“We live most of our days in the world of struggle, of pain, of labor – of duty, and responsibility and sacrifice – of simpler joys, ordinary beauty, modest pleasure. But there is here in our tradition there is another voice. A reminder that sometimes we are graced by nothing more or less than delight, ecstasy, wonder. That deep in the heart of the Holy One, deep in our hearts, is a desire simply to be with one another.”
“We come together to create a new reality. A new community, deeply invested in one another, for the long haul. A community which demonstrates a new possibility and motivates bold action for change. We come together to stop the death spiral of violence and retaliation and injustice by creating a more powerful alternative. We want to displace the majority that calls for the destruction of the other, that wishes their enemy would just go away, that says peace is impossible and nothing can change. Continue reading “In the Midst of Violence, A New Creation”
“Our world is so broken, so torn, so filled with suffering that there is a lifetime of holy work for each of us to do. Wherever the Spirit calls us, we are inited to put the power of our lives toward the good and holy path, to energize the decisions that will lead to justice and peace and love. And when we do – choice by choice, decision by decision – the tide can and will turn.
“When we decided to walk this Christian path, we decided to take on ourselves all the hostility that this world unleashes on those who are different. This is our job. This world is longing for a different kind of Christianity once again – for a church with the courage to speak and act – not just in the face of the injustices we see… but also the very deep ones that go unseen, the ways we have already become too much like the others, to cozy with the costs of our own status quo….
“Among the many prayers and traditions for the Passover seder, there is one song that is both a crowd favorite, and a work of theological genius. It’s a song that is more than a thousand years old, passed down generation to generation. The song has fifteen stanzas, each recounting one of God’s mighty acts, and each ending with the same Hebrew word, Dayenu.
On a night when we pile on the symbolism and meaning, we must not lose sight of the message Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples in that last conversation together:
To love one another.
Because without love, nothing else matters.
What does it mean to live?
That was one of the many, many insightful questions from last week’s sermon seminar, a practice of this congregation that I have come to love.
Last Sunday I argued that our salvation derives less from the death of Jesus and more from his life. If this is true, then what does it mean for him – and for us – to live?
It is the right question for this Palm Sunday, when our opening prayer asks God to help us “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby you have given us life”
So what are those mighty acts of life?
We could turn, of course, to the passion and death of Jesus — the final moments of his life, the completion of God’s en-fleshed revelation. But we will have more time to hear and struggle with those words in the coming days.
We can be so quick to turn our gaze to the cross that we miss the significance of the first mighty act, the first spectacle of salvation – the shouts of Hosanna, the so-called Triumphal Entry.
Look back with me again at the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11.
There are so many curious details. So many odd facts that we are prone to skip over – tuning them out – as we do with so much of the Bible.
We turn the page quickly on passages with confusing details –
Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Zephaniah, Zachariah, Nehemiah, and so much more … because these texts do not fit our shorthand version of Scripture, our simplified, and often simplistic telling of the story of God and God’s people.
The passion plays, the Christmas pageants, these neat, buttoned-up tales are not simply an insufficient statement of our faith. They are, quite often, a lie.
A lie of omission, for sure, but a lie no less; a mortal sin of theology, because they give us an atrophied version of our faith, a mockery of the good news. It is no wonder that so many of us struggle to believe, because the line we have been sold is not worthy of our devotion.
But if we will slow down and study, love God with our minds, read the Bible – and ask tough questions, we will find something more compelling. A faith for which we can, and should, give our lives.
And so what about this so-called Triumphal Entry? If we read the text closely, we will see it is neither triumphal, nor even an entry.
Jesus and his friends are on the Mount of Olives, a scrappy hilltop overlooking the Temple. Jesus sends his disciples for a colt, with the promise that he will bring it right back.
“Ah….Jesus needs to borrow it, just for a second” – you can imagine them stammering to a crowd giving them weird looks.
Jesus did not need this colt for any practical reason. The walk down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem’s temple mount would take you all of 10 minutes, tops.
And Jesus did not need the colt to ride through Jerusalem, in some kind of massive, messianic procession. Because – at least in Mark – he does not ride into Jerusalem at all.
If you read the text closely, you see that he enters Jerusalem after the crowds have stopped their Hosanna-shouting and palm-waving. Then he looks around, checks out the temple, and heads back up the Mount of Olives, where this whole thing started.
It is a not-really-triumphal almost-entry into Jerusalem, at best. So what really is going on here?
