November 12, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Last week, as we all were here celebrating All Saints, and commemorating those who have gone on before, there was another church in Texas bowing their heads in prayer… and then they were dead. It is mind boggling to hear the words of journalists calling it “the BIGGEST church shooting.” The biggest? My God was has become of us that we can have enough school or church shootings to say if one of them was the biggest. It is all deeply troubling, in an already disheartening time in our nation’s history. It can wear us out. In fact, the past year has been an endless series of events that call us to prophetic action, to prayer, to discernment, all amidst the whirlwind of emotions we feel with every single news cycle. It is exhausting.
What are we to do?
In our scriptures this morning, the prophet Amos is telling us that we are to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” and Jesus is imploring all of us to “keep awake.” That sounds great, but the context of each these exhortations is mind boggling. In the first, Amos seems to be saying that the things we do in church are meaningless – our rituals, traditions, music… none of it is good. Jesus is also confusing, as it is that weird story about bridesmaids waiting for the groom. Some bring extra oil, some do not. The groom is delayed, the oil gets low, and those that have don’t share – not nice. Those that didn’t bring extra try to go get some, and while they are away, the groom finally gets his behind to the feast. The door to the wedding banquet is closed, and when the others come back with their newly purchased oil, they are left in the dark.
What on earth is going on here?
Let’s look first at the gospel, because for centuries, some use have used it as an excuse to judge others. Imagine that – Christians who judge. They took the text to mean some are good and prepared, others are not – and that in the end times, when Jesus returns, some will be rejected. But that is, as Jesus would say, “teaching human precepts as doctrine.” The author of Matthew may have felt that way, but the Jesus we all know would never reject anyone. Jesus was one to break down doors, not shut them, and would have put his foot in the door to prevent anyone from being rejected from his love and grace. And another thing – what about those who had extra, but would not share it. That directly contradicts all that Jesus taught.
No, this is a gospel passage meant to counter something going on in the time in which it was written. It may have been divinely inspired, but humanly errant. I was facilitating a discussion at another church recently about the bible, and the process of exegesis – studying the bible in a scholarly way. I was asked “but, isn’t the bible divinely inspired?” I answered “yes, but human hands did the writing, and humans are deeply flawed. We don’t always listen well to God. That is why God gave us reason, and why our Anglican tradition is based on the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and…reason. We must discern our texts, knowing the context, and listen for what the Spirit is teaching us within it. That requires paying attention, doing the work of biblical scholarship, and taking that out into the world.
The reality is that the authors of our biblical texts had very human motivations – some political, some religious, some socio-economic. So, does that mean there is no good news in this passage? Of course not. Here is where I think the authors erred… in the idea that the bridesmaids would be locked out of God’s grace. This week, riskiness is rebuked, but why then next week is it rewarded when we hear about the talents? No. That’s a literal reading of complex texts written in a first century context. At that time, when this gospel was being written, the earliest followers of Jesus, including St. Paul and the author of the gospel, were being persecuted or excluded. It would be natural to feel that someday, those who are harming you will “get theirs.” It was their hope too that if they could just hold on, Jesus would return and save them. Then, some of them started dying before that happened – where was this Jesus – why hadn’t he come? What will happen to those who died already. You can see that axiety in the epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians we heard this morning.
This is eschatology – a belief about some future end times – in which Jesus returns to judge everyone. It was first century thinking that implies something that is contradictory to what we proclaim as the root of our faith. Every week we proclaim that Christ IS, and was, and will be again. This type of thinking focuses solely on the “will be again” and forgets about the One who IS! Our very Eucharist is a proclamation that in this bread and wine, Christ becomes present with us. The groom, which is Christ, has already arrived, the question is – where is he?
Where is he?
