Mary and Joseph’s no good, terrible, wonderful year

A homily for Christmas Eve, 2020


At the turning of the year, as the days began to push back against the pushiness of night; as the light grew longer and the shadows shorter, the people were going about their business without a second thought, as the saying goes, as in the days before the Flood. There was no warning that everything was about to change, the world turn upside down, a new creation sweep across the earth as surely as in the days of Noah.

Back in those days, in which ignorance was bliss, an ordinary young couple was planning a wedding. But their plans were abruptly upended, not only by the government decree that mandated their registration and restricted their freedom of location, sending them scurrying for accommodation. That was only the backdrop to the real dilemma: that an angel of the Lord had appeared to each of them in turn to explain that instead of marrying and settling down as they had anticipated, instead, they had been chosen to bear and raise the Son of God, and all of their other dreams would have to take a back seat, for now, to the imperative of God’s love.

In an instant, everything was changed. By late spring, their plans were in tatters and their nerves raw from explaining to relatives the new situation. Mary, visiting her cousin in the country after Elizabeth emerged from her long quarantine, found herself staying for months, unable to leave. Just when she and Joseph could have used the time together.

Through late summer and into the autumn, quickly and quietly married to avoid the gossiping crowds, the new family found themselves almost adjusting, as though, for moments at a time, this were all quite normal and to be expected. After all, it had happened to Elizabeth, too.

But as the night pressed back again, eating into their days, the sleepless dreams returned. The political situation was becoming oppressive, and it became necessary to travel south, to Bethlehem, and search for shelter.

The centres of hospitality were full. They had to make a makeshift bedroom and delivery suite out of a cave, where the animals were stalled. It was nothing like Mary had imagined her marriage, her first childbirth, would be, this strange isolation with the ox and the ass. It was a singular situation, in a stressed-out time and place, and it was there and then that the Christ was born, God incarnate, Emmanuel: Jesus, whose name means our salvation.

It was a year like no other, but Jesus didn’t wait for a better time to come among us. He didn’t choose a safer place to be born – the palace of the king, or the living quarters of the chief priests, or some other realm altogether.

Instead he entered into the messiness of the stable, the precariousness of a politically explosive empire, the inexperience and uncertainty of young lives, the isolation of those without a footprint on the earth. He was born into a makeshift hospital when all of the others were full, and he made do with the midwives his mother and father could muster, drafted out of shepherds and angels and strangers.

He did not wait for a better time.

The world turns and we find ourselves once more at the manger. Last time the nights were this short, and the days just beginning to push back against their borders, we had no idea what the year would bring. It has upended our expectations, more than once. It has brought us grief, and loneliness, and creativity, and comfort. It has certainly not been without conflict, doubt, or fear. Yet still it brings us here, to the manger, once more.

Jesus didn’t wait for a better time to be born among us, because God knows we need him now. Jesus would not leave us hanging when we are out of room in the hospitals and out of patience with our politics and out of sorts with each other because we just need a hug.

God chose exactly the most inconvenient, unpromising, unstable time to be born among us, because that’s when we need Jesus the most.

Mary pondered this in her heart, as she contemplated the child lying in a manger, and all that was before them. There would be trials to come; life would never be the same as it was. And yet here, in the messiness and unexpected warmth of it all: here was Love laid out before her; the love of God, made manifest, born to save us all.

Amen.

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Solstice

This poem first appeared at Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute, at last year’s winter solstice


Solstice

At the abyss of the year
the sun is silent;
but in the bleak midwinter
something shifts
A fearful hope, homunculus,
wakes the woman: light
beyond the turning of the world
begins to show

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Complicity with God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


The fourth Sunday of Advent is one of my favourites of the church year. The apocalyptic visions and prophetic warnings have given way to the promise that Christmas is, indeed, coming; that Christ will be born in Bethlehem, the manger filled; that the angels will sing and for a moment, we will forget the present, the future, the apocalypse, everything except that baby, born in more than the image of God: Emmanuel. God with us.

On this Sunday we still have the anticipation, the anxious and fervent hope. There is labour to come, we know that. But in this moment, we allow ourselves the hope of complicity with God: Let it be as you have promised.

And with Mary we break out into the song of all that might be: the redemption of the lowly, the revolution of the meek; an end to corruption and conceit; the satisfaction of hunger and the setting right of the world.

