Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon for November 30, 2014
This Scripture isn't Nearly Adorable Enough: Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering,
"the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its' leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
What are the essential elements for telling a good Christmas story? Well, we need the Holy family, Mary and Joseph. It is preferable that they be pitiful looking and forlorn, but also clean and tidy. We probably need a donkey, too, because that's their ride. And, the donkey should be clean and tidy. Angels. We also need angels. That's how Mary finds out that she's going to be pregnant and the shepherds find out where the baby is. The angels should be shiny and strong, but not too imposing. Wouldn't want to scare any of the on-lookers. There should be shepherds and wise men looking very pious, a simple barn with a manger that really looks like a cradle, and a really bright star. Oh, and the other animals in the barn should be very still and quiet. And, so should baby Jesus. It should be like that verse in the hymn "Away in a Manger," where baby Jesus wakes up all quietly and sweetly, even though he is a new-born who has been sleeping in a pile of itchy hay. This is the image I see most often in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Everything is peaceful... quiet... well- mannered. Nobody weeps. Nobody cries out. No one is suffering. Everything is serene... serene and adorable.
I wouldn't blame you if, on this first Sunday of Advent, you expected something pretty adorable during our scripture reading. I did, too. I expected the first readings to be about sheep, or sweet but put-upon parents, or some surprise angels showing up out of the blue. What I got was the end of the world. This section of Mark is often called the Little Apocalypse. During this new liturgical year that we begin today, we'll spend most of our Gospel time with the book of Mark. There is an intensity and directness of speech throughout this Gospel. As we read through it together, you will notice an immediacy to the Gospel's sense of time and storytelling. Over the next year, I kind of want to keep a big tally sheet of when the gospel writer used the word "immediately." You will hear how, after being tempted Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness. And, then you will hear that when Jesus began to preach, immediately the disciples leave their fishing nets to follow him. The author will also increase levels of intensity in the story by showing Jesus being utterly surrounded and nearly crushed by crowds of the people searching for healing. People will even break through the roof of a home where he is preaching in order to lower a paralyzed man down to him. Jesus and his followers will have to hide out in the country just to get time to eat.
Jesus will feed over 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. He will walk on water and calm the sea with only his voice. He will raise the dead. He will cast out demon after demon after demon. He will be accused of being possessed himself and, even his family will think he has lost his mind. He will be rejected in his hometown. He will argue with scribes and Pharisees and will make enemies of those who plan to kill him. And, in what may be one of the most galling aspects of this Gospel story, his followers will never even seem to truly understand his work. They follow him but don’t really know who he is. He will ask them. “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” The Gospel of Mark, the gospel with which we begin our Advent season is not serene or even one little bit adorable. It is Jesus at his most misunderstood and frustrated, zapping fig trees that fail to give fruit when he’s hungry and trashing tables of the moneychangers in the temple. It is Jesus preaching about the end of the world.
If you've been able to be here over the last few weeks as we've made our way through the parables in Matthew, this story may sound familiar. Jesus, realizing that the end of his earthly ministry was likely drawing near, tried to prepare his followers for what was coming. He shared with them words inspired by ancient Jewish prophets: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” He also told his followers that there may be signs of God's radical in-breaking in the world, but, in the end, no one really knows when God will finally save all of God's people. So, Jesus told his friends and followers, "Stay Awake." You don't want to miss the return.
Now, most of the time, when I hear people talking about staying awake and Jesus' birth, they are usually talking about staying awake to watch out for Santa or to sneak around to find presents or going out for Black Friday sales. It is exceedingly rare that I hear people talk about staying awake so they don't miss the empire of heaven bursting forth around them. I mean, staying awake to wait for Santa is whimsical... adorable even. The radical in-breaking of the Son of Man is awe-inspiring and intense. It is probably not what you would call serene. It is not really what I would pick to preach about when I want to introduce the season of Advent. In fact, I rather talk about almost anything than the end of the World.
Part of my reticence to talk about this Little Apocalypse is simply old theological baggage that I carry around. Too often I have seen "The End is Near" placards used as weapons to shame and demonize theological difference. Too often, I have heard calls for social justice rejected out of an allegiance to a particular kind of end times thinking that decries any "worldly" social change as distracting from the "true" calling of saving souls. I have seen real people's real needs for food, water, health, and equality ignored or used to manipulate them for personal gain under the guise of preparing them for the return of Christ. What is often most horrifying for me are those occasions where people's struggles within oppressive systems are understood not as symptoms of human systems which we must change, but as signs of God's disfavor and judgment. Because of my own theological struggles with these issues, I often avoid apocalyptic parts of the Bible. It seems to have no place with the God of love and justice whom I have learned to follow. I find the end of the world to be disruptive and theologically inconvenient. So, I usually ignore it.
