12 November 2017
Proper 27(32), Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Just before the weather turned I hiked up Crown Mountain. It’s behind Grouse, you can see it from Richmond. It’s beautiful up there and it’s not far.
About forty minutes into my hike a park warden came my way. He saw me heading out when he was heading in. And who knows maybe he’s also a volunteer with North Shore Rescue. So he told me that they were removing all the trail markers and that it would be dark in two hours. Basically, he was telling me to go home. I knew it wouldn’t be dark for four hours but since this was my first hike of the season it rattled me a bit, especially since I knew I wouldn’t be back much before dark. And being rattled probably proved to be a bit of a distraction, when I should have simply enjoyed being out.
Garrison Keillor, in an interview with the Wittenberg Door in 1984 talks about his experience of the church and of preachers. He says he hates ‘well-crafted sermons’, and he says the only place you hear people talk like that is in church. I think I know what he means. And he says, “When a minister stands in front of people, he is interrupting what people come to church for. He had better have a good reason for doing that. Otherwise, he shouldn’t stand up and talk.”
There have been Sundays when I have worried about whether I would have something to say. It’s terrifying to be up here when you think you have nothing to say. It’s a lot worse than having something to say you think your listeners may disagree with.
If you are a preacher and for some reason you feel uninspired and cannot hear the voice of God, you may panic, you may read more commentaries, more sermons, all in the hope that somehow you will find an idea, find something you can run with, something to cling on to. It’s pretty empty, and while consulting commentaries is proper, a sermon should be something that grabs the preacher, not the other way around.
The problem is, the more things you read, the more your head begins to spin, and the less likely are you going to hear the voice of God. God’s voice is not the loudest voice in the room and even preachers can drown out God.
As I was thinking about all this I remembered an article by Andrew Bacevich, an American historian who frequently speaks on matters of culture and politics. It was a line from an article entitled, “Selling Our Souls – Of Idolatry and iPhones” that popped into my head: “For members of this present generation, the smart phone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. (…) In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus phone.”1
I thought of it because I now have a phone, and I have noticed how I attend to my phone, caress it, and waste time with it.
Bacevich’s article is less about the phone than about a paradigm shift and for this he quotes the American historian Henry Adams who described the shift a hundred years earlier as from the Virgin Mary to the dynamo, technology replacing religion at the centre of our lives.
Bacevich’s essay is expression of a cultural pessimism and a disappointment with the failure of the church to hold up an alternate vision that could have saved humanity from Katyn, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, and so on.
Bacevich’s essay was criticized for invoking theology, yet being short of it. Bacevich’s reply to the criticism is this: Christ was a political radical who called on his followers to change the world. We have rejected his radicalism for another course. Why pretend otherwise? The other course, may be technology, as Bacevich would argue, but also a privatization of religion, the faith’s primary goal no longer being God’s Kingdom but the saving of souls.
The parable of the bridesmaids is a scary story. It is scary because of the harsh words Jesus speaks to the foolish bridesmaids, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
What is going on? Does God not know us all? Why would the bridegroom deny knowing us? What happened to the God of tax collectors and sinners, what happened to the Lord of the vineyard who pays all his workers the same wage? Does Jesus not forgive even his tormentors and welcome back his disciples who had betrayed him? What is going on here, when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you”?
Matthew places the telling of this parable near the end of his Gospel. We are in chapter 25, in chapter 26 he tells us of Jesus’s arrest.
The parable of the bridesmaids is not revoking the things we have learned about Jesus thus far. But the parable wants to give us a sense of urgency. Following Jesus is the most important thing we can do.
You see, all 10 bridesmaides fell asleep but only to five he says that he does not know them. I don’t think it had anything to do with the oil in their lamps but rather that they thought the oil in their lamps was more important than being there. The five bridesmaids who panic over the lack of oil in their lamps are distracted. The oil is not important, but being there, paying undivided attention to Jesus is important. That is why this story is told with such urgency.
The bridesmaides of our parable are distracted, in their case by fear. We may be distracted for other reasons and lose the centre of our lives. Jesus is warning us not so much about what he will do but about what consequences our distractions may bring. If we are not paying attention, we may go to the wrong party, or think the Christian faith is only about salvation, not about the world, my neighbour or the church. We may think we can fight the kings wars just because the king says so, and send more troops so that we can pretend there is meaning to our fighting, and we may forget that our king is the one who rules a peaceable kingdom.
The question for us this morning is about the things that distract us from Jesus.
It may be fear. It may be our phone. It could even be religious.
But we are here this morning to meet the bridegroom in Word and Sacrament, and in the communion of the church. The bridegroom’s presence is not conditional but it is gifted, to all of us. May we fix our eyes and our lives on Jesus.
1 https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/selling-our-souls, 29 July 2011