We sang a different form of the Magnificat this morning, prompted at first, admittedly, by purely pragmatic concerns over copyright of the hymns we usually use; but when I came to research the tune we adopted, Jerusalem, I discovered some things about its composer that seemed almost prophetic in their appropriateness for this morning’s worship.

You may know that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry composed this music to accompany a poem by William Blake, based on an old legend that Joseph of Arimathea once took the young Jesus on a European tour (the whole thing being under the Roman Empire, who would not permit a Brexit, and therefore full of open borders). Uncle Joseph was supposed to have landed with the teenaged Messiah on the western tip of England. But Blake’s poem may also have been a critique of the rise of the industrial era, which he feared was crushing the poor, not to mention destroying green and pleasant land, and of the complicity of the established church in that secular oppression and support of rich and powerful interests over the needs and cares of the lowly.

When Parry first composed his tune, he was commissioned by those encouraging support of the war effort and the troops of the First World War. But Parry found himself sickening of war and withdrawing his support from the pro-war movement. It is appropriate, then, that his tune in our Hymnal is set to the peaceable words of Isaiah, in which the lion lies down with the lamb.

But Parry did lend his composition to a different fight. When he was approached by the Women’s Suffrage movement, he gladly gave them permission to use the song as their anthem. Like Mary, he recognized that God did not regard the estate of women in as low terms as some of the men around them; he was happy to affirm their claims to full and equal stature, to level out the elevated and raise up the lowly. He even, upon his death, bequeathed to them the copyright of the anthem.

Parry did not live to see the completion of women’s suffrage in his home country. He died a victim of the global pandemic, the Spanish flu, six weeks before the first, limited allowances for women’s votes, and a month before the Armistice that ended the First World War.

Parry, an ally of peace, encourager of revolutionary equality, a victim of pandemic, and a life lived in anticipation whose echoes resound still in song is, I think, the perfect accompaniment to this morning’s Magnificat.

We are still finding our way between the fight for what is right and the deep and urgent desire for peace. We are still reckoning with the fallout and pollution of our own creative success. We are still uncomfortably aware of our inequity. We are still connected globally as much by our suffering as by our progress; but we are learning, and we are not without hope. We are still labouring toward the kingdom of God and the upheaval of mountains and valleys that will bring equality to our lives and justice to our streets, an end to oppression and complicity with greed instead of with God. The contractions are strong.

This is the Sunday of anticipation of the Incarnation of God. It is the Sunday on which we sing of what might be, and consider how we will labour toward what should be, and trust that God will bring to bear what will be.

It is the Sunday on which we pledge our complicity with the conspiracy about to be born in Bethlehem: Let it be to us, O God, according to your Word.

Amen

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Christmas is coming

“I’m coming!” I would lie to my mother, laying in bed, or loitering over a page like a fly in treacle.

“So’s Christmas!” she would yell back, her point being that I was as slow and full of secrets as an Advent calendar, doling out its little pieces of time and chocolate with precision and restraint. If you skipped a window, finding it too late, it would be as though time turned backward, counting down instead of ratcheting up the days until the tension was perilous.

“Christmas is coming” meant that somebody was running out of patience, out of breath like a woman in labour; like a baby in the birth canal, out of options to retreat; as though, if one didn’t pay attention to the tone of a mother’s exasperation, pregnant and impending, one day it would be too late.

All the more reason, perhaps, to lie a moment longer, pausing over a paragraph, cocking an ear to listen for the exact moment when Christmas will come, all heaven break loose with the implosion of glory, the sudden and dangerous contraction of love.

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Among you

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


Advent is a season of anticipation; of awaiting the long-expected unexpected. We sing of the second coming of Christ, with clouds and great glory. We read warnings to stay awake, to be alert to the coming of the kingdom. On the earthly and mundane scale, we wait for Christmas, to celebrate the Incarnation, the cataclasm of time and eternity born in the body of a baby; while here and now we wait for Christmas, our souls and our spirits wonder when we will see God for ourselves.

John the Baptizer had a word for the priests and the Levites about that. John the Evangelist takes pains to make sure that we know that John the Baptizer was not claiming any kind of status for himself; he pointed instead to the one who was coming after him. But there is a line that we sometimes miss while we are looking for what comes next:

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

That is, the one who is to come is already here.

