Be Prepared

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, New London, NH

“The bridegroom said Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ it is so good to be here with you on this day and at this hour.

When I was living down the road in Wilmot and working on the Bishop’s staff nearly 5 years ago, the thing I loved almost as much as coming to church at St Andrew’s was the chance to travel around this beautiful state.

Once or twice a month, I’d get up long before dawn and pile into my little Ford Focus just barely in time to make it to Keene, or Plymouth, or Durham for that 8AM Eucharist.

Without fail, somewhere along 89 or 93 or Route 10 or some back road, the sun would creep up behind the mountains and the brightness of new life would warm this earth again.

It was glorious.   This morning, as I drove down from Burlington Vermont, I smiled again at the sunrise, as a small bit of grace and hope washed over our world.

As you may know, I’m in town this weekend for an event in Burlington with Kids4Peace Vermont, as they celebrate more than a decade of interfaith peacebuilding with youth from Jerusalem and Vermont’s own Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

I’m blessed to have Kids4Peace as my full-time ministry: as director of a global NGO with a main office in Jerusalem and 10 chapters across North America, now serving more than 400 families who are working together for a just and lasting peace in our world.

At a time when there is so much tragic, frightening and polarizing news coming from the Middle East, Kids4Peace is a glimmer of hope, a bit of grace and warmth and joy rising on this world.

So thank you for your support of Kids4Peace, and for welcoming three of our young peacemakers to speak to you here.   I won’t even try to tell the K4P story as well as they did, so let’s turn – for now – to Matthew’s Gospel.

+++

It’s a curious story today. Five bridesmaids brought extra oil. Five did not. They all fell asleep while waiting for an unexpectedly-late bridegroom, but the ones who were prepared got to enjoy the wedding feast, while the others – who had to do a last-minute late-night shopping run – found themselves locked-out of the party.

It’s a curious story, one that can grate on our sensibilities.

First, it’s about the end of the world, something we Episcopalians don’t think so much about. But here it is, in the Bible, paired (for extra effect) with a passage from Thessalonians.

A passage which serves as the dubious biblical justification for the rapture, a belief that before the end of time, the “saved” will all disappear and meet Jesus in the sky and be whisked off to heaven, as portrayed in the Left Behind series of novels and movies.

Second, the story of the bridesmaids grates on us because some people are clearly left out, excluded. The bridesmaids with the dried up lamps are not welcome at the party, not invited to the table. Their failure to stock up on oil brings eternally disastrous consequences. “Not all are welcome; there are some exceptions.”

But we would be wrong to read this story as a descriptive prediction of the future – wrong to take it at face value, or to dismiss it out of hand.

The story is a parable, that curious and confusing genre through which Jesus reveals what the Reign of God, the New Creation, eternal life, is really like.

The lesson of a parable – the teaching that nudges us closer to the Good News, closer to the life of God – can often be hidden in the midst of puzzling details.

But this time Jesus is clear. The moral of the story is right there in verse 13: “Keep Awake” – also translated “Be Prepared.”

+++

Be Prepared. That’s a lesson I can get behind.

For most of my life I was a Boy Scout, and this motto was drilled into me. Be Prepared. Carry a first aid kit and extra water. Dress in layers. Have a backup plan; a raincoat; an emergency exit.

Be Prepared is a good, New Hampshire lesson, too.

When my early morning drives to Plymouth and Keene and Durham happened in the winter months, I’d load up my trunk with a shovel, blanket, kitty litter, hand warmers and a few Cliff bars in case I ended up stranded in a ditch. And I remember you coming to church with stories about installing whole-house generators and splitting logs for the wood stove.

Be Prepared. Stock up.

It’s a good Boy Scout Lesson, a good New Hampshire lesson. But is it a good Gospel lesson?

Good question … since Jesus often frequently tells us the exact opposite.

Don’t be quite so prepared. Don’t store up treasures on earth; sell your stuff, drop your nets and follow me; take only the clothes on your back and the sandals on your feet. Don’t worry about tomorrow; consider the lilies of the field.

