TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The same reoccurring dream has haunted my sleep since college days. The end of the semester is drawing near. Exams will be held in a couple of weeks. But there is one class I have neglected. Somehow, I managed not to show up for class more than a few times. I have not kept up with assignments. I just never took the course very seriously. Now, just days away from the final exam, I realize that I am in deep trouble. There is virtually no chance that I can absorb sufficient knowledge and understanding to score high enough on the final to offset a semester of inattention and neglect. How could I have let this happen? What can I possibly do to remedy the situation? Of course, these are rhetorical questions. I know that I will simply have to face the final exam woefully unprepared. It is usually at this point that I wake up in a state of agitation.
I suspect that the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable felt much the same way when they discovered that their lamps had burned dry. How foolish of us! We should have seen this coming. What wedding doesn’t suffer a few snafus? When does the groom ever arrive at the church on time? It would have been so easy to prevent all of this simply by bringing a little extra oil. Now it seems there are no good options. We can’t expect our companions to put their preparedness in jeopardy to bail us out. They will tell us, and rightfully so, that a lack of planning on our end does not constitute an emergency on theirs. Running into town to purchase more oil is not likely to get us into the wedding procession on time, but it’s the only alternative left. Unlike me, the bridesmaids do not wake up in a cold sweat and discover, much to their relief, that the whole drama was just a bad dream. Instead, they arrive at the wedding hall to find the door locked.
Maybe it is because I have always been anal about getting things done on time, keeping my calendar up to date and planning for every conceivable contingency that few things frighten me more than finding myself unprepared at a critical time. And that fear persists because I know in my heart of hearts that there is no way to ensure that I will never find myself unprepared for whatever is to come. Through disciplined saving, sound financial advice and plain dumb luck, Sesle and I find ourselves now at that nirvana known as “financial security.” That is to say, we can retire comfortably without having to worry about finding ourselves destitute in our old age-assuming the world-wide financial system does not collapse, ecological catastrophe does not render much of the earth uninhabitable, someone does not decide to walk into our church and gun us down, my next visit to the doctor does not reveal an acute terminal condition, I do not become the victim of an accident on Route 208 during my daily drive from Midland Park to Bogota-you get the picture. There really is no such thing as security. There is no failsafe means of preparing for tomorrow. That is what my dreams are telling me.
Perhaps that, too, is the point of our lessons this week. The prophet Amos must warn the people of Israel that they are not prepared for “the day of the Lord” for which they hope. It has never occurred to them that their wealth might not be a blessing from God, but rather the foul fruit of unjust exploitation of the poor. They never dreamed that the “god we trust” stamped on their coins and who is worshiped as the patron god of the nation is, in fact, no god at all but the projection of their nationalistic fantasies. The people never dreamed that there was any conflict between being a loyal, patriotic citizen and a follower of the God of the covenant. And because they could not distinguish between the god of their imaginings and the God who liberates slaves from the house of bondage, champions the orphan and the widow and defends the poor, the “day of the Lord” turns out to be not a day of glory and salvation, but a day of judgment and calamity.
In our lesson from I Thessalonians, Paul writes to encourage a congregation that has all but given up on the day of the Lord. They have waited long enough and are beginning to wonder whether the way things are is as good as things ever will be. What is the point in preparing when the end for which you are told to prepare has been indefinitely, if not permanently, postponed? Truth is, we are not ready to meet the Lord, nor do we have what it takes to go the distance until Jesus is revealed in glory.
Of course, the good news is that, although we are not ready to “meet the Lord in the air” as St. Paul puts it, the Lord is ready to meet us. The lessons for this week, like my nightmares, are reminders that we will never be properly prepared. We will never manage to tie up all the loose ends in our professional lives, our relationships and our own hearts, even if we live past one hundred. In the end, we must leave to God the task of redeeming the world, bringing to birth a new heaven and a new earth and somehow weaving the frayed fabric of our lives into God’s glorious future. That very thing, Paul promises, God intends to do. So we can bring our unfinished business, the mess we have made of our lives and the incurable wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves to God in confession certain that all will be forgiven. Oddly enough, we find ourselves best prepared to meet the Lord once we recognize that we are unprepared and cannot possibly get ourselves prepared by way of our own stratagems. Only then does true preparation begin.