Richard Benson, the founder of the Cowley Fathers, wrote that the saints are bound together in the

“joy of perfect sympathy since all are pouring forth their whole being to the One who is the center of their conceptions and the common principle of their life. They turn not aside from God to speak to one another; their whole being is rapt in the thought of God, and they live in the knowledge of the mutual love which binds them all because that love binds each to God. …
“Eternity is the manifestation of the marvelous unification of life.”[i]

When we recognize Christ among us, in the friend or the stranger, in the one most in need of our service and our devotion; when we seek and serve Christ in one another, then we have no need to turn away from Christ in order to serve that one, or to love them, but we love Christ in them.

When we share in the anointing that Jesus himself proclaimed from the synagogue at Capernaum, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, when we “bring good news to the oppressed, …bind up the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;” and do not, by any means, kill them, but show them instead the way of life; when we offer “the oil of gladness” to those who mourn, then we find among us the one who is to come, who is already here.

When we visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the lonely, the ones who are already here, Christ has told us, we do it also to the one who is to come.

When we love Christ in one another, then we see the one to come in the one who is already here; then we glimpse eternity in the “marvelous unification,” the solidarity of a shared life.

“Among you stands one whom you do not know,” said John, and if you knew, if you were to turn and recognize the Christ among you, the anointed one, then the Holy Spirit would be unleashed upon you in that cataclasm of time and eternity and you would have no need to turn from God to speak to one another because you would see the love of God, the spark of Divine breath, the image of God through it all.

And still, it took Jesus to be born, to be baptized, to be anointed, to be tempted, to be loved, to be crucified, to be risen, to make us know that love of God that enfolds us and unites us. It took that act of Incarnation to rupture the veil between time and eternity, and to repair the rift.

And he is coming; and “we shall see him, and our eyes behold him who is our friend, and not a stranger.” (Job 19:27)

For he is our end, and our beginning, and through his birth, that cataclasm of time and eternity, we find our way home.


[i] Richard Mieux Benson’s The Religious Vocation, is quoted in Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas, compiled by Christopher L. Webber (Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 45

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Magnificat

Updated with performance notes below

The Magnificat, Mary’s revolutionary song, is an option this Sunday and the next: Advent would not be complete without its defiant joy and radical hope.

This being a winter like no other, I thought I would do something different with this year’s Advent Magnificat. The variation offered below is designed to be sung to Hubert Hasting Parry’s magnificent Jerusalem, with apologies to the composer; although perhaps he would be sympathetic to the reassignment. Parry, after all, succumbed to the pandemic Spanish influenza in 1918, and he and his executors assigned the copyright of Jerusalem first to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, then to the Women’s Institutes, before it passed into the public domain in 1968.

Mary sings of God in the third person, and the combination of voices attempts to evoke the joining of our hymn of praise to God with Mary’s song about her very particular encounter with the Holy Spirit. The use of feminine third-person pronouns for the Divine is a quite deliberate choice. However, it would be possible to render the whole as a second-person address to God, if local circumstances compelled it.

A Magnificat

My God! My spirit sings your praise,
my soul sings out your holy Name!
My lowliness was your delight,
your blessings far beyond compare.
My spirit sings how mighty is
the Author of all life and love;
my God, my spirit* sings your praise;
my soul sings out your holy Name.

Her mercy is on her children,
and her children’s* children, whom
her strong arm tenders and protects;
the humble and the lowly, too.
Her wisdom undoes arrogance,
the thrones of power are dust underfoot*.
My God, my spirit sings your praise;
my soul sings out your holy Name.

She feeds the hungry with good things,
sends the* rich empty away.
She lifts the downcast from their grief;
she keeps the promises she’s made.
She forgets nothing she has pledged,
her faithfulness from age to age.
My God my spirit sings your praise;
my soul sings out your holy Name.

Mary’s song can be found in Luke 1:46-55.

Performance notes:
*the first syllable of spirit is slurred in the refrain: spi-i-rit
*”her” and “the” are slurred across two semi-quavers/sixteenth notes in the second lines of verses 2 & 3 (measure 6)
*you will need to add a passing note to accommodate the extra syllable in “underfoot”: – – _

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Comfort; comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Our diocese has announced new suspensions of in-person worship through the Christmas season, as COVID cases soar locally and nationally. In the meantime, Isaiah offers comfort, John advises preparation, Peter counsels patience.

