First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, LouisianaJoshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
November 6, 2011 – All Saints Day / Ordinary (32A)
November 6, 2011 – All Saints Day / Ordinary (32A)
Do you enjoy a good riddle? I’m not very good at them, but I like riddles – especially if I already know the answer. In the classic tale of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds himself in a battle of wits with a nasty creature named Gollum, and he almost looses his life over this one:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town
And beats high mountains down.
The answer? Time. Oh, if we only had enough time. Time is about the only thing (other than money) that can make us feel utterly and totally limited. Even so, I believe there is a certain amount of grace in our limitations. Garrett Hedlund wrote a song about this idea called Timing Is Everything, and it starts like this:
When the stars line up,
and you catch a good break,
and people think your lucky,
but you know it’s grace.
It can happen so fast,
or a little bit late
Timing is everything.
We are reminded in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything, yet somehow we only hear those words – we only hear and really listen to those words – at funerals. We hear that there is a time for everything and we place all of the burden on God, and we forget that those words exist to remind us that we are responsible for the actions of our days.
In the same way, the passages we have read today confront us with our responsibility. They draw a line in the sand that I do not like to look at. I do not like to look at that line because it makes me realize where I have fallen short, and where I will probably fall short again.
I look at that line in the sand and the God who seems to have drawn it, and I get a little confused. Is this the God of grace and mercy that I have come to know through Jesus Christ? It seems to me a riddle of sorts – this command to choose and this parable of the wise and foolish.
Joshua 24 comes at the end of the conquest of Canaan, and it has the form of a covenant renewal – much the same way that Moses did before he died. Some scholars suggest that it is as much like a treaty as anything else and it reads like the treaties between conquered people and their conqueror.
Representatives of the people are summoned. Their shared history is reviewed. Expectations are set with benefits and penalties, and finally the people themselves are witnesses – signing the document with their words. What’s interesting to me about that is that in an illiterate culture a person is their word. So by their submission they become a living, breathing contract.
Then Joshua responds to them in what could be just as well summed up in a line from A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s character responds indignantly, “You don’t want the truth! You can’t handle the truth!” Joshua was, of course, not saying this to justify his actions, as Nicholson’s character was. Joshua was trying to prepare them for that which was to come.
The tribes had come to a new land with no overlord. They had chased out or subsumed the inhabitants, and they were no longer going to be driven by hunger or need. Somehow they still had false Gods amongst them – even after the long journey in the wilderness – because sometimes they just could not leave it up to God to provide. Sometimes, they just had to hedge their bets. Joshua knew all of this, and he knew that the only thing he could do about it was to confront them with their duplicity.
It makes me wonder – are we like that? Do we ever turn to the quick fix because we have lost patience with God? I’ve heard it said that even those of us who claim to be Christian in Western society are not truly monotheistic. To be monotheistic means that there is one center of value that we use to direct and guide all decisions. It means that all our priorities come from one center, and that is God.
I don’t know about you, but so often I feel like a compass with no true North because of all the competing interests in my life. I think that is why I identify more with the foolish virgins than the wise ones. Maybe they had a lot going on that day. Maybe they were pulled in too many directions and did not get to the store. I like to think they may have been helping someone in some way. Certainly they did not expect the Groom to be so late!
Now obviously this is all metaphorical, and Matthew’s presentation of Jesus is deeply connected with a community of believers that was becoming more and more at odds with the Jewish authorities. So, I think it’s irresponsible not to acknowledge that there are some obvious digs at the old guard – the religious ones who think they have easy access into the banquet.
That is all true, but I also think it would be irresponsible not to receive this as a critique for ourselves as well. I find this critique sadly lacking in our debates over the Christian character and heritage of our nation. Why does our heritage matter if we are only using it as a way to say that we have a reservation for the banquet? It doesn’t. Our heritage matters only in that it reminds us where we have come from and where we are headed. And unless we are wise, we may find ourselves outside of the banquet hall anyway.
These wise virgins – many have said that their oil represents virtues of character and righteousness. Yet, I can’t help but wonder why they were so stingy! Why didn’t they share? As I have wrestled with this uncomfortable passage I have come to realize that it is not about virtues or preparedness or fatigue or rejection. It is about our human limitations.
Taking this passage in light of the whole cannon of scripture – the story of who God is, who we are, and what our relationship is all about – it is clear to me that we are the ones who are limited. God is, was, and always shall be in a relationship with us just by the shear knowledge of God as our Creator.
The beautiful thing is that we are given the option to determine the nature of that relationship. God is infinite. Our relationship with God is infinite, but our ability to experience God here and now is limited. Our experience of God’s active presence is limited by our decisions to seek things that please us without considering the impact on others. Our experience of God’s active presence is limited by the number of hours in the day. Opportunities come and go with every chance interaction, and we simply can’t attend to them all.
The more I think about this, the more it puzzles me. The more I read Joshua’s statement that “you can’t really worship God”, the more I think about the likelihood that I would not have gotten extra oil before the party, the more I begin to wonder, where is the God of grace and mercy in all of these things?
Then suddenly it hits me. Were I not so limited, I would never need God. Were I not so limited, I would not value the beauty of a tear, the warmth of a handshake, the quickening chill of a cold morning, and the experience of receiving compassion. Were I not so limited, I would not know how to be compassionate to others. Were I not so limited, I might never see the active presence of God in which we all live and move and have our being.
Even though I am limited just by being human, sometimes I become a little too comfortable to realize my limitations. Sometimes I become a little too proud and vain to know and experience God. I think we all do.
It is in those times that I find myself beating on the door of the banquet hall and screaming to God, “Why won’t you let me in!” It is in those times, as I slump to the floor, that I realize that God is not only inside the banquet hall, but God is even in the outer darkness holding me as I cry.
The limitation of the parable is this – God is. God is not locked in heaven or hell or some far off land. God is, and because God is – we are. The invitation of scripture that we have today is to choose this day who you will serve when you are confronted with an opportunity to meet with Jesus. The invitation is to fill your lamps with oil and get a little extra for the road, for you will need it.
And where does one get this oil? We get it from the same source that beckons us to wait. Surely Christ has come. Christ is coming. Christ will come again. While we must prepare for Christ to come, we must also recognize that he is here with us – beckoning us into the banquet hall that we enter through every chance encounter, every opportunity to offer kindness, and every opportunity to forgive and be forgiven.
That song I mentioned a while back, Timing Is Everything, ends like this:
Well you can call it fate, or destiny.
Sometimes it really seems like
it’s a mystery.
‘Cause you can be hurt by love,
or healed by the same.
Timing is everything;
and it can happen so fast,
or a little bit late.
Timing is everything.
May all our limitations become as God’s grace to us as we await and receive the return of Christ. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!