St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 8 November
1 Thessalonians 4.9-18
Flickering wicks ©Suzanne Grimmett
That’s what it is all about, right? Now I could preach a nice safe sermon on being ready, keeping your lamps lit with plenty of Bible study and prayer and good works of sacrificial service. I have certainly heard plenty of those sermons in my time. But I think you will have guessed already that that is not the sermon I am going to preach.
If this is not a neat moral tale, rather like those of Aesop, then what is it? The more you look at it, the less neat this parable becomes.
In Matthew’s Gospel the disciples had just been warned that they would not know the day or the hour that the Lord will come, and so therefore they needed to keep watchful and awake. Yet in this story, ALL of the bridesmaids are caught napping- not just the foolish ones. And those wise bridesmaids don’t appear in a good light, either, when they refuse to share their oil with others. And then, when it seems to be all about being prepared with oil, one realises that the ones who were rewarded were not rewarded because of the oil, but because they were there waiting when the bridegroom showed up.
There is some resonance here with other stories in the Bible where rushing out to buy something was the opposite of what was needed. In the first feeding story in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away so that they can buy food elsewhere. Jesus instead directs them to their own inner resources so everyone can be fed. When Jesus is offering living water to a Samaritan woman, the disciples were off at a nearby village buying food. The wise, it appears, know to stay and look first to themselves for what they need, whilst the foolish run everywhere trying to acquire it from others.
To stay awake to this task is to not be distracted by idols or imitations. Isaac of Nineveh says it like this;
There is a love like a small lamp, fed by oil, which goes out when the oil is ended; or like a rain-fed stream which goes dry, when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love, like a spring gushing from the earth, never to be exhausted.
The wise bridesmaids are in touch with the inexhaustible river so their oil is continually replenished rather than consumed and they know they need never leave.1
The truth of the oil is that you have to have your own. We all have to live out the teachings of Christ in our own lives. Each person’s path is singular. Now this may seem to fly in the face of everything I have ever said about individualism being a lie. We are all connected to one another. The paradox is that while this is true, no two lives are the same and that while we are shaped by one another, we are nevertheless all tasked with ourself. So often because we do not take seriously enough this project, we follow others and pursue what is less good than the good God would dream for us. We race off to buy oil from elsewhere when the oil we need to keep our lamp burning is already within us. We must stay awake to the task of personally appropriating the teachings of Jesus in our own life and context. No one, not even the church, can do this on our behalf.
There is an ancient wisdom story that goes like this;
A man knocks on a door. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your countryman.” The voice behind the door says, “There is no one here.”
The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks a second time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your brother”
The voice behind the door says, “There is no one here.”
The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks a third time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says. “It is you.”
The door opens.
John Shea interprets this story through a Christian lens asking, “How does Christ know us? He knows us when he looks into our face and sees himself.”2
We must receive Christ into ourselves as what we need to sustain and nourish us: as surely as we eat and swallow the bread at the table we will shortly gather around together. Then Christ will be within you, building you up from the inside out. You will not need to go and purchase any product to bring healing and wholeness to your life, because all that you need is already here. Your identity as the beloved of God is awakened.
When we set up Christianity as a system of beliefs or a Sunday morning practice which enables us to get to heaven we miss this action of putting on the mind of Christ, to use the words of St Paul. The gate to the kingdom cannot open if we are merely borrowing someone else’s belief system… but if we take into ourselves the truth of Christ in such a way that it becomes our own truth, then we will find the door swings wide.
But what is this truth and how do we allow it to shape our everyday lives? If I don’t answer this question, these words can have nothing to say to our future.
Our lives are engaged in history, rooted in time and space, and so therefore our faith is rooted in the materiality of our lives. This requires that we hold before us a horizon of expectation that informs our daily choices. Our decisions must be made in the light of expecting something better- a vision of justice, of mercy like a river and spirits set free from burdens…of love that overcomes all division.
It is this kind of hope that lifts our eyes to the horizon where the misery of our own self-estrangement is overcome and we can love one another.
Hope is not a fluffy positive feeling but the lens through which we are enabled to live courageously. As we wait with such expectation, we become attuned to the signs of the kingdom all around us, and the work God is doing within us. As our eyes pick up the light of the dawn that is coming, we find we are hastening the day by acting already in accordance with the hope that we glimpse. By daily living out the promise that has not yet been fulfilled, we make present the coming of Christ and passionately cocreate a commonwealth of mercy and peace.
And yet so often we fall short of living up to the vision of God for us and for one another. What do we do about the times when we have not acted as if we already lived in the loving and just reign of God? As a human species, I think we need to find a way, even in a week of this US election, to believe in the potential for human goodness.
We are all, (aren’t we?) a bundle of unrealised potential. The Spirit of Christ does not urge us to be ready on time or else condemned if we are not, but rather is patiently inviting us to receive the love that would transform even the raw and often unattractive material of our own unrealised possibility into a new creation of love and grace.
Christ is coming. Christ is always coming, moving into our lives with intentional grace.
The world is not finished.
We are not finished.
You are not finished.
Indeed, in each moment you have been tasked with the confronting, joyful and intensely personal work of appropriating the teachings of Jesus and enacting them in the daily moments of your life.
Take heart. The work is underway and you will never be left alone. God does not grow weary with our antics or tired of waiting. The dawn will break. The God of all love will recognise you on that new day because of the hope flickering in your heart and the courage that has led you to receive the mercy of God. In the light of that grace, you too bear the image of the risen Christ and find the banquet is already waiting for you.
1 John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven (Liturgical Press: Minnesota: 2004) 315
2 Ibid, 317