Sermon for Pentecost 22: November 9, 2014 by The Reverend Jodi Baron
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Inside the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a service called “Compline”. In the 4th century monastic communities used to use this as their last prayers of the day. The end of the service, I’ve heard said, was called “the great silence.” Monks would return to their cells for a defined amount of sleep before waking for the pre-dawn prayers.
The first time I was exposed to Compline was during the Diocesan Discernment Program in Saugatuck. I was brand new to the Episcopal Church but deeply intrigued with the liturgy, communal prayer, and emphasis on ushering in the kingdom of God through our daily practices. But I didn’t know which book in the pew was for what part, when to stand or when to sit, what to say and what not to say…that was strangely comforting though. I was longing, and didn’t know it, for ancient practices that connected me to the breadth and depth of Christianity and somehow being lost in the liturgy helped me experience that in a very powerful way.
As I continued to come, week after week, the service began to make more sense to me and the words began to seep into my vocabulary. That’s part of the beauty of the mystery of our ancient liturgy. That’s good stuff!
While attending this discernment program, 7 years ago now, Christian & I, along with the others discerning a call to ordained ministry, used to pray Compline.
Together we were searching for God’s holy whisper and where it may lead us.
One of my favorite parts of the service is on page 134, you may have heard it:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
In the Spanish BCP, the word used for “Keep watch” is “velar” which literally translates to “keep vigil.” Similarly, the noun from that verb, “vela,” means “candle”. Candles, throughout time and history have been used to mark many things: prayer, divine presence, illumination of the darkness, keeping watch while someone was away, keeping vigil.
One way to see this morning’s gospel is that the bridesmaids were “keeping vigil” for the bridegroom’s return.
And this is a familiar sort of story in scripture, isn’t it? A story like many others that speak to various ways God’s people have “kept watch” or failed to do so. Stories about what the kingdom shall be like.
Well, this particular story was a part of Matthew’s “judgment discourses” about the Kingdom of Heaven found in chapters 23-25. Judgment, as in, when all will be made well again, the son of man will return and all people will go before the throne of God…
The FINAL (Par-o-see-a) Parousia—presence, arrival, or official visit of Christ…his 2nd coming.
So, in this particular story, there are two groups of bridesmaids who represent the Church. And the bridegroom represents Christ. The wedding is that 2nd coming of Christ. To all intents and purposes, they appear exactly the same: the all carry lamps and have oil. They all sleep.
So on the outside, we could do well to identify with either group at various times in our life.
For good or bad, our human experience is contained within both offerings.
Some of us may, like the “foolish” bridesmaids, fear the darkness that may await us if we run out of our “oil” (whatever that oil is; faith, food, shelter, money, power, medicine, love…). We think we need to leave in order to go get more from ridiculous places (like a market that might be open in the middle of the night; or a dream job that will fix all of our troubles, or friends who might actually “get” us). Or maybe that fear is from a darker place that we have no control over and takes us over and clouds our perceptions and realities.
Either way, God has provided other sources of illumination for our journey. We have the moon & stars that guided the Israelites (and us) by night; we have each other. The glow from those who have more could be sufficient for us to glean from until we arrive to our bridegroom for the wedding.
At other times in our experience, though, we are like the other five.
We’re rockin’ along on life’s highway, everything’s going fine. We have enough oil to last us a lifetime, plus some. And because we think there’s a delay in the coming of the Lord, we get caught up in the mentality that we can do this, this thing called life, on our own. We are presented with an opportunity to express hospitality and instead we say, “keep warm & well fed my brother, or sister, I only have enough stocked up for me and mine.”
In fact, sometimes we can be so unaware of the needs of others that we actually suggest things that we know to be ridiculous! Like that they go to the market and buy some for themselves, never mind that it’s midnight and no shopkeeper in their right mind would open the door to someone at that hour.
We may, then, like these “wise” bridesmaids, then, also miss the opportunity practice gratitude and hospitality to their neighbor. They failed to give from their abundance with the others thus missing out on the blessings that come from giving.
What if, though, there was a different way to consider these situations?
What would it look like had the foolish bridesmaids asked for help, which the text tells us they did, but instead of being sent off to fend for themselves, they were invited to walk alongside one of the “wise” ones, who had more oil.
What if instead of being encouraged to be the rugged individual, they were met with the kind of radical hospitality that naturally flows from a place of holy gratitude?
What would the story have sounded like, had the “wise” ones been attentive to the needs of the “foolish” ones and recognized their own abundance and dared to say, “Here, I have enough for all of us! Let’s walk together! We can combine our oil and walk together.”
It seems like this is a lot like life, doesn’t it?
The narrative of scarcity and fear dominate our imagination and we find that sometimes we fear there won’t be enough…Water, Food, Money, Shelter, Medicine.
So we leave our post to search for more.
We forget our baptismal covenant and what we’ve promised to do in search for more…you know, those words we reaffirmed last week when we welcomed in that sweet baby girl to God’s beloved community.
The words that we promise to continue in the apostles’ teachings, fellowship, and the breaking of bread, and in prayer. The words that we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? The words that we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we’ll strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Those are the guidelines, we as Episcopalians, have agreed we’re going to live by when we are baptized, confirmed, or received into this part of Christ’s body.
My friends, Jesus’ ministry was about collapsing the myth that the kingdom was sometime in the distant future, out there, way beyond the capacity for our attention today.
Jesus’ incarnation was about ushering in the kingdom of heaven…today.
By caring about what matters in the end, today, we fulfill the requirements of what pleases our God, right now.
What does God require? A humble and contrite heart. To feed the hungry, minister to the sick, soothe the dying, clothe the naked, care for the widows and orphans of our society. Seek justice and love mercy.
But that is tough to sustain, isn’t it? Many of us are good at doing this for a short time, right? But when our lamps get low and the needs seems to keep getting higher…that’s when it get’s tough. That’s when this stuff becomes the hard work.
It’s easy to love someone when they think like us, or are healthy and don’t need anything but our friendship. It’s difficult when the growth is delayed, the healing doesn’t come, they lose another job.
Nevertheless, those are the things of God’s kingdom. Those are things that will matter in the end.
Those are things God has given us charge to do here on earth.
Not tomorrow, or when we graduate, or when we get a better job, retire, etc.
So, Grace, I invite you to consider, who among us needs our oil?
Who among us needs to know there’s enough to go around?
Who among us needs to know they don’t have to leave to get more, we have plenty to light the path before us.
Who needs to know that we have food, clothing, shelter, love, enough to go around?
The good news is that we get to live the life of the kingdom right now. We don’t have to worry when our lamp is low, our friends are here and have enough “vela” to share. We don’t have to worry that we won’t have enough if we share, because we serve a God of abundance.
We get to flip the script, friends. We’ve been given the gift to share the knowledge of God’s love for humanity and all of creation. If we have the courage to trust that there’s enough, we may find the bridegroom.
In your neighbor. In your friend. In yourself. In your enemy.
So keep watch, dear Grace, keep awake. The hour is coming and indeed is here. Amen.