(1 Thess. 4.13-18; Matt. 25.1-13)
In preparing for the service today, I was contemplating changing the lectionary readings assigned for this Sunday, in favour of those for Remembrance Day.
In the end, I stuck with the assigned readings, which it seems to me speak powerfully to the occasion. Our theme today is not so much that of war and peace, but of hope.
What is the hope that we as Christians have for the future in the midst of this violent, war-torn world?
My Dad was 18 years old, when, in the spring of 1939, my grandfather, seeing the writing on the wall, arranged for him to get out of Germany, as radio operator with the merchant marine. His ship was in the South Atlantic when war broke out. The order to return to Germany at once was never fulfilled when he and his crew were captured by the Royal Navy. Becoming a prisoner of war was the best thing that could have happened to him, for it meant escaping the horror that was about to unfold.
My mother meanwhile was just 11 years old, when, in the early summer of 1941, on the large farming estate in East Prussia that was her home, she stood and watched as column after column of German infantry and armor moved eastward in preparation for the invasion of Russia. In less than four years, my mother along with her 4 sisters and my grandmother would become refugees, fleeing the advancing Soviet army. She too escaped the horror of what we now know was the wholesale rape of German women by Russian solders.
Their story was the story of escape.
But for many, there was no escape.
How do you remember the estimated 16 million military and civilian casualties from the First World War?
How do remember the estimated over 60 million casualties from the Second World War, most of whom, by the way, were civilians and not soldiers.
This was advent of industrial scale.
Try as we might, “at the rising of the sun and at it’s setting, to remember them,” we don’t. And we don’t because we can’t. The further and further these events recede into history, the harder and harder it becomes.
Thankfully the salvation of those who died does not depend on our remembrance, but on God’s.
He will remember them.
This is why you have to personalize it.
Today we will read the names and remember those from this parish who served and died in the war.
In our hearts we will remember the names of those in our extended families who lost their lives in war. For the impact of the trauma of war on human society is generational. It is something that takes years and years to get over. Some never do, as marriages are torn apart, and as families are torn apart, with the result that children never got to know the love of their parents, or their grandparents…
This is something that isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
And what does the Gospel say to us in the face of the overwhelming loss and grief that is ours?
In today’s reading from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes, “I would not have you be uninformed about those who have died, so that we not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
One hears a lot of silly sentimental talk at funerals about how the recently deceased is looking down on us with a smile from heaven, where she is having just a great time.
Where do people get this from? It’s a kind of folk theology, which says that when you die, you go to heaven, with or without Jesus’ help.
That somehow is supposed to make everything alright? I just want to scream.
But for Paul, the Christian hope is something rather different.
As Paul writes, “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again (which is what makes us Christians), even so through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… then we will who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
I’m not quite sure what to make about this picture of being caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. We are in the realm here of poetry and metaphor, which is what we turn to when we try and describe the indescribable. But the meaning of the poetry is clear. Heaven and earth are suddenly reconciled in beautiful embrace (“caught up together”) in a new space that God is creating in between heaven and earth (“in the air”) which will never end (“we will be with the Lord forever”). In other words our communion with God and with each other that has been broken through sin and death, will be restored. it’s the restoration of communion. That is our hope. That is why as Christians, even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!-”
Today as we look to the past and remember the war dead, we do so as those who have re-oriented themselves in the hope that is theirs through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As we confess in our Creed today, we are looking for Jesus to come again glory to Judge the Living and the Dead. We are looking for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the world to come.
This is a branch of theology we call eschatology, from the Greek word “eschaton” meaning “goal” or “end.”
Eschatology is the study of the end or goal of human history. When they said the First World War was “the war to end all wars,” that was an eschatological statement, which we now know to be false.
So when will the end come? When will there be no more war? The end will come, and peace will come, when Jesus comes.
He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
It’s not that we are moving into the future, but that the future is moving towards us.
Jesus is on his way!
in the poetry of our parable today, His arrival is described terms of the arrival of the Bridegroom. This a little bit different from our culture where the Bride is the one whose arrival we await. But in Jesus’ day the party started with the arrival of the Bridegroom, and the Bridesmaids were there to accompany him, not her, into the banquet hall.
In our story there were ten bridesmaids, which is something that I cannot even begin to imagine! As Jesus tells us five of them were wise and five of them were foolish. The difference being, those who were foolish had prepared themselves for the Bridegroom’s arrival, the wise ones had prepared themselves for the Bridegroom’s delay.
As it turned out the Bridegroom was delayed, so much so that they all got so tired they fell asleep. It’s been a long day.
When at Midnight the cry came out, “The Bridegroom arrives!” the bridesmaids got up to trim their lamps. Whereas the wise bridesmaids enough oil on hand, the foolish ones didn’t, and had to go off in search for fresh supplies, with the result that they missed the Bridegroom’s arrival, and were shut out from the celebration, by the Bridegroom Himself who declared them, “l do not know you.”
What we see in this story is that Jesus is not only the Bridegroom whose coming we need to await, He is the Judge whose judgment we need to fear. The basis for this judgment is not simply a matter of our knowledge of Jesus and our faith in Him, where we cry out, ” Lord, Lord, open up! Let us in!”
The basis of the judgment is His knowledge and recognition of us, “Truly, truly, i tell you, I do not know you.”
This then raises the question , “What does it mean for us now to live as those whom the Lord will recognize as His own on the day of his coming?”
It is not just a question of believing the promise. It is a question of living in light of the promise, as when a man going off to war promises his sweet-heart he is going to marry her upon his return. That promise is going to affect how she lives her life.
In terms of the poetry of our parable, it is a question of making sure we enough oil in our lamps such that whether the Bridegroom comes sooner or later makes no difference to us. We will be ready to welcome Him.
What might that mean?
Those of you who witness baptisms here at St. Mary’s will know the generous amount of chrism oil with which I anoint the newly baptized. This speaks to us of the generous anointing of the Holy Spirit, which is what fuels the Christian life. That which is given to us in baptism, is something we need to seek to acquire throughout our lives through self denial and prayer, the Holy Spirit.
It’s interesting that the root of the word for oil in the Greek language is the same root of the word for “mercy.” Having oil in your lamp we might say has to do with the practice or the habit of mercy, passing on to others what we have received from the Lord, which is mercy,
In our parable the oil was there to light the lamp. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Let their light so shine before others that seeing their good works they might glorify their Father who is in heaven.”
What are these good works that Jesus refers to here? In terms of the Sermon on the Mount the good works has to do with things like turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving to those who ask, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you. To sum up, living or waiting, and sleeping, with enough oil in our means that we centre our lives not on our faith, and our good works, but on the Cross and how God is glorified in our lives.
According to Martin Luther a community whose life is centered on the Cross is a community that knows suffering. Luther wrote, “They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds oftrials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, who is Christ.”
It’s a rather counter intuitive description of the wise young bridesmaids.
But as we entered into this Cross shaped life, we do so in communion with the Lord who was crucified on it. We realize that the one whose coming in glory we await, is the One who was with us all along in our watching and in our waiting. Amen.