A Sermon preached on November 9th (Pentecost XXII) at the Church of the Ascension, MunichAmos 5:18-24, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Good afternoon. For those who don’t know me …. And didn’t notice and read what is in the big box on the front of the bulletin … which does look a little like an obituary – my name is Christopher Easthill. I’m Priest-in-charge of the church of St. Augustine of Canterbury in Wiesbaden but before that I was a lay member of this church for 25 years, it was here that I discerned my calling to the priesthood, and I served here as a deacon and assisting priest for 6 months until February of this year. It’s good to be back and to be your preacher and celebrant today, especially as I understand that today is the close or grand finale of your financial commitment campaign. And as your celebrant this morning I assume I am entitled to a share of the pledges for 2015. That would certainly make the FCC in Wiesbaden a huge success!
So what do the following have in common? Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and Hymn #62 “Sleepers Awake”? Well they are all based, at least in part, on one of the readings we heard just a moment ago.
Martin Luther King’s speeches always sound a bit like sermons, not surprising for a Baptist preacher, and he almost always quotes from scripture. His “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on August 28, 1963 on the National Mall in the center of Washington. At one point he tells the marchers and of course also the nation that is watching and listening:
“We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. ……. We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
There it is: verse 24 from Amos chapter 5.
In his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica Paul uses pictures drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures that he knew so well to describe the indescribable – the day of Jesus’ second coming and the life to come. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thess. 4:16-17) Some Christians have taken these pictures very literally and used them as a source for the doctrine of Rapture, which is the idea that on the day of Jesus’ second coming all good and faithful Christians will be snatched out of their homes, jobs, cars, and even planes, not good if it’s pilot being snatched, to meet the Lord in the air while everyone else is left behind on earth. While this has been good for the 12 “Left Behind” books and several films, the last one even starring Nicholas Cage, it’s not a doctrine we subscribe to as Anglicans.
Hymn #62 uses images from a number of parables, but especially from today’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, and identifies Christ as the bridegroom. In the hymn “Zion,” the New Jerusalem, is identified as the bride. Traditionally the Church has also been seen as the bride of Christ, as have nuns.
But do the readings these interpretations are based on actually have anything in common? Yes, they all have something to say about the “Day of the Lord,” and whether or how we can look forward to it and prepare for it. The prophet Amos warns the people of Israel that they are perhaps mistaken in desiring or looking forward to the day of the Lord: “Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear.” (Amos 5:18-19) That really doesn’t sound like something attractive. At that time the idea of the Day of the Lord was that it would be the day of God’s victory, the day when God would again play an active role in history on behalf of God’s people, and the Day when God would vanquish all of Israel’s enemies. According to Amos however, by breaking God’s covenant, Israel had in some way become God’s enemy and so the Day of the Lord should be seen not as promise, but as a threat.
What had they done wrong? For one thing they had focused more on the exteriors, the show of faith, rather than its content, in Amos’ drastic words: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies”, I will not accept your offerings, “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” (Amos 5:21-23) This is not God rejecting worship nor is at an excuse not to come to church and I can assure you that your offerings … and especially your pledges … will be accepted. But there is no point us worshipping God, however beautifully, unless we also act on the words we hear, and pray and also sing during our worship. Justice must roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That is both something to look forward to, but also a mandate from God for us to work towards. This is the point that both Amos and his successor Martin Luther King were making.
Like the people of Israel, the Thessalonians desire the Day of the Lord, in this case the day of Jesus’ return. Their problem is that it’s taking far too long. Not only that, since turning to and becoming followers of Christ some of their number have died. Does this mean that they will be left behind, is the promise of salvation only valid for those who are still alive when Christ returns? Paul’s words are meant to comfort them. The living will have no advantage over the dead. Salvation – which he defines as the promise to be with the Lord forever – is for all who believe that Jesus died and rose again. So they can look forward to this day without reservation – and work towards it too. It will be the day when God puts all wrongs to right, and when all grief will turn to joy. But that should not stop us righting wrongs now while we wait.
The parable in Matthew’s Gospel is also addressed to those who are waiting and who are concerned about the delay. The danger the parable warns against is of love growing cold through waiting. Contrasting the wise and the foolish is a traditional form of Jewish teaching – in the Book of Proverbs for example Wisdom and Folly are personified as two women. And so Jesus, as a good Jewish teacher and Rabbi uses this method here too. The wise bridesmaids are wise because they think ahead, and because they are ready – they have extra oil for their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids do not, they focus on the moment. There are lots of different explanations for what the oil in the parable might stand for: Good works, faith, or love – but that’s not so important. The message is that the Day of the Lord will come. If we want it to be something to look forward to, something that surprises us pleasantly, we must not stop paying attention to all of God’s works, purposes, and demands. Both as individuals and as a society we need to be ready and we need to have at least been working towards growing the kingdom of God and as Episcopal Christians towards implementing our own covenant with God, our Baptismal Covenant.
Does it all depend on us then? Are Messrs LaHaye and Jenkins right after all and are we in danger of being left behind? No, thank God. That’s where Grace, the theme of your Financial Commitment Campaign comes in. As we will sing later after Communion:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
Grace teaches us to fear – that’s why we have dire warnings against neglecting our covenant like Amos’ or against finding the doors closed on us as in Jesus’ parable. But Grace also relieves our fears – as Paul relieves the fears of the Thessalonians with his comforting and encouraging words. The Good News is that God not only makes demands on us but also provides us with the means of meeting these demands for as Paul writes elsewhere, in his letter to the Philippians: “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)