And there is still more good news. The end is not yet. As we look forward to the season of Advent, we are reminded that God gives us time for preparation, time for anticipation, time to turn away from what doesn’t matter to the things that do. There is still time to do important work for God’s kingdom. There is still time to work for justice, there is still time to make peace, there is still time for reconciliation and forgiveness, still time to witness to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Each day we are given is holy and it matters greatly what we do with it. The works of compassion, mercy, peace and justice are eternal and will outlast the works of violence that seem to nullify them. In the end, our life and work fall into the hands of a God who, Paul tells us, promises to bring to completion what we can hardly begin.
Here is a poem by Lizzette Woodworth Reese. She speaks of faithful existence in much the same way as does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, illustrating a preparedness that calls for no preparation.
I am thy grass, O Lord!
I grow up sweet and tall
But for a day; beneath Thy sword
To lie at evenfall.
Yet have I not enough
In that brief day of mine?
The wind, the bees, the wholesome stuff
The sun pours out like wine.
Behold, this is my crown;
Love will not let me be;
Love holds me here; Love cuts me down;
And it is well with me.
Lord, Love, keep it but so;
Thy purpose is full plain;
I die that after I may grow
As tall, as sweet again.
Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997). Lizzette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935) was born in Waverly, Maryland. Her father was a confederate soldier and her mother a German immigrant. She taught English in the Baltimore school system for almost fifty years. Reese published nine volumes of poetry, two memoirs and one autobiographical novel. She was named poet laureate of Maryland in 1931 and co-founded the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore, serving as its poetry chair until her death. You learn more about Lizzetta Woodworth Reese and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The prophet Amos had two strikes against him. First off, he was not properly ordained according to ecclesiastical guidelines. Second, he was a foreigner and we all know how people feel about them. Now to be perfectly clear, Amos was not altogether foreign to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to which he preached. He was a native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Recall that Israel and Judah were both descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that came up out of Egypt. They had once been a single nation under the reign of David and then Solomon. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split. Thus, the north and the south, despite their political differences, shared a common ancestry, language and faith in Israel’s God. For more general information on the Book of the Prophet Amos, see Summary Article by Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
In our lesson for Sunday Amos delivers a scathing condemnation of Israel’s religious aspirations and practices. In verses 18-20 he mocks the peoples’ desire for the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” This term is common throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. From ancient times, it referred generally to a time of judgment in which Israel would be vindicated against her enemies. As such, the Day of the Lord was understood as a day of salvation. But the prophets, beginning with Amos, gave the term a whole new twist. To be sure, the Day of the Lord is to be a day for God to triumph over his foes. These foes, however, are not the enemies of Israel but Israel herself! To be sure, the Day of the Lord brings the establishment of justice-but that is hardly good news for an unjust people. Consequently, the peoples’ yearning for the Day of the Lord as deliverance from their enemies is misplaced. The Day of the Lord will not be what Israel hopes for and expects. It is, says Amos, “as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him.” Vs. 19. For an oppressive and unjust nation, the Day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” “gloom with no brightness in it.” Vs. 20.
In verses 21-24 Amos, speaking in the voice of the Lord, takes the people to task for the emptiness of their worship. Israel was undergoing something of a religious revival at the time of Amos. The worship of Israel’s God, once driven underground and nearly eradicated under the reign of Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, was restored under the leadership of Jehu. II Kings 10:1-31. Under the prosperous reign of Jehu’s descendent, Jeroboam II, Israel’s fortunes took a turn for the better both commercially and militarily. While the people understood their newfound peace and prosperity as signs of God’s favor, Amos took a very different view. The peace was maintained by means of militaristic adventures and prosperity was unevenly spread. The royal and aristocratic classes accumulated wealth through unjust and oppressive economic measures that kept many if not most of the common people in desperate poverty. Thus, Amos chided the leading citizens with these words:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
Naturally, God is offended when these folks, who have enslaved their own people, come into the sanctuary singing hymns to the God of the Exodus, the God that liberated his enslaved people from Egypt. Such empty and hypocritical worship makes God sick to God’s divine stomach! Let the justice about which you sing find expression in your life as a people, says the prophet. Vs. 24.
