Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pentecost 22: Eternal coexistence

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I’d like to begin by calling our attention to the Collect once again (BCP, 236) O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…

Episcopalians don’t focus much on the devil, and the reason is our focus is rightly on our Savior, not the one who slanders and distracts from him. The word ‘devil’ comes from the Gk: diabolos, which means slanderer, false accuser, the one who divides. Our Collect reminds us that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, that is, Jesus came to reconcile us to God, to rejoin all that had been divided, to remember what had been dismembered.

We talked a few weeks ago about the Hebrew word ‘satan’ which many modern-day Christians understand to be a kind of spiritual monster who has the power to trick us and snatch us away from God and our salvation. But in Jesus’ day ‘satan’ which in Hebrew means, tempter or distracter, was anyone or anything that led us away from the truth and off the path of righteousness. And righteousness, simply put, means right relationship.

Remember that famous moment in our gospel reading a few weeks ago when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23) In that encounter Peter was unable to see or understand that the path of righteousness for Jesus was the road to Calvary.

Neither Peter nor anyone else could have imagined that Jesus’ death on the cross would not be the end but rather the beginning of the final chapter in the story of our salvation. So Jesus called him ‘satan’ and told him to get behind him, to follow the one who knew the way. That was a pretty harsh sounding thing for Jesus to say to one of his most trusted followers.

Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel sounds pretty harsh too. But like his encounter with Peter, Jesus needs this message heard, so he doesn’t speak softly.

Most scholars agree that in parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. the bridegroom is Jesus; the bride is the church; the bridesmaids are the members of the church; and the Lord is God the Father. Keeping that in mind, a wedding in ancient Jewish culture was a very big deal. It was a week-long party the whole village enjoyed together and everyone had their role to play.

Being chosen to be bridesmaid was a great honor. The bridesmaids were unmarried women whose role was to light the way for the bridegroom, kind of like runway lights, as he came to collect his bride to marry her.

As with most parables, there are surprises and twists in this story. The first one is that the bridegroom is delayed. Anyone who has ever been to a wedding where the bride or groom fails to show knows how awful that is. Barring an accident or medical emergency, the jilted partner is humiliated, and the anticipated joyous celebration transforms into a day of shame.

In this parable, the groom is so delayed that everyone falls asleep. Imagine how the bride and her family are feeling... The next surprise is that the groom shows up at midnight. This would never have happened in real life, but remember, this is a teaching story.

He’s here! someone shouts. Come out to meet him! The bridesmaids’ lamps are needed more than ever in the darkness of this early hour, so they scramble to trim their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids, who didn’t bring extra oil, ask the wise bridesmaids if they can borrow some of their oil. No, say the wise bridesmaids. There won’t be enough for you and for us.

That’s harsh. Where is their generosity?

Go buy some more oil, the wise ones tell the foolish ones – which they do. But when the foolish bridesmaids return with their oil and ask to be let into the party the Lord (God) says, “I don’t know you.”


Jesus concludes the parable saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Well, that’s confusing, since both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids fell asleep. In fact, everyone did.

So what’s the point Jesus is making? I agree with the commentators who say the point is about being ready – but I don’t think it’s about being ready to die. I think the point is about being ready to live and fulfill our God-given purpose.

In the parable the purpose of the bridesmaids was to light the way so the groom (Christ) could find his bride (the church). What made the wise bridesmaids wise wasn’t that they remembered to bring extra oil. It was that they realized they if they shared their oil, the path would be lit with 10 lamps, the traditional number, but those lamps would burn out before the bridegroom found his bride.

If they kept their oil, their 5 lamps that would stay lit and the bridesmaids would fulfill their purpose faithfully – even though they might be judged for doing so.

So, what about the shut door? Does God ever shut the door to us?

Remember, Jesus, the rabbi, was speaking for impact in this parable. And remembering also that to ‘know’ in Hebrew usage meant to be intimate relationship with…the Lord said to the foolish bridesmaids, I don’t know you. We are not in intimate relationship.

This isn’t a condemnation. It’s a fact… and it’s meant to wake us up from whatever slumber we have settled into. For example, some church members, come to worship just about every Sunday and participate in most every parish event we hold, but they never enter deeply into relationship with God choosing instead to remain in a superficial, socially acceptable, comfortably undemanding relationship with God.

To those bridesmaids, the Lord says, ‘I don’t know you.’

Other church members seek baptism and confirmation thinking this will get them or their children into heaven, but they don’t come to church to worship God in community and they don’t participate in formation events or church ministries which help us grow into our spiritual maturity.

To these bridesmaids, the Lord also says, ‘I don’t know you.’

And if there’s any message God has communicated to us in Scripture, in the Incarnation, and in the church it’s that God wants to know us deeply and intimately, and dwell with us eternally.

St. Paul tries to get this same message across in his letter to the brand new church in Thessalonica. The bridegroom is delayed. Most everyone was expecting the second coming of the Christ to happen immediately but it’s been almost 20 years now since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. And as the years pass, the people struggle to understand, wondering if those they love who were dying would be resurrected and be with them in heaven on the last day.

Paul assures them that they will be, saying that Christ will descend from heaven and we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds together will all who lived before and died… and be with the Lord forever. This passage is not a description of the rapture (which is a false doctrine). It’s a good first attempt at a description of the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

Paul, a Jew and a Pharisee, is using language typical of his time and education. ‘Cloud,’ in Paul’s day, was biblical language for the presence of God. Remember… in Exodus, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way…” (13:21) And again, in the gospel of Mark: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.’” (9:7) And in the gospel of Luke (borrowing from the Book of Daniel): “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (21:27)

Reminiscent of Isaiah, the apostle Paul describes this union as God coming down and us being raised up into a new reality – an eternal co-existence. As one commentator says, “Paul doesn't emphasize spiritual geography here. He doesn't talk about going to heaven, but rather being ‘with the Lord forever.’ That's Paul's concern–– being with the Lord.”

That’s what heaven is: being in intimate relationship with God. And that’s what we’re called to do here, now, together - be in intimate relationship with God and in right relationship with one another, a relationship grounded in the love of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We don’t achieve heaven by anything we do or know. and we don’t get there after we die. We receive it now, as the gift it is, given to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Living in heaven means living the fullness of life - all the good and all the bad - in the presence and the grace of God; not judging any single moment or any person, but trusting in God who has promised to redeem all things, all people, all creation.

Dwelling in that beautiful and amazing reality - eternal co-existence with God - we are compelled to share the good news of it so that, as the psalmist says, “the generations to come might know and the children yet unborn that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that [everyone in every age] might put their trust in God…” (78:6-7)


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