Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 12, Consecration Sunday: Stay Woke!

Sermon by Rev. Melody Meeter

Matthew 25:1-13, and Psalm 78:1-7

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How do you stay awake? How do you stay woke, as Dick Gregory, of blessed memory, comedian and political activist, would put it. If being awake is another way of saying be prepared, what does that mean?  If you see something say something? Take your handgun to church?  Issue machine guns to our deacons? Stay off the bike paths?  We suffer together the terrible absence and the deafening silence of God.

The Parable of the Ten Maidens, only in Matthew, or literally, the Ten Virgins, is told by Jesus to his disciples just days or hours before his death.  Jesus wants to prepare them for his death. But also to prepare them for his life in the world after his death.  He wants them to wake up and get ready.

This parable is inside a longer sermon or discourse by Jesus about the end times, apocalypse, the coming of the Messiah.  Chapter 24.  You could scarcely squeeze more images of violence into one short passage: fire, earthquakes, floods, torture, persecution, two people in a field, one is taken one is left, pray that you are not pregnant in those days…etc.

You see, Jesus had just said---remember he is in Jerusalem with his disciples just before the Passover---Jesus had said that the beautiful new temple would be destroyed, not one stone left on stone. Now in Jesus’ context, freedom of speech was not a thing. We have to stop imagining Jesus down at the lake with a fishing pole.  We should rather imagine Jesus in North Korea. These words, in Matthew’s telling, set in motion the events that lead to his arrest, his trial, his execution.  So his disciples simply have to ask him:  Why did you have to say that?

Through the years these texts about the end times have repelled or confused me. Why does Jesus make it seem that after his death he will be returning very shortly, like maybe before Labor Day, that his death will quickly set in motion the end of world?  Then why does he turn it upside down and say nobody knows the day or the hour, so keep awake.

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, though lighter in tone than all the images of the end times, also pushes us away, continuing the theme of judgement, and leaving us with an easy moral.  Just be prepared and everything will be all right. Lazy people deserve what they get.

But this week, and this year, this time, as I read these texts, it was the morning news, the ink barely dry.  Out of this parable has come much music, from Bach to this 1928 spiritual, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning……”  I can’t get this spiritual out of my head. When I sing it, it feels not like judgement but an invitation. A very personal invitation.

By the way, we shouldn’t judge the five maidens who don’t share their oil too harshly—first of all, in that  social context and even in some cultures today, the procession IS the wedding, it’s part of the wedding.  If the five had shared and they’d all run out of oil the wedding would have to be cancelled. Second, it’s an allegory; the fire in the lamp represents your unique-in-the-world self, which is not yours to give away.

So today, in the midst of violence and disaster, you are being asked to consider your financial pledge, to step up your commitment. In the midst of your own suffering.  Don’t discount your suffering.  I often hear people say, after they have just complained about something: First World Problem. But the truth is that suffering is suffering is suffering and there is plenty of it to go around even in Park Slope.

It’s a long list of names every week in our intercessory prayers and sometimes hidden behind those names is a whole lot of grief. In our congregation there is homelessness, the deaths of two adult children, schizophrenia, imprisonment, depression, cancer, chronic illness and deep personal betrayal. And that’s just in 2017.

There is so much suffering that money can’t fix. So why should you give to Old First?  There are so many good causes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in solar energy?  The planet is in trouble and you are asking me to keep the lights on at Old First? There are so many things we could actually fix with money. What does this community fix?

Part of our suffering is deciding what cause is truly worthy of a portion of our paychecks. How much money should you spend to keep the flame of faith alive?  If a tithe is the portion of your income you are aiming for how much of a tithe should go toward something as fragile as a community of Jesus?

Eric spoke a couple of weeks ago on why he gives to Old First and mentioned that he also gives to an organization that helps people getting out of prison. Dan and I tithe but we do not tithe everything to this community.  Margaret spoke about the importance of consecration---about giving to create and maintain a holy space. Dan Silatonga spoke about giving to Old First because it means home to him, in the largest sense of that word. How do you put a monetary value on spiritual things?

