriage, then as it is now, was not a small matter.

            No wonder that scripture, especially the New Testament but many of the prophets, used the language of marriage to describe how things were in the world. God was often described as the husband of the faithful. Israel, Judah, the Church – all are variously described as God’s wife. The covenant of marriage, after all, is perhaps one of the closest parallels a person can have to their relationship with God. Marriage, though not a sacrament in the Methodist Church, teaches us as much about God as the Eucharist or Baptism.

            The image that our scripture for today gives us stands out, because whereas most of the marriage imagery in scripture puts God in the position of husband, and the Church in the position of bride, this parable puts forward that God is indeed the groom of a wedding, but that the expectant Church is best described as bridesmaids. A strange shift to be sure! How can the beloved of God, those Covenant partners bound to God throughout eternity, how can they now be relegated to the position of bridesmaids?

            We cannot approach this scripture and assume that Jesus was using the image of a groom in the same way he does elsewhere. To do so would be to miss the exact reason why Jesus is shifting the language away from the Church as bride to the church as Bridesmaid. We must accept that Jesus has changed the terms and discern why such a change might occur.

            The role of bridesmaids in the ancient world differed depending on the culture they inhabited. We all have heard stories of how, in ancient Europe, bridesmaids dressed identically to the bride, ensuring that if anyone tried to kidnap the bride before the wedding, they were less likely to succeed. Some others put forward that the original purpose of these members of the wedding party was to do exactly as their name suggests. That their duty was to be a, “maid,” to the bride and serve her the day of the wedding and beyond.

            Yet, in the first century the role of bridesmaid appeared to be mostly ceremonial. Though we do not have huge amounts of information directing us to the exact role of these women in Jesus’ era we do know that there were several universal features of Jewish weddings in the ancient world. among these were vows made under a canopy, the exchange of rings, singing and dancing, and a procession of light.[1]

            Depending on where a person lived, this procession might take different forms. Sometimes the poor would lead the groom to the ceremony in exchange for money, sometimes a single person carrying a lamp on a pole, but in Judea the custom was for a group of women to carry torches or lamps. These women served as the escort for the husband to the bride and they carried their light proudly. They were unmarried women seemingly representing the life that the bride was leaving behind and bringing with them the catalyst to begin her new life, namely her husband. The procession carried these torches and lamps, and sometimes even danced with them.

            The role that these women served, the light to guide the groom to the bride, was completely ceremonial in many respects. The groom knew where the bride was. Even if it was dark, it would not be unreasonable for him to bring his own lamp or bring someone along to carry one for him. No, the point of the lamp bearers was not to illumine the path of the groom, but to walk alongside him. They were signs of his authenticity, heralds to his coming. They walked alongside, and ahead of the groom, so everyone knew that a feast was about to begin.

            The image we are given in our scripture of attendants waiting for the groom to arrive was evidently common among Jewish weddings of Jesus’ time. The “Bride Price,” a financial display by the husband to demonstrate his seriousness about the marriage he was entering, was haggled over before the wedding took place. The idea was that the longer the discussions went on, the more invested the two parties involved must have been. Because of this, it benefited a man to drag out discussions as long as possible, to show how serious he really was.[2]

            The attendants should not have been blindsided by his tardiness, several of them were prepared for it in fact, bringing oil to light the lamp – not just for the time they would be walking to the feast – but also for the time they would be waiting. Others were not so prepared, they carried only enough oil to walk down the proverbial aisle. When they woke up from their nap, they found that they had burnt it all up waiting for the groom to arrive. They were forced to go off and try and buy more. When they returned, they found that the feast had begun, and they had missed out on their chance to participate. A sad end to a complicated little story, but one that tells us a great deal about our own life in the faith.

            Having looked at the story, let us peel back the images it gives us and do some interpretation. If we know that the groom is Jesus, then we know that we have been waiting for a long time. Two thousand years, the church has anticipated the return of Christ to set the world right. Across the New Testament we see figures like Paul begin to understand the wait they would have to endure – changing from speaking of Christ’s return as an immediate reality to something a little ways off. We as the Church have been waiting and we have fallen asleep from time to time in the process, maybe even let our torches run out of oil.

            By fall asleep, I mean that we have become complacent in our view of the world around us. We become content to sit and not seek out anything challenging or different. We sit and we wait, and doze off, and the world turn around us. However, inevitably something goes wrong. The world shutters to a stop and we are thrown from our cushy place into danger. That sudden change from comfort to discomfort, from normalcy to challenge, that defines our faith.

