Sermon in Ankara for Trinity XXII (8th November 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Today's Bible readings are linked in that both deal with the last days and how we should prepare for them. The people of Israel were expecting the day of the Lord, a phrase used to refer to a glorious future, a day of light and brightness. Yet the prophet Amos in today's first reading asks why the people of Israel desire this day to come as for them it will be a day of darkness and disaster. The prophet uses everyday images to drive his point home. They will flee one wild animal only to meet another; they will go to the safety of their homes only to be bitten by a snake.
Amos now turns to worship. The people are doing all the right things in worship but because their lives do not reflect justice and righteousness God rejects their worship because of its hypocrisy. There is nothing wrong with singing spiritual songs and playing the harp to the glory of God, but such worship needs to be linked to concern for others. In other words love of God needs to be accompanied by love of neighbour. The Lord calls for justice and righteousness to flood the community. These are gifts of God which the people of Israel can allow to flourish or can obstruct. If the people of Israel do not welcome and use these gifts of God then their worship, however aesthetically pleasing, will be unacceptable to God.
Amos writes with vigour and gives an uncompromising message. Some years ago a retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Coggan, addressed a group of clergy in my home diocese on the writings of Amos. One of those present, a curate in my home town, avidly wrote notes during the lecturer's talk and afterwards turned them into his sermon for the following Sunday, without attribution to either the former Archbishop or indeed Amos. Unfortunately for him a national newspaper had sent out its reporters to the churches of coastal England to see what was being preached by the seaside. The unattributed words of Amos so excited the reporter who came to my home town that next Sunday the front page of the newspaper was filled with the surprising news that revolution was being proclaimed in the seaside pulpits of England, with liberal unattributed quotations from Amos. This of course caused great amusement to the other clergy who had attended the lecture and recognised the source of this revolutionary diatribe. At least it showed that the words of Amos were still relevant today.
Today's second reading provides us with the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, or, as our Bible translation rather coyly calls them, the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. Statues of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids were often carved at the entrance of mediaeval cathedrals, to remind an illiterate population of the importance of being prepared for the coming of the Lord.
The parable of the ten bridesmaids is sandwiched between two other parables which encourage their hearers to prepare for the Lord's return. Before our parable comes the contrast between the faithful and wise slave who is at work when his master comes and the wicked slave who mistreats his fellow slaves and is surprised by his master's return. After our parable comes the parable of the talents in which the master entrusts his property to his slaves and expects them to invest it on his behalf. Both these parables are concerned with the actions of the slaves in the absence of the master. Their faithfulness is demonstrated by what they do whilst he is away.
The parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is about ten young women presumably from the same community, all of whom know the bridegroom. Only the bridegroom judges them. It is not for the bridesmaids to judge each other. This element of the parable reminds us that there are wise and foolish people in every human community, including all our churches, but it is for God alone to judge them.
Our parable points out the importance of readiness. Its last verse, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day no the hour," exhorts us to be watchful, but it should not be taken literally. Christian disciples are not being told never to sleep as they await the return of Christ. That would be physically impossible, as we would all fall asleep within hours! In the parable all the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the cry goes up that the bridegroom has arrived. They are not criticised for that.
This parable not only reveals how the bridesmaids should behave whilst waiting for the bridegroom's arrival. It also indicates that he may be delayed. If the bridegroom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong in waiting for him with a full oil-lamp. The wise bridesmaids carry extra flasks of oil with them because they know that the bridegroom may be delayed.
It may be difficult for modern Christians to imagine ourselves as bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because we have actually stopped waiting. We give little thought to Christ's return, except in the sermons and hymns of next month's Advent season, and do not spend much time thinking about how to prepare for it. This may be foolish of us because although Christ may indeed not return to earth in the Second Coming for some time yet we all will die before too long and then we will meet our God. In the church where I was a curate there was a plaque in the pulpit recording how a previous rector had died there in the middle of preaching a sermon at Evensong. This was a useful memento mori (remember you will die) for subsequent preachers! I have often wondered about what the priest was preaching when he suddenly collapsed and died. What were his final words before (in Zoom terms) he was permanently muted?
Nevertheless the parable does have a useful message for us. We are encouraged to think of ourselves as those who wait for the bridegroom's return and the subsequent wedding feast. We do indeed have something for which to wait. By affirming our faith in the coming of Christ we show our trust that God's justice and mercy will ultimately be revealed and that, in the words of the Book of Revelation (21.3-4), "God himself will be with mortals; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more." In the meantime we endeavour to live according to God's principles, sustained by the faith that God's promises are true and that he will eventually establish justice and righteousness and peace.