Texts: Amos 5:18-24 ; Psalm 70 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ; Matthew 25:1-13
Grace and peace to you, in the name of our God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Amen.
The long season in the church’s calendar that follows Pentecost is coming to an end. If you pay attention to these sorts of things, you’ve noticed that the paraments in the sanctuary have for the most part been green since the middle of May. The time after Pentecost is marked with green as a sign of growth. The readings we hear during the summer and early fall remind us of the growth of the early church, instruct us in how to live lives of discipleship, and compel us to share what we’ve found here – unconditional love, merciful forgiveness and a commitment to justice – with the world around us.
The month of November is still a part of this green season, a part of the Time after Pentecost, but it shifts in tone and focus to a set of special concerns – both for the earliest Christians and for us. Beginning with All Saints Sunday, ending with Christ the King Sunday, and sandwiched in between we are confronted with the reality of death and what it means for the Christian. Last Sunday we commemorated All Saints Sunday, hearing these words from 1 John,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
This morning we heard a passage from another letter, written by Paul to the people in Thessalonica. It is, perhaps, the very earliest piece of writing in the New Testament – addressing a community of Christians who were being persecuted for refusing to offer their worship to the Roman emperor. These Christians believed that they would see Jesus’ return in their own lifetime, so they were confused and distressed about what would happen to those among them who died or were put to death during this period of waiting. To them Paul writes,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
This is not a literal prediction of a supernatural event. Paul uses poetic imagery here of being caught up in the clouds to describe the lightness that will stand in contrast the heaviness of heart, the grief, that grips us as we mourn those whom we love that have died.
The month of November addresses the issue of death for a community that trusts in the resurrection, the resurrection not only of Jesus but of ourselves as well. That would have been the topic of this sermon no matter what took place this last week, but for us it takes on special significance this year because in the interval since we last gathered here our sister Marguerite has died. For those who knew her it is impossible not to feel her absence in the sanctuary this morning.
Like Paul, the church over the centuries has developed poetic ways for describing the reality of death while still expressing the hope of the resurrection. Some would say “she’s gone home” or in a more Southern style, “she’s gone home to glory.” In more medieval times we might have said “she’s been lifted into the church triumphant” indicating that she is still in the church, but that she now lives outside of time in the fullness of God’s victory over death and reconciliation of the world. A simple phrase used in some churches is “The resurrection of…” as in “The resurrection of Marguerite Kuhlman.” This reminds us of our belief that death is the place where new life begins.
These poetic images and words of consolation are important for those of us who are still living in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” – already claimed by God, but not yet with God in glory; already saved by grace, but not yet perfected in it; already here, but not yet fully arrived. They give us a way to acknowledge the pain and the grief of loss, without giving that pain the final word on the fullest meaning of our lives.
Yet, I can’t help but think that if Marguerite were here this morning she would be uncomfortable with this conversation about death, that her eyes would have been drawn instead to the words of the prophet Amos in the first reading.
“Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Like Amos, Marguerite shared the calling of all God’s prophets to speak truth to power. She had the spiritual gift of discernment, and could be relied upon to call a thing what it was. Yes – like Amos and Jeremiah and any number of other prophets – she could be blunt in her delivery, but it was often that bluntness that forced us to hear the truth in her words. In her heart she was a deeply sensitive person who was incapable of ignoring the suffering of those living closest to the street, those with their backs to the wall. Whether it was the hungry people of Logan Square or those who are starving at this very moment in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, just outside Jerusalem, because of Israel’s policy of enclosures and security walls, Marguerite could not ignore the suffering of any of God’s children. She would be less concerned this morning with what we are saying or doing to commemorate her death, and more concerned with what we are doing to address the needs of those who are still living.
These two themes – the fate of those who die and the obligations of those who live – come together in the gospel this morning. Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids waiting on the arrival of a groom who is delayed. As they are waiting, the wise women prepare themselves with flasks of oil, while the foolish ones do not. This sets up the tension in the story, because when the groom finally arrives, the foolish women’s lamps have run dry and they are literally and metaphorically left out in the dark. They come late, knocking on the door of the banquet – a metaphor we’ve heard more than once during the season after Pentecost to describe the reign of God – but when the groom comes to the door he sees them and says, “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
On one level this is a confusing parable. After a ministry filled with commandments to share all that we have, Jesus tells a story about a set of women who refuse to share their oil and are rewarded with entry to the eternal feast. The clues to the meaning of the parable are hiding in the details. For example, the oil that the foolish women want shared with them was a symbol for good deeds and acts of discipleship. The original audience for this parable would have understood that, and we see it reflected in the Hebrew Bible where oil is a sign of blessing used to set people apart for a life of service. That is a relationship that cannot be shared. It is a commitment to discipleship, strengthened over time.
All of which points to the conclusion that this is not a story about sharing at all, but about the relationship we build with God by caring for God’s world. If it is a story about sharing at all, it is about sharing God’s concern for those who are most vulnerable. We will hear this spelled out plainly two weeks from today on Christ the King Sunday when Bishop Miller is with us. The texts appointed for that day have Jesus speaking plainly about where we meet God and how we are called to be in relatio
nship to God. Jesus says,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt. 25:34-36)
This is how we build a relationship with God, by caring for the needs of those whom God loves, whom Jesus says are actually God present with us – which is also a reminder that God is present in each of us, and that we are called to care for each other. This is how we keep our flasks of oil full, our relationship with God alive as we live in the interim between the “already” of God’s presence with us and the “not yet” of our own resurrection when we will join Marguerite and all those others who have gone before us at a banquet we can only get a foretaste of each time we dine at the communion rail – a banquet where all are welcome and God’s justice rolls down like an ever-flowing stream.
“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:15-18)