Sunday, November 6, 2011

Don't Be Late

Alarm clock Museum of Hartlepool,
Sunday Sermon,
November 6, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:

If I can bear your love 
like a lamp before me, 

When I go down 
the long steep Road of Darkness,
I shall not fear 
the everlasting shadows, 

Nor cry in terror.
If I can find out God, 
then I shall find Him, 

If none can find Him, 
then I shall sleep soundly, 

Knowing how well on earth 
your love sufficed me, 

A lamp in darkness.

~Sara Teasdale, “The Lamp”

A quick note before I jump into the sermon this morning. I’ll be speaking about Israel quite a bit, but I want to be clear that I am not speaking of the modern day state of Israel. It gets confusing sometimes, especially because there is so much modern-day conflict in the middle east, but I am not speaking this morning of that conflict or of our Jewish brothers and sisters who live in Israel and around the world. I am speaking of our spiritual ancestors who lived in the region a few thousand years ago, and whose words were recorded in our scriptures. If we are to hear any modern day echoes in the scriptures or in my sermon, they should be words of prophecy to us, Christians who happen to live in the United States of America in 2011. This morning, we must look to our own house.

Prophets in the ancient world came in different flavors. Rulers of the ancient world often surrounded themselves with advisors and counselors who were also called prophets. Like anyone else in ancient Israel (and like anyone else in the Modern Day), people desire to stay employed. So when it came time to prophecy to the king, most prophets left out the bad stuff. After all, who wants to be the one to tell those in power that they are being unjust? Who wants to be the one to foretell the destruction of a kingdom?

The prophets of the Old Testament were of a different sort. Chosen by God to bring a critical message to the people of God, the Old Testament prophets didn’t waste a lot of time pointing out what people were doing right. They came to the people of Israel and Judah with a message of change and repentance. Follow the ways of the Lord or perish. It is interesting to note that it is these prophets, who were so critical of the ruling establishment and unjust power schemes, whose words have been preserved for these few thousand years.

Amos was a southerner, from the kingdom of Judah, but he did most of his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel. This gave him the status of somewhat of an outsider, for although he was also an Israelite who followed the Lord, his day job was back in Tekoa, about 10 miles from Jerusalem. Amos was not a priest or a priest’s son. He did not claim any prophets or priests as ancestors. He was a sheepherder in the hills, possibly a man of some wealth and standing in the community. 

The book of Amos itself doesn’t tell us much about the man, and he is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture. Unlike some of the other prophets in the Old Testament, Amos’ message was not particularly broadcast through the prophet’s personality and life. Like many others he seems to be somewhat of a reluctant prophet, minding his own business, when suddenly the Lord appeared with visions and oracles. Indeed, later in the book, after Amos had given King Jeroboam news of the impending destruction of Israel, the king’s priest, Amaziah, told him to go back to Judah and trouble the kingdom of Israel no more with his visions of gloom. Amos responded by saying, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” And then, displaying an irritability that seems to be characteristic of Israel’s prophets, Amos cursed the priest saying, “Your wife will become a prostitute, your children will die, your land will be given away, you will die in a foreign land, and Israel shall surely go into exile.” Amos did not have much patience for those who argued with him.

Much of the book of Amos consists of visions from the Lord, but Amos is no dreamer like Joseph, who could interpret the visions easily. In chapter 8, the Lord shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and asks Amos what he sees. A priest who spent his days trying to see the mystical truth of things might have responded with a mystical interpretation of the vision. But Amos simply responds to the Lord, “I see a basket of summer fruit.” A very practical man, Amos. There is nothing funny or delightful about the visions of gloom and doom that Amos brings us, but there is something eccentric about this prophet. His very crankiness and lack of desire to be a prophet provide an edge of irony that perhaps makes it easier to hear the crazy words of visions and oracles.

The first two chapters of Amos are a condemnation of the nations surrounding Israel for their war crimes against Israel. One can imagine the people of Israel nodding their heads in agreement. Those people in Damascus, who killed our people, they will get their just desserts. Those people in Gaza, for carrying off our people into exile, they’ll get theirs. Those people in Tyre, those people in Edom, those vicious Ammonites and Moabites, the hand of the Lord will come against them in vengeance. By now you can imagine the cheering that might be heard at such a rally. Then Amos even takes on his home country of Judah. Judah has rejected the law of the Lord and God says, “I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.” Remember that Amos is preaching in the northern kingdom of Israel, and so far nothing he has said is troublesome; everything he has said affirms Israel’s belief that the Lord is with them and against their enemies.