Gospel messages elicit questions in our hearts – and one problem in today’s text is – where is that groom? And, another is – what about the bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra oil? If not bringing oil was the big issue being called out here, why didn’t Jesus say that? Why were his words not like the scout motto “Be prepared!” Instead, Jesus says “keep awake.” Well, who slept? All of them! The ones with extra oil, and the ones without it. All of them fell asleep. Who else fell asleep on Jesus? The disciples in the garden. And yet, Jesus still returned for them, right? So, what is up with this story, and why do we care? See – gospel messages evoke questions. Questions we are being asked to think about.
And when we consider them, we would be good to pay attention to the “keep awake” because it holds the key, and brings us back to our first question – where the heck was this late groom anyway? The bridegroom was delayed, the bridesmaids fell asleep, Jesus says keep awake. Perhaps the issue is that they stayed in the house, rather than meeting the groom. Had they all done that, the oil wouldn’t matter, right?
If Christ is the groom, then what we know about Jesus is that he was out in the communities in which he traveled – healing, teaching, engaging with those others have rejected. That kind of work is messy, it doesn’t always go as planned, and it can sometimes make us late (ask any pastor’s spouse). Those who follow Christ, the bridesmaids, are meant to join God in the work She is already up to in the world, rather than waiting in the church for those in need of hope, of healing, of love to wander in the doors. In fact, this has been the message of our bishop in the diocese for the past several years – with programs and our convention centered around “Joining God in our neighborhoods.”
If Jesus is the groom, we are the bridesmaids, and we are meant to go out to where Jesus is. Christ is alive and at work in the world. The Holy Spirit is all about calling us into God’s work. Perhaps had all those waiting gone out to meet the one expected, rather than just staying comfortably in the house, their oil wouldn’t have run out in the first place. So, another question is – what on earth were those bridesmaids waiting for?
And, what are we waiting for?
Because if there was ever a time we were meant to pick up our proverbial lamps and head out into the darkness of the world, it is now! There are natural (some would argue of our own making) disasters affecting thousands, mass shootings, oppression and poverty, and sadly, people speaking the most horrific things in the name of Christ. I mean, just look at what is being said today about a certain politician, Alabama’s Roy Moore – currently running for a seat in our United States Senate. He is accused of touching a 14 year old girl, and dating other teens, when he was in his thirties – this is pedophilia! And yet, he is being defended by – I kid you not – statements that should horrify any Christian. Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler said, “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus…There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here, maybe just a little bit unusual.” WHAT???? I hope in our congregation we know that 1. Joseph was not Jesus’ biological dad. 2. The “old” Joseph description is a second century creation – we don’t know their ages, and likely both were very young. 3. WHAT???? We as Christians should never, NEVER, use our faith to justify any abuse of any part of God’s creation, especially to justify the crime of child molestation. Good Lord, deliver us from this biblical illiteracy and out right blasphemy. To make it even crazier, Moore’s brother compared him to the crucified Christ. In the words of a professor friend of mine, “If he gets elected, someone will argue he’s been resurrected.”
So again…what are we waiting for?
We must be the prophetic voices countering such ridiculous proclamations of who Jesus is, and what we are all about. This is not a time to be asleep at the wheel folks. This is the time we are to rise up and go out to meet the Christ that is out in the world, rather than shutting our doors and hoarding our oil.
And here’s the kicker about that oil. Oil is what feeds the flame so that light is brought forth. It is a beautiful metaphor for our own faith, which burns brightly when we are engaged in the gospel mission to love and to serve – to do as the prophet Amos implored – to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” We are called to impel that water forward – to tear down the dams of injustice and oppression that seek to bind it from flowing freely. And when we do this, when we meet Christ in the world, our oil seems to burn brighter than ever thought possible – the oil seems to be supercharged in our hearts. But, eventually, it will run dry.
With all the horrors of the world we suffer sometimes from compassion fatigue – we are worn out – our oil running low. Add that to our insanely busy schedules, and we will be really tempted to just throw the covers over our heads and go back to sleep on Sunday mornings. There’s an old story about two seminary students who decided to go door-to-door sharing their faith. At one house they walked through a gauntlet of screaming children and barking dogs. A tired mother opened the door. “We would like to tell you how to obtain eternal life,” they said. She hesitated, then looked around for a moment before she replied, “Thank you, but no thanks. I don’t believe that I could stand it!”