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Comfort, comfort my people, says the prophet, says our God, for they are in distress, and hope is hard to come by. Comfort them.

I spoke to several of you last week and sometimes the talk turned toward Christmas and I explained that we – that is, I, in consultation with others – had decided that we were not going to try to mimic a normal Christmas Eve in abnormal times. We could not replicate the experience of gathering in the darkening Nave as Silent Night made candles flicker and flutter with the breath of a hundred people and the star began to shine. We would not have those unguarded moments of grace, seeing someone for the first time in a year and laughing our recognition. We cannot sing O Come All Ye Faithful while telling everyone to stay home.

But comfort, comfort my people. For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

It has spoken with the keening cry of a newborn infant and the gruff, rough voice of prophets and fishermen crying, “Prepare the way!”

When we spoke during the week, I mentioned our plans for a Living Nativity, complete with a borrowed goat, that we had yet to schedule a time for on the front lawn. After reading our Bishop’s letter on Friday, I quickly emailed the Christmas planning team and reluctantly put the kibosh on the stable. I was so looking forward to that goat. But the Bishop, in concert with his counterpart in Southern Ohio, was right to call us to account for our love of neighbour.

If we drew people together around a goat and a few costumes in order to find ourselves close to one another on Christmas Eve, even we planned to keep our distance and our masks on; if we really, secretly, hoped that the world and her dog would stop by to gaze upon the glory of the Lord on our front lawn, then we would be risking all kinds of interactions and cross-infections. I had for a moment thought that we were safe enough, but reading reports of the morbid request from the County Coroner’s office for refrigerated trucks to extend the capacity of their morgue ahead of the holiday; reading that alongside the letter from the Bishop persuaded me that we can do even more to love our neighbours this Christmas. We can stay even closer to home.

It is another cancellation, another adjustment, another twinge of grief, guilt, second-guessing, another sigh too deep for words, and I confess my part in setting us up for disappointment. But we would be so much more disappointed if we, in fact, exposed one another to serious harm.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins with a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way, make straight the paths.” The straight and clear way to prepare love this Christmas is to stay at home.

But comfort, comfort my people.

We are hungry for hope, and so are the neighbours that surround us. We are weary for joy, and so are our children. Our faith is parched, and the best way to renew it is to share it. We can still comfort one another, and the others who belong to God, this Christmas, without gathering outside of good health advice.

We invite you to add to our Christmas card project by making lawn signs and large boards with a message of Christmas hope to install on our lawn. If you have seen the Christmas board that our members made for the City of Euclid display at Triangle Park, you’ll have a good idea of what I mean. Sharing inspiration, being creative, and collaborating with our community lifted the spirits of those who participated. Comfort, comfort my people, and you will find comfort for yourselves.

I do encourage you to join in the virtual diocesan choir and its carol singing. If you have not received that email or need some help, do let me know. We will use the finished carols at our service after Christmas, and it would be wonderful to see one another included.

Many of you will have received candy canes this weekend, put together and distributed by Santas United, a tribute band named after the famous St Nicolas. Consider how it made you feel, and how you might be able to reach out to someone with a card, or a phone call; something safe to bring you mutual comfort during this most unusual season. Comfort, comfort my people; it really does help us to know the love of God when we discover new ways to share that love with others across all that divides us.

As we continue to adjust and readjust our plans to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord – and there will be more details to come – we can remember the lessons of Advent: that God is not far from us; that Christ is coming, whether we are ready with our plans or not; that the patience of the Lord is our salvation. We can prepare the way by remembering the love of God that comforts us still.

Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord.

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Advent snowfall

Snow: slow
relentless covering
sharp corners disguising
thin ice with deep pile
suffocating beauty: each
fractal shrugging off
the image of its neighbour

endless variations on
a theme devised before
danger delivered
into the world
under the shadow
of life

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On judgement

A sermon for the online service of the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, on November 15, 2020. The first lesson comes from the oracles of Zephaniah.

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There is a big difference between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the terrible and highly personal judgement proclaimed by the prophets.

Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the decline of empires, offers dire warnings against those who believe that their deeds and debts, duties and devotions, are of no consequence to God, that “the Lord will not do good nor harm,” that the almighty king, judge, and author of life has withdrawn from the story, no longer cares about the antics of the characters whom God has created.

We pray through the psalms that we are like the grass before God: easily swayed by the breeze, profligate but prone to mortality, and subject still to God’s indignation, and to God’s mercy.

There is a big difference, too, between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the intervention of the Cross. In our petty judgements of one another’s comeuppance, of disfavour that is deserved, we do not leave room to reckon with the death of innocents, with the pain of those who cry to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, nor with the apparent and easy victory of the vain.

But Jesus is among us in our most vulnerable hours, our most misunderstood moments, our deepest pain and our most undeserved joy. He, through the Cross, the harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection has proved beyond doubt that the worst that falls us is not the measure of God’s mercy towards us, nor of our deserving; but that the judgement and justice of God, whose measure is mercy, is a more personal and interested and reliable and patient guide to our relationship with the world and with its Maker.

Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the end of empires, writes out of his own history, and he is concerned not only with individual actions but with the disposition of the nation, and he holds its leaders particularly responsible. An oracle that we did not read this morning goes on to say,

“The officials [within the city] are roaring lions;
 its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong.
Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail;
but the unjust knows no shame.” (Zephaniah 3:3-5)

Zephaniah does not exempt himself from this judgement – he is surely among the reckless prophets – nor does he exempt me as priest, nor any of us, since as those responsible for our own governance, we the people have a particular responsibility for the disposition not only of our own hearts but of our nation. Only the unjust know no shame; only those who pretend that God has no interest in our lives, in our world, in our humanity pretend that no good nor ill will follow our own good or evil attitudes or actions.

There are consequences to our actions. There is the simplest cause and effect that we see when, for example, a public health emergency is greeted with sensible precautions consistently applied across the community and its spread is reduced, or when they are flouted or fail, and both the arrogant and the innocent are affected and infected.

We, the people, have a duty to consider with the love of God our obligations toward our neighbors and to stand up for their dignity and protection, and to follow public health advice.

Neither the judgement of God nor the mercy of God exempts us from simple cause and effect. But the judgement, the merciful and just judgement of God, does address our investment as leaders and lovers of God’s people in their health outcomes, their societal status, their equality under the law, their thriving, our common good.

Just yesterday, in his episcopal address, our Bishop noted that the fact that each of us, if we look with clear eyes, will find that our place in our society is affected by our race. Because of the disparity that this reality reflects, we are, as a whole, racist. (I am paraphrasing, because I do not yet have the transcript, so I apologize if I have him wrong; but this is what my heart heard from him. [Update: a link to the episcopal address has been added]) To say this, he said, is not a judgement. It is only a fact. What we do about it, however – and this is where we turn back from the bishop to the prophets – how we recognize it, and repent of it, and submit it for redemption: those things are subject to judgement.

Only the unjust know no shame, and say that because God does not change the dynamic of cause and effect, but lets us lead human lives of substance, agency, and consequence; only the foolish say that this means that God, our Judge and our Redeemer, does not notice nor care what goes on in our hearts, nor in our homes, nor in our nation.

But we sinners know better. We know that whatever the immediate and visible consequences of our sin and of our attempts at repentance, there is more at stake.

When we the people of God move toward love, we use our little power as a lever to shift our planet’s axis toward the intended reign of heaven. When we as disciples of Christ act as those commissioned and called by love, we change the trajectory of our faith and our future toward the will of God. When we embrace the judgement of God, that is neither arbitrary nor impersonal, but steadfast in its loving-kindness and consistent in its fierce mercy, then we live into our salvation.

“For,” as the apostle Paul writes us,

“God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that … we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)

Amen.

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Last Judgment by Petrus Christus. Early Netherlandish paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Contributor Sailko CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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It’s not about the oil

A sermon for the online service of Morning Prayer at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, the Sunday after the 2020 US election, and the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

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In the days of Elijah the Tishbite, there was a famine in the land, and when he came to the house of a widow begging for bread, she told him that she had only a handful of meal and a cup of oil left, and that once the loaf it would make was finished, so was she. Yet she did not deny him, but took him in with herself and her son, and shared their last loaf with him. And lo and behold, for as long as the drought continued and Elijah was with them, the meal and the oil did not run dry (I Kings 17).

