Sunday, November 6, 2011
by Ellen Sims
HEBREW BIBLE READING: Amos 5: 18-24[i]
GOSPEL READING: Matthew 25: 1-13 [ii]
On this day when darkness comes especially early to us, we hear dark scriptures. Jesus urges us to be awake and alert because “the bridegroom” will come unexpectedly in the darkest of night. Amos warns also of “The Day of the Lord” in a dark time. These strange stories have ominous tones and cryptic meanings.
The Day of the Lord carries varied meanings throughout the Bible. Some contemporary Doomsday prophets use the phrase apocalyptically to forecast a specific date when the world will end. Radio preacher Harold Camping predicted last year the world would end this past May. He recently recalibrated to declare October 21, 2011, as the actual time when “all those under the judgment of God would be annihilated together with the whole physical world. ” He added, “On that day the true believers will be raptured.”[iii] Although that revised date has come and gone, I’m sure he will venture another guess soon.
But in light of today’s lectionary texts, I’m wondering just how many times the world can end? Obviously, only once in the way Camping predicts. Maybe many times, according to other interpretations.
Camping believes the Day of the Lord will be a decisive once-and-for-all Judgment Day when God condemns to eternal punishment all the people who do not share Harold Camping’s beliefs.
In contrast, Amos’s words of judgment, rendered for a specific people 800 years before the time of Christ, were “directed at Israel’s rich ruling class”.[iv] Amos believed God was displeased with the way a wealthy minority was crushing the rest of the impoverished population. Archaeologists and anthropologists estimate less than 5% of Amos’s compatriots were systematically keeping the other 95% poor.
Until recently, biblical scholars assumed that this economic stratification in ancient Israel was “just the way things were” and the poor could only hope their betters would be charitable toward them. But maybe there were structural changes that created the inequities and therefore structural changes could have reversed them. Anthropologists now believe that Amos lived in a period when some nomadic peoples, who knew nothing of social class, were joining an urban society at the very time an exploitative system called rent capitalism was developing. The peasant farmers were having to sell off more and more land to pay exorbitant taxes. The rich then gobbled up more land and became richer as the poor grew poorer.
In earlier times, Israel’s laws periodically leveled the economic playing field (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25, Numbers 36, Deuteronomy 15). Debts were periodically cancelled, slaves released, land returned to its original owners. However, by Amos’s day that practice had been abandoned. Meanwhile, the exploiters prided themselves on their pious ways and adherence to religious rites. So in the verses we read earlier, Amos spoke on behalf of a compassionate God who wanted acts of justice rather than burnt offerings, hymns of praise, and religious rites (Amos 5: 22-23). Amos spoke God’s judgment against heartless religiosity that cares more about rituals than poor people. And he imagined a day—the Day of the Lord—when unjust practices would end. The typical Doomsday preacher seems unaware of the context for the Old Testament prophecies.
Perhaps the Day of the Lord is a recurring phenomenon in human psychology because it’s a recurring theme in human history. There are pivotal periods down through the ages when it seems that the world as people knew it ended, when a crisis erupted, when a way of life collapsed. Perhaps this is a time when system-wide flaws run through our own culture like deep geological fault lines ready to break apart former paradigms and completely alter the social-economic-political-theological landscape. If the Day of the Lord is one of those periodic times when society’s brokenness is exposed—then that metaphorical day is again upon us.
I’m not saying we’re entering the Hollywood plot of one of those apocalyptic movies like The Matrix, The Book of Eli, The Road, The Fifth Element, Terminator, The Postman, Waterworld, Planet of the Apes, etc. I’m not saying the Harold Camping-types understand the original contexts for apocalyptic scripture. But in a limited sense, these doomsayers may be onto something. The Day of the Lord may again be at hand. I never thought I would say THAT in a sermon. Please don’t quote me out of context! But I’m not the only progressive Christian talking about this prominent biblical theme of “the Day of the Lord.”
Others today believe the world as we know it is ending. Phyllis Tickle and other culture watchers declare we’re living in a hinge time, the likes of which have not been seen in 500 years. Those occupying Wall Street are saying our political-economic system is broken. Environmentalists like Bill McKibbin are saying we’ve already passed the threshold for the amount of carbon dioxide our atmosphere can tolerate. And our friend Brian McLaren is convinced that all our systems–social, political, environmental, economic–are sending us right over a cliff. The title of one of his books, Everything Must Change, conveys how comprehensive is his warning. In last week’s workshop, Brian said it may be too late to avoid the cliff. It may already be too late to reverse our self-destructive systems and make course corrections. So change is coming—whether we intentionally make the changes or change is forced upon us.
But collapsing systems create opportunity for newness and hope. The Day of the Lord may strike fear in us when we see it coming because it will mean the end of many things we hold dear. But this hinge time is also the means whereby we can be saved from systems now in place. At some point we must pick ourselves up from the rubble and start afresh. Maybe what is crashing are systems that need to die so that saner, fairer, healthier systems can be born. The role of prophets like Amos—and McLaren—is, in the words of a hymn we sang earlier, to help us say “no” to a life we hold dear” and “yes to a future we fear.” The role of the prophets is to “help us to grieve what we cling to and know we must leave: power and privilege and pride in one’s kind with little or no care for those left behind.” The role of the prophets is to “face the night” and “help us find hope, kindling our courage to change and to cope.” The end of the old means the beginning of something new. [v] In fact, resurrection hope is at the heart of the Christian faith.