Then, suddenly, Amos makes his move against Israel. Israel shall also receive her punishment, but it’s not for war crimes. Israel’s crime is the sin of social injustice to her own people. Israel “trampled the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and pushed the afflicted out of the way.” Not only that, but Israel dared to do such a thing after the Lord had brought them up out of Egypt. The Lord saved them from affliction and slavery and suffering, but now, many generations later, the Israelites had forgotten their roots. The Lord had said, never forget that you were once slaves in Egypt, but now the social structures of Israel oppressed the poor and the needy, with no mercy for those who needed it. So Israel’s sin was two-fold: they oppressed the needy, yes, but the more grievous sin was that they did it even though they were God’s chosen people. The punishment to come was to be more severe because Israel should have known better.

After the indictments of all the nations, including Israel, Amos goes on for two chapters to describe the previous warnings the Lord has given Israel. Time and again, the Lord has sent prophets and warned the people through plagues and droughts to change their ways, but time and again the people did not listen and continued to turn away from the Lord. Therefore, Amos says, the time has now come when repentance is no longer really possible. And so Amos says to the people, “Why do you want the day of the Lord to come?” The people have been anticipating the day of the Lord with relish, a day when all will finally come out right, a triumphant day of victory in which Israel’s enemies are put down forever and God’s blessing will come over the land. But Amos says, no, it will be a day of darkness. For Israel has gone against the Lord and therefore the Lord will go against Israel. You are expecting joy, but that is not what you will find.

It is like someone ran away from a lion, only to run into a bear in his flight to safety. The day of the Lord will be like if a person leaned her hand against a wall to rest for a moment, and a snake came up and bit her. Israel continues to sing and worship and praise the Lord in the midst of their oppression of the needy, and the Lord says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”

And then the famous words, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you are on the underside of society, these are grand words! If you can imagine the destructive power of water, then these words bring hope to those who suffer in this life. This is hurricane season, and this year has seen powerfully destructive storms—high winds, heavy rain, flooding in streets and homes, rivers overflowing their banks, heavy tides at the shore. Following Hurricane Irene I drove through several neighborhoods where the trash heaps of ruined furniture and items stored in basements were piled high for weeks. A downed tree took out one of our members’ car windshields and her power for a week.

Water, though it brings life, brings ruin and destruction—we only have to look to hurricanes and tsunamis to see this. And even over centuries, the slow trickle of water cutting through desert lands gives us natural beauty like the Grand Canyon—277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, and a mile deep at its most extreme. We give birth in water. We drown in water. And likewise, the waters of justice are a terrible, beautiful force. This is what Amos was speaking—that the storm of God’s righteousness would sweep through the structures of oppression and injustice and leave nothing behind. A clean slate, the ability to start anew, to build a fresh society, free of bigotry and prejudice and greed.

Words of hope to one community are words of warning and terror to another. To those who have power in such a system, the fear of losing that power is substantial. And I would argue that no one community is pure of intention or free from oppression. Many of us come from mixed backgrounds—aspects of our lives are privileged and while others are oppressed. As humans we are always making choices about which injustice to address first. In fact, there is so much injustice in our world, that we get overwhelmed by it—sometimes we are frozen into doing nothing, because it seems like it’s never enough. If we are to be judged by all of the injustices that go unaddressed, then we are doomed for sure. Amos was right, and it will be a dark day indeed when the Lord comes again, for I tremble at the thought of seeing myself and others as the Lord sees us truly.

Let’s turn to the New Testament and see if there might be some hope in the gospel of Matthew. We are in to chapter 25 now, and Jesus’ ministry is very far along. The Last Supper is coming soon, and Jesus will be arrested in just a day or two. He has been speaking with the disciples and others in parables. He has been arguing with religious leaders and scaring civil authorities with his popularity with the crowds. Then, as now, crowds make the authorities nervous. Knowing that the end is coming soon, Jesus begins to given his disciples his last instructions, and one of them is this: “Keep alert. Stay watchful. I will return, but not even I know when. God alone knows when I will come back to judge. In the meantime, stay watchful. And especially, if I’m gone a long time, keep extra careful watch.”

This parable of the ten bridesmaids again tickles my funny bone. The first thing I always think of is how strange it is that one bridegroom has ten bridesmaids! It is easy for me to get lost in the strangeness of parables sometimes, but this somewhat fanciful beginning is perhaps a reminder that we have to listen to parables with an ear for the truth they are trying to convey with metaphor instead of focusing on the literal details. This is a story about keeping watch.

So there they were, ten bridesmaids waiting for the groom to come pick them up for the wedding feast. They knew they would need their lamps to light the way, and so they all brought their lamps. Five of them remembered to fill up on oil, while the other five forgot. I can guarantee you that I would have been one of the bridesmaids that forgot the extra oil. I’m one of those people who never gets gas until 20 miles after the little light goes on in my car. Suddenly, the bridegroom is sighted on the horizon, and the five foolish bridesmaids realize that they do not have enough oil in their lamps. They ask the wise bridesmaids to share, but they will not, and so the foolish bridesmaids have to rush out to the market to get oil. While they are at the market, the groom comes, the five wise bridesmaids go in to the feast, and the door is shut behind them. The foolish bridesmaids knock on the door seeking entrance, but the door is locked and the groom says, “I do not know you.”