This week, though, it has been hard for me to ignore the end of the world. I spent many hours on Monday night waiting for news, hoping for justice, and watching a city burn. I read the social media timelines of friends and colleagues and scholars whom I respect. I heard their testimonies of faith and read as they shared the fears they have walking out the door every day. I read the prayers they have for their brown-skinned children. I saw pictures of police, armed as if for war, firing smoke bombs into crowds of protestors. I read as a public servant seemed to do all he could do to assure that the unpopular verdict he was preparing to deliver would be given in a manner most frustrating and most tone deaf to the concerns of the community that he was supposed to be serving. It didn't stop Monday morning. As the week has progressed, I have read far more about the hopeless, destructive rioters who burned buildings than the clergy and community lay leaders who have staged countless non-violent demonstrations. I watched the police use a military grade vehicle to protect shoppers at a big box store while using the same kind of vehicle to disrupt protestors who were exercising their right to free speech and free assembly. And, one family wept for their son's life and now believes that they will never see justice, I have heard the voices of many more families who see this as confirmation that they will never be treated fairly in this country.
I suppose that I could have ignored the news coverage. I could have turned the channel and ignored the stories streaming across my computer screen. That is a privilege I have since I live so far away from Ferguson. It's also a privilege I have as a white person who is pretty consistently given the benefit of the doubt by people in authority. I can pretend that this doesn't have to effect me because I'm far away and can insulate myself because of my education and my stable income. There is more than enough commercialized faux-Christmas hooey floating around that I could have distracted myself for months without paying attention to the real suffering that it going on around me. I could have overlooked the end of someone's else's world and it would have only cost me a few dollars and a little bit of my soul. I could have decided that my comfort matters more than other peoples' very lives and believe that really, they probably brought all of this on themselves. After all, it was Thanksgiving and we are getting ever closer to Christmas, and all of this end of the world business is awfully inconvenient. It is not serene and it is not adorable.
The Little Apocalypse reminds us that this is not the season to worry about either convenience or appearances. It is the season to think of the change that came with God's incarnation in Jesus. The power of this Little Apocalypse is that it reminds us that God's in-breaking will not go unnoticed. In this scripture, we hear Jesus, speaking at the end of his life in a way that can help us interpret the beginning of his life and also help us look towards the future empire of heaven that we will build with God. Jesus tells us that the world will be, was, and is now continually being changed because of his presence in it. When God becomes present in the world in a drastically new way through incarnation in Christ, the very cosmos will be changed. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its' light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. All the things we know... all of heaven will pass away, but the words of Jesus will be eternal. And, Jesus' final words in this section are "Keep Awake."
Some might ask, doesn't giving so much attention to the end of the world ignore the needs of humanity right now? At least one scholar I have read would argue that it doesn't at all. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman contends that contends that apocalypticism is, in fact, social justice. It is first and foremost an ideology of resistance, a way of envisioning hope and social justice in an unjust world. Ehrman maintains that in the end, apocalypticism gave hope to the oppressed people by redefining earthly struggles in light of God's involvement in creation. If bad things were happening, it was a sign that forces of evil and destruction were fighting against the Reconciliation and Justice of God. When Jesus called upon apocalyptic theology, he was re-stating a firm belief that God was doing a new thing, creating something new and holy and redemptive out of the old, tarnished world. In the midst of all that wounds, all that appears evil, God will do a new thing. In the midst of Roman occupation and religious corruption, God would do a new thing. In the midst of strained relations and uncertain circumstances, God would do a new thing. And it is our job as followers of God to Watch, to be alert, for we do not want to miss playing our part in this new creation.
What better way to begin our time of Advent, our time of hopeful expectation in the midst of great darkness, than with a reminder that God will do new things and that we called to do new things with God. We are a part of this new creation, renewed in God's image, and invited to continue a life of service. Perhaps the demonstrations that began in Ferguson and have reverberated across this nation can direct how we offer service. As people looking to serve as Jesus served, we should the questions of local law enforcement. For example, if as the Daily Beast reported in 2011, the Augusta police force has spent $16,000 of taxpayer money on military grade tactical gear, we should ask if they have they spent a similar amount on community policing efforts intended to build trust with community members. We should be asking if our local police are being taught stop-and-frisk style tactics, tactics that rely on stopping a lot of people with little evidence in hopes of catching a few people breaking the law. These tactics simply increase citizen distrust of police and drastically reduce the police's ability to build healthy relationships in the community. We should also ask if tax money is being spent to prepare our local police for war with local citizens, is there a similar level of support for social safety-net programs that can prevent people from ending up in situations where they will do battle with police?