Jesus is staging a spectacle. An enactment of prophecy, a political statement, a bold challenge to the leaders of his day with a message – watch out, I’m here.
The inspiration for this spectacle is prophet Zechariah, who casts a vision for Jerusalem’s restoration at the end of the Babylonian exile.
Expecting the messiah to come soon, Zechariah offers this image in chapter 9: “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt … and he shall speak peace to you, and his dominion shall be from sea to sea.”
And so we have Jesus, the new kind of Lord, not a warrior king, but the prince of peace, riding into town, as Zechariah predicted. But that’s the easy part.
Because all throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is telling his followers not to tell anyone else that he is the Messiah. Some scholars refer to this as the Messianic secret. So why come out now? Why step into the fray?
I have no idea. What was in the heart and mind of Jesus?
As another person in sermon seminar reminded me last week, it can be difficult to connect with Jesus, however human he may be.
Instead, we might look to the disciples, and the much more human crowds, to get a clue about faithfulness from there.
So let’s look at another curious detail – some spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the field. Had cut. Past perfect tense.
Why had they cut the branches already in the field? Just for fun? Or because Jesus had given them a heads up? We don’t know for sure.
But somehow, these crowds, the “many people” were prepared for this spectacle of salvation.
If you have not read it, I recommend to you a book by John Dominic Crossin and Marcus Borg called The Last Week. It is a fresh read on the final days of Jesus.
And one important point they make is this:
There was another Triumphal Entry that week in Jerusalem.
Each year, the Roman Governor would march from his seaside villa up to Jerusalem, to be on hand in case any riots broke out, as they often did during this volatile Passover feast. A Passover that recalls the Exodus from Egypt and brings with it hope for deliverance once again.
And so we have none other than Pontius Pilot himself, riding on a massive stallion, with the drumbeats and footsteps of the Roman legions inspiring fear in the crowds along their way.
But not only fear. Stirring deep in the soul of the crowds is a rebellious longing, a hope, a confidence that this oppressive regime, like Egypt, too, would have its end.
With his spectacle on the Mount of Olives, Jesus not only sets up a clash between two kingdoms – the kingdom of violence and the kingdom of peace; but he also re-activates the hope of his people … he energizes, with the very life of God, that Passover longing for freedom.
And this, my friends, is what it means to live.
In this donkey-ride outside the city, Jesus speaks to those on the margins, mobilizes the neglected, inspires the oppressed – those who had long-ago cut their palm branches, hoping against hope that someone would come to deliver them.
They needed, more than anything, to shout Hosanna – Literally, “God, save us!”
They needed, more than anything, to let loose their cry, to release their hope, to dare to dream again – to dream that life could be different – that the kingdom of God might rule this world, at last, that love and peace and joy and justice can reign. And they found in Jesus the embodiment of that hope, the messenger of life.
Today we, too, must shout Hosanna. For the good of our souls. For the good of the world.
However crazy and violent and Good-Friday-like this world may be, we cannot let our spirits be crushed. We cannot lose hope.
For this hope is the first mighty act of salvation.
That is what it means to live, and for this hope, we give everything.
Hosanna, in the highest heaven. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
For more on Palm Sunday: http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings/
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Earlier this week, a friend added me to a brand new Facebook group: Wyoming Valley West High School, Class of 1996. In an instant, I was transported back in time to an era of really, really bad fashion – and was reconnected with people I hadn’t seen or heard from or even thought about in nearly twenty years.
The unpredictable path of human life had unfolded differently for each of us.
Bryan* still lives in our hometown of Plymouth; he’s the fire chief now.
Sarah is one of those rare people who actually became a marine biologist, studying mammals off the coast of California.
Many, many of my classmates are married; with many, many cute babies.
And then, in a wonderful turn of fate that makes this previously un-cool nerd grin with guilty pleasure, all but one of the previously-cocky football jocks are looking a lot less buff than they used to.
But what struck me most in this Facebook group were the obituaries for classmates who had died.
Tiffany faced breast cancer, and then brain cancer. Sean was killed in a tragic accident. And for nearly a dozen men, most military veterans, depression, drug abuse, and suicide brought their lives to an end.
As a relatively healthy 37 year-old, I don’t think about death very often. I see most of my life still ahead of me – challenges to overcome, successes to achieve, friendships to nurture, a legacy to build, a world to enjoy, a church pension to collect … and so much more.
