November 12 2023
The Rev. Kathleen Killian
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Learning to tell time
All three of our readings this morning point to endings: Amos forewarns Israel of the final judgment on the day of the Lord. Paul reassures the Thessalonians, that upon the Lord’s return and great command of God’s trumpet, those who are dead will be the first to rise; those still alive will be risen next. Jesus then alerts his disciples to his own second coming in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
Our readings not only anticipate the end of the world but the end of liturgical church year, as the church embarks upon a three-week period known as the advent before Advent. With the waning of light and falling of leaves, even the season itself speaks to an end.
Biblical prophetic scripture often contains an element of the apocalyptic end, final judgment, and a prophet’s warning. I think this is, in part, because a relationship exists between the present day and the last day; though distinct, they are not separate but a consequential continuum in which our present becomes and is our end. Though we are distinct from God, we are not separate from the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last of everything.
Amos is known as the “prophet of doom,” and his is the first book of prophecy in the Bible, having been written in the 8th century BCE. In our Old Testament passage today, he declares to ancient Israel that their songs and music, festivals and offerings to Yahweh will be rejected, and the day of the Lord will not be light and bright but all darkness and gloom. Having failed to care for the poor and administer justice, they assemble for worship only to be bitten by the snake of corruption and hypocrisy. The disastrous consequences of their sins is that they have become their own enemies.
Amos’ prophecy and God’s judgment is harsh but not for no reason. Its shocking reversal of expectations is a wake up call of the highest order so that Israel would come to recognize and more fully participate in the means of their salvation: justice, righteousness, and love of neighbor. Then as now, we can either seek to flourish justice and righteousness or deny and obstruct these gifts from God.
When I first read Amos this week, I was immediately reminded of what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians (13:1-3), that our actions are ultimately meaningless unless they are united to love. He writes:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Turning to our gospel, the Parable of the Bridesmaids is a story about a wedding banquet and the highly anticipated arrival of the groom. The imagery is symbolic of the messianic banquet when Christ returns. But in another startling reversal of expectations, not all the bridesmaids gain entrance to the wedding feast. Unlike the reading from Amos, hypocrisy or lack of justice and righteousness is not the cited reason. Some of the bridesmaids are barred from the feast simply due to a lack of readiness and preparedness. They missed the arrival of the groom because they had gone to the store to buy oil for their lamps. Thus the clarion call to vigilance and wakefulness is sounded; for though the coming of Christ is certain, the hour and the day is not.
This parable is unique to Matthew, whose first-century community was struggling with a delayed parousia, and the fact that Jesus’ imminent return had not happened as predicted and expected. Their faith was flagging. As well, in this section of Matthew Jesus is addressing his disciples in private, that to be a disciple of his is to have faith in his second coming. Waiting is a part of discipleship, and how we wait is of concern. Jesus would have it that we wait with hope—and with respair—a rather outdated word I just recently learned that means fresh hope and a recovery from despair.
We must expect delay, which is why some of the bridesmaids in our parable are called wise. Significantly, their wisdom is not identified as sophia or universal sacred intelligence but phronimos, meaning practical skill and acumen. They are prudent and mindful of their own interests. In other words, these women are street-smart. They know the groom is likely be delayed, and because of dowry negotiations show up late for the wedding, so they pack some extra oil.
On more than one occasion, Jesus teaches about our need for street smarts. In Matthew (10:16), he says to his disciples: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. In Luke’s parable of the shrewd manager i(16:1-8), Jesus lauds said shrewd manager. Coming next Sunday is a parable about our generating a kingdom return by using our street smart skills and abilities (Matthew 25:14-30). As the church, and as disciples, we are indeed sometimes wise, our readiness lighting the way through the dark. Certainly, Fr. John and I have sought to ready Christ Church, not only spiritually, but practically with prudence and acumen.
But too, as disciples, sometimes we are foolish like the maids who forgot to pack extra lamp oil. Several pre-pandemic years ago, I set out to go on a retreat thinking I had probably packed too much. But when I arrived at the monastery and began unpacking, I realized I had forgotten a toothbrush and toothpaste; I had one shirt, no belt for my pants, no hair brush, and no phone charger. Good grief, I was ill prepared.
Sometimes when I go to the store, I forget to pick up the one thing I went for; we forget to turn off our phones during a movie or worship—heck, sometimes we forget to come to worship at all! Now, none of the aforementioned lapses are sins or cause significant consequence. I wasn’t cast into outer darkness by the monks—in fact they kindly gave me a spare toothbrush—and the door to the wedding feast isn’t slammed shut if we miss a Sunday here and there.
We all fall down on the job—even the wise bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for the groom. 24/7 vigilance is pretty much impossible. So we do the very best we can, and the rest is grace—except in our parable today in which grace seemed to be in as short supply as the lamp oil of the foolish bridesmaids and was not afforded them by the groom. As Jesus says earlier in Matthew (7:21), not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven.
I’ve thought a lot about this because it contradicts so much of how I’ve experienced Jesus, and what I believe our faith teaches us about God’s mercy, forgiveness, and infinite love. Hyperbole aside, many of Jesus’ parables contradict our expectations, hopes, even our values. And too, they counter our deepest fears. And so I think our readings both challenge and encourage us as disciples to live without false expectations—to be street smart—and to learn to tell the time.
Sometimes a delay is good thing, a necessary thing. It’s always time to wake up and renew our vows of readiness and surrender. Some day there won’t be time left for anything other than the end of our lives and the ages. But Christ the Messiah can only and will always arrive at the right time and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
When Jesus says "the kingdom of heaven is like..." he casts a vision of God’s life for us (of mystical and down-to-earth wisdom) against which we can measure and consider our lives, as opposed to simplistic polarities of wise or foolish, or good or bad as we are ought to do. As disciples, to live in vigilance and with the fresh hope of respair is to do the tasks we have been appointed to do in preparation for the last day. As you’ll read in our stewardship letter, and as stated on our website, our task and mission here at Christ Church is to spread the good news of the Gospel, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and deepen our faith through worship, study, and prayer. We follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ by providing a warm spiritual home to all, regardless of race, gender, age, socio-economic status or sexual orientation.
Judgment is reserved for the Holy One who alone knows our hearts and souls.
One of the most beautiful opening sentences to Evening Prayer II in our Prayer Book (pg. 115) was written by Amos, the prophet of doom who was also a poet, as was Jesus and many of the prophets. And so I leave you with its wisdom of the Sophia kind:
Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name (Amos 5:8).