Sermon for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (9.11.14)
Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thess.4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13
The Church’s liturgical year is rapidly coming to a close and the time of Advent is quickly approaching; we register the impending change already in our gardens, the burst of growth and in the lengthening days. Anticipation of Christmas is almost upon us – decorations are already in the supermarkets! A sense of urgency, of things to be done, presses in the background of these weeks
That urgency runs through the scriptures set for today.
Paul writes for people wondering about what happens when we die and for people who expected the imminent end of all things. Paul’s account in Thessalonians sounds more than strange to us today; it sounds utterly bizarre! There are Christians who have taken his account quite literally and speak of the return of Christ as ‘the rapture’ with the believers being caught up in the air. There have been a lot of jokes about this kind of literalism and how we read Paul on this subject.
But before we swap jokes or ridicule Paul, think about what he is doing: for a pre-scientific age he is trying to help imagine the unimaginable. He is saying that reality is radically different to what we think it is and he is looking toward a point when reality as we understand it implodes and something new comes into being. This is not as far-fetched as we might think: the work of the Large Hadron Collider with its explorations into particle physics; the great questions of matter; and into the structures of space and time has caused us to seriously consider possibilities that have previously been merely the domain of fantasy literature. Reality may indeed be very different to what we think it is: in this passage from Thessalonians Paul opens the door of possibilities just a chink and invites us to imagine the unimaginable.
Open that door and we enter the world of the apocalyptic imagination and daring speculation that scripture holds: a world of possibility where brides, bridegrooms and wedding customs are used to stretch our language and our thinking beyond all common boundaries. In Hebrew tradition God was sometimes identified as ‘the bridegroom of Israel’ but in the New Testament it is Jesus who is repeatedly spoken of as the ‘Bridegroom’ and in Matthew (chapter 22, a few weeks ago) we have already come across references to a wedding feast and the hazards of not being prepared; you may remember the incident of the wedding guest caught without a wedding robe (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time).
Our gospel this morning deals with the same concerns, using wedding customs to illustrate the point. Imagine a group of friends waiting for the moment to greet the bridal couple as the groom brings the bride from her family home to his own. The problem our gospel imagines is that some of those waiting are simply not adequately prepared. In the course of their waiting there has been a delay and some, impatient or unprepared, have not allowed for any delays and have no reserves of oil for their lamps so they can escort the wedding party to the feast.
The question that underlines this parable is how any of us prepare for what God has in store for us. We do not know what mysteries the Large Hadron Collider will disclose; we do not know exactly what the future holds for any of us: reality may be very different from anything we have imagined.
In Hamlet (Act 5: scene 2) Shakespeare has Hamlet say:
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
If we try to paraphrase that, we realise Hamlet is saying that God controls everything—even something as trivial as a sparrow’s death. Everything will work out as it is destined. If something is supposed to happen now, it will. If it’s supposed to happen later, it won’t happen now. What’s important is to be prepared.
So, are we prepared? In this parable I look at the line-up of the wedding party as it is described: I try to be like those who have extra oil on hand if needed but I also know that my love and faith and hope are all too often very weak – and I am apprehensive that my reserves will be inadequate.
That thought encourages me to persevere in prayer and meditation; to persevere in being open to God and to seeking God’s work in me. I think there is something more as well: what if the oil runs out, what if my perseverance seems to run out or the unexpected happens before I am ready?
Maybe this gospel reminds me that I am both prepared and unprepared – as I suspect we all are. The gospel urges us to be prepared, that is our life work; and if we may be unprepared – we are to know that Christ precedes us; love goes before us; so don’t be fearful.