When I was 6 years old, my mom took me with her to Ohio to visit her cousin that she had been close to as a little girl. It was my first experience of traveling by plane. While I don’t remember it with great clarity, my mom loved to tell the story of how when we began to crest the clouds, I turned to her and said with big eyes, “Mom, are we in heaven?” I suppose my vision of heaven was similar to a lot of children whose imaginations saw God sitting in the clouds with angels flying all around. Later in my life, I remember hearing old time Appalachian hymn tunes based on Revelation describing heaven as having streets paved with gold and a river with the water of life running through it. While these visions are dreamy, they actually differ from Jesus’ descriptions.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, we see Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven to a crowd who had gathered to hear him teach. In this sermon by a lake, Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus’ descriptions are not about heavenly visions, but rather portray heaven dressed in earthy tones: a field, hidden treasure, and a pearl of great value. Just prior to this passage in Matthew’s gospel we hear other metaphors: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like yeast added to flour for leaven. Instead of describing a fantasy, Jesus is clothing the kingdom of heaven in a way that makes it accessible for his audience. In this way, Jesus says that the kingdom is not distant, but rather, directly in front of their very eyes.
Jesus taught with many parables, stories that catch attention. Ten young women waiting for a wedding party, waiting into the night. Five thought ahead and brought extra oil for their lamps. Five did not. When the groom, presumably escorting the bride, was late, they all fell asleep.[i] When the couple arrived, those who thought ahead used their extra oil. Those without had to go get more oil. Late, they were shut out of the party and told “I do not know you.” Pay attention. Don’t get left out. Don’t be forgotten. Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
All ten of the young women, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep in the night. Half brought extra oil. It seems like the point is: Be prepared, for you don’t know the timing. Being thoughtful, wise, and planning ahead is being engaged, aware, and alert. Perhaps this is being awake: alert and engaged to God, self, and neighbor for a late parade to the party.
This story comes amid others with a similar theme. The previous story says be at work for the master returns at an unexpected time. [ii] Don’t beat fellow slaves and get drunk. The master will throw that one out. The next story says risk investing whatever amount the master entrusts to you.[iii] Don’t hide the talent you’ve received. The master will throw that one out. Keep awake. Be faithful at work. Be prepared for the best. Invest what you’re given. Be alert and active. Jesus is coming, and you don’t know when.
These stories grab our attention with hard words like the shut door. Some preachers use them to stoke fear. What will happen to you at the end of time? Will you be left behind? Shut out? Thrown out? Stock up on oil, whatever that is, to make sure you get inside, to save yourself.
Over and over through the arc of scripture God says: “Do not be afraid.” God goes to extraordinary lengths to seek and save the lost. Even when it seems too late, God still hears our cries and comes. This parable gives warning but not to fear. It urges to live for the party, not just to plan to attend later, but to live now alert and generous. God’s kingdom, the new way of living, is not a ticket to exit later, but a life of celebrating through sharing now.
In the last part of this chapter, we hear about Jesus coming in glory. [iv] “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.” What? When? “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. And when you didn’t do it them, you didn’t do it to me.” How we live now matters. Be wildly generous like a late groom who parades the bride through every street.[v] Be faithful and give your work your best. Risk using all God has given you for good. Care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Listen for God’s invitations.
How might you be asleep, distracted, absorbed, or afraid? Keep awake for Jesus is coming. You may not know what you need. Ask for help. Make attention your intention and your petition.
I suggest two prayers. First, we will later sing:
Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to Thee, here, Lord abide
Let me Thy inner presence feel
Thy grace and love in me reveal.[vi]
Second, pray the prayer we use in Holy Baptism for yourself:
Heavenly Father, thank you that by water the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on me your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised me to the new life of grace. Sustain me, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give me an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[vii]
Do not be afraid. Live remembering your baptism and dressed for the wedding banquet. Feed. Clothe. Love. Pray. Pray with grateful trust to keep awake.
[i] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p271.
[ii] Matthew 24:45-51
[iii] Matthew 25:14-30
[iv] Matthew 25:31-46
[v] Bailey, p272.
[vi] Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Wessel (1590-1635); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p308. Thanks to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde for the suggestion to pray it personally.
What does repentance look like? A lost sheep. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost. The shepherd seeks, finds, lifts onto shoulders, and walks back carrying the sheep. What does the sheep do? It accepts. Kenneth Bailey wrote: “Repentance is not a work which earns our rescue. Rather, the sinner accepts being found.”[i]
Remember what it feels like to be lost. Separated from a parent or friend. Not knowing where you are. Caught up in pride through pleasures or resentments like the lost sons later in this parable. Hungry for love.
Remember what it feels like to be found. Reunited. Knowing where you are. Being seen, witnessed, accepted, and loved as you are for who you are. Welcomed and fed.
Remember what it feels like to share joy. “Come celebrate with me!” they say with a big smile and rising voice. Their countenance sparks heart-pumping energy in us. We smile and laugh or clap together.