Many centuries later, the Maccabees recovered and restored the Temple, cleansing it after its desecration by an abusive conquering king. They celebrated the rededication of the Temple for eight days, burning oil in its lamps that, the Talmud tells, should only have lasted a day, but which God eked out for them, so that they could complete their ritual and restoration (see also 1 and 2 Maccabees).

A lack of oil is the presenting problem for Elijah, the Maccabees, and the bridesmaids of our parable; but it is not a stumbling block for the reign of God, and it is no hurdle to the mercy of God.

In the story of Elijah, God partnered with the self-sacrifice of the widowed single mother, the selflessness of the over-stretched woman, to save the whole family from disaster.

In the story of the Maccabees, God partnered with the those breaking out from under the yoke of oppression, those who refused to accept the crushing of their faith, the desecration of their religion.

In the story of the bridesmaids, we do not find those catalysts of mercy, generosity of spirit, selflessness, creativity which might have been moulded into a more satisfying ending. Instead, each woman was worried only about her own lamp.

Now, I do not think for a moment that Jesus is preaching about who will get into heaven and who will be locked out. The wise don’t get their ticket stamped by having sufficient resources to start with, and by refusing to share them with others. We cannot buy our way into the good graces of God, even less by withholding grace from others. Jesus spent his time preaching good news for the poor and an inheritance for the meek, feeding the multitudes with free bread and fish, healing people in and out of his network.

Nor do I think that Jesus is implying that if we run out of oil, or steam, or get momentarily distracted or diverted, that he will reject us, or pretend that he does not know us. The shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost lamb, when it comes belated and bleating across the hillside, is not going to turn it away or leave it to the wolves.

Jesus’ point about the kingdom of heaven and its in-breaking is not about the afterlife anyhow, but about the here and the now. Not that this, either, a commentary on our election processes, and the work we have yet to do to heal our nation’s hurts, although we might be forgiven for going there.

“Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus says; yet all ten of the bridesmaids had fallen asleep before the bridegroom came. All of them were flustered when they awoke in a hurry, and five realized that they had not planned ahead, and five failed at generosity, and all of them, in their fixation on filling their own lamps, failed to think creatively, or collaboratively, to find a solution that would save them all.

There are any number of different ways this parable could have ended.

I get that it would not make sense to spread the oil so thinly that all ten lamps would sputter and fail; but if they pooled their resources, and shared one lamp between two, they could have made a pretty welcome for the bridegroom all together.

“Why should we?” asked the so-called wise ones. “They got themselves into this mess. Let them get themselves out of it.”

The bridegroom could have had some compassion for the flustered and foolish maidens racing back from the oil dealers with their refilled lights, and let them in. But he said, “Too sad, too late.”

Those five young women, with a little creativity, could instead have ditched their lamps and gathered up posies of flowers, and arranged themselves between their wise and haughty sisters, ready to greet the bridegroom as though it had always been intended this way.

But they were each one fixated on having her own lamp lit, and none had time nor bandwidth nor the imagination to think outside the oilcan.

We can do better. This parable is a commentary, I think, about our continuing lives of faith and hope in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, whose will, we pray, is to be done on earth, here and now, as it is in heaven.

If we fail to share our faith with our families, our friends, we fail the great commission. If we pretend not to know those who come late, or breathless, or empty-handed; if we exclude those who have had the doors shut in their faces for too long already; if we meet anyone without mercy, we open ourselves up to judgement. If we each look to our own interests and neglect the needs of our siblings, we miss the point of the parable. If we abandon our cousins to the outer darkness, we miss the whole point of the gospel.

This is the moment to double down on love.

We do not know even now where and when the next opportunity will present itself to welcome in the kingdom of God, to usher in the reign of heaven. We know from our faith history that God provides for that moment, and that we, in partnership with God’s mercy, God’s unfailing love, can do better than the wise, foolish, and selfish bridesmaids of the parable. A lack of oil is not the problem.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” writes St Paul, referring to the self-sacrificing love of Christ who was crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Or to paraphrase one of our diocesan [Diocese of Ohio] billboards: Love God. Love your neighbour. Change the story.

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Featured image: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh. CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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