These are just a few ways that I can see our church community taking part in Advent... that is actively waiting for and participating in the coming of the Christ-child. It will probably be a little messy and not particularly serene. But, if we're honest, the weeks leading up to the first Christmas probably weren't all that serene either. Scholar Kathleen Norris once said that apocalyptic literature is a command to come to full attention to the here and now. Here and now, we are being called to make sure that systemic racism is not circumventing true justice. Here and now, we are called to make sure that peaceful protests are heard. Here and now, we care called to find hope in the darkest of hours. Jesus tells us, “Therefore, keep awake- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn... And what I say to you I say to all: Keep Awake.” Keep awake. We have a lot of work to do.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
D.Mark Davis, "Images of Hope, Suffering, and Vigilance":
David Lose, "Advent 1B: Preaching a Participatory Advent": http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/
Pulpit Fiction Podcast, "91: Advent 1B (November 30)Happy New Year Apocalypse!": http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/91-advent-1b-nov-30-happy-new-year-apocalypse
Paul S. Berge's commentary on Mark 13:24-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=184
Jan Richardson, "A Blessing When the World is Ending": http://adventdoor.com/2014/11/23/advent-1-blessing-when-the-world-is-ending/
John W. Whitehead, "Drones, Tanks, and Grenade Launchers: Coming Soon to a Police Department Near You": https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/drones_tanks_and_grenade_launchers_coming_soon_to_a_police_department_
Andrew Becker, "Local Cops Ready for War With Homeland Security-Funded Military Weapons": http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/20/local-cops-ready-for-war-with-homeland-security-funded-military-weapons.html
Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody, "Driving While Black": http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2014/ten_miles_square/driving_while_black048283.php?page=all
Mark Allen Powell's commentary on Mark 13: 24-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2265
The Least of These: Matthew 25: 31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This week I learned a new abbreviation: tl;dr. As someone who reads a lot of things on the internet, I have often seen this piece of shorthand in the midst snarky comments at the end of a particularly contentious article. It was only this week that I actually looked it up to see what it means. It means: Too long; Didn't read. The phrase, Too long; Didn't read, like most tools, can be used for good and for ill. In the hand of a good editor, this phrase reminds a writer to spend just a little more time crafting one's words. In the hands of a mean-spirited internet commenter, it is often simply a short way to say that you don't actually want to read all of what someone else writes, regardless of how well-crafted it may be. It can be kind of like sticking your fingers in your ears, except with writing instead of listening.
In the hands of someone very creative, Too long; Didn't read can become something as funny as the post where I read it this week. This is what one writer on the internet imagined would be the Too long; Didn't read version of the Bible.
God: All right, you two, don't do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
Satan: You should do the thing.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
God: What happened!?
Adam & Eve: We did the thing.
THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.
People: We won't do the things.
People: We did the things.
Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don't do the things anymore.
Healed people: Okay! Thank you!
Other people: We've never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.
Jesus: I have never done the things.
Other people: We're going to put you on trial for doing the things.
Pilate: Did you do the things?
Pilate: He didn't do the things.
Other people: Kill him anyway.
There's a little more in the post, but, for fear of being too long-winded, I won't read it all. I've posted the rest on the church Facebook page if you really want to read the rest (which I recommend). And, while I have a few quibbles with this interpretation, I appreciate the effort. And, it's pretty funny.
Sometimes I think people make tl;dr interpretations of scripture without realizing it. The Bible can be very complex and we humans don't always have much patience for complexity. We want very much to have a quick and simplified interpretation that cleans up any messiness or confusion we encounter in these texts. We take our cue from the medieval philosopher, William of Occam, who said that the simplest answer is usually the best answer. While I do think there is a way to see clarity that may mean narrowing our reading focus, to read too narrowly risks over-simplification. One way that I think today's Gospel reading gets over-simplified is that people stop reading at about three verses in. They see that the Son of Man, that is the apocalyptic figure who's appearance indicates the end of an age, will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. And, they stop there. They feel like they've got enough information to make an interpretation. God is coming to judge everybody and all you people who are goats are totally out of luck. All of us sheep are in the clear.
I think we stop right there because we think we know who the sheep and the goats are, and usually we think we are obviously the sheep. We have learned to identify sheep because they embody a certain set of characteristics, characteristics that we certainly embody. Sheep are well behaved and always follow the rules. Sheep are adorable and fluffy and always really beautiful. Sheep are clean and smell good, too. And, sheep are productive... they eat grass to keep the yard short and grow wool that keeps humans warm. We are well-behaved and follow the rules. We are adorable. We are clean and productive. We are also members of the right church and have the right theology. We are obviously the sheep.
The thing is... sheep aren't really any of those things, as any farmer in this room will tell you. Ok, they do eat grass and grow wool. And, the baby ones are pretty cute. However, they are rarely clean and don't usually smell good. They run off all the time and are really hard to organize. We have to train other animals, dogs, to help us keep them in line. In my mind, sheep are much different than goats. And, my great grandmother always told me not to trust a goat. Even though you can milk them to make delicious cheese, they will always sneak in your house, eat your papers, and poop on the floor. And, if we're being honest, like the sheep, we are rarely as clean, well-behaved, or good-smelling as we often claim to be. Maybe we actually are the sheep, even though we don't really know what that means or what sheep really are. See, this is what happens when we apply Occam's theory too simply. We end up smelling bad and judging ourselves and others by the completely wrong standards.