More than 20 years ago, when I was in a chaplain residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital,  I met a man, about  my age, who was in the hospital with some serious complications from his cancer and I had the privilege of knowing him over a couple of weeks.  He was a strong-looking handsome man and he was a little macho, you know.  He had a model of his red convertible sports car on the bedside table—this was the person he wanted people to know when they came into the room. I liked him and I daresay he liked me. I listened to him, I prayed for his healing, I prayed for his wife and children.

One day, while I was visiting, his nurse came in to tend to the wound that was on his back.  (He was on his side, I was sitting facing him.)  Unexpectedly, he asked me, “Would you like to see my wound?”  So I went around to the other side of the bed where the nurse was tending his wound.  And I saw it, in the middle of his back right next to his spine.  I won’t describe it except to say it was deep and it was wide.  I was woke.  I mean that I woke up to his suffering. He invited me into it. He was teaching me about suffering.

And then our relationship changed. I had been praying for his healing.  But now we could talk about his death and what it would mean to prepare for his death—even as we still fervently prayed for his healing. He was hoping for the best even as he prepared for the worst. And then a strange thing, a mysterious thing happened.  Joy came into the room.  And the joy was inextricably linked to the suffering. This deeper connection happens a lot in my work as a chaplain—those who are alive to their mortality are most alive in their deepest spirits.

Every week at communion we sing together “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  We should really translate that last phrase in a way that doesn’t make it seem that it’s some far off future.  We should sing “Christ has come again.” Or “Christ is coming again,” Or “Christ is here again.” Wake up. It’s now. So in the parable of the Wedding Feast we are not being asked to prepare for some distant future.  It’s not a 401K.  It’s preparing for a joy that could happen any minute, that does happen any minute.

This is a truth that even children know. Psalm 78 enjoins us to share the faith with our children.  Not only the glorious deeds of the Lord but even the dark sayings from of old.  Children, like all of us, can be asleep to the spiritual realities.  But they can also be wide awake.  Like at Children in Worship here. Near the end of our time together each week we pray. First we go around the circle and ask the children what they want to pray about.  And then the worship leader lifts up those prayers. And usually they say something that feels kind of rote like, I’m thankful for my Mommy and Daddy, or something that feels kind of trivial, like I’m thankful for my new socks. But if you are awake you will also hear amazing things, like the boy who said, “I’m sad because my Daddy doesn’t live in my house anymore. “  Or I think of the child who said, last spring,” I am thankful for the story.” They get it, you know?

Last week Sunday I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the F train.  Next to me were a father and two daughters, maybe 6 and 3 or 4. Now I don’t usually interject myself into conversations overheard.   But out of nowhere the older girl said, “Daddy, when you and Mommy die…” The father interrupted her and said, “Victoria, don’t be morbid.” And I immediately said to the girl, “That wasn’t morbid, it was real!” And then the father said, not looking at me, “I’m sorry, Victoria, what were you going to say. The she said, “When you and Mommy die I will take care of my sister.”  “That’s very nice,” said the dad.

This community has kept me woke to the presence of God in the world, because I can see and feel the presence of God in you. You are Christ-bearers. This community has been a gift to me from the day I arrived here. I often feel you have given me a love I don’t deserve, that I receive much more from this community than I give back to it. I don’t know how I could have continued my work as a chaplain without this community, which constantly calls me to faith, hope and love. Which constantly reminds me to be prepared to see Christ anywhere.

Keep awake, watch for it. I’m talking about the whole thing, the worship service, the sermons, the music, the weekly circle of communion, the beauty of the building, your individual spirits.  I sometimes imagine I can see flames coming out of the tops of your heads. Every week we consecrate this space.

The invitation to the banquet arrives in the darkest times, when we ourselves and the whole world seem absolutely forsaken by God.  But when we find ourselves seated at the table in the presence of our enemies, and the presence of the Good Shepherd, not only after we die, but any minute now, we find ourselves at such a feast as mends in length.  We find ourselves truly awake.

Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and has made us kings and priests unto God and his father, unto him be glory and dominion both now and forever, Amen. 

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