But what do we do when things go wrong?
…when life’s path doesn’t unfold as planned. When classmates offer prayers for your memory, instead of ooh-ing and ahh-ing over your cute toddler, or laughing at prom pics on Throwback Thursday (#tbt). What happens when things go wrong?
As we turn the corner on this last Sunday of Lent, we have a gloomy foreshadowing of the final days of the life of Jesus – when everything goes wrong, or right, depending on your perspective.
Over the centuries, we have been trained to think that the death and resurrection of Jesus, the passion and glory of one so-called Holy Week, is the most important part of the Christian story.
Washed in the blood, born again, saved by the sacrifice of the perfect lamb, the blameless victim, offered by the great high priest. We have been taught to see one act of Jesus, his suffering, death and miraculous resurrection, as the source of our salvation.
Theologians have concocted elaborate atonement theologies to explain why Jesus had to die – for us and for our salvation.
Penal substitutionary atonement – the perfect one taking on the punishment of the guilty.
Satisfaction of feudal duty – the perfect one offering infinite obedience to pay the sinner’s debts.
Over and over we have tried to show why God needed Jesus to die – to craft some convincing explanation for this tragic end to the life of the Son of God.
But what if this is the wrong question altogether?
Instead of asking why God needed Jesus to die, what if we asked why God wanted Jesus to live.
But first, we turn to the prophet Jeremiah –
He was, by all accounts, a miserable failure as a prophet. Despite his dire warnings, predictions of doom and miscellaneous antics, Jeremiah was not able to get God’s chosen people to change their ways
God’s chosen people – and their leaders in particular – would not care for the poor, the orphan, the widow; would not show mercy to the marginalized and oppressed; would not prioritize the justice of God over their own security and pleasure … and while they thought they were living large and in charge, the seeds of their undoing had been sown.
And then, courtesy of an invading Babylonian empire, God’s people found themselves in shambles. Their temple destroyed, their nation, eradicated; their leading citizens in exile for what seemed like an eternity. The promises of God were nowhere to be found. And God seemed absent, too. Life for God’s people had become an un-mitigated disaster – just as Jeremiah predicted.
I wonder, what do you do when things go wrong?
Yesterday, my partner and I hopped into our little red Honda for the drive to DC from North Carolina. We were excited about a final day of apartment hunting, making the tough choice between two final contenders to be our DC home.
About halfway through the normally 3.5 hour drive, the highway started turning yellow on Google Maps – an accident on I-95, a bit outside DC. We kept going, in confident hope that it would clear up before we got that far.
We were wrong. After missing the one precious exit that could have taken us on a different route (my fault), we found ourselves stuck in the left lane in miles and miles of traffic that was not going anywhere – and neither were we.
Our 3.5 hour drive turned into an excruciating seven. We missed one of our apartment tour appointments and arrived very, very late to the other. We probably wasted an entire weekend that could have been spent in a more efficient, productive and/or fun way. And we will probably need to come back and do this whole saga over again.
On its face, this is a silly example of things going wrong. In the grand scheme of life, this is no big deal. A few hours late. A lost day. Some missed opportunities.
But perspective was not my strength while I was behind the wheel, and this ill-fated drive brought out in me raw feelings that I have not experienced in a very long time.
Penetrating guilt for one wrong choice. Brooding regret about things done and left undone – what if we had come down on Friday, what if I packed my bags the night before, what if we took the train – “should have’s” and “could have’s” and “would have’s” galore. Sadness about time lost and choices sacrificed. And pure, unadulterated rage at the impatient drivers whose dangerous shenanigans were making the already bad situation worse.
What do you do when things go wrong?
Dig in your heels? Give up and run away? Tear yourself apart in regret and guilt? Close your eyes in denial? Blame someone else? No need to raise your hands….
In today’s lessons, we catch a glimpse of God’s preferred approach to a colossal failure:
And it is this. To start again.
Wherever you are, whatever has happened … God is prepared to start again, from there.
Poor Jeremiah, probably voted least likely to succeed by his high school class – even he has one more word for his people.
Despite all the bad choices of Israel and Judah, God remained faithful and undeterred. Despite the most disastrous outcome for a chosen nation, God had a word of good news: they are not abandoned, and out of exile will come a new beginning.
Jeremiah offers a “New Covenant” that does not depend on stone tablets or even prophets and teachers to show the way. This “New Covenant” will be within us. We will know God. The least and the greatest; the weak and the strong.