We have all been there, wanting to just lay down and sleep. And that is okay. Eventually, even Jesus needed and sought rest from his labors, and we too will need this. We need the occasional rest, but not for long. We need to not hit the snooze bar, but remember Jesus’ words to “keep awake”. When our oil runs low, the thing to do is NOT sit safely in our homes taking a snooze, at least not for long, because that type of rest is only a partial solution, and will not fully replenish your proverbial oil. The place to get your oil fully refilled is here – we will always have enough, and we will always share it with one another. Here – when we gather to hear the Word and partake of the Word made flesh, you will be strengthened. The church – your parish family – can sometimes be like the gym. We will find any excuse not to go, drag ourselves to it sometimes, but once we are there, we think – dang, I am so glad I came (or, at least I hope you feel that way when you come here, because if you don’t I will help you find a place where you will). In other words, we know how good it can make us feel, but sometimes it’s a struggle to break through our own fatigue to do what will be best for us.
But, you might rightly ask – didn’t the prophet Amos say all that we do here in church isn’t what God wants? No, not really. What he was saying is that if that is ALL you do – come here and sing hymns, present an offering, and go home – it is all an empty gesture. Amos was clear – relationship with God cannot be in the absence of relationship with those who are suffering, those who are weak, those who are pushed aside, those who hunger and thirst. If we are not in relationship with them, the relationship we claim with God is shallow. Because as I say so often – church is not the destination, it is where we are given strength for the journey. So, we need to be with Christ here – and out in the world. You can’t have one without the other.
So again, what are WE waiting for?
God is at work all around us, in our neighborhoods and around the world. If we are to have any hope of our faith having the kind of meaning the prophet implores us to have, then we must live it out in the world, returning here to have our oil replenished. Our faith cannot just be about going to church, nor can it just be about mission and ministry – both are needed – both are who we are, and what we are called to do. You don’t have to be a person of faith to do good in the world, but if you are a person of faith – you MUST do that work. The difference for us is, when we suffer from compassion fatigue, when the dams blocking the waters of justice seem to spring up faster than we can knock them down, when our own lives become difficult for us to live day to day – we can come here – to be nourished, to be fed, to be loved.
Today we begin the second year of our embracing the original longer Advent. Advent is the beginning of the church year – and it is a time when we acknowledge the darkness of our world, and the light of hope to be born once more in our hearts. It is a time of preparation, anticipation, and promise. There is waiting, discerning, and expectation too, but like shepherds and wise men, we will go out to meet Jesus where he is when it is time.
And, it is always time.
It is always time to go out from here, because the real truth is that the One we await is already here, here in our own hearts, and out in the world. Advent isn’t so much about anticipating Jesus being born, as being re-born – in our hearts, and to give ourselves a chance to be prepared for what that really means – to keep awake for the opportunity to meet Christ…and to BE Christ – whenever and wherever that may be.
Today, as we do each Sunday in Stewardship Season, you will be given a gift blessed at the altar. This week it is a keychain light, powered by a battery. May this be a reminder of the light of Christ that shines in you in a world of darkness, and that batteries for lights need recharging from time to time or the light will dim or die. It is here, in this parish we call Christ Church, where you are renewed – where your battery is recharged – where you oil is refilled. Let it also remind you that one little light is good, but many lights together is even better. Sure, you can be the light of Christ on your own, but even Jesus knew community was important. And it is from here that you join with others – the lights coming together – the united body of Christ – bringing the gospel message of God’s all inclusive love to the world – knocking down the dams of exclusion and letting the waters of justice flow freely to all.
We are the body of Christ, the one the world waits in hope for, the one we await, the one we know is also already here – and out in the world. Let us keep awake and go out into the darkness of the world, and let our lamps shine brightly, that we may “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” for the world is thirsty for waters such as these, and hungry for the light of God’s love.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 Dr. Deirdre Good via Facebook.