Sunday, November 9, 2014

Unprepared

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27), November 9, 2014

Every year in the weeks leading up to the season of Advent, things seem to be ending and falling apart. Running through all of our readings today is a sense of urgency coupled with a strong wish to reassure. We hear Paul's words to the Thessalonians, who have formed a joyful Christian community. One assumption of the early church was that since Jesus had risen from the dead, the end of the world must be near. I imagine the people were so overwhelmed by this unprecedented divine action that they felt there must not be much history left.

Paul counsels the Thessalonians not to worry about the end of the world, but just to continue to live joyously and generously with everyone. And it’s just as well, because Paul and all the other evangelists were mistaken: two thousand years later, the universe continues to unfold. Yes, to each one of us does, indeed, come an end. But Paul reassures his hearers with a compelling vision of the dead being reunited with the living. In the past 200 years many Christians have tried to conflate Paul’s vision and other Bible passages into a blow-by-blow account of what will happen when the world ends … completely missing Paul’s point, in my opinion, which was not to worry about such things.

image from gardenoffrancis.com
And then in Matthew's gospel, Jesus, in the final days of his life, is also trying to get across an urgent message: "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." What were the earliest Christians waiting for? And considering all our science and everything we have learned since then, are we still waiting for the same thing in 2014? It's a fair question. But we know we can ask, right along with the Thessalonians, "If Christ is risen and has destroyed death, why are people still dying?"

Like the disciples, and like the Thessalonians, we also live in the in-between. We live in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is at hand but is not fully realized in our timeline. We wait for "the coming of the Lord," the Greek word for which is parousia. It's the same word that would have been used to describe the ceremonial arrival of a king, or as in today's parable, the ceremonial arrival of a bridegroom. We hear of ten bridesmaids who have been invited to this wedding banquet. But it's a very strange story.

A little bit of cultural background is helpful. Assumed is the tradition that the bridesmaids are waiting at the home of the bride's family, but the party will be held at the home of the groom. Momentarily--or so they believe--the groom will arrive to pick up the wedding party, who will escort the happy newlyweds, by lamplight, to the groom's house and to a grand banquet. But the groom still hasn't shown up -- where on earth is he? In the bridegroom’s late arrival, we catch the anxiety of the early Christians of Matthew's community waiting for Jesus to come back and set the world right. Ever since, we in the church have been the bridesmaids; can we really be blamed for dozing off after 2000 years? And then we have to figure out what to make of the distinction between “wise” and “foolish” bridesmaids.

Five of these girls have brought oil for their lamps. They are prepared for a long wait: Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon describes them as dragging along giant Clorox bottles full of lamp oil; he also imagines them to be a gaggle of giggly fourteen-year-olds. Now, in what world do five out of ten teenagers plan ahead so painstakingly? Yet these over-prepared bridesmaids are vindicated as the wise ones in this parable. Meanwhile, the other five girls have brought whatever oil is currently in their lamps, but no extra. They have the minimum ... if that.

All the bridesmaids start in the same boat: adolescent girls on their way to a party, excited to be seen in their pretty dresses, chatting gaily away as the night wears on, and finally sacking out as if this has become a slumber party. Are they concerned about when the bridegroom will arrive? Maybe, or maybe they're just enjoying each other's company. But when the foolish girls realize they will not have enough oil for the procession itself--the whole reason they're in the wedding party to begin with -- the wise girls refuse to share their own oil, for there might not be enough, and at least some of the girls need to process, right? So they send their friends away to buy more. Will the girls find, somewhere in ancient Judea, a 24-hour convenience store ready to sell lamp oil at midnight? We never find out. But either way, the "foolish" bridesmaids miss the procession completely. And when they finally make it to the groom's house and ask to be let in, they hear the chilling words, "I do not know you.”

