Sunday, November 09, 2014

Awake with Trust, Oil Flasks Full of Faith

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
November 9, 2014

Year A, Proper 27: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13
Awake with Trust, Oil Flasks Full of Faith
            Some of you know that I try to take Monday as my day off.
            Unlike other Mondays, this past Monday morning I decided to get up off the couch and go into New York for the day.
            I took a route that I usually avoid, taking the PATH to the World Trade Center so I could catch the subway uptown.
            Even after more than thirteen years, it’s still a little disorienting for me to arrive at the trade center. Partly that’s because it’s still a huge construction site. But, mostly it’s because the old station and the lost towers were such a part of my childhood and young adulthood – there were few places more familiar to me.
            And then, as we all know and most of us are old enough to remember, it was all gone in just a few hours.
            As it turns out, you may have seen on the news that Monday was a historic day at the site because the first few hundred workers were reporting to their offices in the glass-covered Freedom Tower.
            Things were not yet normal – and, I suppose never will be normal again – but, as is God’s way, hope and new life were growing out of fear and death.
            Then I took the subway uptown and when I came up out of the station the first thing I heard was the little tinkle of a bell – the Salvation Army men and women were at their post, ringing their bells, asking us to remember the neediest.
            On the streets of New York, and in malls and stores all across our country, it’s beginning to look a lot like…Christmas.
            Meanwhile, although we’re thinking about and planning our Christmas celebrations, it’s not Christmas at all.
            Here in church we’re celebrating the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, thank you very much!
            But, actually, if you pay attention you may notice that in church it’s beginning to feel a lot like… Advent.
            In just a few weeks we’ll begin Advent, that holy season of preparation.
            During the four Sundays of Advent we prepare for the birth of Christ, of course, but we also prepare for the last day – we prepare for the day of Christ’s return - we prepare for the day when we will need to give an account of our lives – we prepare for the day when our old lives end and our new lives begin.
            We certainly heard the Advent theme of preparation for the last day in today’s gospel passage.
            Jesus tells a vivid parable of ten bridesmaids, five of them foolish and five of them wise, who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
            Jesus tells us that, “when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
            The bridegroom was delayed so the foolish bridesmaids ran out of oil for their lamps while the wise were ready with their full flasks of oil.
            It’s interesting that the wise don’t share their oil with the foolish. Instead the foolish had to go buy oil, forcing them to miss the bridegroom and getting shut out of the wedding banquet.
            Jesus concludes the parable with these stark words, “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But, he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            The first readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel lived in a dangerously unpredictable world. Death lurked around every corner. Illnesses that today we would barely even notice or can take care of with a quick visit to the doctor and the pharmacy, back then could quickly lead to the grave. There was the nearly constant threat of violence and war. Average life expectancy for a First Century Jewish male peasant was… 29.
            The first readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel – mostly Jewish-Christians - were still stunned that in the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem including, most traumatically, the Temple, for Jews the holiest place on earth, the place where the presence of God dwelled.
            So, for all sorts of reasons, the last days were on everybody’s mind.
            The Temple was destroyed. Surely Jesus would be returning soon. We need to be ready, be prepared.
            For a long time here in America we liked to think, tried to fool ourselves, really, that our world is orderly and predictable, that we aren’t as vulnerable as people in most of the rest of the world.
            The past thirteen years have been a rude awakening to the fact that we’re in the same boat as pretty much everybody else.
            I imagine that the crashing down of the Twin Towers into ashes of sorrow must have been nearly as traumatic for us as it was for First Century Jews to witness the destruction of the Temple.
            Since September 11, 2001 we’ve endured seemingly endless war, heightened security precautions, and a weak economy that has stripped us of pretty much any sense of security.
            There have been huge storms swamping some of our biggest cities and a drought threatening much of the West.
            Plus, we live in a city with large pockets of poverty and crime, where some of us risk our lives just walking to and from the bus stop.
            And, many of us have illnesses or have suffered our own personal losses that remind us of the fragility of life, that we all will die, ready or not.
            Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            We’re called to keep our oil flasks full, prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom.
            We need to be prepared.
            But, what does that look like?
            What does it look like to keep awake? What does it look like to keep our oil flasks full? What does it look like to be prepared?
            Well, we don’t have to come up with abstract answers to those questions.
            Instead, we at St. Paul’s and at Incarnation have known people in our lives who stayed awake, who kept their oil flask full, who were prepared.
            At St. Paul’s so many of us are mourning the death yesterday of our dear brother, Amreeth Seepersaud.
            We are praying for him and especially for Sheila and his sons and his whole family and his many friends.
            For me, it was such a privilege – so inspiring – to walk with Amreeth on this journey since he received his diagnosis about a year ago.
            Like all of us, Amreeth was imperfect, yet he lived his life and he faced his illness and the reality of death with deep faith and quiet courage. Of course, he wanted to live longer, to be with his family and friends, to be with us, yet he knew the great truth that his life and death were in God’s hands – and, no matter what, God was not going to let go of him.
            And so when the time came on Saturday morning, in a profound way he was awake with trust, his oil flask was full of faith, he was prepared to meet the God who had created him and supported him through his whole life, especially during the last year.
            And at Incarnation, many of us are still missing Florine Wilson so very much.
            I remember when I first met Flo at a meeting of the three Jersey City vestries.
            We began by introducing ourselves, saying something about ourselves.
            Flo introduced herself as, by the grace of God, a survivor.
            She went on to talk about her bouts with illness though I remember thinking at the time that this woman was talking about something more than cancer.
            It was a privilege – it was inspiring – to walk with Flo on her journey that began when she entered the hospital this summer.
            During that time I learned that, by the grace of God and a good friend, Flo was indeed a survivor. Through hard experience she learned that even if she might have tried to leave God behind, God was never going to let go of her.
            She lived her life with faith, love, and generosity.
            Flo didn’t want to die. Just the opposite since she loved her family, her friends, and her church so very much.
            I remember visiting her during the summer at Christ Hospital and she was talking so excitedly about our Jersey City Episcopal worship and barbeque in Liberty Park and how much she wanted to wear her red shirt and be with us, worshiping God with her friends in that beautiful place.
            That was not to be.
            But, when Flo’s time came, in a profound way she was awake with trust, her oil flask was full of faith she was prepared to meet the God who had created her and supported her through her whole life, especially during these last few months.
            So, here in church, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Advent.
            We are reminded that in our unpredictable world even the holiest temples and mightiest towers fall.
            We are reminded that we are vulnerable.
            We are reminded that someday – we do not know the day or the hour - we will die and be asked to give an account of our lives.
            We are reminded that we need to be prepared.
            We are reminded that we need to keep awake with trust - to keep our oil flasks full of faith – trust and faith that, as is God’s way, hope and new life grow out of fear and death.
            We are reminded that we need to be prepared.
            We are reminded that, with God’s help, we need to be faithful and loving, just like Amreeth and Flo.