            To build from our parable, the oil that we keep is our preparedness for God to arrive in our life. Jesus does not condemn the women for sleeping, because even those who enter into the feast fell asleep. Jesus does condemn them for not being prepared for the groom’s arrival. When God shows up in our life, we have to be ready. This is not just an eschatological vision for the end of time, but a present concern. When someone knocks on our door who needs food or gas money, Christ has shown up. When our loved one is hurting or sick, Christ has shown up. Anytime a need is made known to us, Christ has arrived. Even if that need is within our own heart, even if it takes the form of our own pain.

            When we are jolted awake in those moments, we need to be ready to do something about the situation we find ourselves in. We must have developed skills through our time of peace to let us face the hardship before us. Sometimes those skills are practical, the ability to discern how and when and where to give or how to get resources that we need. Other times it is interpersonal, how to listen and encourage and build up. Still other times it is a spiritual skill, to pray, to hope, to intercede, even just to have faith.

            We are not always at the top of our game. That is just a reality of life, but even a person who has fallen asleep can run from a fire when they hear the alarm. In our life, moments will spring upon us where we must act, and when they do, it is good to be prepared for them. We must anticipate the times in our life when we are lost or hurting, or meet someone who is, and we need to know how to act in that moment.

            Many criticize the maids who did have oil for refusing to share with those who did not have any. If this was not a parable, I would be inclined to agree. However, you cannot share preparedness, not the sort that comes from within us. We can share material goods, money, even time – but we cannot share a mindset. We cannot care on behalf of other people. We cannot be people who think that something could never happen, we must be people who earnestly prepare ourselves to meet God wherever God appears.

            Perhaps though, something could have been done to let the ill prepared women join in the feast as well.a If they had not lit their lamps quite so soon, knowing that they were tired and had some time to wait. If they had sat by their fellow maidens, and simply let their light shine on them for a moment, would the story have been different? When we find ourselves unprepared for a sudden rush of trouble, or the appearance of someone in need, we cannot loan one another an ounce of precaution. But I wonder, if we know we are not yet prepared, if we are still growing into our responsibilities as people of the faith, could we at least share the light?

            Perhaps, even as we talk about our inability to share preparedness, we can talk about our need to look out for one another. To see when our friend does not have enough within them in a moment to do all that they would like to or need to. Perhaps we can shelter them, even just a little bit. And perhaps, those of us who are in need, who are sitting in the dark because we just don’t have it all together, maybe we could let them help us.

 Because, if the maids, all gathered there, had stayed awake, then they might have seen they did not have enough fuel. If they were aware of themselves and one another, maybe they could have shared the lamplight until the groom came, and the procession began. Sometimes we may doze off as members of the Church, but perhaps we should stay more alert, we should stay awake. If we really care for one another, if we really want to see us all make it to the wedding feast at the end of history, then we have to look out for one another. Because sometimes Christ appears as the beggar at the door or in the sick person in a bed, but I believe sometimes Christ appears to us in a tired believer, just looking for a light to see them through the night.

Stay awake, dear siblings, share the light of God with one another, and gird yourself so that you never find yourself unprepared when Christ arrives unexpectedly. – Amen.

[1] Cyrus Adler & M. Grunwald. “Marriage Ceremonies,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia Available at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10434-marriage-ceremonies

[2] Ben Witherington III. “The Final Discourse – Apocalypse Then.” In Matthew (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys. 2006) 459

Hold onto Hope – Lectionary 11/01/2020

The Epistle Lesson                                                                                 1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

The New Testament Lesson                                            Revelation 7: 9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Sermon Text

We live our life in the shadow. The light of the sun, the light of our humming electricity, all of this is just a twinkle. We look out on a world that is only a semblance of what it could be. Even the most bright and beautiful flower appears to us like a reflection in polished brass. A pall hangs over the creation, a diminution of the potential which it holds. We live our lives, full of joy and sorrow and all manner of emotions with only an inkling of what we truly could experience.

Creation, the good gift of God created long ago, suffers under the burden of its own brokenness. Death, pain, suffering, all manner of hardships – these are all symptomatic of something gone wrong. We are given in scripture, in its opening and closing chapters, as well as in parable and prophecy throughout both testaments, a dream of something else. A world where pain does not exist, where death is an impossibility, where God and humanity are not separated from one another, but live side-by-side in harmony with one another.

Any attempt to imagine such a world usually falls short. Even in our understanding of Heaven as expressed in scripture, we are forced to use finite terms to discuss something infinitely more complex than earth could ever allow for. We see precious metals and stones, we see gates and roads and walls, we conceive of the kingdom of God that will be in terms of palatial estates and material wealth. We conceive in grand terms, what can also simply be described as a garden, watered by God, and cared for by its inhabitants. A place of peace, of security, and which enjoys love in its unadulterated and freely given immensity.