When we stop reading this scripture too soon, and too readily identify with the figures we think are the heroes, we miss something very important. We miss the description of the sheep that would help us figure out how to be more like them and explain why being like them is a good thing. As Jesus continued to speak to his disciples, he described the Son of Man explaining righteousness in the following way. Jesus invites those who are blessed, that would be the sheep, as being able to inherit the empire of heaven because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, made sure he had clothes when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. Now, if you'll notice, the righteous people have no idea when they did that. None. They are completely confused and had to ask him for some clarification. And, that is when the Son of Man surprised them.
Most people who have done something good for someone powerful would expect that they would have something good done for them. This little quid pro quo makes certain parts of the world go round. But, Jesus described a way of being in relationship that had very little do with helping the powerful and everything to do with helping the powerless. In Jesus' story, the Son of Man shocks the righteous by telling them "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Every time you take a can of green beans to the food pantry, you feed me. Every moment you spend making sure your neighbors have clean drinking water, you make sure I have clean water, too. Every time you drive down to Rockland to visit the imprisoned or drive up to Winthrop Manor to hold the hand of the person with dementia, you do the same for me.
The righteous, rather than only serving the powerful for personal gain, have chosen to serve the powerless. In demonstrating concern for others with no expectation of reward, the righteous have actually served the one to whom they have greatest allegiance, God. If we want to be like the righteous, to be sheep instead of goats, we are called to serve in the same way. We don't serve because we want God to do good things to us. We serve because we know that we are beloved, and we have the gift of sharing that sense of belovedness with all of our neighbors. Shoot, even when we count ourselves to be among the sick, poor, and imprisoned, as we learned a few weeks ago when we read the Beatitudes, we can remember that God still calls us blessed. Whether we are the ones providing care or being cared for by our neighbors, we are still beloved children of God. We still have the light of the Divine in us, even when the world seems dark.
But, serving people is not always easy. We can get distracted by our own needs and seduced by systems that tell us that we should only help the people who can make it worth our while. It can also be disheartening, as anyone who has served the poor, sick, and imprisoned can attest. We can be overwhelmed by all the need and feel like our efforts are only a drop in the bucket. I think Jesus knew that, and that's why he called the righteous sheep. Remember, sheep smell bad, are unruly, and not nearly as cute as popular culture suggests, and, if we're honest, a certain strain of Christianity has taught us. If we are going to be righteous, if we are going to be like sheep, we are not going to be squeaky clean.
First off, if we don't expect all sheep to be clean and tidy, we don't need to expect all people to be clean and tidy. When Jesus described righteousness, he did not use either of those words. So we don't make those words precursors for relationship either. As a community that calls ourselves Open and Affirming that means we make sure that when people walk in these doors, when people come to hang out with our flock, they know that they are welcome regardless of how messy they may look or feel. Cleanliness or wealth or stability are not required.
Secondly, for those of us who feel pretty tidy, we have to be willing to get a little messy. If we are going to feed the hungry, we're probably going to get sweaty lugging donations around our food pantry. If we are going to make sure the poor have access to basic necessities, we're going to have to help break through the all the gates, legislative, cultural, and corporate, that prevent them from having what they need. We will walk through some muddy pastures to find compassion and justice for people who are incarcerated. We will huddle together with the sick and broken to keep each other warm during the worst of storms. At the end of the day, when the shepherd has rounded us up, if we're acting like regular old sheep, after we've broken down some gates and splashed through the mud and stood together through the storms, we're probably going to smell a little bad. But, we'll all be together and sheep are supposed to stick together. That's what makes us a flock. So, let's not be afraid to get a little dirty. Sheep don't need to smell good anyway.
PS I still haven't figured out why goats are bad yet. We'll have to work on that another Sunday.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Greg Carey's commentary on Matthew 25:31-46: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2209
Carla Works' commentary on Matthew 25:31-46:
This Reddit post from someone called Cabbagetroll:
Sermon for November 16, 2014
Living in the Light: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
There was once a church that was very afraid. It was a new church... a mission church founded by a very influential preacher. This preacher, after having been mistreated in one town, moved to their city. It was an important, metropolitan trading center. In this city, known for wild, debaucherous, public religious celebrations, this preacher found a group of people who were excited to hear his message about the living God. Despite being a different ethnic and religious background than the preacher, they trusted him. And, they joined together and became a church. They became a community of mutual support. They worshiped and prayed together. And, they waited for the Lord.
But, something happened. Their new teacher and friend was run out of town. I don't really know why. Some accounts say that people who disagreed with him went to the authorities to try to get him in trouble for some kind of sedition. Others say that there were riots and accusations of disturbing the peace. Either way, their beloved leader was forced to leave town. They were new to the faith. They had relied on him. They had so many questions and it seemed like they had developed more than a few enemies in their short time as a religious community. They were a small, persecuted church. When I say persecuted, I mean actually persecuted.
These days, when we hear about persecution of Christians, at least in this country, we aren't really hearing about persecution. We are hearing about some group of Christians being asked to remember that not everyone believes like they do and being asked to respect others' right to believe differently. That is not persecution. That is pluralism and pluralism is a good thing. No. This little church was actually being persecuted. They were a religious minority in a theocratic society where people were often required by law to follow certain religious beliefs. People who failed to follow the state-sanctioned religious activities were often assumed to be dangers to the government. This church, as believers in the living God, would not have practiced the State religion. So, they would have been treated with suspicion. It was not good to be on the government's bad side. They were afraid.
