Readiness Revisited

Since preaching about Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids last Sunday, I have had several interesting conversations in which people have wondered (very politely) whether my interpretation played fast and loose with biblical text.  Most of the controversy has hinged on my argument that there is a difference between “preparation” and “readiness.”  While these terms tend to be synonymous in common parlance, I believe that there is a crucial distinction between the two when it comes to our relationship with God.

On Sunday, I noted that the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids appears in the midst of Matthew’s exhortation to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.  This section of the gospel begins with the “little apocalypse” in Matthew 24 and concludes with a series of three parables about readiness, namely the parable of the bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. This portion of Matthew’s gospel can be summarized pretty thoroughly with a line from the little apocalypse: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).

The Church has traditionally applied this sentiment essentially by encouraging the faithful to put their affairs in order prior to Christ’s return.  The logic behind this mode of thinking is pretty straightforward: we must do everything we can to prepare for our appearance before the judgment seat.  In his sermon on the parable of the bridesmaids, a friend of mine suggested the following ways to get ready:

Turn off the TV. Stop the endless hours you spend scrolling through Facebook. If you hate your job, quit it. Ask yourself, at every point in your day, “am I doing this for God’s glory?” And if you’re not doing it for God’s glory, why are you doing it? When you go to bed at night, say, “thank you God for another day.” If you’re squirming in your seat right now, then the Holy Spirit might just be telling you something. The fact that you’re uncomfortable talking about your own death, or about your own spiritual health, might just be a sign from God of what you need to be doing. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to prepare an extra flask of oil to carry with you; practice of prayer, a knowledge of the scriptures, a holy life, and a preparation for death.

In this understanding of the call to “be ready,” Christians are encouraged to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is somewhere in their future.  This is what I would consider “preparation.”

imagesThe issue with this approach is that it ignores a crucial component of Matthew’s gospel.  At the end of this sequence about being ready for God’s kingdom, Jesus describes the judgment of the nations.  When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit on a throne as a king, the nations will be gathered before him, and will be separated like sheep and goats.  Those who have cared for the Son of Man (the sheep) will be rewarded with eternal life, while those who have ignored him (the goats) will be punished.  The striking thing about this separation is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by their status.  Both groups wonder when it was that they provided (or did not provide) for the king.  The king’s response is clear: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  Caring for the vulnerable in this life is one of the ways we encounter the Son of Man.  In other words, we are not only called to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is in our future; we are called to live as if the kingdom has already arrived.  This is what I would consider “readiness.”

It may be that preparation and readiness look similar in their application.  Like preparation, readiness involves renewing our relationship with God and striving to radiate God’s glory.  The difference, however, is that readiness involves living in God’s kingdom here and now.  Readiness encourages us to experience God’s glory in our everyday lives.  Readiness helps us to recognize that God’s reign is not just a future hope, but an integral part of our present.

One of the most well-worn adjectives in Anglican circles is “proleptic.”  Simply put, a proleptic vision of life is one that is informed by the understanding that we exist in “the already and the not yet.”  We are already  experiencing the glory of God’s kingdom, even though that kingdom has not yet been fully revealed to us.  In this sense, we are not called to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom accomplishing a list of spiritual tasks; we are called to live lives shaped by a readiness to encounter manifestations of God’s kingdom every single day.

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Spiritual Readiness

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 and Amos 5:18-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Several years ago, amid the endless prelude to the 2012 presidential election, President Obama committed a memorable gaffe during a speech in Irwin, Pennsylvania.  The president was expounding on the principles of our democracy’s social contract: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help…Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  Some argued that Mr. Obama’s point was that public infrastructure, which is supported and “built” by all taxpayers, allows business to thrive.  Others, however, suggested that the president was denigrating the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of job creators.

Now, I’m not even remotely interested in determining what the president meant when he said this two years ago.  Rather, I bring this up because it demonstrates how defensive we can be about our work ethic.  In 2012, the mere implication that business owners didn’t do the work required to make their business successful was enough to send people into a tailspin of recrimination.  I think that this is because one of the great assumptions about our culture is that natural talent and birth can only take you so far; in the American dream merit and hard work are the true arbiters of success.  We are proud of how hard we work, and this invariably leads us to feel limited sympathy for those who haven’t worked as hard to achieve success.  The American narrative celebrates success and assumes that those who are unsuccessful simply are not prepared and not dedicated to the task set before them.

images
George C. Scott would have been an interesting casting choice for Jesus.

