November 8, 2020

Pentecost 22A   

Post-Election Sermon / The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

Let us pray.

Gracious and loving Father, we give you thanks for freeing the world and this nation from the clutches of a deceiving heart and lying lips.  We ask that you fill those we have chosen to lead us with a spirit of righteousness and the wisdom to know that that is not our time to return to Camelot, but to continue the work of undoing the structures of oppression under which too many have too long suffered.  Let us not bargain with the devil nor compromise with evil, but rather, give us the strength and the courage to join you in the ongoing work of establishing justice for the poor.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God everlasting.   Amen.

The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “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.”    Matthew 25:1-13

SERMON

Most of us value being prepared. And so, we spend many hours of our lives getting ready for one thing or another.  And in the business of getting ready and being prepared, it certainly helps to have some sense of the time constraints in which we are operating.  It is one thing to prepare for something that will happen next month.  It is quite another thing to ready for something that will happen, only God knows when.

In this morning’s gospel Jesus tells a parable about being prepared and ready, and specifically being prepared and ready, for the kingdom’s coming in all its fullness with Christ’s return in glory at the end of the ages, or in the metaphor of the parable itself, the Bridegroom’s arrival for the celebration of the wedding feast. “When”, in the words of Saint Paul, “Christ will be all in all.”  

But how do we prepare for something such as this?  Preparation time does not seem to be an issue, but can there ever be enough time for us be completely ready for the Christ who comes as our lover and as the one before whom we will all stand to make an accounting of our lives?  As I enter more deeply into the autumn of my own years, the moment becomes all the more real with each passing day.

This year of liturgical prayer has nearly run its course.  In a few weeks we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King.  In our liturgical tradition, the scriptures for these last few Sundays of the year, draw our attention to the end of things as we know them and the return of Christ at the end of time. It is part three of the mystery of faith that we proclaim at the center of each celebration of the Holy Eucharist when we sing: “Your coming in glory we await.  Amen.  Amen.” 

Admittedly, the final coming of Christ will always remain something that is quite remote from the business of our day-to-day lives.  With the exception of those end of times preachers and their limited audiences who have made the Second Coming the heart of the faith experience, most Christians do not dwell on the return of Christ at the end of the ages except as source of hope and a light at the end of a tunnel of seemingly endless struggle. 

Yet, the final coming of Christ nevertheless remains something for which we may properly live our lives in preparation.    And the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids speaks to the importance of being ready.  This preparedness or readiness remains a key component of the life of the Spirit and the mystery of the Christ within us who ever moves us to pray and take action for the coming of the Kingdom is its fullness within our hearts and within our world.   “Come, Lord Jesus”, is always our ardent prayer.

The earliest believers expected that the Lord would return before the death of the last apostle.  They lived with a heightened sense of expectation and made significant life choices on the basis of the Lord’s immanent return.  For example, any number remained unmarried and childless in anticipation of a final consummation that would happen within their lifetime.   To a persecuted community, a belief that the Lord would return sooner rather than later provided some measure of relief from the ongoing experience of being oppressed, imprisoned, tortured and put to death for their faith.  The day of glory served as a light at the end of the tunnel.

But the last apostle died.  The persecution continued for three hundred years and Jesus remained a no show.  Believers made the requisite theological adjustments, altered their expectations and began to better appreciate the words of Jesus about no one knowing when the end would be.  In the Christian mind the Second Coming morphed into a surrealistic happening, in an amorphous future time, with all its apocalyptic bells and whistles.   

Certainly, the Lord will come again.  The Kingdom of God will, at some point, overwhelm the landscape and be fully revealed.  But the focus of the believer needed to shift from a preoccupation with some unknown and unspecified final day, to an appreciation of the Kingdom’s coming as something that is ever emerging, and that invites and even requires our involvement.   Our Jewish sisters and brothers speak about that involvement as the work of Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world” through Tzedakah or our efforts to build trusting relationships that include contributions of time, talent, treasure and insight.

The Kingdom is something that engages us here and now in the Spirit’s call to justice, charity, reconciliation, peace and faithfulness.  The believer is to be about the task of bringing forth the kingdom and not simply living in hopeful anticipation of some future event that would happen with or without our involvement.  Believers are to be engaged in kingdom-birthing work and the end will take care of itself.  And Kingdom-birthing work must always go on amidst the travails, suffering and anguish of the present hour.   

Yes, we must birth the kingdom even as powerful men sexually victimize women with impunity.   Yes, we must birth the kingdom even as children continue to be separated from their parents and millions of economic refugees are expelled from the sanctuary that international law requires us to provide.  Yes, we must birth the kingdom even as the privileged rich continue to relieve themselves of their responsibility to justly participate in a shared provision for the common good.  Yes, we must birth the kingdom as white supremacy continues to limit life’s possibilities for people of color, to the point of casually and callously snuffing out their lives.   Yes, we must birth the kingdom as Christian fascism commands so much of the political landscape.  Yes, we must birth the kingdom even as we degrade and destroy the environment.  Yes, we must birth the kingdom as we wake up to the truth that we are not as noble and good as a people that we have imagined ourselves to be.  