Though the preacher was now many miles away in another town, he seemed to have heard of the struggles of the small, fearful community. He had not forgotten them. He prayed for them. And, he wanted to share his love and to offer them comfort. He wanted to remind them of God's love and to remind them that they were responsible for caring for one another. He wanted to remind them that even as they were persecuted, even as they waited for the in-breaking of the empire of heaven, that they were not lost... that God did not set them aside to face wrath, but had offered them a chance at a new kind of life through Jesus. The preacher had found hope in Jesus. He wanted to make sure that this small, persecuted church did not lose that hope. He wasn't able to travel back to the church, either because he was ill or because he was still persona non grata in the city. Since he couldn't travel, he wrote them a letter. 1 Thessalonians is that letter and the Apostle Paul was that preacher. The ancient church thought the advice was good enough that they passed it around to other churches. These other churches found hope in these words to the Thessalonians. I think we can find hope here, too.
Last week, we learned about a parable Jesus told to inspire and teach his disciples about waiting. As I stated last week, waiting has long been understood as a hallmark of Christianity. The Jews who first followed Jesus had been waiting for the Messiah who would defeat those who oppressed Israel. This type of theology, often called apocalyptic, arose in Judaism during a time of great strife and suffering, the time of the Babylonian exile. As the people struggled, many believed that only God could deliver them from the evil that surrounded them. Apocalypticism is, at its' heart, a hope that God will break into history to restore justice and goodness to those who have been destroyed by the powers and the principalities of the world. For Jesus' followers, he became that radical in-breaking of God, though not in a way that most people expected. His resurrection became a potent symbol of the power of light and life to overcome darkness and death. It was a symbol powerful enough that not only Jews, the original apocalyptics, found hope in it, but also Gentiles, people who would have been wholly unfamiliar with the ancient Jewish concept of Messiah.
The disciples and Paul, all Jews, carried this Gospel, this good news, that death would not have the final say beyond the bounds of their religious and ethnic community. They traveled across ancient Rome, preaching in Jewish synagogues and Gentile market places, and told people about Jesus. In their stories of healing, compassion, and life, people from all manner of religious backgrounds found hope, including the people of Thessalonica. People believed. They began to wait for Jesus' return to finish the renewal of this world that he began during his ministry. As many of us learned last week, it is hard to wait. And, Jesus took a lot longer in coming back than most of them expected, especially Paul, who thought Jesus' return was imminent.
As they waited, a few things happened, some of which are recorded in Paul's letters to various churches. In some places, arguments erupted in their communities over right teaching and practice. In other places, people could not agree whether or not one had to become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus. In Thessalonica, people were persecuted for their beliefs by the broader community. And, also, while they waited for Jesus' return, some of their friends died. People whom they loved and who they knew loved Jesus, would not see Christ's return and the broader community grieved for them. The dead had waited so faithfully. Could it be that they would not see the fullness of God's reign of compassion and love? It was these two questions that Paul addressed in his letter.
It can be hard to wait, especially if the waiting takes longer than you expect and things don't happen that you don't expect to happen. Paul seemed to know that. He had been waiting himself. He knew that part of his role was to help people develop a concept of God that sustained them through the waiting. He did this by recommending some specific behaviors. He reminded people to stay awake and alert, for the return could happen at any moment, like a thief in the night or like the sudden onset of labor pains. He reminded people to live lives that reflected God's holiness, that is to care for one another, practice self-control, and exploit no one. But, Paul didn't just want to make this letter a list of do's and don'ts. He wanted to remind people of their hope.
He did so by using powerful images of light and dark. Throughout Hebrew scripture, the light is used to signify God. In the broader Pagan culture in which these Gentile converts had been raised, it was common for a broad range of religions to understand the world as a struggle between good, represented by the light, and evil, represented by darkness. And, on a practical level, in a world with no electricity, the darkness held great danger for the average person. The dark places of their world were home to bandits, wild animals, and fierce terrain. With the exception of the Song of Songs, when darkness is mentioned in the Bible, it is a frightening, bewildering thing. When these people grow fearful of the future, Paul reminds them that they will not be lost in the dark. No, they are children of the light and children of the day. They reflected the very essence of the Divine. As such, they would not be lost as they wait. For they will be able to see clearly through the power of their faith in Christ. When the world seems dark, they carry the very light of day with them, so they need not be afraid.
And, what is more, the faith, hope, and love that they have learned through faith will protect them when they feel most vulnerable. He offered them this beautiful metaphor, saying, "Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." Notice that, even though these metaphors may seem militaristic, the armor he mentions is all defensive. It is for protection of oneself, not for aggression against another. He didn't say, "We will beat down the sinners with the Hammer of Scripture and the Sword of Righteousness." No. He said our faith, hope, and love will protect us, even as we are persecuted... even as we wait... even as the ones we love die. The light of God shines through us and in us and will protect us. He told his friends that God did not destine them for wrath, even as they were surrounded by persecution. No, they would be bound up in faith, hope, and love and they would be saved.
