The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer

Reflection for Remembrance Sunday, November 9, 2014

For the people gathered at Knox United Church, Vancouver, B.C.

Reflection based on:  Joshua 24: 1-3a and 14-25 and

Matthew 25: 1-13

Opening Prayer:  Holy, gracious, and amazing God, may the words from my lips and the thoughts we carry in our hearts and minds and bodies be acceptable in your sight.  Amen.

When I first considered the focus of my reflection for this morning might be, I thought it would be about peace.  The kind of peace that results from love; love born out of forgiveness; and forgiveness that emerges when we let go of all of yesterdays’ “hurts”.  (a quote I attribute to the Rev. Sharon Copeman)

There’s that understanding of peace and there’s the peace of Christ which passes all understanding.  And then there’s the issue of how elusive a concept and reality peace is in our postmodern world-a world dominated by materialism and consumerism over and against the various ills of globalization that include poverty, violence, and world hunger, not to mention polarized religious factions born out of brokenness, misunderstanding, and isolation.  Because of all this and more, I am deeply sad to say that indeed, peace does continue to elude and confound us in the year 2014.

Perhaps the good news for today is this: Despite the truth of this sad reality, we gather in community this morning to celebrate, honour, and remember people whose lives were shaped by and irrefutably changed by all the events leading up to and surrounding what we commonly call our two world wars.  Very likely any number of you sitting here this morning might be included in that number.

In fact, if you go to our church website, you can even find some of your stories of your personal relationships connected to the two world wars.  Along with those sacred stories you will find a recent newspaper article about your former minister, the Rev. Jay Olson’s uncle!

 

Getting back to my initial focus for this morning, I was quite certain I wanted to focus on peace; until that is, I took another look at our readings for today. 

When I did that, the two readings, that our own beloved veteran, Ross McCarlie read for us this morning, clearly seemed to have little to do with peace. 

And yet, these are the recommended readings that come to us thanks to the wisdom of those folks at the World Council of Churches in Geneva who compile the Revised Common Lectionary, a series of scriptural readings that are more or less repeated in three year cycles.

Looking through my resources from the years 2008 and 2011, I discovered that indeed, these were the same readings used for Remembrance services I had reflected on then.  So it is this morning, I bring some of those reflections along with some new ideas for our shared consideration today.

Thinking back over the readings since midsummer, we remember that we’ve been looking at the stories that come to us from the first five books of Hebrew scripture known as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the identity forming stories of the ancient Israelites as they became liberated from slavery at the hands of the ancient Egyptians.

Last week, we were introduced to the third chapter of the book of Joshua which follows immediately after Deuteronomy.  In it, we meet Joshua, the book’s namesake and, its strong and courageous leader.  Some of you might be familiar with the story of Joshua, who, as a very young man was groomed to assume the mantle of leadership from Moses. 

In Chapter three of Joshua, we heard last week how quickly and effectively he assumed his leadership role.  Guided by God, the story goes, Joshua brings the people and the Ark of the Covenant safely across the river Jordan into the Promised Land.  This morning, we fast forward some twenty one chapters to a story that comes to us after the conquest of Canaan. 

 

 

Without some in depth study of Joshua we might not be aware that the book of Joshua is also known in some circles as the “bloody” book of Joshua.  Within its pages there is story after story describing how a once oppressed community become the oppressors guided by a seemingly tribalistic, violent, and wrathful God.

What might we do with such an understanding of God as we gather here for this morning’s story as Joshua gathers all the tribes of Israel at Shechem for the task of renewing their covenant with God?

While other opportunities to explore how the double edged sword of oppression is often lived out in scripture might emerge, for this morning’s purposes, I want to offer an antidote to the idea of the tribalistic, violent and wrathful God found in the bloody book of Joshua.

In that vein, I like what Debi Thomas, a biblical scholar I was introduced to through Daniel B. Clendenin’s “Journey with Jesus” podcast this week and her commentary on this reading. 

Debi reminds me and by default, us, that we need to be mindful that our canon of scripture is composed of stories based on oral tradition.  That is, the stories from Hebrew scriptures were told orally to one group who then told another and then another and then another and then eventually, the stories were all written down in one place.  A danger in trying to write down the information from an oral tradition is that one story of how important events happened sometimes becomes the “only” story. 

