Sermon: XXI Pentecost (27a)

Patrick Allen on November 7, 2011

XXI Pentecost (27a): The Wise & Foolish Virgins
Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church
Mt 25.1-13
6 November 2011
Fr. Patrick Allen

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I own a generator.  I have a designated 10-gallon tank of gasoline to fuel that generator.  I have drinking water – a gallon per person per day for several days – carefully stored.  Also a wide variety of flashlights and lanterns, and a large supply of batteries.  A goodly quantity of canned foods, and not only Vienna Sausages.  Baby formula.  A well-stocked first aid kit.  NOAA weather radio.  A zip-loc bag with some money I took out of my wife's purse in it.  A shotgun and shells.   Come hurricane or zombie attack or, heaven forefend, some ghastly combination of both, I have tried to prepare.

I think when we hear a warning – as in this morning's Gospel lesson, this "parable of the wise and foolish virgins" – a warning to watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour, or even the Boy Scouts' terse and direct motto, "Be prepared", that's more or less (maybe more zombie for me, less for you) the sort of thing we have in mind:  some disaster, some calamity, the pains and dangers of which can be mitigated by proper preparation.

And I think that's the way we tempted to read this parable.  Watch, our Lord tells us – be prepared, get ready.  But for what?  Doom and disaster?  Hurricane?  Tornado?  Zombie Apocalypse?  Not at all.  Instead, The Kingdom of Heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  The coming complete reign of King Jesus, that great day for which he urges us to prepare – is a party, a celebration; it is a wedding feast.

There is, to be sure, a time for dire warning, and we have heard that kind of warning from the prophet Amos this morning.  And Hell, Jesus tells us, because he loves us, is real – and its prospect, its possibility, ought to make us shudder with fear and dread.  But that's not what this parable is about – at least not primarily.  Insofar as we are warned about Hell in the foolish maidens, its pain and danger is understood – as it can only be understood – in terms of the joy that is foregone, of the party that is missed. 

So, Watch, therefore, Jesus tells us.  Be prepared.  But if we understand Christ aright, if we have known him, known something of his love and mercy, that preparation will be marked, not by fear and dread, but by faith, hope, and love.  The watchfulness Christ calls for is a loving anticipation.  Jesus' presence, his coming, is life and joy; and so the Christian life is preparation for a party – fueling the lamps of our hearts so that they burn bright with faithful deeds of love done on behalf of those he loves, and for his sake.

"The lamps of our hearts burning bright with faithful deeds of love."  I liked that line when I wrote it.  It sounds nice, but what does it look like, what does it mean? 

Well, we have just this past week celebrated All Saints' Day, when remember collectively those great ones whose lives, in devotion to our Lord, were marked by heroic virtue, who gave their all, often times their very lives, making themselves poor for the sake of the poor, for Christ's last, lost, and least. 

So, for instance, this past Thursday was the particular feast St. Martin de Porres, himself born into poverty and a kind of racial no-man's land.  A Dominican friar, he once came upon a beggar lying in the road, dying and covered with ulcerous, oozing sores.  St. Martin brought him back to the convent and gave the poor man his own bed.  His superior disapproved, but Martin said that "compassion, my dear brother, is preferable to cleanliness."

I think often times that rather than being encouraged by the example of the saints, we are intimidated by their deeds, by their love, and by what it cost them.  And so we begin to see them as exceptions to the norm, the average, of humanity, and we excuse ourselves – at least, I excuse myself – with a kind of pseudo-modesty that says, "I am just one of the regular, the average, and there is only so much that my kind of heart in my kind of circumstance, is capable of."  Thus the deadly sin of sloth clothes itself in the cloak of humility.  And so days, months, and years slip by in a comfortable, clean, but not particularly bright-shining middle class Christianity.  Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist, critic, and late-in-life convert to Catholic Christianity, called his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time.  It's a haunting title, and it names a tragedy.  In fact it names the great and only tragedy, which is not to have been a saint.

But where to begin, how to throw off sloth's deadening weight and lift up our heads "so that when the bridegroom cometh we may go forth with all the saints to greet him," as we hear in the Baptismal liturgy?

Well, could anyone doubt the heroic virtue of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta?  Certainly it is natural to be intimidated, frightened even, by a devotion like hers.  I happened to read just this week an account of a young man, an Anglican priest, who spent some time travelling in India with a friend.  They eventually ended up in Calcutta and made their way to Mother Teresa's hospice, where they were greeted by a young Indian sister who asked, "Would you like to meet Mother?"  "Yes please!" they replied.  After a few minutes, the holy woman herself came out, shook their hands and inquired where they were from.  Then she lifted that wizened face and those radiant eyes to them asked expectantly, "Have you come to give you life in service to God's holy poor?"

Have you come to give you life in service to God's holy poor?

Where to begin?  How to fill our lamps?  Well, Blessed Teresa herself, that holy if intimidating woman, put the matter in this gentle way:

What are the oil lamps in our lives?
They are the little everyday things:
faithfulness, punctuality, kind words,
thoughtfulness of another person,
the way we are silent at times,
the way we look at things,
the way we speak, the way we act.
Those are the little drops of love
which make it possible for our life of faith to shine brightly.

Kind words, thoughtfulness, even consideration which is mere punctuality... those "little drops of love" that well up finally into a life given in service to God's holy poor. 

But even these things are not the beginning, not really, as Mother Teresa would tell us.  The place to begin is not so much the little drops of our own love, but in the great font of love which is Christ our God pouring himself out for us.  "We love, because he first loved us," St. John reminds us. 

The place to begin is in those great drops of original love, of Love Himself, those drops falling from his wounded hands and side, from his sacred head.  The oil for the lamps of our hearts is God's own love, poured out for us in Jesus Christ, bright burning in the lives of regular, normal men and women who are watching, actively preparing, to greet the Bridegroom at his coming, and enter finally into his perfect joy.

You know, we remember this morning the laying of the cornerstone, the beginning of construction, of this beautiful building 156 years ago – that cornerstone, that beginning, is not so much a matter of brick and mortar, it is not even about money, tempted as we are to reduce everything important to a matter of funding.  The cornerstone, the beginning, is and must always be God's love for us in Jesus Christ, a love that calls us out of ourselves and toward others.  A love that, if we will give ourselves to it, will burn brightly, a light in the darkness, until we hear that midnight cry:  Behold the Bridegroom!  Come out to meet him, and the real and eternal celebration, the wedding supper of the Lamb, begins.

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