There is something else wonderful about this Scripture. Even as Paul exhorted people to stay awake and be alert to the ever-present possibility of Christ's return, he still left some space for the sleepy among us to receive God's grace. Towards the end of this section of Scripture, he said that salvation is for all people, those who are awake and those who are asleep. Now, it is possible that when he said asleep, he was referring to those who had died. But, it is not exactly clear that that is what he meant. He has typically not used that metaphor in this letter. If that is true, here he is, offering yet one more piece of hope to the frightened believers. Waiting is hard. Even if you fall asleep, God still means good for you. You still have a place in the light. Even if your hope starts to wane, God's love for you does not. You are still a child of the light and you will still be saved.
I bet that there are a lot of times that we as a church begin to worry. We look at dwindling numbers and cracking plaster and we become afraid. We see a culture around us that has less and less use for organized religion, and we become afraid. We see the young people in our town moving away or staying and struggling all the way, and we become afraid. Just because we aren't being persecuted like the Thessalonians, doesn't mean that we do not worry about our future and we don't wait for a sign of the in-breaking of God. When we grow afraid, I wonder if this letter from Paul can remind us of our hope. It can remind us of the great protection that faith and love can provide. And, I hope that it can remind us of the calling we have to support one another. Because Paul's final word in this section isn't just about hope coming from beyond us. It is about hope coming from within us. Paul said, "Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing." As we wait, as we build together with God, we also have the responsibility to show God's love to our neighbors, both in this church and beyond these walls. We can't do all of this waiting on our own. As children of the light, we must find a way to encourage one another. When we stand together, our light shines far brighter than when we stand alone. And, we need all the light we can get to make it through the dark.
Works consulted by Pastor Chrissy in writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis' Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=210
C. Clifton Black's Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
Amy L. B. Peeler's Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2109
On Being Ready: Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Did you know that there are two sermons on the mount? Well, there are. Most of the time when people say the "Sermon on the Mount," they are talking about the Beatitudes, the list of blessed people that we talked about last week. People really like that sermon on the Mount. It offers hope to the hopeless and assures people that God is present even in the most dire of situations. Today's scripture is a sermon on a mount, too, just a different sermon on a different mount. People are often a little less sure what to do with this sermon on this mountain. It is a different mountain, and the sermon has a very different tone. Where the Beatitudes have hope, the parable of the late-arriving groom has warning. Where the Beatitudes have compassion for the dispirited, this parable has stingy bridesmaids. It is a much darker section of scripture, one in which lay people and preachers alike stumble. For example, I listen to this preaching podcast every week as I prepare for Sunday, and this week, none of the scholars really was excited to talk about this sermon on the mount. And, these people are biblical scholars and preaching professors. What on earth am I supposed to do with it?
I can't say that I blame people for wanting to avoid this parable. It reminds me a lot of that other weird wedding party story that we heard a few weeks ago. That party was the story of the wedding banquet where none of the fancy people wanted to come, so the king killed all the ingrates, and invited all the street-people to the party. Then, the king got mad at the guy who wasn't dressed right and threw him out. Here, though, instead of an unstable king, in this story we have an unreasonable groom who was super late to his own wedding and then won't let in the bridesmaids who had to go get more oil because they used more than they thought they would need. Know why used more than they needed. Because he was late... to his own wedding. This guy is the worst. And, where is the bride in this whole thing? Wouldn't she want them to be let in? And, why didn't the other bridesmaids share with them? Isn't this parable supposed to be about the empire of heaven? Didn't Jesus consistently admonish his followers to share with those who do not have enough? These people are super stingy. How does this stinginess translate into the empire of heaven?
And, you know what else strikes me as strange? Jesus seems to tell the disciples that the meaning of this parable is to "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." The thing is, everybody in this story fell asleep. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. The five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need. And, don't share with the people who don't work as hard as you. I would read this parable like it was that old Aesop's fable, the one with the ant and the grasshopper. The ant works hard all summer to save up for the winter and the grasshopper merely plays. The grasshopper says that the ant is a party-pooper and a nerd and goes about with his frivolity. The ant goes about her work and come winter, the ant is cozy in her hill, knitting and eating sunflower seeds while the foolish grasshopper, filled with remorse, starves and/or freezes to death. And, the ant sure as heck doesn't offer to share. The grasshopper should have known better.
The moral of that fable is definitely "Be prepared." But, Jesus didn't tell his disciples to be prepared. He told them to "Keep Awake." Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually the people who are most prepared for every contingency are the ones who are also paying the most attention to what is going ok. Jesus seemed to draw a distinction. He specifically called for wakefulness, not preparedness. Alertness, not hoarding of stuff. Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. Why wouldn't they? The groom was taking forever. When he actually showed up, all of the women were startled awake. They seem to panic. The supposedly wise ones have such a scarcity mentality that they can't share with the supposedly foolish ones. And, the supposedly foolish ones are so distracted by the things they lack, that is oil, that they forget what their primary role is... that is to greet the bridegroom with great joy. So they go search for what they think they lack and ignore the greater task to which they are called.
