Proper 27, Year A
Those of you preaching this Sunday on the readings for All Saints' instead of those for Proper 27 might find this sermon on Matthew's beatitudes and/or this sermon on Luke's beatitudes and woes helpful. I'll be blogging on the Proper 27 readings:
Here's the scene behind our parable for this Sunday:
It's a wedding. In Jesus' culture, village weddings tended to look something like this: The groom and his family gather at their household (married couples tended to remain living with the groom's parents for as long as the parents survived). The bride and her family and guests gather at her household. The groom and his family make their way to the bride's house to collect the bride. When the groom arrives, he takes the bride indoors, and they do what we might call "consummating the marriage," but in their culture was what would make them married in the eyes of their families and the village: namely, they had sexual intercourse. After that, the blood on the sheets (seen as proof that the bride's hymen had been intact) would be shown to the crowd outside as proof that the couple were married, and partying would ensue.
In the parable we read this Sunday, there are ten young women who are guests of the bride. Five of them don't have enough oil, so they rush out to buy some before the groom arrives. The groom arrives while they're still out, so the party starts without them.
If I were preaching this Sunday, the sermon would probably be titled "People Get Ready" -- and not just because I've wanted since 1987 (when U2 started pulling fans on stage for this purpose) to get pulled on stage to play that song with the band. "People Get Ready" is pretty much the point of this Sunday's gospel reading. The party we've waited for is starting, and if we want to be in on the action, we need to prepare ourselves for what's coming.
That's a pretty popular theme in our culture, if sales of the Left Behind books (and movies, and board games, and who knows what else) are any indication. The message of Left Behind is that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should be ready. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the series' idea of just what that means and how we should prepare departs radically and in very unhelpful ways from what the vast majority of texts in our scriptures have to say.
First off, works like Left Behind have a fascination (perhaps even an obsession) with trying to line up current events with biblical prophesies (which they read as predictions about the future, though in the vast majority of cases it seems clear that the biblical writers took them as comments on events current FOR THEM, centuries ago -- witness Matthew 24:34, for example) to establish when and how what New Testament texts call the parousia (which might best be defined as "Jesus' coming to complete finally and fully his purposes on earth") will happen. Jesus puts the kibosh on that kind of speculation just paragraphs before this Sunday's gospel, in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows of that day and hour -- not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."
Second, and more seriously, the Left Behind genre seems to be fundamentally confused and WHOSE coming it is that we expect. They get the name right, but they seem to think for some reason that by the time Jesus' parousia happens, he will have undergone a complete personality transplant. They (and especially the horrible and horribly mistitled book Glorious Appearing) seem to have Jesus confused with a creature I call "the Christ-inator," after the robot assasin Arnold Schwarzeneggar played in the first Terminator movie -- an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.
For those who are eagerly expecting "the Christ-inator," this might sound like bad news, but for the rest of us, who (after hearing too many Left Behind-ish readings of these texts) are tempted to hear readings about Jesus' parousia -- such as we hear in Advent, the season in which we train our hearts particularly on that event -- it's very Good News indeed:
The person we are expecting is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If we've read the gospels, we should know his character. He taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and he was known particularly for his compassion toward the poor and outcast. While his disciples often seemed to expect him to duck into a phone booth and emerge as Messiah Man to kick the butts of evildoers (props to Scott Bartchy for that image), he consistently denied that was his calling, going even to the cross rather than strike back against violent people.
That's what Jesus was like in his first coming, the Incarnation.
Will he be different at the Second Coming? That's an easy question to answer, because Jesus did come back a second time: we call that "Easter." And when Jesus came among us a second time, he opened the scriptures to his disciples, walked beside them on the road, and cooked them breakfast -- not exactly the behavior of a "Christ-inator."
And don't forget that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. How many times do you think that's happened over the last two millennia? I'm no statitician, but I figure we're probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the trillionth coming of Jesus, and his character remains the same. The Left Behinders have got it wrong: the realization of Jesus' purposes on earth -- what we pray for every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" -- is GOOD News for the world.
That all leads back to the point of this Sunday's gospel. If we're mistaken about who exactly it is that we're expecting in the parousia, we're that much more likely to be mistaken about what that person would have us to do to prepare. I've already talked about the mistake of trying to prepare by trying to calculate when it will happen. The other thing that the Left Behinders seem to think we should be doing to prepare is to talk endlessly about how "the Christ-inator" is coming soon, and if people don't want his army of angels to come around to bust their kneecaps or worse, they'd better pray a prayer to get on his good side.
Is that what Jesus said we should be doing? Personally, I haven't found a single reference anywhere in scripture to "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior." That's a phrase I've actually found helpful from time to time in my life, and I've been "born again" (probably a dozen times or more in the evangelical sense even). But I don't mistake a phrase that makes sense in one late-20th century context for Holy Writ, and of all of the things that scripture teaches us we should do to be ready for Jesus' parousia, the vast majority involve a lot greater expenditure of calories, marshalling of compassion, and putting what we value most on the line than mouthing a "sinner's prayer" or handing out tracts with the "Four Spiritual Laws."
So what is that, then? How do we prepare for Jesus' parousia? Our reading from Amos might give us a clue:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We prepare for the fulfillment of Christ's purposes on earth by doing what he did. We prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it, and God's justice first, as Matthew 6:33 suggests ("justice" is a fine translation of what's often translated as "righteousness," namely dikaiosune -- sorry if I get the transliteration wrong; I really need to learn how to do that properly in ASCII one of these days).
All of those fine-sounding words like "justice" can seem awfully abstract, but it isn't. I'm saying that we prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it in the here and now, gaining strength from a life of prayer to engage in a lifetime of pursuing what God pursues. And what is that? As we move toward Advent especially, we might look to Mary's song of expectation for some pointers -- how about scattering the proud and removing the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things? If we wanted to seek that, if we expected that God's purposes on earth, the fulfilment of Jesus' work in the world, were really going to happen and we wanted in on the action, wouldn't we be doing things like these?
- Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieving universal primary education
- Promoting gender equality and empower women
- Reducing child mortality
- Improving maternal health
- Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Caring for God's Creation
- Bringing people together around the world to do justice
This isn't some pie-in-the-sky, wide-eyed dreaming. It's what development experts think we could actually accomplish: that, if we seek this justice first, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Matthew 24:34). Call it "the Millennium Development Goals" or just call it justice for the poor, but don't just talk about it.
People, get ready -- it's coming! It's like a huge wave, and did you know that surfing is basically strategic falling? You align yourself on the board to align the board with the wave such that gravity -- not your own effort propelling you -- takes you down the wave's surface at the right angle for you to just keep falling, sliding down with gravity but zooming at an angle as close as you can get to parallel with the beach. A big wave like that is good news to those of us called to ride it; align yourself with the wave now, and you're in for the ride of a lifetime.
Surf's up! Get ready!
Thanks be to God!