Though this celebration of success and disdain for those who have fallen short is part of the American narrative, it is not generally what we expect from the gospel.  Nevertheless, we heard a gospel story this morning that seems to consider hard work and preparation more important than compassion.  This story about the wise and foolish maidens is one of Jesus’ “hard teachings,” so called because it challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about Jesus.  Nothing about this story lines up with our expectations about Jesus.  For instance, while we may be preoccupied with success, Jesus is supposed to look out for the little guy; after all, even the chronically lazy are given a break in the parable of the day laborers.  And while we may selfishly hoard our possessions, Jesus is supposed to encourage sharing; he’s pretty clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  But in the midst of this parable about the wise and foolish maidens Jesus sounds less like the Jesus we have come to know and more like Ebenezer Scrooge, implying that the wise maidens are wise because they are miserly.  When the unprepared bridesmaids ask their wise counterparts to lend them some oil, the wise maidens balk, claiming that there is no way they could possibly share what they have.  The wise maidens are celebrated for their careful preparation and their unwillingness to share, while the foolish maidens are sent into the night and ultimately excluded from the wedding banquet because of their failure to prepare accordingly.  In spite of our usual lack of sympathy for the lazy and unprepared, I think there’s a level at which this doesn’t sit well with us.  Are we really supposed to believe that the wise bridesmaids couldn’t spare even a little oil, just enough to tide over their companions until the bridegroom arrives?  Moreover, doesn’t Jesus call us to give sacrificially even when we are not entirely sure we have enough for ourselves?

Part of the reason that this is such a challenging parable is that we tend to read it as a description rather than an illustration.  We imagine that there is a group of five bridesmaids left out in the cold somewhere, vainly knocking at the door.  When we think of this story as the account of an actual event, however, we fail to recognize the larger themes that Jesus is exploring in this section of Matthew’s gospel.  Before the passage we read today, Jesus describes the apocalypse, the time when the kingdom of God will be fully revealed.  This parable, which follows immediately, is the first in a series about being ready for the arrival of God’s kingdom.  The theme that runs through this entire portion of Matthew’s gospel, in other words, is that the day of the Lord will come when we do not expect it, that we must always be ready for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.  Now, some Christian traditions suggest that the way to prepare for coming of God’s kingdom is essentially to wait patiently for Christ’s return, taking care not to do much of anything in the meantime so as not jeopardize our salvation.  This approach, however, is far too static for the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  It assumes that we can anticipate exactly what the day of the Lord will look like, a notion that is entirely inconsistent with the biblical witness.  In Scripture, God’s action is dynamic and surprising.

The prophet Amos wrote to a group of people who thought they could predict what the day of the Lord would look like.  Amos corrects this notion with the line that concludes the passage we read this morning: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  imagesIn English, the sense we get is that God’s justice and righteousness are going to come down in torrents from heaven.  While this is technically correct, the Hebrew word Amos uses is more specific; it’s basically the term for a gully washer.  For Amos, in other words, God’s justice flows like a flash flood: suddenly, dramatically, and unexpectedly.  It’s not something for which we can specifically plan.  If you think about it, there is no way to avoid or prepare completely for a flash flood; one can only be ready for the possibility, ready to swim when the water comes.  Ultimately, this is why the wise bridesmaids cannot help their foolish counterparts in our gospel reading.  It’s not that wise bridesmaids are more prepared; it’s that they are more spiritually ready.  This is a crucial distinction.  If all the wise bridesmaids had done was stock up on oil, they could have shared what they had without any problem.  Spiritual readiness, however, is a state of being, which by definition cannot be imparted to anyone else.  It would be like trying to share one’s ability to swim with someone else.  When it comes to spiritual readiness, there is no quick fix; one must put in the time required to be spiritually ready.

In some ways, it would be easier if we could predict how and when Christ will return.  We could become spiritual survivalists, hoarding lamp oil, stocking up on spiritual supplies, and cowering in our bunkers as we await the day of the Lord.  We could be satisfied in the knowledge that we have worked hard and made appropriate preparations, in contrast to our lazy brothers and sisters.  But the reality is that spiritual readiness is less about hoarding supplies and more about risking what we value most.  Spiritual readiness requires us to give something of ourselves.  It requires us to give up part of our precious schedule to nurture our relationship with God through prayer, Sabbath, and worship.  It requires us to give up those parts of our life that draw us away from an awareness of God’s love.  It requires us to invest our time and energy in helping others become spiritually ready.  Though we cannot specifically plan for Christ’s return, we can be spiritually ready to participate in the kingdom we didn’t build, but are privileged to share.

And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.