Rabbinic teachers have argued that Jeremiah’s new covenant is the Word of the Law itself, literally breathed into us – as an internalized Torah written on our hearts and minds. A covenant symbolized by the restoration of the chosen people to their promised land, courtesy of another invading empire.
We Christians, of course, have seen Jeremiah’s “New Covenant” in Jesus, the source of eternal salvation.
But how exactly does this new covenant work?
Here we are back to our first question for today: Instead of asking why God needed Jesus to die, what if we asked why God wanted Jesus to live.
God wanted Jesus to live, to show us what human life is really about. And here we find a different view of the atonement, another perspective on the final days of Jesus that lie ahead of us.
Our lessons today locate salvation not so much in the death of Jesus, nor even in his miraculous resurrection, but instead in the completion of his human life of faithfulness, even to the very end.
It is what the second century Bishop Irenaeus called recapitulation:
“Christ was in these last days … united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as he became a man liable to suffering … he commenced afresh [in Latin, seipso recapitulavit – he summed up in himself] the long line of human beings and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God – that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”
Or, to put it briefly, Jesus “became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.”
Eastern Orthodox theologians call this theosis, the process of becoming divine: where the new covenant written on our hearts and minds becomes the defining reality of our lives, as it was for Jesus.
And so when the world had again become a colossal failure, when everything had gone wrong, God took another step – to show us in Jesus what human life is supposed to be like. A human life infused with the power of God, but a true human life, no less –
Not a pristine, unblemished supermodel life, but an honest one, a real one – filled with joy and friendship and courage and commitment – confronting betrayal, and loneliness, and ridicule and fear … in the days of his flesh the writer of Hebrews says, Jesus offered loud cries and tears; and John’s Gospel tells us of his troubled soul.
This recapitulation is a massive do-over of humanity, a new path charted by a new forerunner of our faith, one whose faithfulness is greater than ours but who, in every other way is the same – the same humanity as us, the same flesh as us, the same image of God as us, the same new covenant dwelling deep within Him and us. The same seed of faith, ready to bear fruit.
As we turn this final corner of Lent, we face a gloomy foreshadowing that everything is starting to go wrong. How will we respond? Dig in our heels? Give up and run away? Tear ourselves apart in regret and guilt? Close our eyes in denial? The disciples will do all these things.
And yet, in the midst of it all, is a memory and a word. That just as before, there will be a new beginning. A seed that falls to the ground is not dead, but the start a new life.
And that life starts in the most unlikely of places. The humanity, the en-fleshed life of Jesus … the new covenant nestled in our own souls.
There is still much to say. There are still so many things that go wrong. Classmates whose lives are now a memory. Best-laid plans undone by a traffic jam. Wars and rumors of war. Poverty and neglect. Famine and disaster. Jeremiah would weep over us again.
But as the life of Jesus moves to completion, with it comes the promise of new life.
When things go wrong, God’s answer is to begin again.
St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?
Two Sundays in a row, we encounter in Mark’s Gospel a voice from heaven. This week speaking to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son.” Last week, speaking to the disciples (and to us): “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. Words not just for Peter and James and John on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, but words for us, as well.
From heaven, we can almost hear that same voice say
Listen to him, who proclaims good news.
Listen to him, who declares God’s justice.
Listen to him, when he says feed the hungry.
Listen to him, when he says heal the sick.
Listen to him, when he says love your enemy.
Listen to him, when he says do not judge.
Listen to him, when he says “take and eat”
Listen to him, and take up your cross
Listen to him, and do not be afraid
Listen to him, beloved of God. Listen to the voice of Jesus.
So simple, it seems – but not so simple. Because we hear other voices. Voices not from God.
Voices that draw us off the path of life. Voices that distract us from our focus on Jesus.
In Lent, this 40-day season of simplicity and focus, we are invited, over and over again, to return to God. To return to the One who created us, who loves us, saves us, heals us, strengthens us, challenges us to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, to be a people of love and justice.
In Lent, we learn to listen, again. To listen to the voice of God, to hear the voice of Jesus more strongly than all the other voices. To listen with the ear of the heart, as the Rule of St. Benedict says – the deepest listening, from the deepest place inside us, to the deepest longing in the heart of God.
But how? How can we learn to listen?
It may not surprise you that the church has no shortage of “helpful” tips. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten shorthand. Fish on Fridays, give up chocolate, and all the rest.