This is the great tragedy of the parable—that not all could enter, the bridesmaids were divided. There must be sorrow on everybody’s part as the feast could only have continued in a more somber tone. The joy of the Lord, incomplete, interrupted.

Speaking as one who has had to knock on a few doors, tardy because I didn’t get gas sooner, it is a sinking feeling to know that you’ve arrived too late. There are many times when it doesn’t matter so much and people are forgiving, but every now and then there is something critical, and being five minutes late means the door is shut. Jesus tells his disciples, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

When I took my ordination exams a few years ago, the woman who proctored our exams told us that there was a firm deadline to turn in each exam. No exam could be accepted late, no exceptions, no how. One of the exams was a take-home essay and had to be turned in by Thursday at 9am or it would not be accepted. No exceptions were possible for running out of gas or a traffic accident or ticket. The exam was due at 9am even if you overslept, got sick, the kids got sick—even if the dog ate it. No exceptions for deaths in the family, migraines, sudden houseguests, or even sudden houseguests who caused migraines. The exam was due at 9am. Our proctor cautioned us to not leave this exam to the last minute. She said, “If it takes you 10 minutes to drive to campus, give yourself an hour. Because I guarantee you on that morning, there will be a traffic accident or construction, and it will take you longer than 10 minutes.” Her warning was a kindness for people like me with a tendency to leave things late, and Jesus was giving the same warning to his disciples. Keep watch, be ready, don’t be like the foolish bridesmaids who forgot to think things through.

I also wonder a little bit about the wise bridesmaids. Surely they might have offered the benefit of their wisdom to their more foolish sisters? People who know me will sometimes remind me to get gas before I go places. My sons especially like to remind me of these things. It is of course not the bridesmaids responsibility to remind their sisters, but somehow it seems a kindness. And later, when they are asked to share, the wise bridesmaids send the foolish ones to the market—was there really no way to share or was there really no way to keep the doors open for just a few more minutes? Perhaps not, perhaps this is the warning from Jesus: the exam is due at 9am, no exceptions. I will return someday, and those who are not ready will be turned away. No exceptions. If so, then perhaps this is the warning and the only kindness offered. As the African-American spiritual tells us: “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing nigh.” But perhaps this warning is meant for all of us, foolish or wise, that we must work together to make sure that every last one of us gets to the door in time.

Put together with the passage from Amos, with its emphasis on social justice and communal responsibility, I wonder if keeping watch for the kingdom means keeping watch for every opportunity, no matter how small, to help usher in the kingdom of God. Are we just watching for the bridegroom, our eyes focused on the horizon, so that we do not see the signs all around us of God’s work in the world? Are we so focused on the horizon that we do not notice that some of our brothers and sisters are running out of oil? Are we so confident that we have what we need that we fail to make sure others do too?

By all means, let us keep the lamps trimmed with oil—but perhaps the oil in our lamps is the kindness we do one another: the gentle mercies we grant each other every day, the small things we do to dismantle the systems of injustice around us. If this is the case, then we must always keep watch for the ways in which we can serve others around us. Just a few verses away at the end of Chapter 25, Jesus declares that he will know the righteous for when he was hungry they fed him and when he was naked they clothed him (when he needed a donkey they gave that, and an upper room, and a scalp massage--and probably oil from their lamps). The righteous say, “But Lord, when did we feed and clothe you? We don’t remember doing that!” Jesus tells them that whenever they fed and clothed the neediest of society, then they fed and clothed him. If we are to be judged by all the injustices in the world, then we are indeed doomed. If we are to be judged by how we treat those in need around us, then there is hope.

Each of us in our small ways cannot hope to dismantle the power structures that be—we are no mighty raging water that can flatten houses. But each small act of kindness and mercy toward another, each moment we take to listen to another’s story with compassion and a willingness to change, each time we make sure that no one is left behind, we have welcomed in a tiny portion of the kingdom of God. We are capable, perhaps, of only the trickle of water that carved the Grand Canyon, drop by drop, day by day. But raging waters are simply an accumulation of drops of water acting in concert—we might yet be God’s hands in the tearing down of systemic injustice. We ought, at least, be sure our part of the stream is moving that way.

Go therefore into this week and keep watch. Keep watch for any and every way you can address injustice. Keep watch for how you might change yourself. Keep watch for what you might offer to another. The day is coming, and it may indeed be dark, but let us fill our lamps with the oil of kindness and love, let us remind one another to get gas, let us share what we have as much as possible—if there is any way to keep the door open for latecomers and foolish ones, let us do so. For in this way we also serve our God who came and dwelt among us, first as a little baby and then as a man, willing to die for his love.

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