None of the girls is punished for falling asleep; they have all fallen asleep. And nobody is punished for not having enough oil, at least not directly. But it's like going on a business trip without the laptop that contains your presentation, and then missing your plane in order to retrieve it. It's like realizing you don't have bus fare, and then leaving to get change just before the bus arrives. If you're not there when the bus comes, nothing else matters. If you miss your plane, you don't get to do any presentation, no matter how ill-prepared.

Time waits for no girl. But what were they doing earlier in the day? Getting dressed up. Getting their hair and nails done. Sure, all of them wanted to look really fetching. But five of the girls stopped and realized, "I have a job to do at this party. I am one of those who are escorting the bride and groom to their home. If I don't have enough oil for my lamp, there's no point in my being there." Perhaps the other five girls merely thought, "I can't wait to be seen at this party! Maybe that one boy will be there--ooh, I hope so! He's so cute!"

Theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann pointed out that eschatology--the theology of the end--is not so much about endings, but beginnings. Even so, to each one of us does, indeed, come an end. The hour of the party will arrive, but in this moment, right now, we have time to decide whether and how to get ready. Life is a series of closing doors. But the closing of doors is what gives shape to the lives we live. No matter how many things we wind up not doing, we are privileged to get to do so much! Life is, to some degree, about preparing for death without feeling defeated by it--about preparing our lamps for the inevitable moment when we must step out into the darkness in the hope of processing to a big party.

So maybe the oil has something to do with how we choose to spend our time while we wait for Christ's return, whatever that return might mean. Our call from Christ is to love--to love freely and without reservation. Are we practicing? Are we developing the disciplines of patience and forbearance and mercy and forgiveness that mature love cannot flourish without? To be sure, it's not our works that save us, and indeed, we have all received our invitations to the wedding banquet. The host wants us all there--every one of us! But when we get there, will we find that we're able to perform the functions we're asked to perform?

Worse still, if the bridegroom arrives and finds us unprepared, will we face him and admit to our failure? Or will we forget how loving and insistent that original invitation was? Will we scramble at the last second to make ourselves worthy for the banquet all on our own, and only after yet another round of pigheaded insistence on self-reliance come crawling back and beg to be let in? In so doing, we would demonstrate that we haven’t learned a thing about love or forgiveness, because we don’t even recognize our own need for it. Indeed, the host may not recognize us at all.

And so the question I want to ask today is this: What would have happened if the five unprepared girls had not left to buy more oil? Maybe, just maybe, if they had been willing to admit embarrassed defeat, the best man would have said to one of the groomsmen, "Hey, get these girls some oil. They can't process like this!" It may even be that the one wise thing those five wise bridesmaids actually did was to be there when the procession left. Maybe when it came time to go out into the darkness, they would have been shocked to discover just how much light had been provided for them. I don't know. It's a parable, not an allegory -- so we get to play with it a bit!

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
(image from www.stjamesjackson.dioms.org)
I heard a story once about a little boy whose mother committed suicide. The family’s congregation wondered how best to minister to the boy. In Sunday school the week after her death they happened to tell this very story, using Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a curriculum similar to our own Godly Play. Later the boy was working with the storytelling materials, which included a house ready for a banquet, five little figures with lit lamps, and five with unlit lamps. He processed the five with lit lamps into the house and positioned them at the windows, looking out. The door shut. Then he took one of girls with an unlit lamp and had her peek into each and every window, one at a time. Finally, the door opened, and the unprepared girl entered the party. The boy explained to his teacher, “She didn’t have a light. But they let her in anyway.”

It may be that there are those who, like the five wise bridesmaids, are perfectly prepared for Christ's return. I pray that I may count myself among them. But if not, I pray that at least I won't run away and hide. Our trust in our creator, redeemer, and sustainer must be such that we can be there to hear the words: "There you are! I created you, but you squandered your existence. I redeemed you, yet even in that knowledge you acted selfishly. I sustained you, but you were still unprepared. Nevertheless, you are here now, and I know and love you. Please, please ... come in and join the eternal party. It won't be the same without you." Amen.

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