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Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost 2020

Amos 5:18-21 Psalms 70 I Thessalonians 4:13- 18 Matthew 25:1-13

The minister announced that the admission to a church social would be $6.00 per person. He said, “However, if you’re over 65, the price will be $5.50. From the back of the congregation a woman shouted, “Do you really think I’d give that information for only 50 cents.

The prophet Amos turns the understanding of God’s goodness upside down. Amos became a prophet to Israel in 760 BC. His purpose was to pronounce God’s judgment upon Israel, the northern kingdom, for its complacency, idolatry, and oppression of the poor. The wealthy people of Israel were enjoying peace and prosperity. They were very complacent and were oppressing the poor, even selling them into slavery. Soon, Israel will be conquered by Assyria, and the rich would themselves become slaves.

Amos generates some provocative poetry in this passage, but leaves something to be desired. Prophets are like that. Prophets speak the truth that nobody wants to hear. They point to the ugliness that everyone is tiptoeing around. A prophet is not liked by the people who hear him. The good news in this text is not obvious, but it is wrapped in some pretty dark language. It is a challenging message that could irritate some apathetic people. Part of the message in Amos is that among the people of God, apathy needs to be irritating. Feathers should be ruffled. Pots should be stirred. People need to be challenged if the kingdom of God is to come. The challenge begins.

God expects more. In this reading, God is talking to the people of Israel who are convinced that the Day of the Lord will be a joyful celebration, a day for which they have only to wait, passively. Worship, it would seem, has become a way to pass the time, to honor God for the goodness bestowed upon the people and to celebrate their status as God’s chosen people.

The prophet Amos speaks on behalf of a God furious with this attitude, an attitude under which the sick suffer without care and the poor openly starve. Justice is not present in this place. In the coming Day of the Lord, that void will be filled by God for whom justice and mercy are always a priority.

Amos isn’t telling us that God despises worship. Amos is telling us that worshipping, respecting, and honoring God are not just about performing ritual. Ritual without action in the world is meaningless. Ritual without meaning behind it – or perhaps without heart behind it – is pointless. The church cannot claim its calling by worship alone. God commands that we practice justice and that we help usher in the kingdom of God with our own hands, hearts and feet - in prayer and in action.

God is straight forward. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, our maker, sustainer and redeemer. Those images of a white-bearded man like Santa that grants all our wishes can be a detriment to the actual biblical theology of God – God as ruler over heaven and earth. God loves us unconditionally, but also reminds us that we have work to do, that we are indeed God’s hands and hearts and feet in the world.

Our biblical ancestors believed that simply seeing God’s face was enough to kill a mortal human being. With the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see God’s face newly revealed, but our charge to help usher in the kingdom has not changed – and God’s ability and right to nudge, cajole, or even lambaste us into action has certainly not changed. Perhaps this sort of message through Amos and from the church is still appropriate today.

God is unpredictable. If this image of God surprises us, then the text is doing its job. God, after all, is a surprise to us, time and time again. God hands over the unexpected frequently. Looking for a Messiah to save them, the people wanted one who would come down with a sword from the heavens to reign with vengeance. What we got instead was a tiny baby from the womb of a human woman. Surprise! They expected this Messiah would conquer the oppressor, but instead, the Messiah himself was killed like a lamb lead to slaughter. Surprise! They expected the crucified body to remain broken and dead, but instead death was conquered. Surprise! Something was made of nothing, hope was created out of despair, life arose from death.

So why then, knowing the way this God operates in the world – full of surprises, turning little boxes of our lives upside down and shaking out their contents – would we expect the Day of the Lord to be anything other than unexpected? It will be as if we ran from a lion and were met by a bear, Amos says, or as if there were a snake on the wall of our houses. It will be startling, dangerous and life changing. That is the God we should come to understand. That is the unexpected God we have been preaching. The day of that God’s coming will be nothing less than the great waters of justice rolling down upon us. However, unlike Noah’s flood, this flood will not kill but cleanse, quenching us in righteousness and reorienting us to that which is of utmost importance, right relationship with God through one another.