As we unpack the parable, the centerpiece in being prepared and ready is the oil.  Do we have enough oil to stay the course and greet the Bridegroom when He comes?   

In the biblical tradition to say “oil” is to say “Spirit”.  Oil in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the oil that is lavishly poured out in those gestures of anointing that speak to the gift of the Spirit and our call to service. 

It is the oil that was used in ancient Israel to anoint priests, prophets and kings for service.  It is the oil that is used in Holy Baptism that makes us priests, prophets and kings for service.   It is the oil that is used in Confirmation as a sign of strengthening with the Spirit for service.  It is the oil used in the ordination of priests to mark a change in men and women that sets them apart for a service of leadership and a leadership of service.  It is the oil used to anoint the sick that they may know that they serve even as they suffer.  It is the oil used during the administration of Last Rites that signals our journeying to and through death as itself an act of service.  Is it not true that how we die serves as a powerful witness to those we leave behind?  

The oil of the Spirit is readily available, abundant and ever a gift.  May we keep our lamps full of the Spirit and engaged in humble and joyful service for the advance of the Kingdom, and so to be ever ready to meet the Lord when He comes. 

As we acknowledge and face the deep divisions that hold our society in a stranglehold, many see the task ahead as one of restoring unity.  But the hard truth is that such unity has never really existed.  In fact, the rhetoric distracts from the truth that we cannot restore what never was. Such would be a fool’s errand.  

But we can do the more difficult work of awakening consciousness, and inviting the repentance, conversion and transformation of hearts that alone can take us to a new tomorrow and a kingdom experience.  This begins by listening to the pain of those who have been victimized by the same agents to whom they have slavishly entrusted themselves, and whose scapegoating strategies they have bought hook, line and sinker. These twice victimized are not the architects of the evil structures and drivers of the evil actions that define so much of our common life.   

But we must deal differently with the architects and the drivers. If this does not happen, then the most brutal realities of our chosen way of life will most certainly define our future.  These miscreants are not to be listened to.  Theirs is not another acceptable opinion or way of thinking that can be embraced with some massaging.  It has revealed itself to be as evil as it can get – George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, caged children, 22,000 lies and complicity in this deceit by too many who hold public office.   We are not tasked by the spirit to compromise or reconcile ourselves with evil, but rather to contend with it with every fiber of our being and to make no peace with oppression.  

Here our model and mentor must be Jesus. What did Jesus Himself do when came face to face with evil, either in the account of the temptations or in those many moments in His ministry when He encountered evil that had taken up residence in individuals or groups and especially when it found its home in groups of supposedly religious people?

Jesus called it out by name.  He commanded it to be gone.  By the power the Spirit He drove it out in one exorcism after another.  He didn’t dialogue with Satan and He didn’t suffer fools. In one memorable story He ordered a legion of demons to leave a man, enter a herd of swine and caste themselves off a cliff into the sea.  

At least half this nation lives possessed with the demons of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and fascism. And a greater majority of this nation is owned by a spirit of greed that is willing to advance an economic system that necessarily consigns millions to abject poverty for the sake of ever more enriching those who have always had too much.  As if we have yet to hear or take seriously God’s clarion call to care for the orphan and the widow, the homeless, the hungry and the stranger who lives among us.  Jeff Bezos made 20 billion dollars since the start of this year.  He was able to add this to the 198 billion dollars he had already banked. Amazon paid no taxes.  And the worker bees who staff his warehouses are still being paid less than a real living wage.   He is not alone in this, but he can certainly serve as an icon of the cancerous greed in which our economic system is grounded. 

The One who is coming is indeed the Divine Bridegroom who comes to ravage us with his love and to draw us into a passionate embrace that at once takes our breath away and fills us with life giving Spirit.  But the one whose coming we await is also the One who will separate the sheep from the goats and will shut the door to the wedding banquet to those who lived as strangers to the oil of service.

The approach of the Divine Lover and the Bridegroom is not something that is only intended to take place at the time of the second coming of Christ and consummation of all things.  Those who choose to live in the spirit, who spend their lives drenched and dripping with the oil of service toward the birthing of the kingdom, are again and again gifted with the loving embrace of the Bridegroom and experience again and again the joy of the eternal wedding feast even now.  

Today the Word invites us to renew our desire and prayer for the return of the Bridegroom and the coming of the kingdom in its fullness by renewing our commitment to be the sheep, who with the Good Shepherd, give their lives for the life of the world and take our place at the banquet of the Lamb. 

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
November 8, 2020