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Dean's Corner
Sermon: November 12, 2017

The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan                                                                                                   

A sermon preached in the Cathedral on November 12, 2017

For the next few weeks, we are still in the long Season after Pentecost, but the change of tone in our readings following the Feast of All Saints last Sunday is palpable and dark, foreboding and anxious. The Scriptures this morning center on three communities in crisis. After the death of Moses and the transition of leadership to Joshua, the Israelites have crossed the Jordan River and now must determine how to live into the fulfillment of God’s promise to them. 

The Thessalonians, who are the inspiration for the modern day Left Behind book series, are a gentile church in central Greece founded by Paul, who earlier in his letter refers to their affliction and persecution.  The letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest document in the New Testament and was likely written in the 50’s, following the death of Jesus and by then, the faithful community is longing for his promised return and the assurance of salvation for themselves and of all of their beloved who have died.   

The parable of the ten bridesmaids from Matthew’s Gospel is likely written twenty to thirty years after Paul’s letter.  It reveals the longing of a suffering community that had already experienced the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem that Jesus describes in the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount of Olives.  They have already endured the persecutions, betrayals, and false prophets that he enumerates.  And after eighty years since his death and resurrection, they are looking furtively for the signs that Jesus describes, foretelling his return as the Son of Man and awaiting that unexpected hour, that day of apocalypse and judgment, “when two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left” and the world will be conformed to God’s reign, not Caesar’s.  

It is a mystery of our walk of faith as followers of Jesus that, as far as we know, we are still waiting for that second coming.  Truthfully, for many of us, so many years have intervened, so much has happened in the life of the Church that emerged from that ragtag first century community, that the question of return is not one that we think about much, if at all.  The word apocalypse is now less associated with the Son of Man and scripture than it is equated with the detonation of nuclear weapons.  When we hear Jesus’s words that “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken,” we likely think of the ecological destruction of our planet home.  And when we are confronted with the “lawlessness” that Jesus describes in our own time, our horror and heartbreak does not necessarily signal the end of the age and the long awaited Jesus descending on a cloud.  We may have even grown used to it.

Clearly, we are not so preoccupied with apocalypse as people of the first century and though we face many challenges, this is arguably not the worst of times.  That does not, however, insulate us from fear and uncertainty about the meaning of our lives, or about where all this is leading.  Writing in The New York Times Op-Ed section this week in an article entitled, “Anniversary of the Apocalypse,” Michele Goldberg writes, “The country has changed in the past year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable. . .There’s a metaphysical whiplash in how quickly alarm turns into acceptance and then into forgetfulness. . . Lately, the pace of shocks has picked up, even if our capacity to process them has not.” 

There have been many shocks in the past week, the past months, and the past year.  Many are at the same time, horrifying and heartbreaking.  The mass shooting at the Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas coming on the heels of the shootings just a month ago in Las Vegas, on the heels of Orlando and Charleston and Newtown.  So disturbing, in fact, that for some of us it is easier to avoid the pain and uncertainty by taking Goldberg’s path of metaphysical whiplash a step further by entering into a state known as torpor.  Common among mammals that hibernate, it is a kind of semi-consciousness which one can pass in and out of at will.  From years of listening to sermons on Sunday mornings, I imagine that you know just what I mean. We can ease ourselves into a kind of passive drowsiness not unlike that of the foolish bridesmaids in the Gospel story who had grown tired of waiting for the bridegroom and failed to prepare their lamps for his return.   That torpor or drowsiness is not what Jesus had in mind for the bridesmaids or for us.  

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is known as one of the hard teachings of Jesus because it is inscrutable and it’s frankly not a very nice story.  After all, why can’t those bridesmaids just get along and share their oil? Haven’t they heard of the golden rule? And why is the mean bridegroom so hard hearted that he slams the door on the late arriving bridesmaids and claims that he doesn’t recognize them.  Is he not familiar with that great verse that appears earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”

Theologian and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, whose book The Wisdom Jesus several of us read together this past year, offers the most compelling and cogent interpretations of this parable that I have ever run across and to me, feels true.  In her view, the oil is a metaphor for the inner transformation of our own consciousness. While Goldberg writes in the New York Times of the metaphysical whiplash that leads to torpor, Bourgeault writes of a metaphysical path that leads to wisdom, and the encounter of the mind and presence of Christ. It is a difficult path.  It calls for our prayerful and active effort and attention, requiring us to relinquish the petty, selfish ego needs that separate us from God.  Only then and by the grace of God, with undivided loyalties, commitments, and consciousness do we become the more wholly human beings whom God intends us to be. Only then are we able and ready to see more clearly beyond the stark and polarizing opposites which seem to grip us so acutely right now. To see to the wholeness and unity that God intends in creation.

This is very different from the state of torpor and like the bridesmaid’s oil, it is not transferrable. You have to find it yourself through a life grounded in the love of God and yielded to God’s dream for the world.   It is often an aspirational state that can be the goal of our lifetimes.  Contemplative prayer, the genuine repentance that leads to change, the Eucharist, and care of God’s world in community are non-exclusive elements on the way.  Ironically, it is also here that we find Jesus, not on clouds descending, but in our hearts, minds, prayers, and actions.  We find him in the faces of those whom we love and serve. And it is here that we are given glimpses of the Kingdom of God, already with us but far from fully realized.   

So we live expectantly, trusting that the God of history was with those three communities in crisis, even if they could not see it, and that God is with us now in any crisis that we face, apocalyptic or not.  As Paul says to the Thessalonians, we do not grieve as others do who have no hope because we have been given a different way.  We do not because we are awake and aware that the living God, known to us in Jesus is in us and among us, and has not abandoned us.  We are awake and aware that the living God, known to us in Jesus, is most present both when we gather and pray, and when we lead lives of faithful action and compassion to advance the Gospel and the dignity and wellbeing of every human being.  Both prayer and action; there is no tension between the two. They are part and parcel of each other and the Kingdom of God, which is not going to drop on us like a weather pattern, cannot advance here and now without both. 

This intentional path of the faithful life yielded to God is ever before us, as individuals and as a congregation.  It leads to that sacred, holy oil of wisdom that comes with effort and intention and through God’s grace and love for us.   Instead of looking heavenward for Jesus, look within, look around.  God is there, waiting for us.   AMEN




Last Published: November 13, 2017 1:23 PM