Amos can offer a new challenge to us. He can build a track for us to move out of our complacency. This text from Amos is a reminder that as much as God loves us, God also expects much of us, and God will speak strong truth when it needs to be said.

Just when you think you have Jesus figured out as a teacher, a healer, and a man of prayer, he goes and tells a parable like this. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins suggests how we should live while waiting for the Son of Man’s appearance. It tells us that we are to act like the wise bridesmaids. We need to learn patience – and this is particularly true when waiting for God. The parable speaks a profound word to the fast-paced twenty-first century people. It is a fresh reminder of the need to prepare for delay, specifically the delayed kingdom of God.

In this parable, the bridegroom, Jesus, arrives later than expected and not all the maids are prepared for the delay. Some have only enough oil for the timetable they imagined. Consequently, their lamps are not lit, and they are called foolish.

Initially, all the bridesmaids are the same – they each dress for the wedding and come to it. They carry lamps and say, “Lord, Lord” and each falls asleep. What is different from the foolish and the wise is their readiness for the bridegroom appearance, even in the face of delay. The wise are prepared for delay. When their faith in the bridegroom’s return is tested, they have the resources available to sustain them. In the midst of life’s joy and pain, ease and adversity, intrigue and boredom, the faith of the wise remains firm. They keep the light shining before others, continuing in community, study and prayer, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness and spreading justice and peace. They have not relinquished their hope that the world and each one of us will one day be transformed and fully reconciled to God. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, they have built into their lives the disciplines and habits of a lifetime that foster hope and empower living as people of God.

The oil in the parable is seen as faith, good works, practices or spiritual resources that remain constant and shine during good times as well as times of waiting for God. This helps explain why the bridesmaids can’t share their oil. Just as we can’t share spiritual reserves, development, or preparedness, the bridesmaids can’t borrow the resources needed. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter, regardless of whether he comes more quickly or more slowly than expected.

Often, we think we have all the time in the world to tend to certain matters – rebuilding a broken relationship, learning a new skill, offering a needed word of gratitude or forgiveness, replacing a bad habit with as good one, achieving an important goal, changing careers, deepening our relationship with God, contributing to the community, spending time with a child, and faithfully following Christ. We put it off for today because we are too busy or too distracted. We can deal with it tomorrow. The bridesmaids who are considered foolish, are not ready, and when they return to the banquet, now prepared for the celebration, the bridegroom doesn’t open the door. It is too late.

As with so many things in life, timing is so important. There is a timelessness of faith and love. There are people who wait for our attention, who need us to live our faith without procrastination. In Matthew, the wise are those who know and take care of this. With good works and acts of faith in God, they prepare for an unknown but secure future. The foolish assume a bright future but do little to prepare for it.

Now is the time for active discipleship, and every moment counts. The kingdom of heaven calls us to new life, improved commitment, casting away of false idols, active waiting in hope and renewed spirit in faith. How do we do that – stay grounded in God, renew our commitment to God, stay connected? November 29th is the First Sunday in Advent. The Advent season is about preparation. Spiritual disciplines offered for Advent include reading and discussing A Way to the Manger in our Sunday evening class. Starting Wednesday, December 2nd, we will have Evening Prayer, via ZOOM and read and discuss Together in Advent. It is a time to fill our lamps with the oil of faith and maintain that fullness until we see Christ.

Matthew teaches that faithful action done now prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God, even as it prepares us for the heavenly wedding celebration. The challenge here is to keep enough oil for our lamps to keep them burning. So when the bridegroom appears, we are ready to roll up our sleeves and work for the kingdom that is always coming and breaking into history. Give me oil in my lamp…keep it burning. Amen

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Grace Episcopal Church is an affirming church where all are welcome to worship and serve Christ in faith and love.

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