Travel light. Risk it all. Be bold. Go for broke.

That wild and unbounded Gospel invitation took a while to pierce my comfortably granite soul.

So which is it? Be prepared or risk it all? Stock up or travel light? What is the Good News? What is the way that leads to eternal life?

This weekend, I’ve been following your Diocesan Convention on Facebook and Twitter.

Bishop Rob, in his Convention Address, spoke about five practices through which we participate in the eternal life of God, sharing the ministry of tending the vine with God, the Divine Vinedresser.

  • First, we show up. We present ourselves and open our lives to God’s presence.
  • Second, we tell the story. The stories of our lives and the story of God, woven together.
  • Third, we splash water. Baptized, washed, joined with God and a broken world; connected, nourished, flowing.
  • Fourth, we share the food. At table, offered and blessed, broken and transformed, where the hungers of this world are truly satisfied
  • Finally, a practice not of our doing: God surprises. The Spirit breaks through in ways beyond our control or imagination.

I like those five practices.

When Christian life seems too hard or too confusing; when God seems too distant or too weak, when anxieties pile up and problems overwhelm, those five practices still seem right and good and possible. I can wrap my heart and soul and mind and strength around that way of love for God and one another. I can show up. I can tell a story. I can splash water and share food and boy can I be surprised.

But if I can be bold enough to add to the Bishop’s list and offer a sixth practice, it would be this: We continue.

We don’t do the other practices just once. Not one shared meal or one splash in the water or one story, as powerful as any of them may be. We abide in the life of God, which means we show up again and again and again – just as God’s steadfast love shows up for us.

+++

So that extra oil in Matthew’s Gospel?

Maybe it’s all about going the distance with God. Being ready to abide, to stay – sleepy or awake – in the presence of the holy one.

Maybe the bridesmaids with the extra oil were wise, because they knew that this world-changing wedding feast, the New Creation, would not arrive as quickly as any of us hope. Maybe they knew that that redemption is slow, fragile … but also real.

Over my eight years with Kids4Peace, that’s the lesson I’ve learned.

Peace comes not in a moment of glory, not in presidential handshakes and photo-ops, but in the dogged determination of thousands of ordinary people who will not let go of a vision about what this world should be like.

People who continue, in the face of conflict and against all odds.

People like Mary, a young Palestinian Christian who continues, even when her friends call her a traitor or spy. “You wouldn’t believe what they say about us,” she tells me.

People like Nitzan, a young Jewish girl whose father was the driver of a bus in which a suicide bomb went off. “I don’t want to grow up to hate,” she tells me.

People like Arie, a Jewish dad who doesn’t want his son chanting death to Arabs.

And people like Samar, an Arab mom, who dodges endless checkpoints and road closures to get her son to school, all without hating the Israelis who seem to stand in their way.

People who believe that kids have power, that religion can unite – not divide, that Jerusalem can be a city of peace again,

In my eight years with Kids4Peace, we’ve faced the first Lebanon war, and the second. The first Gaza operation, and the second, and the third. At every turn, it would be easy to give up.

But new life requires that we desire and cling not just to the destination, but to the path; not just to the wedding party, but to the extra oil that will get us there.

Thomas A Kempis, author of the Imitation of Christ said this: “all men desire peace, but few desire the things that make for peace. “ 

Wise bridesmaids, wise Christians – desire not only peace but the things that make for peace; not only eternal life, but the things that make for life; not only a wedding banquet, but enough oil to last the night.

We prepare, with extra oil, not in case something goes wrong – the way I did in the Boy Scouts or winter adventures in my Ford Focus – not as a backup plan in case something went Haywire.  We prepare, with extra oil, because we need it when things go right.

We show up, we tend the vine, we show up and show up and show up again.  Not for a day, but for a lifetime.

God Surprises. We Continue. And a New Creation begins.