Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass 3rd Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) 2014

Wisdom 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Baden Powell may have come up with the boy scouts, but you might think from today’s gospel that it was Jesus who invented the girl guides, at least if the motto of the wise bridesmaids was “be prepared”.

On the face of it, the Gospel story we’ve read today appears to be about being ready for a future event, planning ahead, being prepared. But, it’s a parable. Parables are stories which are meant to lead us beyond their surface to a deeper meaning. There’s always something odd about them, something that doesn’t quite fit, for example in today’s story there are ten bridesmaids – but no bride. What’s that about?

Today’s reading is set near the end of Matthew’s gospel, three days before the betrayal and death of Jesus on Good Friday. These three days before are perhaps meant to mirror the three days after of the resurrection, but the disciples as yet have no idea of the events that are about to unfold. At this point, three days before his death, Jesus delivers his last public teaching. He delivers three parables: the wise and foolish bridesmaids, that we heard today, and the parables of the talents, and the sheep and goats, that we’ll hear over the next two weeks.

Through these parables Jesus is preparing his disciples for the events that are to come, his death and resurrection and his departure from them into heaven. The disciples must not give up when these things happen, but must learn to see that God is still present and at work.

How is God at work? This parable is about a wedding, a recurring theme in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke of Israel as God’s “bride”, the people whom God had chosen for himself and married, so God is the “bridegroom” of his people. But his people, like an unfaithful wife, had constantly gone off after other gods, and not kept God’s covenant.

But the prophets always insisted that God would not abandon his people. The bridegroom would bring his bride back again, make her his own once more. In other words, God was not going to forget his people, no matter what they did. God would once again “marry” his people and restore them to a right relationship with him.

So the image of the bridegroom is that of God returning to claim his people as his own once more. The message of the gospels is that God in Jesus is returning to restore his people Israel, and in fact all people, to a right relationship with him. This is why there is no bride in the parable – the bride is the people as a whole, an image that Jesus’ hearers would have understood.

What the Gospel is saying is that the arrival of the bridegroom was something happening right there and then. It was through the death and resurrection of Jesus that God was reconciling the world to himself. So this is not a story about Christ returning in some remote future. It’s much more urgent than that: this is happening now, watch, stay awake.

The parable says to keep your lamps lit. What do the lamps represent? Well, the most important function of a lamp is to shed light, so you can see what’s going on. It’s about perception. The message of the parable is, make sure you can see what’s happening. And what is happening is that God is acting in Jesus.

But most people didn’t see. They had a different perception, a different mindset. They thought that God would return in power in a great final catastrophe, to punish the wicked and reward the good. And the wicked, of course, were always other people – Romans, the ritually unclean, the mentally ill, women – always the marginalised and the outsider, who were finally going to be thrust outside for ever, whilst only the pure and good, “people like us”, would be allowed in God’s kingdom.

What people were not expecting was that God was coming to die on a cross. God was coming to undo our violence and our exclusion of others by taking the place of the marginalised and outsider, the place of the victim. In Jesus our expectations are reversed, and we see that we, too, are “outsiders”. But we also see that, through God’s love and mercy alone, we and all the other outsiders are being invited in to the feast of God’s kingdom.

In order to see that, you need God’s light to switch on in your mind, so you can perceive things differently. You need a changed mind. One of the meanings of repentance in the Bible is changing your mind, having a completely new mindset.

St Paul says, in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. This means learning to see that God is at work in Jesus. It means learning to see that God is in the place of the victim and not the victimiser. The lamp of our consciousness will be lit, we will be awake.

Having a lamp is also about giving light to others. Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 5, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. We are to live in the here and now so that people can see the light of God in our lives. We share that light by being witnesses for Jesus and by caring for those in need. We tend that light through prayer, sacrament and study of the Bible.

And we are to do this in the here and now, the time that Jesus prepared his disciples for. The reconciliation of the world to God through Christ continues, and the good news continues to be proclaimed. After his departure Jesus entrusted this mission to the disciples. And this continues in every generation. In the parable it grows late, it is dark, but the wise bridesmaids keep awake through the night, watching for the bridegroom. So too must we, the disciples of today, however dark the night, however long the vigil.

On this 100th anniversary of the First World War we reflect on a time of great darkness that engulfed much of the world. Violence and evil seemed to be in charge. Killing had become industrialised on a massive scale. But even in that deep darkness many souls kept the light of faith burning, praying for God’s kingdom, ministering to God’s people. Many others did what they felt they must for the sake of freedom when all choices must have seemed evil. And many found that even in darkest night, even at the last extremity, God in Jesus is present to save if we turn to him in faith.

In the hundred years since 1914 the darkness has not gone away, as history and current events show all too well. But the message of Jesus does not change. Stay awake. Keep your lamps lit. Remember that our task is not to overcome the darkness, but to bear faithful witness to the light, however dark the night may be.

This applies in our own lives as well as in the world. We will all know times of darkness and waiting. We will all know times when God seems absent. The dark night of the soul, when all consolations seem to have been withdrawn, is where we learn to trust in God alone. So stay awake, keep your lamps lit, be faithful. The end of the long vigil will be to greet the bridegroom as he reveals himself as saviour, reconciling all people to himself. The reward of the long vigil is to go in with him to the eternal feast of the Kingdom of God.

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