In that regard, I offer Ms. Thomas’ commentary this way: While the God of Joshua may have indeed been a tribalistic, violent, and wrathful God, (given the culture of the time) we, who listen, can choose to hear the story a little differently, saying:  “May we choose a God who is unimaginably bigger than the stories we tell.  A God whose very story begins and ends in love.”

All of this brings me back to where we began this morning and the idea of peace as my focus for this reflection.

  With that in mind, I still like the question Joshua poses at Shechem as he asks all the gathered tribes to make decisions based on their awareness of all that God has done for them. 

His question “Who shall we be in light of what God has done?” is one we, too, are invited to ponder in light of our own experiences of faith in this very church community.  “Who shall we be in the light of what God has done here?” As a relative newcomer here, I welcome further conversation with you, the old timers here at Knox sometime very soon!

Then we have our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, a parable thought to be offered by Jesus to his disciples close to the end of his life.  Under the penmanship of Matthew, the parable is also addressed to a fearful community of followers gathered some 85 years or so after Jesus’ death on the cross, and by extension, to us here as well.

The reading tells a simple story drawn from a common event in the village life of Galilee-a wedding party!  It’s a story that reminds me of a recent PBS television series I enjoyed called simply “Shetland”.  Maybe you’ve seen it? 

Watching one of the last episodes of the series, I was drawn in by how the bridal procession began with the bride and her best maid running up the road to meet the groom and the gathered community, and then all processed to the local hillside for the wedding ceremony.  Following that, the entire community went back to the village hall for the wedding party.  It was a little different than any wedding I’ve been to but then, having lived in several small communities, I could imagine something similar having happened in Canada in earlier eras.

The first cautionary note I offer as we approach this morning’s gospel reading, “the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the lamps” is this:  Weddings in ancient Palestine were nothing like our weddings today!

Instead of everyone gathering at a church, all of the unmarried girls in the village waited at the home of the groom while he went to get the bride from her parent’s home.  The bridesmaids’ job then would be to help light the path for the couple as they came back to the groom’s home.  Scholars believe that the bridesmaids would probably have used clay lamps filled with oil and a floating wick which would need the right amount of oil to be effective. 

Once back at the hall, the wedding party would last several days and more matchmaking would have been likely for those bridesmaids who had done their job well.

In the case of this morning’s reading, all did not go well, we are told, as the groom was delayed, the bridesmaids fell asleep, and when the groom did arrive, only five of the bridesmaids were prepared while the other five were not. 

Further to that, not only were the five prepared bridesmaids unwilling to share their resources (i.e., the oil for the lamps) with the unprepared, when the unprepared finally did arrive at the wedding banquet, they were locked out and rejected by the bridesgroom!   

His words seem a harsh consequence to their ill preparedness as they are told: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” and “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

What a troubling story full of harsh consequences that seems very much at odds with the idea of Jesus as kind, generous, and hospitable.  Nor does the story offer a word of hope about peace or peaceful relations.  Still, it is the story we have before us for our consideration this morning, so let’s take some time to unpack it a little more.

At the start of Matthew 24, Jesus and the disciples set themselves apart for some private conversation.  There on the Mount of Olives, they ask him the big “when” question.  When will all that Jesus has predicted, when will it come to pass? 

In response, Jesus shares with them many things, including his impending torture and death at the hands of his oppressors, and in the midst of this conversation, he offers three parables about what the coming of God’s purpose, will look like.  For our consideration, we have the parable of the five bridesmaids and their lamps.

For those first listeners to Matthew’s gospel, trying to be followers in the way of Jesus towards the end of the first century, living in the hope and yet worried about the promised return of Christ, this strange, troubling and beautiful parable about God’s Kingdom, God’s Vision of Shalom, or God’s Peaceable Reign might have offered some comfort. Or not. 

For a parable to be effective, it confounds and surprises, it has shaded nuances, it makes us uncomfortable, and it offers a conundrum or reversal of how things work in the world.  When effective, a parable brings us to a new and unexpected understanding of God’s word.  We might say that parables offer a counterintuitive understanding of relationships.  Surely the parable of the 10 bridesmaids and the lamps does all of that and more!