What if they had managed to stay awake? How could the story have been different? So, the groom is later and later. Seriously, who is this guy. The bridesmaids are getting tired, but, they are here for the party and here to welcome the groom and don't want to miss him. So, they do everything they can to stay awake. Someone brews some coffee. Someone else suggests a game of charades. Other women start sharing stories about how they know the bride and groom. Maybe they bond over their ugly dresses and feeling put upon because the groom is so late. And, then, one of the bridesmaids, the groom's first cousin, tells one of the other bridesmaids, the bride's fourth cousin three times removed that she's not surprised the groom is late. He's always late. That's why she brought extra oil. She knew he couldn't be on time. Four other bridesmaids, all family of groom, nod their heads in agreement. This guy does this all the time. He'll probably be late for his own funeral. God bless the woman who's going to marry him.
The five bridesmaids from the bride's side are mortified. They will run out of oil. It is so late. There is no way hey can get to the store in time to buy more. Someone suggests, "Hey... why don't you just put out your lamps now? Save the oil for when he actually comes. Who knows when that will be." So they put out their lamps and continue with their coffee, kvetching, and charades. When they hear the shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!," all the bridesmaid help re-tie ribbons that have come undone during the games and check to make sure nobody has anything in their teeth. And, the bridesmaids who don't have very much oil find that they have just enough to greet the groom. The bridesmaid who brought more than they needed have made new friends with whom they are very happy to finally be able to celebrate. And, the groom... well, the groom still has the bride to deal with. We've yet to see how that turns out.
When the bridesmaids have the opportunity to stay awake together, they may have the opportunity to get to know one another, to build community. They learn to see one another as more than know-it-alls and ill-prepared flakes. They can teach and support one another. And, they have the opportunity to make the waiting more bearable for one another. One of the most difficult things about waiting is feeling like you are doing it alone. Had these women been able to stay awake, maybe they could have made the waiting easier for each other.
Several of the scholars I read this week pointed out that, in this story, one can see Jesus identifying what will become a central aspect of Christianity.... waiting. We are a people who so often live in a sense of expectation. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service. But, we are always waiting. From the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting. We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't have to wait too long. The thing is, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the fullness of the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we contribute to it, work to build it up with God, when do not know when it could be complete. And, we may grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some unsuspected partners who can help us to stay awake to new encounters with the Divine. We may find compatriots in our journey, others who are waiting, watching, and serving, too. We can find friends who will elbow us if we nod off. If we can stay awake, maybe we can learn to be less afraid of having enough and learn to keep focused on what is actually our true calling to begin with, to welcome with great joy the one who invited us to the party in the first place.
I don't think Jesus calls us to be stingy bridesmaids or hyper-vigilant ants. Jesus just wants us to stay awake. A celebration is happening all around us. We don't want to sleep through it or panic and exclude some people who want just as badly to be there as we do. So, stay awake. We don't want to miss the best part.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Pulpit Fiction Podcast, #88: P27A (Nov. 9) We Love Lamp: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/88-p27a-nov-9-we-love-lamp
Sermon Brainwave Podcast #383: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=556
Karoline Lewis, "How to Wait": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413
Greg Carey's Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2207
David Lose, "Pentecost 22 A: Hope and Help For Foolish Bridesmaids": http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/
The Power of Remembering: Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When I was in college I had the good fortune to spend three summers working at social justice organizations in Washington, D.C. I felt like it was such a gift to work in a city that was so different than the place that I came from. DC was the first cosmopolitan city that I really spent time in as a young adult. I loved it. Beyond the special Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken that I ate with my colleagues and pick-up basketball games that I watched over lunch, I loved something else about DC. In DC, I met other young people who were passionate about social justice and pursuing callings to bring about radical social change. For two summers, I lived in a house with people who worked for an ecumenical Christian anti-hunger organization and a Catholic social justice group that specifically addressed issues of poverty. The third summer, I counted among my colleagues several people who were in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Lutheran Volunteer Corps members. These programs, where one volunteered for at least two years, were like Peace Corps with Jesus.
My housemates and coworkers were often recent college graduates, usually just a few years older than me. They were Christians who felt called to work towards God's empire of love and justice. So, they offered up two years of their lives for service, often with hopes of doing similar work professionally once they finished their time with the program. They worked in very hard positions for little pay. They lived in intentional community, which meant they were required to help with the housework even when they didn't want to, and often nobody had a car (they could always take the bus... and they probably couldn't have afforded it anyway). Their service, while bringing comfort to the underserved, also brought challenge to those who were served by the status quo. They worked and prayed hard. It was good to be around them.
