Sermon Archives

Sunday, November 8, 2020
Proper 27 (Year A)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Are You Prepared?

Finish then, oh God, Thy new creation, pure and spotless, let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee, amen.

Now you’ll forgive me for using that verse or half verse from our opening hymn this morning, Love Divine. It is among my favorite hymns, in fact, one at my wedding with Jessica, so there’s a little happiness in me when I hear this hymn, and ultimately, this prayer of hope for all of us, and for all of God’s creation.

Speaking of hope for all of God’s creation, you’re going to forgive me again for being a little off-track to begin with, but I just wanted to pull something out of this lesson that we had from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, which I recommend that you take some time and read at some point. It’s not long, it’s five chapters, I think, and it’s just a remarkable letter from one who is in love with his community. Here in this lesson that we just had read earlier in the service, there’s a little exchange that I think we need to hold onto. In our Reclaiming Our Voice class, it’s a Wednesday night class with Tom Nealssohn as my partner in crime, discussing the language of our faith.

And we begin by exploring Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking of Faith, I think is the proper title, excuse me. Anyhow, Borg points out that there are two elements to the tradition that most of us have inherited in faith that really hamper the way we interpret and understand the language of our faith. And both of them I’m going to actually talk about tonight. I didn’t anticipate that, but one of them is here, and that is this idea that all of our faith, everything that we do in our life in Christ is really to get ourselves into heaven.

That is to say that the framework of heaven and hell is the prism through which we understand all of scripture, and that our life here is simply a way of checking off the boxes, have we said the right prayers, have we done the right things, have we gone to church often enough, whatever those boxes may be, in order to get ourselves into the glory of heaven. And I think this lesson that we just heard from Paul to the Thessalonians actually clears a little bit of that up. If you’ve been in a class with me, I probably preached it before, what I want us to remember, and what I think Paul to saying to the early church is, “You know what? That heaven stuff, that life-after-death stuff, God’s got that taken care of.

You don’t have to worry,” he says to the church in Thessalonica, “You don’t have to worry about what happens to people who die, to Christians, your loved ones, your brothers, your sisters, your moms, your dads. You don’t have to worry about them, because God has got that taken care of.” Says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have died.” It’s God’s work, he’s saying, to figure out what happens to us after our death. But we can rest assured, because God so loved the world, that God so loves us, that God will figure it out, because God desires to be with us, so we don’t have to worry about that.

Paul says to the early church, I dare say, reminds us we don’t have to worry about that. And what does is it says to us that scripture, our study of faith, our life of faith is no longer about working our way into heaven, because that’s God’s work. It reframes us to think, “Well then, maybe, maybe our faith, our exploration of our faith, our life of faith, if it’s not about getting us into heaven, maybe it’s about improving the way we live with one another here and now.” And when we open faith up that way, it becomes a remarkably transforming and hopeful exercise and practice.

Well, I said I was going to talk about two things that Borg unpacks for us in his book that we’ve been looking at in Reclaiming Our Voice, and the other is equally true, and it gets us to our text for today from Matthew’s gospel. He says, “The other fundamental problem with the way we so often interpret faith is we have one framework, heaven and hell, through which we understand everything. The other is literalism; that is an equally dangerous trap.” We’ve all heard it, perhaps, that the literal interpretation of this text or perhaps in more subtle language of ... Father Walter will appreciate and remember this from about 20 years ago with Lambeth Conference, as we were talking about human sexuality, the language became, well, the plain language of scripture says, and that’s a trap.

You see, what we’re doing when we say that, we’re doing a couple of things, but one is, we’re actually dismissing or diminishing the complexity of scripture. And we’re making it into this ... What’s the word I am looking for, this ... The word is escaping me, this shadow of itself. And that’s a danger that is in front of us for tonight’s lesson. Now I’m just going to pause for about a moment and recognize that we are at the beginning of the 25th chapter of Matthew. And we are, interestingly enough, the lectionary writers or compilers are giving us the entirety of the 25th chapter of Matthew over the coming three weeks, today, next Sunday, and the following Sunday. We will hear all of chapter 25 in sequence, so I’ve got a little time to explore all of it.

So I want to just focus for a moment longer on literalism and scripture. If we take this passage literally, let’s hear what we’re being told. If we take it literally, we are supposed to be prepared, have extra oil, and if somebody comes to us who is short on oil, we’re supposed to say to them, “Nope, not enough for you and for me, go find some for yourself, I’m going into the party. Good luck.” That’s what the story says if we take it literally. And we think that that’s the message that Matthew wants us to hear. Now if we just pause for a moment, we know immediately that that’s not true. There’s actually another story that talks about what we’re supposed to do when somebody else comes to us who’s hungry.

We can either look to the end of chapter 25, “You fed me when I was hungry, you gave me drink when I was thirsty, you clothed me when I was naked,” that’s the end of this chapter, remember that? Or we can just go back a few chapters to the feeding of the 5,000. There they are, late in the afternoon, early evening, it’s getting late, similar story. The disciples say to Jesus, “Look Jesus, look Lord, all these people are hungry. Shouldn’t we send them home to take care of themselves? Shouldn’t we send them out to get their own oil? Isn’t that what ... because there’s not enough for all of us in our bags. We don’t have enough oil for everybody.”

How does Jesus respond to the disciples then? He doesn’t say, “You know what? Peter, you got it. It’s foolish me to think that we could do something about the hunger in the world. Send them away.” No, He says, “What do you have? What have you got in your bag? And start feeding people.” See, that’s the danger when we start to take everything literally. We take a story like this and say, “Oh, it must be about being faithful and being good stewards. And that we are supposed to protect and take care of ourselves, and if somebody else isn’t so wise, tough luck for them.” That’s not what Matthew’s doing here. If you want a story about generosity and how to respond to the hungry in the world, you’ll look to the feeding of the 5,000, you’ll look to the end of this chapter when Jesus says to His disciples, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me.” That’s how you respond to the world.

This is not a story that’s to be understood literally. It’s a story that invites us to see something about this time in our lives; this time between Jesus living, Jesus dying, and Jesus returning. What are we to do? And Matthew wants us to understand first and foremost that we got to be prepared. Are you prepared? Not just are you prepared for the second coming, that’s one way. If we just think that this is about heaven and hell, that’s what we’ll talk about, that you got to be prepared for the second coming. Have you said your prayers? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Have you been baptized? Have you done, have you checked all the boxes to get yourself into heaven?

But God’s got that part worked out, Paul reminds us. No, the question is are you prepared here and now when Jesus comes into your life? Are you ready? Are you ready to face Jesus here, to respond to Jesus now? When someone, when Jesus comes to you hungry, naked or thirsty, are you ready to see Jesus in that person? Are you ready to love that person the very way you are loved, the very way you love your son, your daughter, your mother, your father? Are you ready to face Jesus in the stranger? That’s the question Paul was asking. Excuse me, that is the question Matthew was presenting to the early church of his day. That is the question that Jesus is asking of His disciples. Are you prepared to meet the bridegroom whenever and wherever the bridegroom appears? Are you prepared? Are you ready to meet Jesus in the face of a stranger before you? Amen.