A Sound of Desperation
Year A, Proper 27, RCL, Track 1
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
The Episcopal Church usually isn’t very pushy. It rarely, if ever, has an altar call or a revival meeting out in a tent somewhere in which we are challenged to make a decision. There were days not too long ago when itinerant preachers would come into town and set up huge tents. Some even the size of circus tents. During these meetings, which were full of music and praise, these evangelists would often ask questions like, “Are you going to follow the devil or are you going to follow Christ?” There is urgency in this question, a sound of desperation, as if it is imperative that you decide right at this moment; “Are you going to follow the devil or are you going to follow Jesus?”
One of the problems Episcopalians have is that we don’t tend to see the urgency. Christ died 2,000 years ago. The end hasn’t come yet and many of us do not expect it to come in our lifetime. Here lies the problem. Even though the end time has not come and it may feel that it is not coming any closer, our end is coming near. After all, we will die sooner or later. Occasionally we have a rough idea when our end is coming because of a serious illness. But are there times when we do not. Obviously, we can die as a result of an accident or tragedy. But until recently, few of us would suspect that our death could happen while at church, a concert, or even a movie. But however it happens, the reality is we cannot predict our end any better than we can predict Christ’s return.
Joshua brings his congregation, the Israelites, together. He reminds them of God’s constant presence in their lives; all the way back to their ancestors, Abraham’s parents. Joshua knows that some of his flock have been slipping away and returned to the ways of their ancestors who worship the gods “from beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites.” Joshua speaks about our God’s fidelity and he pledges that he and his family “will serve the Lord.” In this discourse, Joshua asks them to “Choose this day whom you are willing to serve.” Choose the Lord or the gods of your ancestors.
The people recognize within themselves that they have strayed away from the one true God. They retell the story of their ancestors and of God’s fidelity to them. Then they pledge, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Joshua goes on to dissuade them, telling them that serving the Lord is hard too and dangerous. But the people reply again “No, we will serve the Lord!” Again Joshua tries to bring home the reality, “you are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen…to serve the Lord.” And for a third time the people say, we will serve the Lord. The tent revivals of ages past have rightfully realized this problem. We need to stand up and proclaim ‘our Lord is our God.’ We need to turn away from false gods and proclaim “We will serve the Lord!”
Maybe it is due to this church’s English heritage in which bombs could be dropping miles away yet we will keep calm and carry on. We don’t tend to get excited about sermons in which we exclaim affirmations from the pew. Many of us do not like repetitive praise music; in which while swaying we raise our hand and praise the Lord with an almost hypnotic effect. There is nothing wrong with worshiping this way and there are some Episcopal churches that have exuberant services like these, though most tend to be a bit more reserved.
I wonder however, if in our more subdued way of worshiping, that we may lose the sense of urgency that Joshua makes clear. We may have felt the fire and urgency to follow Christ in our younger days, but those days are gone. For some our faith may have become routine; a habit to follow more than a thrust of urgency that pushes us forward. This may be the same setting in which Matthew found his congregation. These early Christians have been told Jesus is coming soon but they haven’t seen him. Fellow Christians have died and still no appearance of Jesus. They have been waiting years and decades and soon hasn’t happened. Then we hear this story of the bridesmaids which illustrate the kingdom of heaven. It is a story of urgency; even if we don’t always hear it this way. Ten virgins are waiting for the bridegroom to return. They know what to expect. They have dressed for the occasion. They even brought their lamps. They wait until they can’t wait any longer and fall asleep. This is when we find that some were likewise Girl Scouts. They were prepared with extra oil as where others were not. For those who were not prepared…well it was too late. The doors to the kingdom were locked.
This story illustrates that we have to be ready as if this moment is our last. We can’t wait and then finish our preparations. Being ready isn’t just coming to church once every week or two. It involves a deeper commitment, often a life changing commitment. This is a commitment where we open our hearts to one another, allowing ourselves to become vulnerable, not just shutting our pain away. When we read the Bible we understand what this commitment entails. We present offerings of abundance to people who are in need and to this church. These gifts come from our time, talent, and treasure. We do this even when we feel we do not have enough ourselves. In serving the Lord, we understand that we may not be able to live our life the way we planned. For in this understanding we may have to live the way God is leading us.
By following the Lord and living for God, we will see our lamps burn brightly. As we wait expectantly, for the coming of Christ we may fall asleep; as so many of our loved ones have done. But our death will not matter for through our preparations the doors will be opened when Christ does come. Today we have a choice. And even though I will not stand up here whooping and hollering as if we were in a tent meeting, we have the same choice that has been set before us in ages past. Are you truly willing to serve the Lord?