As we approach the Thanksgiving Day holiday on which it is customary to give thanks for “all our many blessings,” we might do well listening to Amos rather than to the mythology of the Pilgrims, manifest destiny and the heresy of American particularism. What we characterize as “blessings” are more accurately described as “privileges” maintained at a terrible cost to the rest of the planet and its people. Does God really want credit for the horrifying geopolitical arrangements that keep one third of this world’s peoples in poverty in order to preserve “our way of life”? Does God’s divine stomach not turn when we invoke God’s name to mislabel our plundered booty as God’s blessings? Is not such thanksgiving a farce?
To further complicate matters, the line between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the generic god referenced on our money and in the pledge of allegiance becomes even more blurred on Thanksgiving than it usually is. Similarly, the distinction between God’s chosen people Israel and God’s church on the one hand, and the myth of America as somehow divinely established and favored on the other all but disappears. What arises out of this queer pagan nationalist mythology seasoned with a dash of Judeo-Christian imagery is rank idolatry. I cannot imagine that Amos (much less Jesus!) would sanction his peoples’ celebration of such a holiday. I am all for giving thanks to God for God’s many blessings. But I want to be sure that I am thanking the God and Father of Jesus Christ for the blessings promised in the Beatitudes we discussed in last week’s post. I am quite sure that our national holiday of Thanksgiving has little to do with either.
This psalm is practically identical to Psalm 40:13-17 discussed in my post from Sunday, January 15, 2017. This is one of those psalms that I find to hard pray-at least from a solely individual standpoint. I don’t have any enemies to speak of. There are probably a few people who don’t care for my company. I know there are a lot of people that might disagree with me on one thing or another. But I am not aware of anyone plotting to destroy me or who wishes me ill fortune. My life has been pretty much enemy free since middle school.
Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and I do not pray the psalms individually. I pray the Psalter along with the entire people of God. I pray along with the Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being murdered and dispossessed. I pray with women and children suffering sexual abuse. I pray with the hungry, the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless and the marginalized. These folks do have enemies and, to that extent the church includes these victims and the church is one Body, their enemies are mine also. I have a direct interest in their vindication in the sight of their enemies and, according to the Psalmist, so does God. The oppression of the righteous calls into question God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So the question is, can I pray this psalm consistent with Jesus’ command to love the enemy?
It is obvious that enemies inflict pain, sometimes permanent bodily and psychic injury. The resulting hurt, outrage and desperation must be given expression. Prayer that is less than honest about these very human realities is not genuine prayer. The psalms teach us to express our whole selves to God-the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of what we feel is rather ugly, mean spirited and unworthy of a disciple of Jesus. Yet leaving all of this stuff unexpressed, denying it and pretending that it does not exist only makes it more dangerous to us and to others. Better express anger, hatred and vengeful thoughts honestly to God in prayer than let them leak out through passive/aggressive behavior or explode into actual violence. When exposed to the light, our wounds can be healed.
But again, where does that leave us when it comes to loving our enemies? Perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we mean by “love.” If love is nothing more than an emotion-and “a second hand” one at that as Tina Turner would put it-one could not realistically expect a rape victim to love his/her tormentor. But I believe Jesus has in mind something a lot more substantial than emotion. For Jesus, love is grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and for that reason their lives are sacred. To love God is to love what is made in God’s image. To destroy or injure what is made in God’s image is to blaspheme. Vengeance, as St. Paul points out, belongs solely to God. Romans 12:19. God alone can be trusted to work out the intricacies of retributive justice-which is nearly impossible for those of us whose judgment is skewed by our often exaggerated sense of injury, righteousness and moral certainty. One can express to God anger and the desire for vengeance or retribution, but that is where it ends. If and when retribution is called for, God will deal with it. Instead, Paul counsels us to care for our enemy through concrete acts of mercy, regardless of how we might feel about him/her. Romans 12:20.
Paul is dealing with a pressing pastoral concern here. As I have noted previously, the biblical authors know nothing of an “immortal soul.” The Christian hope is grounded in God’s gracious promise to raise the dead sealed in Jesus’ own resurrection. In Hebrew thought, resurrection was never an individual event. It was the culmination of God’s saving acts at the close of the age inaugurating a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus’ resurrection was seen in just that way as demonstrated in Matthew’s gospel reciting the resurrection of the saints who appeared after Jesus’ crucifixion. See Matthew 27:51-54. That being the case, how is it that believers are still dying and what is their fate, seeing that they have died before the appearing of Jesus in glory?
Paul does not retreat from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. The new age has indeed been inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Vs. 14. Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection that will be complete when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” Vs. 16. Then “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Vs. 16. Those living at that moment “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” This is one of the proof texts for the so-called “rapture.” Note, however, that there is no mention here of any “great tribulation,” “antichrist” or “thousand year reign.” In order to fill out the rest of the Left Behind scenario you need to pull a slew of scripture fragments out of their context from other places and cobble them together. Note well that Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to “comfort one another with these words,” not scare the socks off of each other.
The pastoral intent and tone of this section is further underlined by Paul’s concern that the members of his church not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Vs. 13. Paul does not suggest that disciples of Jesus should not grieve over the loss of a loved one, but only that their grief should not end in despair. I have discovered that it is much easier and a good deal more edifying to preside at funerals taking place in the church surrounded by the symbols of font and altar where the descendant was a person of faith. There is, to be sure, plenty of weeping and sorrow at such funerals. But the tone is altogether different where the mourners are made up of believers and it is understood that we are going to the graveyard to plant a seed, not simply to dispose of a body. It makes all the difference in the world when the climax of the funeral service is the Eucharist celebrated with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There is grief here also, but it is grief in a major key.
This chapter contains three parables dealing in some way with readiness for the close of the age. This Sunday’s parable of the foolish and wise maidens and the third parable about the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) are recorded only in Matthew’s gospel. The second parable about the servants and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is found also in Luke, but with an additional twist. Luke 19:12-27. The parable of the maidens is difficult to interpret largely because “we have little knowledge of the specifics of wedding customs among first-century Jews, and we do not know how fixed various patterns were.” Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1004. We know even less about the lanterns that Matthew might have had in mind in his telling of this story. Ibid. It appears most likely that the maidens were emissaries of the bride whose responsibility it was to meet the bridegroom and accompany him to the place where he would claim his bride. There the celebration would begin with all going in together to partake of the festivities.
Once again, the wedding feast is a common and powerful biblical metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. The focus is on the maidens with whom the disciples of Jesus are called to identify. The delay of the bridegroom in this story has frequently led some scholars to conclude that the parable is a product of Matthew’s church rather than the so-called “historical Jesus.” The rationale for this conclusion is that the church must have been struggling with the crisis of the delay in Christ’s second coming. E.g, Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 465. Since I believe neither that such a crisis ever occurred in the early church nor that there exists a “historical Jesus” lurking behind the New Testament witness, I take little interest in this sterile speculation. The parable calls the disciple to live simultaneously as though the Kingdom of Heaven might dawn at any instant or as though it might be centuries in coming. The temptation is to gravitate toward one pole to the neglect of the other.
The parable is a reminder that we really don’t know what time it is. End time speculation has demonstrated time and again our inability to discern any divine time table for cosmic history. Except within the last vestiges of American Protestant progressivism, our confident belief in the social evolution of the species toward a democratic world governed by reason has been dashed. It isn’t clear anymore where history is going, if anywhere. We truly know neither the day nor the hour when the kingdom of heaven will come and we can only be confident that it will come because Jesus has promised it. Our only alternative is to stay close to Jesus, being ever transformed within the community that is his Body so that when the kingdom comes, we will be the sort of people capable of embracing it with joy, people who will be recognized by God because God’s image is being restored in us.
What, then, is the fault of the foolish maidens? Only that they were misled by the clock. They wrongly assumed that they knew what time it was. It was not simply that they miscalculated. Their problem was that they thought they could calculate. They imagined that everything would go “as scheduled,” but the schedule turned out to be an illusion. The same error is made whenever the church thinks it has found its niche in society, or discovered God’s direction for history in some social/political/economic movement or ideology. This is not to say that God is not at work in the world outside of the church. To the contrary, God is very much at work. But apart from the church, I don’t have a clue what God is doing and I don’t have much faith in people who claim they do.