Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Perhaps you have seen this sign above someone’s desk recently: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” There are several ways to interpret this saying. For many of us, especially those of us who are organized, it is simply a boundary statement, a way of telling people that they have to do their part if they want to work as part of our team. For a disorganized person who is panicking, however, it may bring on feelings of hopelessness. For military personnel, however, a lack of planning on the part of the higher-ups can be a matter of life or death. And for the five bridesmaids in today’s gospel that didn’t think far enough ahead, it was the difference between darkness and eternal life.
This idea of a full and joyful afterlife was new to Jesus’s disciples. Jewish theology is not consistent on what happens to people after they die. There are mentions of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, specifically the realm of “Sheol” which refers to a nether region in which people are mere shadows of themselves. But Jesus’s promise that he would return and take his followers to dwell with him in “the kingdom of God” was something completely new. His promise to return, to “come again,” was both a source of hope and of confusion to them. The “newness” of the Christian message, “[was a problem for many of Paul’s followers too because]…there was a tension between their new lives and their old.” Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica seems to be addressing one source of that tension: what happened to people who died before Jesus returned. The Thessalonians expected Jesus to return imminently and when Jesus did not return immediately, they began to worry – and one of the things they worried about was the status of their loved ones. If Jesus was going to return to earth to take his living followers to the source of being with him, what happened to those who had already died? Would they be left out?
Paul’s answer is “no.” Actually, he says, those who have died will be the first to ascend with Jesus, followed by the faithful among the living. This gave them hope, and gave them permission to love one another. “The vision shared by this passage is… a gift to the community for the mutual care and comfort of one another, in order that we might stand firm in the midst of fear and anxiety, with hope in the power and promise of God through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” It is important, says Paul, to have faith, for it is through our faith that we will find eternity in Christ, but we cannot live in this world without hope.
Grace Episcopal Church knows a lot about hope, because there have been times in our collective history when hope was all the people of Grace had. Grace began as a “house church,” much like those of the early Christians – and like the early Christians Grace’s first parishioners were not always able to worship as they liked. They lived for many years without the symbols and accoutrements of their more established neighbors. They had a church with no rector, then a rector with no office, a building without windows, and a bell without a tower. And while their physical situation did not influence their faith, it certainly might have made them pessimistic about their own future. It might have reduced their hope.
But it didn’t. because they believed, as we do, in the way of Christ, the way of miracles, a way that allows the blind to see, the injured to walk, and the dead to rise. We are Christians, and, “Christians are fundamentally people of ‘hope,’ people who eagerly await the new thing the resurrected Christ brings.” But it is not a blind hope. It is not a lazy hope. It is not a stupid hope. “Hope,” said C.S. Lewis, “is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Hope is based on an understanding of the nature of God – the God who created us and loved us as no one else could, the God who sent his only son to live and die as one of us so that we could be saved from ourselves, and the God whose Spirit is constantly present in our lives –a spirit of wisdom. Wisdom – or “Sophia” in Greek – is how we understand God and God’s will for us. Wisdom is God’s gift to those who believe in her. Wisdom is the perpetually available and deeply satisfying understanding that God’s nature is one of love and concern, and instruction. Wisdom is the way we can prepare ourselves for the Parousia, the Second Coming, the final judgment.
That is what Jesus is explaining to his disciples in the parable of the bridesmaids. The story, which is found only in the gospel of Matthew, is the second of four allegorical tales in which Jesus teaches his followers how they must live if they are to survive the end of the age, when “there will be wars and persecutions, sacrilege and false messiahs, the heavens and earth shaken, and the Son of Man coming glory… [a day which] will come soon, nobody knows when.”“The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “will be like” a wedding. There will be tears and anger, frustration and hope; there will be bridezillas and forgetful grooms; there will be excitement and fear. Lives will be disturbed and disrupted. There will be unbearable expectation. We will need to be prepared. We will need to be wise. We will need to hope.
Christianity makes much of faith – and while it is true that it is through belief in the resurrected Christ that we become members in his church, it is by hope that we are able to overcome the “forces of oppression, injustice, violence, and torture” that would keep us from the realm of God. But we have to be smart about it. We need to guard against thinking that we are asked to live for the future, to care only whether our present actions will get us in to the realm of God. Rather, we are asked to live as if we are already there. Today’s gospel “reminds us that entrance into the banquet does not turn on what we…presume to know [now]. Instead, it asks us to prepare to wait…to avoid assuming that we have enough (knowledge, faith, love…) in our lamps …now.” It reminds us that we are not alone, that we wait together, discern together, prepare together – that in community we keep one another awake. “The Messiah comes ‘at the right time’ [not at a]…convenient time or on our time– and we would do well to anticipate that time by doing God’s will, by working together to bring the oil of good works to our hurting world, and by anticipating the day when we can, like C.S. Lewis finally say, “the term is ended, the holidays have begun. The dream has ended: this is the morning.” AMEN.