Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Amos 5:18–24 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 | Matthew 25:1–13
It seems that maybe we are getting really close to being able to crack the code of the heavenly kingdom if we could just figure out what it means to have enough oil in our lamps . . . like being wise or foolish since that seems to be a deciding factor: Choose the first. Avoid the last. Be prepared! When I think about this, there are places where I can feel like I’m really “wise” in my preparedness: Lately, it’s been things like scraping, sanding and staining my deck before winter so it will last another few years . . . Maybe that’s a little too literal. Although I do tend to think I’m pretty clever that way and that I will be better off—maybe even happier. On the other hand, it was really hard work and reinforces a sense of control that might be challenged elsewhere. And anyway, is it really smart to be lugging an extra jar of oil around? If you pack light, you can get some REALLY cheap airline tickets! Plus, who knew the bridegroom was coming late? I wonder, too, if the decisions were consistent with the bridesmaids' way of being, or last minute—or why the consequence is so harsh. It’s all a little confusing, to be honest . . . Like much of this end of Matthew’s gospel, apocalyptic in nature, it presses the issue of who’s really in charge and where we invest ourselves.
The idea that WE are the judge is constantly befuddled—though we love to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. And to win. If you’ve been conscious this past week (I, personally, would have rather slept it out), you have seen and felt the turmoil of our competitiveness; our over-against-ness. It’s not that it isn’t important to be invested and pro-active, it’s that we get our egos all tangled up in getting our way—thinking that THIS will save us: Our “programs for happiness that can never work: That is, the treadmill of our unprocessed ways of trying to procure our own safety and security; affection and esteem; power and control.” Jesus knows these only create further suffering in our own selves; and in our world. In fact, it will be the death of him . . . But out of infinite love, he just keeps pointing to a different starting place; NOT the one overwhelmed with fear, anger and frustration—clear signs for us to heed that something is amiss—but a starting point of true peace and freedom. Note that the “preparedness” percentage in our parable today is about half and half. Who’s wise and who’s foolish? Five and five. And . . . five and five. Now move on.
Remember, the destination is a wedding banquet. We are drawn toward something that is joyful and life-giving, AND there’s the meantime, filled with darkness and waiting. And this is part of the process, too.
In Amos, we hear that the Israelites thought they knew what would fix all their problems: That is, The Day of the Lord—a term from the laws in Leviticus where society was supposed to push a big “restart” button every 50 years called the year of Jubilee. Wouldn’t that be nice? The problem is that it means all the structures that were set up to benefit some and not others will be dismantled: Debts are cancelled, slaves go free. The people Amos is talking to think that they will benefit once again—because they always do—but in order to make things right, for there to be true justice and righteousness, the disconcerting darkness will come first. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear . . . ” But as the contemplatives and Jesus know, this IS the path to peace and freedom. The disorientation of your senses, thoughts, remembrances—are dimmed so that the finer-tuned work of the Spirit can actually take place within us. Father Keating calls it a “ray of darkness.”
One hundred years ago, Ranier Marie Rilke, a mystic and poet in Austria, wrote these words in a time of war; embracing the uncomfortable transformation that he experienced:
You, darkness, of whom I am born—
I love you more than the flame that limits the world to the circle it illuminates and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything: shapes and shadows, creatures and me, people, nations—just as they are.
It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me.
This darkness—or maybe better interpreted, “obscurity”—is what Jesus brings to attention at the beginning of Matthew in the beatitudes: Being poor in spirit, so that we let go our reptilian compulsion to seek food, shelter and survival; as well as all the other things we cling to and trust God; accepting our situation and our love for God. Or the ability to mourn what is lost and let go what is being taken from us; instead of demanding esteem and affection. This opens us to new relationship with that impulse or the thing lost, allowing us freedom from our dependence and expectation that passing pleasure will satisfy. Finally, being meek gives the ability to not try so hard to control situations, other people or even your own life if you can accept that insults and injustice are a “thing.” Then you can do something about it out of the freedom. That is, starting from these places that have been forged out of darkness, actually free us up to love without being captive to our programs and feelings.
Very soon in Matthew, it will become clear that there is a way to understand what that oil is: It’s what’s in reserve for the blossoming of joy at the wedding feast. Evidenced later in the chapter by the ones who are sorted at the judgement: “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me.” It’s knowing that we are already “blessed.” To do this, we do have to spend time with God and learn the wisdom of Jesus; these are the things that will anchor you, fill you, give you perspective, and perhaps, most, give you joy in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Granted, relinquishment of our habitual thinking and worrying is not easy. The Day of the Lord is not for the faint of heart. But perhaps we are ready to leave behind all the luggage and start in a different place. Keep praying. Keep sitting in the dark even. God is there, too, you know.
Thanks be to God. Amen.