Sunday, November 9, 2014
The Sunday Sermon: The longest wait
Waiting is hard. We don't like it. Waiting for Christmas, waiting for the wi-fi to connect on the train, waiting for the test results, waiting for the beloved to call, waiting for a death. Even waiting for the presider to stand and start the Creed after the sermon is hard: we are conditioned to move on, to make the decision, to find out the answer.
I attended a retreat this week for CEOs of non-profits, and there was a lot of silence, a lot of waiting, waiting on the Spirit. We sat in a large circle - 24 of us - and on the first evening we could see the body language, the twitching toes, the tight shoulders, the wary expressions, that spoke of being poised for action, ready to give right answers and learn new skills. But our facilitators refused to be rushed. We were gently encouraged to pay attention to each other, to allow space between our reflections, to be completely sure that someone had finished what they wanted to say before we spoke in our turn.
The book of Joshua tells the story of the entry of the people of God into the promised land. The people have been in the wilderness for a full generation. Everyone who once walked out of Egypt has died; everyone now in the community was born homeless and has spent their entire life on the road. They have taken any number of wrong turns; they have doubled back on their tracks; they have spent months stuck at one oasis or another. Now, at last, God has told them that it is time to cross the Jordan River. The end of their wanderings is in sight, and Joshua gathers them together for a little talk. He reminds them of the promise their ancestors made to keep a covenant with God and he asks the leaders if they are willing to renew the covenant, a covenant that sets limits on their autonomy, that calls them back to faithfulness in the midst of all kinds of competing values and deities.
The people are anxious to bring their long journey to an end. The promised land is so close, they can taste it. Whatever it takes to get over that river, they are more than ready to do it. Of course we will keep the covenant. Just let us get this over with. The wait is nearly over; the end is near.
In our year-long tour of Matthew's Gospel, the end is near too. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the end of his earthly ministry: he will soon leave them, but some time in the future he will return and God's Kingdom will claim its final victory. What will it be like? How will we recognize the Kingdom? How long will we have to wait? All of those questions and more fill his disciples' hearts. Jesus paints a composite picture of the Kingdom by telling a series of stories, and today's story is all about waiting. These ten bridesmaids have to wait. The bridegroom has gone to fetch his bride from her father's home, but nobody knows exactly when they will return.
At first, the wedding party is poised for action, twitching toes, tense shoulders, ready to jump up and start the celebration as soon as the bridal party is spotted down the road. But they don't come and they don't come. The hours pass; the girls get sleepy. One by one they slump in their seats and nod off. Waiting is hard, especially when you don't know how long you will have to wait. Promises start to fade, eagerness turns to boredom, the bright lamps start to gutter.
What is the difference between the foolish bridesmaids and the wise ones? They all show up; they all wait for hours; they all fall asleep. But the wise bridesmaids have thought ahead: they have prepared for an open-ended vigil. They are equipped for the long haul, but the foolish girls have lost sight of the goal. They don't seem to understand that this could be a long wait. They remind me of the Thessalionians.
The Thessalonians are grieving. They heard Jesus say that he would return soon, but some of their loved ones have died, and they can't see beyond the grief. They are having trouble with the waiting; the lamp of faith is guttering, and grief and fear make poor fuel. So Paul writes an encouraging word to them, reminding them of the promises Jesus made, that he would return in glory and that all would be reunited, some day, that death is no longer to be feared because it no longer has the final word. He reminds them of the endgame, the Kingdom's inauguration, the glorious possibility that lies somewhere out there, but seems in the grit and grime of everyday life to be delayed and unclear.
The hearts of the Thessalonians are overflowing with questions. When and how will we be reunited with those who have died? Do we believe the promises, or do we live in fear? Do we welcome the death that gathers us home to God, or do we fight it? What does it mean for the dead in Christ to rise?
This weekend, we remember and honor the legions who have died for their country and the legions more who have served and are still with us as veterans. 100 years ago the young men of western Europe were signing up in their thousands to fight in the war that was to end all wars. They thought it would all be over by Christmas. They had no idea that the war would drag on for four horrifying years, wiping out an entire generation. If they had been able to see that far ahead, if their lamps had been plentifully supplied with visionary fuel, perhaps history would have unfolded very differently.
Humanity has long held the dream that some day, by God's grace, war would be no more; swords would be beaten into ploughshares and families would live in peace and plenty. We have not yet seen that dream fulfilled, but we still wait and watch and work for the possibility. For two thousand years we have waited for Jesus to return in glory. We have wandered in wildernesses of oppression, of institutional and national corruption; we have focused on the short term and let our lamps fade out; we have forgotten God's promises and broken our own. We have lost heart and allowed the promise of Jesus's return to fade into the darkness. We are weighed down by anxious and fearful questions: how can the world find peace? Why do extremism and fundamentalism continue to create havoc? Why are people still starving to death?
But the promises are still good. We still have the opportunity to make our choice, as Joshua and his house made their choice. Even if the waiting is tedious and and we are discouraged by near-term setbacks and our lamps are burning low, we can keep our eyes on the prize and watch the horizon for the long-delayed bridegroom. We can repeat the promises, live by the promises, hold one another to the promises. In 1930, Archbishop William Temple addressed a mass revival meeting in Oxford. At the end, he led 2000 people in the singing of the hymn "When I survey the wondrous Cross." Before the last verse he stopped the singing and asked them to read the words of that last verse. "Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all." Then he said, if you mean these words with all your heart, sing them at the top of your voice. If you don't mean them, don't open your mouth. If you mean them a little bit and want to mean them more, sing very softly. Two thousand voices whispered the verse.
Temple invited his listeners to take seriously their promises, and the result was an experience that those present remembered for the rest of their lives, a lamp that burned for decades in their hearts. If all we can do is whisper the words of the promise, we can add oil to our lamps. We can overcome fear with trust in God's goodness; we can lengthen our gaze beyond the horizon of this short life, this small world, to focus on the ultimate victory of the God of love over evil and death.
Matthew's foolish bridesmaids could not see far enough ahead; they could not imagine a time when their oil would run out and they would be left in the dark. Their vision was deficient.
The wise bridesmaids were able to stretch their vision: they had the fuel they needed to stay the course and fulfill their commitment. What do we need at St. Paul's to fulfill ours?
Last weekend the Vision for Mission committee discussed essential values for the Cathedral mission. Community, faith, love, service, and abundance rose to the top of the heap. These values, woven into all that we do, will put oil in our lamps, will make it possible for us to navigate through the long night of waiting, and will form the basis for a vision and a mission that will guide our ministry for years to come.
And so, we wait. We wander with Joshua and his people on the borders of the promised land; we listen with the Thessalonians for the trumpet's call, and we tend our lamps, placing our trust in God, keeping our hopeful expectation alive, and joyfully inviting all to the wedding banquet.
The Very Rev. Penny Bridges
9 Nov 2014