The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost,
November 8, 2020
O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant us, we beseech thee, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, he liveth and reigneth ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
When I was in seminary, years ago, and took my very first preaching course, my professor (a liturgical scholar who eventually became a bishop) warned us against sharing with our congregation, at least too often, the inner turmoil we might experience crafting our sermons. A preacher can make a lot of hay out of reporting their struggles with a challenging text and it makes for an easy and, perhaps, accessible introduction, but that’s not really the point. It’s not about my writing process.
This week, however, I do want to share with you that I did leave it rather late to begin working on my sermon, and that it was a bit of a challenge. Just as I did not want to prepare the Prayers of the People too soon, especially the prayers for the nation and our leaders, I did not want to face our Gospel, and those wise and foolish maidens, before having an idea whether I would stand here before you this morning knowing the outcome of the election or not.
One could, of course, argue that the Gospel is always the Gospel and that current events are just passing, temporal distractions; that I needn’t concern myself with such trifles in the face of a story about the coming at the end of time of the Messiah who will usher in a new age. But you all know me too well to think I would fall for that. You know that I believe that what happens here and now is of importance to God and to our lives as Christians; that I am of one mind with my hero, mid-twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, that because of the Incarnation, Christianity is the most tangible of all religions and that the events in time and space are of supreme importance to the Divine reality.
In fact, everything we have been reading in Matthew’s gospel affirms that the Kingdom of God is of time: of the past, present, and future. It was inaugurated in that Incarnation in the stable at Bethlehem. It is unfolding even now. It will reach its culmination in a time that is to come. It is an event that demands our memory, our action, and our hope and our anticipation. It demands our engagement with the stuff of this life.
As such, these past weeks we have been learning as we have read Matthew’s Gospel how all of us are called into the life of the Kingdom of God, but reminded that not all will accept the invitation. We have learnt that the standard against which all or actions must be measured are the twin commandments to love God and love neighbour, but that many of those trusted to lead us can not bring themselves to accept this reality. The powerful have been relentlessly, unpityingly, called to account for their hypocrisy, their timidity, their lack of vision, their inability to comprehend the important task to which they have been called by God in the work of this Kingdom, whose values and understanding of authority stand in opposition to the powers of this world. The results of the election, of how we as a nation have met the test of this moment, are critical as I stand before you today. We have called our faithless, craven, corrupt, amoral leaders to account. More Americans voted in this election than ever before. Americans risked their health and safety to get to the polls, to be included, and have their voices heard. At the same time, it is not as simple as having the decent candidates win.
On the eve of the 2008 election, another seminary professor, my friend and mentor, the Rev’d Canon Edward W. Rodman, wrote, “as Christians we are called to be prisoners of hope, constantly seeking the will of God for ourselves and our nation while striving to respect the dignity of every human person as we have promised in our baptismal covenant. Thus no matter what happens in the short term, the struggle will continue and our goal should not be to win or prevail, but to be faithful to this vision of the reign of God.” Canon Rodman was suggesting that Christians participate in the political process, as I said a few weeks ago, with the priorities of the Kingdom of God in view, rather than as members of political parties or factions with short term, tactical goals. He reminds us that, in many ways, elections are beginnings rather than endings and that we remain called to the Christian life, that our work is unchanged, undeterred regardless of the occupant of the White House. The Kingdom of God, as much as it is here with us, also remains a vision on the horizon.
And perhaps this is where today’s Gospel comes in. We participate in the life of this world, fully present, fully engaged doing the work of the Gospel, at the same time as we are watching and waiting for signs, for what comes next. We look for signs of God’s presence, of God’s breaking into our reality. More often than not we recognise these moments as instances when love is made manifest, expressed, when justice is accomplished, where the poor are fed and clothed, the sick are healed, the prisoners visited, the lonely, the needy, the marginalised seen and heard. We are called to be on the look out, be ready to act when the time comes, and perhaps, yesterday, the scenes we witnessed on the streets of our city and elsewhere constitute such signs. We also get a sense of this, in a strange way, in that story of the man who came to the wedding feast without the proper garment. The moment came, he was invited to the feast and he was not ready, he had not been watching and waiting for the signs, he was not prepared to engage the work when it happened.
Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
He isn’t being subtle. Many hear the news that the Kingdom has begun. Many run out desirous of participating in the feast, eager to meet God. We learn, however,
As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut.
Not everyone was prepared to wait. Those who thought it would be easy, happen in a flash, were disappointed and, in the end shut out. It is a harsh lesson, this gospel, but better learn now that we must “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” than be caught out.
Watching and waiting, being prepared, settling down for the long haul, these are all tasks to which the Christian is called as we live in this material world, in which Jesus came to us, in our flesh, in order to effect the advent of love and justice. This week ’s election will yet drag on. The House and Senate are still to be decided. There will be court challenges and most un-Christian behaviour before we get to January 20. And even then, inaugurations are not the Second Coming. We will continue to watch and wait, with our flasks full of extra oil, clothed the wedding garment, for we know as sure as the Son of God came in the first Incarnation, the Messiah will return, clad in the armour of light wielding the sword that will cut a path of justice and love. Let us be ready for both the moment, the supreme moment, and all the little moments, when we will see the inbreaking of God, of love, and join ourselves in those works. They will surely come and we must be ready.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Willibrord, Archbishop and Missionary, 7 November 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume