At the end of the service I blessed the congregation with the benediction: "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, uh...be with you always, Amen." Really could not remember the love of God part, so we will have to settle with being double graced by Jesus. My liturgist said we always need a double dose of Jesus' grace anyway.
More than the usual number of people said they took something important away from my sermon today. Except for one kind (and probably most honest) woman who said, "You got through it, dear. That's what counts." Then she patted my hand and nodded.
Anyhoo, for what it's worth, here's what I took from today's scriptures:
I didn't actually want to preach on these passages. I read the Matthew piece on how two people would be standing in a field, and then one of them would be chosen and the other left behind, and I thought, "Blech! Maybe I'll go off lectionary." But Pastor Paul encouraged me to stick with the texts and see what came of it, so that's what I did.
I sat with these scriptures all week as I traveled, and I wrestled with the judgment implied. What do you mean some will be left behind? How could two people work in a field together and one of them could bear to leave the other behind? This whole section of scripture baffles me. A few passages later Jesus presents the story of 10 bridesmaids, 5 of whom forgot to fill up their lamp oil. For this crime they are denied entrance to the kingdom and left behind. I always want to know, "Were the other 5 bridesmaids unable to share their oil, or at least keep a foot in the door while the others got some?"
Stay awake! Stay woke! Don't miss out on God's kingdom by going to sleep at the wrong time.
I know something about staying awake. Last night I drove home from Indiana, and the last 6 hours of that stretch is on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. By the time I reached exit 351 and handed the toll booth guy my $32.65, I could have kissed him, I was so happy to be off that road! Stay awake, keep watch. Most of the way my passengers slept. I stopped every hour or so to stretch and get a cup of tea. Stay awake, press on, we don't know the hour when the Lord will come. Perhaps advent is like the Turnpike. Perhaps when it comes time to pay the toll, we'll just be happy to see Jesus.
Last week I took a bus to Baltimore. This particular bus company keeps their costs low by picking up and dropping off on street corners (instead of building a station or renting space). On a fair weather day, the bus is a great deal, especially if one is not in too much of a hurry. The buses are comfortable, and who wants to drive to Baltimore from Philadelphia if one can help it?
But last Tuesday night it was rainy and cold. And the bus was nearly two hours late, and none of us knew when it would be coming. We started taking turns, six or so random strangers and I. The bus stop had no shelter and was located a five minute walk from a department store. We sent most of the group inside to warm up a bit, while one or two of us waited for the bus. We agreed that whoever was out waiting would stall the bus, so that the others would have time to walk back. I'm not sure how we were going to stop a double decker bus from leaving, but we were determined not to leave anyone behind.
After waiting an hour and 45 minutes, we received an email from the bus company stating that the bus would be another 90 minutes. My temporary companions decided to go into the mall to find dinner and some warmth, but I refused to leave the bus stop, not trusting the email. 5 minutes later the bus pulled up. Fortunately my companions had not gone far and were able to make it back to the bus in time.
Stay awake! Stay woke! Don't miss the bus! Jesus is clear: the bus is coming, and you don't know when. If you go inside that cozy mall, you might not make it back in time! And while I told the driver there were more people coming, she had a look that told me they'd better get back quick. That Baltimore bus was headed to Philly, and all aboard!
Maybe it will be like that? The kingdom of God is a bus to Philly, and if you're not standing in the cold rain waiting, shivering in misery, well then the flames of hell for you!
Do you see why I didn't want to preach on this passage?
On a mission trip to West Virginia a few years ago, we participated in a local worship service. It was led by another denomination's youth, and they longed for us to find our way to salvation. In their tradition, the way to Christ was to pray a particular prayer and to come forward for the altar call. Shortly before the altar call, the youth performed a skit.
Two girls walked together, chatting about everyday things. Suddenly they realized that they had been killed in a car accident, and that they were walking toward the gates of heaven. Jesus greeted them kindly, but only one of the girls had accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. The other had never formalized her faith. Sadly, Jesus led away the saved girl, while the damned girl stumbled slowly towards the rear door of the room, presumably leading to hell. As she stumbled, she screamed, "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you say something when I had a chance? How could you not tell me??" And her saved companion wept, while walking away with Jesus. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I didn't realize!"
We had some unpacking to do as a youth group. Is that it, though? Is this the end times? Those of us who have accepted Christ in the proper, formalized manner will see heaven, while our friends are abandoned to the depths of hell, all for our oversight and poor planning? Or perhaps (and probably more dangerous for us) Jesus will see into our hearts and take only the pure at heart, leaving the rest of us hypocrites left behind in a field? Stay awake! You do not know the hour!
Oh, I am tired, just thinking about this passage. How tired I was waiting for that bus in Baltimore! Is this the wait in store for us--a fierce, miserable waiting, grimly lashed to the duty to love the Lord with all our strength and all our heart and all our mind? No rest for the weary! Not a moment to lose. God helps those who help themselves--get saved! (That's not in the Bible, by the way.)
But perhaps...perhaps there are other ways to wait? Is there not something to taking turns keeping watch? Will the person working in the field, side by side with her co-worker, will she see Jesus and abandon her workmate? Or is another way possible?
In a church I served, there was a loverly couple who worked as volunteers with our youth programs. They had been married some years, and the wife spoke often of how she experienced God's love through her relationship with her husband. Once she told the story of how one night she had been weeping, lost in her tears. Her husband came over to her and held her. He prayed over her body as she cried herself to sleep.
When Jesus comes in such a moment, surely the husband will wake his wife gently! Surely he will say, "I will not leave without her! Where she goes, I go!" Might we also say to Jesus, "I will not go without this other! Where he goes, I go! Where she goes, I go!" In that moment, might we not cause God to pause? If our love for one another is strong, is not God's love perfected in that?
Our Isaiah passage speaks of all nations streaming to God's house. Will not all creation be redeemed? And how else might that come about, except through our love for one another? Person by person, nation by nation, we might link arms and say, "I will not leave that one behind! We go together." And for that love witnessed, surely God will grant our desire. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Let us bind ourselves to each other!
What if we thought of waiting in another way--what if our time here is not like waiting to get off the darn Turnpike after driving all night? What if waiting was not always like standing in the freezing, cold rain, miserably wondering if the Jesus bus is EVER going to get here?
What if keeping watch was like guarding our loved one's sleep? What if keeping watch meant sending others inside to keep warm while we take turns waiting for the bus?
What if keeping watch was like that night you stayed up all night with an intimate companion--a lover, a friend, a fascinating stranger you met in the bar? You stayed up all night, bringing in the dawn with your delirious, but immensely satisfying conversation, toasting one another, eating in honor of the good times, laughing and weeping through life's joys and miseries?
What if keeping watch was an act of love and solidarity that says, "I will not leave without this other person. Where he goes, I go. Where she goes, I go. We are both damned for the trouble? Well then!" Is that not the example Jesus gave us?
If this is so, then our communal life together is to be such an act of solidarity and love. Our work is to love one another so much that we cannot imagine life without each other. So that in the end, when Jesus knocks on the door, we are so bound to one another on earth, that we cannot be loosed in heaven. Let us be about that.