12 November 2017
“Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Soon it will be the end of this liturgical year. There are only two more Sunday’s in this long season after Pentecost before we begin another year with the First Sunday in Advent. That’s the thing you see, if one year is ending another is beginning. It’s all a matter of perspective. You can face back into the ending or face forward into the beginning. It’s true of the liturgical year and it’s true for life too. I want to invite you, as Amos does, to face into God’s hope filled future. But notice this. There is both promise and threat in the prophet’s words. To give some background, Amos was at work in Israel at a time when Israel was at the height of her power and prosperity. And Amos spoke against that reality. He saw that the people no longer lived according to the ways God had given for the protection of the poor and of strangers. Amos spoke out to say that Israel’s power and wealth grew out of injustice. In short, Amos spoke of God’s judgement. Understand, Amos shows us something important about God’s judgment. Even God’s most favored, Israel, is subject to that judgment. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we are not also subject to God’s judgement. Then, did you notice? Amos goes on beyond that point of judgement to tell us what it is that God expects of God’s people. First that teaching is phrased in the negative. Amos gives voice to God saying: “I despise your festivals…I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs.” Amos continues by stating clearly what it is that God does desire. “Let Justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We are reminded that God’s Kingdom is a time of justice for all people, it is a place marked by righteousness. And that’s a good lead in to our gospel lesson. Our passage from the Gospel According to Matthew holds a parable about a bridegroom who is delayed and some maidens who are waiting for him. One simple way of looking at parables groups them as being either about grace or about justice. This one is about justice. No doubt about it. Some of the maidens were prepared and the others were not. The ones who were not prepared got left out. End of story. But, of course in the larger faith story justice and grace balance each other, to focus on one only distorts both. It’s easy to think that the difference between those bridesmaids was how much oil they had and to equate that oil with good works, or time spent in worship, or perfection in Christian living. It’s just that to do so is to miss the point of all Jesus’ earlier teaching. Think for a minute about Matthew’s context, how and why he used this story here, just at the end of his report concerning Jesus’ earthly ministry. How interesting. Matthew places this story just after a discussion of the end times, when Jesus will return, and just before he narrates the passion and resurrection accounts. Several things stand out. To begin with, what did you notice about the bridegroom? That’s right, he was late. Those bridesmaids went out to meet him and he was not there. Sometimes it seems to me that God’s kind of like that. Oh yes, I know full well that God is present at all times, in all places, in all things. But. We do not see God clearly, sometimes we do not see God at all. We are left, waiting and hoping, for a hidden God. The point I think is, that while this is a parable of judgement, that judgement does not concern our moral behavior, or the superior state of our spiritual selves. And none of us are exempt. In the parable there are five foolish girls and five wise girls but every single one of those girls were bridesmaids. They were all included. So are we all included in that day of judgement. Let me re-cap. God is with us in some mysterious, hidden fashion. We are all God’s people and included under God’s judgement. And, all we have to do to be included at God’s banquet table is show up. Now, I can already hear someone saying that salvation entirely by faith is just too easy. And it would be if faith were understood simply as an intellectual agreement to some notion or idea. But that’s not the essence of faith. Living out of a trust relationship with another is the essence of faith. But there’s another objection too. I can hear someone else saying: if I’ve already been saved by faith what’s to stop me from just doing whatever I want, sinful or not? The question reveals a basic misunderstanding about sin. We like to think we have a choice about sinning. We don’t. Oh sure, we can by times avoid specific sins when we put our minds to it. We can choose not to step out on our spouse, or tell a lie, or take advantage of our position to the detriment of someone else. But let’s face it, we can’t ever quite avoid trusting in our own selves while distrusting others, even God. And that’s the real essence of sin. Trusting first and foremost in ourselves while we turn away for trusting in God. So, we have this Biblical insistence, we heard it in Amos, we heard it in Matthew, that God’s judgement on our faith is a judgement on our faith in action. If we are not actively faithful, trusting in God to lead us into a future in which justice and righteousness play key roles, there is a price to pay. Remember those bridesmaids. They were all invited to the party. Five of them were so worried that they wouldn't have enough oil that they went off in search of more. And got shut out of the feast for their pains. Is that message of judgement an uncomfortable one? Earlier I noted that justice and grace balance each other and to focus on one without the other only distorts both. So where is the grace here? Look back at what we have already learned from Jesus. Everyone is invited to the party, all we have to do is show up. We all get the same reward, how much time we put in has nothing to do with it. We all are faithful in God’s eyes so long as we don’t bury our gifts. I don’t know how it is for you, but it looks to me as though we all find it easy to forget that God hasn’t gone out of the miracle business, that Jesus shows us that God loves big wedding parties and can make what little is available go a long way, all while keeping the oil burning for as long as it takes. This is where those foolish bridesmaids went wrong. It’s where we go wrong. Those bridesmaids were so worried that they didn’t have enough that they went off to try and buy what they needed. How might the story have ended if they had trusted their relationship with the bridegroom enough to stay until he arrived? Here’s the thing. God doesn’t just, or even primarily, perform miracles that defy the laws of nature. God’s best miracles defy our human nature. We want to depend on ourselves first and always, we anticipate that hard work brings rewards while hard times come to those who don’t put in the required effort. There is no grace in that. Pay attention, this parable of the bridesmaids both wise and foolish, tells us what’s really important. The bridegroom doesn’t open the door to us because we worked hard and earned it. The bridegroom opens that door when we answer his invitation by trusting him enough to faithfully wait for him. In the light of God’s grace that’s really all we need to do. Amen