They also knew how to have a good time. They threw wonderful potluck barbeques. They remembered people's birthdays and celebrated as people came into the program and as they went home. And, they loved to play softball. They were suckers for bad religious puns, so they wanted to give their team a name that was both funny and described something about their lives of faith and service. I thought that sounded great. Then, I saw their shirts. And, I was confused. They said Batitudes. What in the world is a batitude? That doesn't sound social justice-y or Jesus-y. It kinda sounds like an amalgam of bad, bat, and attitude. That didn't sound like them at all. I asked one of the volunteers about it and he said, "Oh, no! it say's B-Atitude." He pointed out an hyphen that I had missed. It said B-Hyphen-Atitude. The Beatitudes made much more sense as a team name for a bunch of do-gooder, social justice Christian types.
The Beatitudes are another name for the section of scripture that we heard from the book of Matthew today. The word beatitude has roots in the Latin word for "blessing" or "to be blessed." In the scripture, Jesus listed a bunch of people who could count themselves among the blessed. Now, some of us have been told that worldly success is a sign of God's blessing. There is a whole strain of Christianity that says that if you pray hard enough, do go enough, repent all the time, love Jesus a lot, and go to church, God will reward you with material gain. Your wealth becomes a sign of just how much Jesus loves you and of how good of a Christian you are. Your health and well-being can become a sign of how good of a Christian you are, too. The relative safety with which you go about your daily business may also be a sign of God's favor. In these theological constructions, wealthy, healthy, happy people who live in very safe neighborhoods all demonstrate signs of being blessed by God. In today's scripture, Jesus' list of blessed people looks a little different.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted. Now, if you or I were compiling a list of most blessed people, it is highly unlikely that the people on Jesus' list would make our lists. We might say that the merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and at least some persecuted people were blessed. Those characteristics at least seem like values that good people should have. But, how many of us would call the powerless, the dispirited and depressed, the mournful, or victims of injustice, blessed? If anything, most of us would be tempted to call them cursed, and might even utter that faint praise "there but for the grace of God go I." How many of us could actually see blessedness in weakness, sadness, persecution, and powerlessness? These are not characteristics we seek out. They are characteristics we avoid. We try to create a world where we will never actually be any of these people who Jesus called blessed.
Now, to be clear, I don't think Jesus is telling us that we have to incite these characteristics in ourselves in order to receive God's blessing. As several scholars I read this week pointed out, these blessing statements are not intended to be prescriptions to direct good Christian behavior. Jesus is not necessarily telling people to go out and try to be more meek and poor in spirit. Instead, these statements are intended to describe something about God. And, this something has to do with the nature of a blessing. At this point in scripture, blessing seems to have little to do with the actions of the people who are blessed. The people Jesus described have not done something specific to earn a blessing. Instead, we are shown an image of God not as one who demands specific actions in order to be blessed, but who delights in blessing all people... even people who most of us agree don't seem to be very blessed.
In this piece of Scripture, God's primary action is to offer blessing, even, as scholar David Lose puts it, showing up in the most down-and-out situations we can imagine. Jesus reminds us that God is not only present among the victorious and strong, but also among the dispirited and the weak. God is not simply in our celebration but also in our mourning. God is with those who suffer injustice and are persecuted, even when they wonder if they have been forgotten by everyone, including the Divine. As Lose stated, "If God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its' inhabitants with blessing." And, when we find ourselves among the mournful, weak, and persecuted, we, too, can remember that God is surely there with us, even when we feel most alone.... even when we feel the most hopeless. I think this is why my colleagues chose these scriptures as the theme to represent their life and ministry together. They understood that God lived among the poor and broken-hearted, and they tried to live every day seeing God among the people they served. I think our church here would also do well to remember these words. Even in all the world's brokenness, God is here. And we are called to know that we are beloved and blessed.
On this day in the church year, many Christians will take a moment to remember those who have died. On this day we remember that we have counted ourselves among those who mourn. Among those we remember, we may find the meek and the powerless... we may find the sick and struggling. We remember the ones who hurt until the very moment that they left this world. We may also remember the proud, and the powerful, and the joyful... the ones whom we have no problem remembering as blessed. The good news that we can hear from today's Gospel is that God is present in our remembering. God is present in our mourning. God does not shy away from our sadness any more than God would shy away from our joy. It has been a tough year with many loses, both close to home and far away. I am sure that many of us could use a little reminding that we are beloved children of God, as were the ones we loved who have died. I pray that as we spend some time together remembering those whom we have lost, that you may feel some of God's grace surrounding you. For God is surely in this place whether we are celebrating, weeping, or doing a bit of both at the same time. In remembering our beloved ones who have died, may we remember that we, too, are beloved.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Sermon Brainwave podcast, #383: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=552
David Lose, "God Bless You": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1542
Frederick Buechner, "Beatitudes": http://frederickbuechner.com/content/beatitudes-0
Greg Carey, "All Saints Day: Facing Death (Matthew 5:1-12)":
Lance Pape's commentary on Matthew 5:1-12: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203
Karoline Lewis, "When Tears Are Wiped Away": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3411
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.