Maybe it was always this way, but it feels like Lent has become a kind of spiritual “bootcamp,” a chance for normally laid-back Christians to go hardcore in a disciplined spiritual life, to undertake a massive program of repentance and self-improvement – a second chance at those pesky New Year’s Resolutions, a moment to confront our destructive desires, to undo the habits that keep us stuck in a festering dissatisfaction, to set aside the built-up resentments and fears that divide us from one another.
It may also not surprise you to learn that – in my younger days – I was a bit of a spiritual overachiever.
At Pilgrim Congregational Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, I sang in the choir, starred in the Christmas pageant, took up the offering as a junior usher, and made sure to have perfect attendance at Sunday School. At home, I prayed before meals, even when my parents didn’t, and I would listen to hours of evangelical radio preachers at night before bed.
But I was so jealous … of the Catholics. Not only did they get to leave school early for Catechism class, but they came with ashes on their foreheads once a year, made the sign of the cross when they prayed, got to be altar servers, and gave things up for lent.
So, it also may not surprise you to learn that when I found the Episcopal Church in college, I embraced Lent with gusto.
I was into every spiritual discipline – no meat on Fridays, formal prayer four or five times a day, no shopping, giving away most of my discretionary income, silent retreats, centering prayer, Wednesday soup suppers at church and the plan to make my way through every Lenten devotional booklet on offer at church – Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Episcopal Relief and Development, Forward Day by Day.
I did it all. Or at least I tried to do it all. Because if there is one thing that is true of every Lenten discipline, every spiritual practice I have ever attempted, it is this:
At some point, it was a failure.
A failure, at least, in the fact that it didn’t go exactly as planned. And this, I think, is the point.
Because the disciplines (in and of themselves) are at best irrelevant and at worst foolishly-offensive to God.
On Ash Wednesday, the prophet Isaiah reminded us that God has absolutely no interest in the particular, visible signs of piety like fasting from food, or putting ash on our forehead – unless they also lead to the fast of God’s choosing, which Isaiah tells us is this –
to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.
Lent is not a second chance at New Year’s Resolutions. Not a 40 day wilderness self-improvement program. Not a chance to emerge holy and proud of ourselves when Easter comes. Not about being the spiritual overachiever of my childhood dreams.
No, Lent, at its best, undoes us, pierces us, unravels us, exposes us. It is precisely our Lenten failures which bring us closer to the voice of God.
When we try, and fail, to fast –
we feel the competing hungers in our bodies and souls.
When we try, and fail, to pray –
we notice our distracted, hurried days; our weakness even in the simplest things.
When we try, and fail, to give alms –
try and fail, to share our bread,
try and fail to break the yokes of injustice
we confront the power of evil, the weight of the sin that ensnares us all.
When we try, and fail, we begin to come out of hiding. When we try and fail, we begin to notice the many voices calling our name. We begin recognize the voice of Jesus.
Give up chocolate; take on prayer; stop and talk to a person living on the street, ask them their name; turn off Facebook for a week, a day, an hour; open the Bible and actually read it. Whatever else you do or don’t do for these next forty days, bring yourself to the place where you hear Jesus.
And that place can be anywhere. Because as distracted as we are, as tempted by other voices, as prone to wander as we may be, we are never outside of God’s saving power, never that far from the voice of Jesus.
Nestled in our New Testament reading today is one of the Bible’s hidden gems. Jesus, it tells us, “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”
This is the scriptural source for an old Christian teaching called the harrowing of hell; that during the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus went down into the farthest reaches of death’s grap, to proclaim Good News to everyone – even to those who were most unwilling to hear God’s voice in their own time.
Christ’s descent to the dead, which we proclaim in the Apostles Creed, is a symbol of just how far God will go to reach us, a proclamation that no one, and nothing, is beyond God’s salvation. Because, we remember, the rainbow covenant made after the flood, was not just with all humanity, but with every living creature – past, present and yet to come.
With that confidence in God’s presence, let yourselves be broken. Let your failures be a blessing. Take on some practice, for sure, but learn from your struggles and failings, and focus on the fast of God’s choosing …
And listen, listen hard, listen deep for the voice of Jesus – a voice calling out to you, even to the depths of hell, even to the depths of your heart.
How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?
For more about listening from the heart, I recommend this reflection by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold: http://www.crosscurrents.org/griswold.htm
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.