McLaren and other progressive Christians think we face a challenging time ahead as we move reluctantly to prioritize compassionate care for other people and other creatures so that our planet may survive. The dying of old systems will be hard to endure and the sharp labor pangs preceding the birth of revised economic, social, political systems will be even harder to bear. And we can’t expect much help from “Religion with a capital R” because our religious systems–and you and I–are complicit with the other deep dysfunctions sending us down this suicidal path. What it will take is for the Spirit of Generosity and Compassion to grip us. It will take our cooperation with the Spirit so that we create a sustainable future for all. We must learn the hardest lesson of human spirituality: to love selflessly those we’ll never meet in a future we’ll never inhabit.
“Alas,” Amos called out to the overtly religious of his day, “You think you’ll fare well in the day of the Lord but it’s not what you imagine. It’s not an escape plan to some other realm for the privileged. It’s a shift in systems right here and now. And you’re not going to like it.” McLaren and others call out to those today who are so intent on propping up the systems that they will resist the coming changes all the harder. They will be too entangled in the old machinery to create better mechanisms for governing and producing for our physical needs and staying safe and educating our children and creating beauty and living in peace. They’ll be so focused on the salvation of their individual souls and the maintenance of the status quo that they’ll miss Jesus’ invitation to help usher in God’s compassionate realm here and now. They’ll be so careful about being right that they’ll miss chances to love and to serve—which are and have always been the saving ways. The Day of the Lord requires us to change.
Prophet Jesus, who critiqued the religious hierarchy of his day, has his own message for those who’ll survive the crash and reimagine and create kinder systems. The Day of the Lord has the chance of ushering in a fuller vision of God’s reign of shalom. The Day of the Lord is coming, said Amos the prophet of Israel 800 years before Jesus lived. The Kingdom of God is at hand, said Jesus.
And as he was fond of saying, the realm of God is like a wedding in many ways. But the bridegroom, on whom all our hopes are pinned, might show up at midnight and catch us, like unprepared bridesmaids, asleep and with no oil in our lamps. In the society of Jesus’ day–without electricity, without street lights or flashlights or headlights on cars–anyone out at night needed her own lamp to see by. Avery basic way one stayed prepared for emergencies and daily responsibilities was to have lamp oil at the ready.
Who knew that Jesus foresaw an oil crisis? I make this analogy with tongue in cheek, of course. But it’s interesting that petroleum oil, an essential resource that “fuels” all our current systems, is a limited resource at the root of much of our modern crises. Our dependency on oil makes us financially, politically and environmentally vulnerable. Our lack of forethought and preparation relative to this natural resource may leave us, like five of the parable’s bridesmaids, looking foolish.
A song I sang in my church youth group in the 70s was based on this very parable. It began:
Give me oil in my lamp keeping me burning.
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp keeping me burning.
Keep me burning till the break of day.
A second verse we sang to be silly started this way:
Give me gas in my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord.
Give me gas in my Ford, I pray.
Give me gas in my Ford, keep me trucking, trucking, trucking,
Keep me trucking till the break of day.
Funny how easy it is to turn a parable about preparing for God’s reign into a slogan for American consumerism.
Let’s get inside Jesus’ parable for a moment. Let’s consider how we as individuals and as a congregation and as a culture be “prepared” with God’s illuminating oil. Although scholars are not certain about the wedding customs upon which this parable is based, it’s likely the bridesmaids had some responsibility for the wedding preparations, possibly to light the way for the wedding processional. The bridesmaids had to be prepared for their role if they were to serve at the great wedding feast to which Jesus often compares the full reign of God’s shalom.
However, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids has some harsh words. For instance, the wise bridesmaids turn to their unprepared friends and say, “You have to get your own oil for your own lamps.” Is Jesus teaching us to fend for ourselves? The lesson here is not “every bridesmaid for herself” but “each bridesmaid must be responsible for her own oil that will light her own way.” The oil of which this parable speaks cannot be simply given to another like a commodity. Further, only those prepared with their inner light can then take the Light out into the world. That tells me that we as individuals must first take responsibility to ready our own hearts before we can help usher in God’s coming reign of peace and justice. We need light to see by before we walk out into the darkness. There is inner work for us to do so that God’s mercy and loving kindness can shine forth from us. Part of that work is to learn generosity of spirit.
I await the next Day of the Lord with both dread and eager expectation. I have no idea what are the practical, step-by-step actions to prepare our world for what is coming. We might create or join social network campaigns to humanize our immigrant neighbors. We might “occupy” the streets of Mobile. We might register young people to vote or teach school children about their world. Pause now as you think about your ways of helping your world prepare to welcome God’s reign.
. . . .
While not prescribing specific actions for you to take, I will stress that Jesus’s “be prepared” message is not about selfishness. It’s not about stockpiling resources like survivalists who hide ammo and canned goods in an underground bunker to be the sole survivors of a coming apocalypse. Instead, we offer the work of our lives with a spirit of generosity based on our trust in God’s care. Our complex problems require a communal and often sacrificial approach rooted in kindness and compassionate listening and honest speaking. Our solutions must be selfless. But whether you are a Tea Partier or a Wall Street Occupier, you may want to start with inner work fueled by the light of God. Before we take our lights out into the world’s nighttime, let’s replenish our oil.
And that is what we try to do here each Sunday. We practice generosity through financial offerings and patient cooperation within a close congregation and gracious forgiveness of one another’s idiosyncrasies. We help one another replenish that oil. We bring others to its source. We remain hopeful that God is in the darkness and the light. And each week we celebrate at the wedding banquet to which Christ invites us. Thanks be to God.
[i] Amos 5:18-24[i]
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
[ii] Matthew 25: 1-13
[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
[iv] Frick, Frank. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. p. 355.
[v] From the wonderful hymn “Where are the Prophets” by William Flanders, printed by permission of the composer for our worship bulletin. See www.williamflandersmusic.com.