You may have noticed that food and eating play an incredibly important role in Scripture. You can’t get very far reading the Bible before you come upon a story, or a saying, or an image, that somehow involves food or feasting. That’s true beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation. In Genesis we are told that after God created the first human, God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed Adam, where he was to care for the garden, and might eat his fill of everything, except of course the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Scripture closes with God standing at the door knocking, waiting for us to open so that the Lord may enter and eat with us, and us with God. Between these two passages is a veritable Biblical guide to food and etiquette.
But like so much else in Scripture, food exists, not simply to fill our bellies, although it does. Scripture speaks of food as a sign, a symbol, a sacrament, of something much larger. This is certainly true in Isaiah, where the prophet declares that,
What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
A little more than twenty years ago Philip Simmons died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: ALS – or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a young professor of English at a Chicago college, married, the father of two children. At the same time Philip Simmons was dying from the cruel ravages of ALS, he was more alive than he had ever been. [i]
He writes about learning to fall. He speaks of falling, quite literally, because of the ALS; he also writes about falling as a figure of speech. We fall on our faces, we fall for a joke, we fall for someone, we fall in love. He asks, in each of these falls, what do we fall away from? We fall from ego, we fall from our carefully-constructed identities, we fall from our reputations, from our precious selves. We fall from ambition, we fall from grasping to control… And what do we fall into? We fall into passion and compassion, into terror, into unreasoning joy. We fall into emptiness; we fall into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. Ultimately it’s a falling into grace, falling into the real presence of God.[ii] The name for this falling, the gateway into this mysterious presence of God, is humility.
In our Gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus speak of humility: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond all the people whom we find inadequate. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. The autumnal leaves falling from the trees compost into humus, which is essential to life.
All Saints’ Day
I had a tough day yesterday.
Not that anything was particularly bad; everything just seemed slightly off. I felt like I wasn’t able to see things head on. I couldn’t wrap my head around what needed to be done, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t seem to stay on top of things. I had to sit down, take a breath, and say to God, “I need something. I don’t know what I need, but I need something, just to get me through to the next thing.”
It was just one of those tough days. I’m sure you’ve had one or two of those yourselves.
But it was also a day that felt completely self-indulgent. With so much going on, here and around the world, with so much pain and suffering, who am I to complain about an off day? Surely it’s better to acknowledge my own struggle and move on to praying for these bigger issues. I had a tough day, but so many people are having tougher ones.
I’m sure you’ve felt this way, too.
Yesterday was a tough day.
I know that I have told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, partly for those who have not heard it, but mostly because tonight there is a significant point to it.
Years ago, as a young priest, and new to the practice of preaching on a regular basis, two members of my congregation approached me one Sunday after church. They were puzzled by something and wanted to ask me a question. Both Robin and Ann came from the Baptist tradition, and they had a concern about the lectionary. What would happen, they asked, if I felt it important to preach from a different passage of Scripture, than the one assigned by the lectionary. Would I be free, they wondered, to change the reading, or preach from a different text?
Nearly 40 years later, I can’t remember what I said in reply. I do remember the question. It has stuck with me all these years, and keeps cropping up every so often. Today, if one of you were to ask me the same question, I know exactly how I would answer.
The question, for me at least, is not what I would do if I felt it important to preach from a different passage, than the one assigned by the lectionary. The question for me is, what do I do when the lectionary points me in a direction I might not choose to go in, or would prefer to avoid? Because that’s the case tonight. If it were up to me, the gift and promise of hope is not something I’d gravitate to at this particular time. Yet tonight, of all nights we hear, in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
I was an elementary school teacher before entering the monastery. One of the things a teacher learns is that it’s important from time to time – particularly after the summer break – to go back to the basics. You can’t build or make progress without a good foundation, so it’s important to make sure your students have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to new or more challenging subjects.
Going back to the basics appears to be what Jesus the teacher is doing here. Our gospel text today comes at the end of several tests that the Pharisees and scribes have put before Jesus. It is clear that their intention is to trap him[i] into saying something that would either offend the authorities or turn the crowds against him. To this point, he has successfully eluded these traps.
Here is another trap. “Teacher,” someone asks, “which commandment is the greatest?” If they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite command, he’ll be guilty of downplaying the other commandments. Since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical. They are trying to force him into an impossible situation where any answer he gives can be challenged. I suppose it’s a little like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite. Choosing one of their children will make the others feel less important or less loved. The wise parent will say, “I love them all the same.
Saint Paul writes about our “sanctification” as if we would know what he is talking about. In the original Greek, the generic meaning of “sanctification” is “the state of proper functioning.” To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by its designer. A well is “sanctified” when it is used as a source of water. A wineskin is “sanctified” when it is used to store wine. For us, eyeglasses are “sanctified” when used to improve sight. In the theological sense, things are “sanctified” when they are used for the purpose God intends. A human being is “sanctified” when they live according to God’s unique design and purpose for their life.[i]
When we wake up each morning, we can presume God’s presence, and power, and provision. We have been kept alive for as much as one more day to know God, and to love God, and to serve God as only we, uniquely, can do. [ii] We wake up each morning on a mission to bear the beams of God’s light, and life, and love as only we, uniquely, can do. It’s why we are still alive. Which turns life into such an amazing adventure. This is the core meaning of “sanctification”: living our lives according to God’s unique design and purpose for our life.