November 9, 2008
The world this week.
I’m not much of a political junkie. Actually politics usually bores me to death—and American politics is something I try to avoid at all cost.
This week however, it has been hard not to be swept up in the excitement of what happened south of our border. The election of Sen. Barack Obama as the next President of the United States has been incredible. I know that not everyone will be happy with his election—and some will not be happy with the decisions he will make. None of that diminishes what he was able to do though.
President-elect Obama was able to come from being a Junior Senator only a few years ago to be the next president. He was able to inspire people to come out and vote for the first time. He was able to raise more money for his campaign than anyone else has been able to, in a way that people thought was impossible. He used the Internet to his incredible advantage. He managed to connect people to each other in ways that no other national political figure has been able to do.
And if all of that wasn’t enough with his acceptance speech he was able to do even more. If you haven’t heard his whole speech, or read a transcript of it, I encourage you to do so. It is incredible.
It’s more than a speech though. I think it is a sermon. It deals with the most difficult issues facing America today, and inspires people to hope for something better in the future. It is prophetic in tone.
President-elect Obama has some difficult days ahead of him. Publicly he meets those challenges with an incredible amount of hope and confidence. He is clear that he will need help, and still manages to remain seen as a capable leader.
From the images shown us on TV, it is clear that many people were overcome with emotion, thinking they would never see this day come. While I think God would work with either candidate, I think God would be smiling seeing people inspired to hope for something better.
The church these days.
When I commented to someone about the power of President-elect Obama’s speech, and how I thought he had not only given a speech, but an incredible sermon, I was stunned by the person’s response. The person said, “Too bad we don’t have a person like that in the church today.”
Now, I know that the person didn’t mean Holy Cross, but the church in general. We seem to be lacking someone with the character, strength, presence and ability to inspire as President-elect Obama has done.
I wonder though if that is really the issue. I know plenty of people, both inside Holy Cross, in our Synod, in our National Church, and even in other denominations that are inspiring.
I wonder if the problem isn’t that we don’t have anyone to inspire us, but really that we don’t want to be inspired.
See being inspired would call us to something new. It would call us to action, to the same message of “Change” that we’ve heard from our southern neighbours. Deep down I think we are weary and tired. We don’t mind the changes that we want to see, but we don’t really want to see much change, just the ones that would make us comfortable.
The result is what we have. The inspiration, risk and excitement that built this congregation almost 50 years ago are gone. We’ve done that, are tired, and don’t want to do it again. We’ve invested a lot in getting this place to this point and we don’t want to see it ruined. For those of us who are comfortable here, we like the comfort. For those of us who want to see some change, we limit the amount of change that we would be willing to take.
Financially and even more importantly—spiritually—our situation here mirrors the problems in the United States. Can we be inspired, as we once were, and need to be again? Can we hope for a better future for this place, and the church in general? Can we be called to action, as so many have been all around the world?
Being locked out.
Today’s gospel reading takes some careful reading. On the surface, it seems harsh. Five bridesmaids are denied entry to the wedding feast because of something beyond their control. They had taken enough oil to be prepared for the groom’s arrival, but he was late. When they go out to do the “prudent” thing—and get more oil—they miss the groom, the door is locked and they are denied entry on their return.
Since this parable tells us clearly that the kingdom of heaven will be like this, we are taken aback. How can the kingdom be a closed place? How can people be denied entry into the kingdom for something that is beyond their control? How can this be a sign of God’s love for the whole world?
Often we read this parable to mean that we need to always be prepared. We need to have done the right things, at the right times, and in the right places in order to receive the right reward of entry into heaven.
That’s wrong. That is what we call “works righteousness” in the church. It means that we can earn, our way into heaven if we just get it right. Certainly Luther would be spinning in his grave if he thought that was the legacy he had left behind for the church.
So, if this isn’t about doing the right thing at the right time and in the right place, then what is it about?
I wonder what would happen if we changed what happened in this story. What do you think would happen if the five “foolish” bridesmaids had not left to get more oil? We know that the five “wise” ones had enough only for themselves and wouldn’t share. So the five “foolish” ones would not have had any. Their lamps would have remained unlit and dark.
In the end the same thing would have happened. Only five lamps would have been lit for the arrival of the groom. The difference would have been that the five “foolish” would still have been in the room when the groom entered and the door was locked.
So, where was the moment of foolishness, and where the moment of wisdom? We tend to think that the foolishness and wisdom comes from the amount of preparation at the beginning of the story. But that again promotes “works righteousness” that we say is not a true understanding of the Good News.
I think the foolishness was in thinking that the lamps needed to be lit. They were foolish because they missed the point—that it is important to be present when the groom comes.
People hearing this parable for the first time would have quickly known that Jesus was the groom, and the nation of Israel was the bride, and they were the ones invited to the feast.
Jesus, being the light of the world, needs no other lamps to be lit. The ceremonies, traditions, rituals and so on, are not important to him. What is important is being in relationship with God.
This is where the comment of the groom makes sense. Those who think the ceremonies, traditions, rituals and so on take precedence, are not in relationship with God, and Jesus—the groom—then doesn’t know them.
The harshness of this reading doesn’t contradict the compassion found in other parts of the gospel—it reinforces the same teaching. What matters is not devotion to the law, but devotion to the will of God as it is heard in this time and place.
What that means for us today.
Honestly, I think we are the five “foolish” bridesmaids in the church today. We think that we need to keep up with the expectations that the ritual demands. Which means we’ve got it wrong.
Our focus needs to be on being present when Jesus comes, not on whether or not we are prepared for it. Our focus needs to be on the Word of God, on the Light of the World, and no other. That will mean some work for us, for faith requires work for it to be shown in the world.
Our most difficult piece of work will be in allowing ourselves to be inspired again. We may be tired, and unwilling to do the physical labour we once did, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t dream dreams. It doesn’t mean we can’t help people see their visions come to reality. It doesn’t mean we can’t speak with a prophetic voice in a world that definitely needs it.
This is our task—to do together—to share the Good News. To help people be present for Jesus to enter their lives. To usher in his reign into the world.
May we do that cheerfully, expectantly, and most of all hopefully. For that is what God came down to Earth to proclaim—a message of hope. We can change things for the better. We can make the world more just. We can see Good triumph over evil.
If you ever wonder if that is true, read the scriptures, share your faith with someone else. You’ll see the only response to your wondering is, “Yes we can!”