All Saints Day is the day where we look around us and try and pierce the veil that hangs over us. Every Sunday is a little Easter, a moment when we remember the resurrection and find ourselves transformed. Every time we take of Communion we participate in the feast of the Lamb at the end of history, and in the Passion of the Christ long ago. Yet, today, All Saints Day, we look upward and ask God to show us a greater glimpse of what is to come.

We who are gathered here, we who live in the chaos of a broken world. We know that we are not yet in Heaven. There is no doubt, even in our brightest moments, that there is something greater that awaits us than this present existence. A rejuvenation of the world which has been drained again and again of its vitality. The moment when what is and what could be are no longer separated. When Heaven and Earth are united forever and ever, and the moment when God is no longer an invisible presence, but the light that illumines all things.

We are not alone in awaiting this reunion. All those who we have loved, and those we never had a chance to love. All those who have gone on to meet Christ ahead of us, they too live in anticipation of the day when all is settled, the day when peace returns to the universe for the first time. All our friends, all our family, even a great deal of our enemies – all who have cast themselves on the love of God – they wait for the day when the divide between the worlds drops away and all is as it should be.

The book of Revelation, esoteric and historically bound as it sometimes is, gives us several visions of what the World to Come is like. The blessed communion of the Saints, those who live with God presently, is envisioned as a great assembly clad in white. They are people from all nations, all tribes, men and women who have faced the hardships of life and come out the other side into God’s presence. They make up the bulk of the company of heaven, those who lived life, those who died, those who have been redeemed by the love of God and await the resurrection that is to come. They sing, they praise God, and they continue to love one another, to love we who are left behind, they continue to live and thrive beyond our sight.

Gathering together to worship, wherever it happens and however it happens, unites us with those who presently do so before the throne of God. When we pray for one another, we do so with the full company of the redeemed. When we praise God, we do so with choirs of believers both living and dead, and all the hosts of Heaven beside them. The love which we have for one another, the community which has begun here on Earth, can never be broken off – not even by the vicious hands of death.

Yet, we are here, and we mourn. Our recollection of our loved ones – the empty places they once inhabited – we cannot see them and pretend that we are not heartbroken to have them away from us. We, limited creatures that we are, depend on our senses to discern the world around us. Without seeing the face of our loved ones, without feeling their touch, without the sound of their voice, we are less than what we once were. John Donne, reflecting on the ringing of a church bell for a funeral, said it this way, “Each [person]’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in [hu]mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

We live in a world caught between two realities. What could be and what is. We have no means of really discerning what Heaven on Earth could look like. Our only way of seeing it is in the moments when we draw near to God, and when God draws near to us. In the deepest moments of our private prayers. In the taking of the bread and the cup. In the sad tones of our absent love one’s favorite song. In those moments, something can break through and reach out to us. We experience God, as close as out next breath, closer even than the space between one atom and another with our flesh.

The Incarnation was God’s grand gesture of outreach to us. In it humanity and Godhood could never be separated from one another. The Eternal Word of God, uniquely begotten of the Father, conceived of flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit. Heaven and Earth, together, inseparable. A foretaste of what we all might one day see played out across all of Creation. We take up bread and cup, we drink deep of the grace of God which is offered to us in this miraculous visitation. We celebrate a God who has bent Heaven itself down to bring us aid.

As we prepare ourselves to take of this blessing from God. As we lift our worries to our Redeemer and Sustainer. We should also begin to think in our hearts of those who have gone from us. Those who we know see Christ, not through obstructed as we currently do, but face to face – panim el panim. Those who loved us and who we loved, who now know the embrace of a God who keeps them from all pain and has wiped the tears from their eyes. Those who enjoy a world of bliss and peace with their Creator.

Remember them today, and let their memory inspire us to live our lives fully now. With the knowledge that they stand before God today we can draw strength that we too will someday do the same. All that we shared with them, the good times and the bad, are shining and redeemed as we can only begin to imagine now. The fragile flame of their legacy, it is in our hands now, it burns furtively in our hearts. Keep the flame lit, let us continue to make our love ones who have gone to Glory proud through our conduct, through our love of one another, our love for them.

And in the darkest moments when the shadows we inhabit seem to overtake us. When we do not seek out the light, because even it seems to mock our pain. When we lock ourselves behind the doors of our guilt, of our sorrow, of our pain. Let us hold out our hand and take a risk. Let us Hold onto Hope – the most elusive of gifts. Hope that trusts that God will reveal what we are to be. Hope that we will be reunited one day with the full company of Heaven. Hope that the long night will end, and that when the dawn comes, we will find ourselves in good company. And let our hope inspire us to pray continually for Christ to deliver us from our present condition. “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” – Amen.