I don’t know about you, but I feel like time is just rushing away from me. Hallowe’en has come and gone, last week the Chamber of Commerce in Chatham was already putting up Christmas lights, later this week we’ll hit the mid-month mark for November; where’s the stop button?
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells about a story about what the kingdom of heaven will be like…like bridesmaids waiting, according to first-century custom, for the bridegroom to arrive so they can usher him into the wedding festivities, but he is later than anticipated – much, much later – and so they wait. In fact, they wait so long that they fall asleep, and when the bridegroom finally does arrive in the dead of night, some of them are out of oil for the lamps they are carrying, lamps that will light the way to the party.
Now this is one of those parables that probably doesn’t seem fair to us, because the way Jesus tells it, the bridesmaids who don’t have enough oil he calls foolish, and the wise ones won’t share, and so only the wise ones get to go to the party, while the foolish ones get shut out – even though they have returned with oil for their lamps. Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to the party – particularly if the party is the kingdom of heaven? What is Jesus trying to say here?
A couple of caveats to start with: first of all, we would do well to remember that what Jesus says and does do not always fall into the category of “nice.” Second, this parable is one that could use a lot of digging into and examining from many different angles, and I hope that you will sit with this passage during the week to come and listen for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to you at this particular juncture in your life. Third thing to remember: this is not a story about fairness and justice; it’s a story about spiritual preparedness; Jesus counsels the disciples and those listening to him preach to keep awake so that they can be ready for the coming of the Messiah. Keeping awake, having enough oil in your lamp, having the spiritual resources and reserves to be ready to greet Christ when he shows up in your life that is what I want us to reflect on this morning.
We have all, I am sure, been in that place where we feel like our present circumstances are too much – too hard, too painful, too heavy, going on too long – and we just want the Lord to show up and make things right, or at least better. We know intellectually that God is always with us, that there is nowhere we can go to flee from God’s presence, and yet, it seems like God is taking his sweet time to help us or change things for the better.
All three of our readings today reflect that sense of waiting – of God’s time and our time not being the same.
Joshua addresses the Israelites after they have finally come into the Promised Land – after forty years of wandering in the desert after their initial freedom from slavery – and he calls them to choose which God they will worship, with whom they will make covenant.
Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, tries to allay some of their fears about waiting for the return of Christ, and whether or not those Christians who have already died while waiting will miss out when Christ does return. As a side note – the language that Paul uses here, of being caught up in the air, is highly metaphorical imagery that draws on both the Old Testament Book of Daniel and on the practice of the Roman emperor making a visit to a Roman city; we spent a lot of time on this in Bible study a few weeks ago, but if you’d like to ask me about it, catch me at coffee hour.
And then, of course, Jesus’ parable assumes that waiting for the kingdom of heaven is a built-in part of Christian faith and life.
But, of course, we live in an age and place where waiting for anything is anathema to us, and so we really don’t know how to do it; and further, we don’t know what to do with ourselves when we are waiting. We get kind of spiritually drowsy, we don’t know what voices to listen to, or how to judge if what we hear is really God’s truth. We need to replenish our oil, our spiritual reserves, and as Christians we do that most effectively when we can follow some combination of what the Church for centuries has taught – a spiritual prescription, if you will.
So what are those things?
Corporate worship; daily prayer and study; serving others who are in need; caring for ourselves and the world around us, and giving back to God a portion of what he has given us as an offering of praise and thanksgiving; taken together these elements form a rule of life – that what “religion” means – a rule, a pattern, a prescription that will engender spiritual well-being.
Several times last week I had people say to me, when they were explaining why they did not go to church or synagogue: “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there.” I’ve heard this saying lots of times, I understand where it comes from, and there is some truth to it; however, my response is “Yes, but.” Yes, if by “religion” you mean a form that is only about keeping the rules for a distant deity, by whom you will be punished if the rules are broken. But that kind of religion is not Christian faith.
Christianity is about coming into a life-giving and wholistic relationship with God through Jesus that changes us from the inside out and calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus has done this for us, opened the way, taken the initiative through his death and resurrection, and he hopes that we will respond with love and gratitude. But then we are faced with the project of ordering our lives in a way that reflects God’s love and care for us; that’s where the rule of life, the “religion” part comes in; it’s what we promised at our baptism and reaffirm every time we renewal our baptismal vows. This rule of life, this spiritual prescription, this infusion of holy oil is so important that today is part one of a three-part sermon series.
Corporate worship is first and foremost; that has nothing to do with businesses, and everything to do with who we are as the Body (the corpus) of Christ. We come together to worship God – the center of all that we are and all that we do – because we cannot be Christians without one another. Of course there are times when illness, travel, family events, work, and kids’ sports will get in the way, and at those times we can and should pray at home or wherever we are going, perhaps read the Sunday Scriptures (you can find a link to them on our website), hold in prayer not only those on your own personal prayer list, but the parish as well. Our default setting should be gathering with other Christians to worship God on Sunday, the day of resurrection, the Lord’s day.
When we come to church God doesn’t love us any more than he does when we stay away, but through our corporate worship we will begin to love God and our neighbor more and more. t’s a gradual, cumulative process – what the writer Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” – this business of being formed, over time, more and more into the image of God. When we, as a body, spend time focused on God, hearing from the Bible, singing God’s praises, being fed by the Body and Blood of Christ we become more Christ-like; not better than anyone else, not holier, or wiser or more perfect – but more like Christ than we were before.
Worshiping together also saves from the trap of only praying our own prayers, or reading our favorite Bible passages, or listening to almost-truths that our culture offers us.
Worshiping jolts us out of our own personal rut, and puts us squarely into God’s path. Some Sundays we will leave church feeling uplifted and inspired; we may have a truly awe-some experience or vision of God; that’s great – I hope and pray that happens.
But just as often, probably even moreso, we will come to church tired and cranky; and we may leave tired and maybe a little less cranky – no guarantees – but we will have made room for Jesus in our minds and hearts.
And we’ll also have made room for our neighbor: our literal neighbor, the person sitting in the pew next to us or behind us; the newcomer or visitor who arrives at the door hesitantly, maybe a little fearfully wondering if he or she will find a welcome in this place of worship, let alone find God; what would happen if you or any of us we not here to welcome that newcomer, to offer the peace of Christ, the love of God?
The point here is that worship, and the community that worships together, forms us over time – shapes us, strengthens us, encourages us, helps us practice being Christian so that we can be conduits and agents of Jesus’ love and care out in the world God has made.
So as we wait for the return of Christ, as all Christians have since the Ascension, whenever we wait for God to act, as we wait for God’s time and out time to sync up – we worship, we encourage one another, we re-charge our lamps through Scripture and sacrament and song, we practice our religion, our rule of life, which puts worship front and center.
To be continued….
Let us pray.
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
November 9, 2014