Reflections on Lessons Pentecost 23 A

We had a spirited discussion today in our weekly Bible study of area pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It was fed by a feeling of dread about recent signs of sickness in our society. One of our number put it something like this. “Why is it that we are Christians, and so we should be animated by compassion for others, yet when sisters and brothers call out for understanding and help, others turn away, often meeting their pleas with scorn?”

The issue topmost on the mind of this colleague was the issue of sexual abuse and harassment of women. Of course, we also expressed concern about the reaction of many whites to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But it could have been any of a list of other concerns as well: LGBT rights, reproductive options, gun violence, mental health issues or the needs of the disabled.

A subtext in all of this was cowardice–the cowardice on the part of politicians as they avoid making difficult decisions to respond to suffering because of pressure from special interests (like the NRA), but, above all, the cowardice of Christians as they avoid the necessary engagement with vital issues of social justice.

My own opinion about all of these concerns is that leaders of the church, from pastors up to the level of our most senior theologians and bishops and other ecclesiastical officials, must first and foremost do justice as ambassadors of Christ.

We live in an age when secularism and pluralism are in vogue. But if the disciples of Christ strive to speak the language of the marketplace, they are in danger of forgetting the language of the gospel. Then there is a void. People inside and outside of the church lose their literacy. We may be left with activism that has no context, lives toward no particular vision, is unaware of its story, and has then no staying power.

The Gospel lesson for this week is Matthew 25.1-13. The scene is the second and main half of a first century Jewish wedding when the groom takes the bride to his home, to become part of a new family. The audience of Jesus would have understood that this point in the extended wedding ritual would have been the most festive. The early Christian audience of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood believers as the bride and Jesus as the groom. But the issue in this parable is the virgins whose simple job was to be ready for the party. Foolish virgins don’t keep oil for their lamps and so they aren’t ready to party. Wise virgins keep fueled.

My favorite seminary professor was Doctor Frederick Danker, known affectionately as “Red Fred” for both the color of his hair and his fiery personality. He spoke of the Christian life and the Kingdom of God as being part of the “Great Party.” Waiting wisely means leaning into the party that has already begun to get into full swing. And that is the way Christians keep their courage to speak out for the voiceless and stand up and stand fast for the powerless.

Our second reading this coming Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 where the Apostle Paul says we are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Death has lost its power over us. If we keep our lamps oiled we can stare down Death. If we take advantage of the nourishment God provides for us in the church, we can be confident in the face of social evil.

The first reading this Sunday is Amos 5.18-24. It sounds a warning about perhaps the most fundamental error of social activism and our religion: self-righteousness. How many would-be prophets and agitators lose their effectiveness and perhaps their souls by getting so caught up in pointing the finger at others that they become blind to their own need of repentance? That’s what Amos’ audience has done. The first part of the book that bears his name is a litany of warnings of impending judgment aimed at Israel’s neighbors. But then the prophet moves from preachin’ to meddlin’ by saying that judgment is coming also for Israel herself. Then he writes, in our lesson, that the Day of the Lord, that is so eagerly awaited by Israelites as a day of judgment for “those people out there,” will also be a judgment against the injustice tolerated and perpetrated by Israelites.

Now is the time for Christians to be bold and public and loud and proud to bear the name of Christ. This is the time to be not just political activists, but Christian activists. Today is the day for us all to be politically active and not quiescent. But it is vital that we do so as Christians, directing people to the fuel of their faith. We need to be hard at work studying the Bible, praying, partaking in the Eucharist, repenting and receiving absolution, comforting and encouraging our fellow believers and opening ourselves to the strength they give us.

We need to do all these “churchy” things so that we can keep our lamps lit in this dark and dangerous time. And so that we can be living it up in the¬†Great Party! It’s coming soon! It’s already among us!

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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