What then, do we think is really going on here?  Did Jesus really say all these things?  Or are the elements of this story cut and pasted together from a whole series of Jesus’ wisdom sayings that are not representative of what really happened or what was happening in the community the author of Matthew’s gospel is addressing?  And, how on earth might it have any meaning for us as we gather to honour and celebrate our World War I and II veterans this morning?

Fred Craddock in “Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A” tells us there are basically two types of parables- there are those full of grace and surprise for our consideration as we go about the business of living out our faith.  Then, there are those parables that speak to dire consequences of perhaps being able to talk the talk of faith but not being able to walk it so much. Certainly, today’s parable seems to fall in the latter category.

In order for the story to make a little more sense, we might wonder: Where might we locate ourselves individually and as the church in the story? 

To begin with, we might understand Jesus as the bridegroom and the disciples or ourselves as the bridesmaids. 

Or we might find ourselves more on the sidelines, observers in the community, perhaps imagining ourselves as family members of the bridegroom, the bride, or the bridesmaids. 

From another vantage point, for whom might we have more compassion –the wise or the foolish bridesmaids?  Which ones might we be?

And what of the lamps and the oil?  What might we imagine them to mean for our lives?  Might we imagine them as the Holy Spirit at work in our lives?  What of the wicks and their trimming? There are all sorts of directions we could go with this, yes?  All we need is a little more time. 

And/or a small group bible study. 

Speaking of which, I have had the privilege the last couple of weeks of being able to attend a bible study with Helena Ho and half a dozen or so other folks at the home of Janet Reid, a member of University Hill United.  

For the last few weeks this small group has gathered to break bread and to  study the parables of Jesus guided by the Rev. Ed Searcy whose primary task has been to encourage folks to stretch their thinking about the parables.  Possibly even to look at them in a new way altogether.

As luck would have it, guess which parable we looked at this last week?

Well, we actually looked at three and the parable of the 10 bridesmaids was included.  All different, all three offered images of wedding feasts and banquets as a familiar concept in Jesus’ time, a time of feasting and inclusive community celebrations and as the model for what God’s Kingdom, God’s vision of Shalom, or God’s Peaceable Reign might look like. 

From Ed’s perspective, and I agree with him, God’s Peaceable Kingdom is not something that happens after we die.  Rather, God’s in-breaking kingdom has the potential to occur at any given moment in our lives and we might hope, particularly, but absolutely not necessarily, within the context of our church life.

Unlike the community in the time of the author of Matthew’s gospel however, we here at Knox United in Vancouver don’t live under threat of persecution for what we believe or for walking the talk of our faith.  Or if we do, would someone please be sure to bring me up to speed?

Comfortable as we are as United Church folk, for the most part, we do have the challenge of trying to be the church in a time when church is no longer the center of everyday life but sits instead firmly on the sidelines, we might say, on the “edges” of secular culture. 

With that awareness and understanding for the why of this reality, we are coming to understand and sometimes even embrace the realization that the church needs to open itself to new ideas or become obsolete.

In other words, we live in what Tennesee Williams might call as he does one of his more famous plays, we, in the church live in time known as

“a period of adjustment”.  As we enter fully into understanding there is no going back to the way things were in the good old days,  the journey to the future might become quite exciting.

When all is said and done, transition is not much fun, and as in most United Churches, this chapter in our life might well be compared with “end times”.  Perhaps not exactly the “Little Apocalypse” that the twenty fifth chapter from Matthew’s gospel is sometimes called but then again, perhaps not so different.

However, we do live in a time of some considerable discomfort as we come to terms with changing understandings of our identity at the same time as getting on with the ministries of healing, teaching, outreach, and pastoral care that defines Knox for both itself and all who come in contact with it.

At the same time, we are called to be vigilant, to have endurance, to be patient, and to be on the lookout for God’s in-breaking kingdom that is possible whenever two or more are gathered together.


Thinking back on how life was for folks living through the two World Wars we are honouring this morning, I offer a paraphrase of some ideas I found at John Shearman’s Llectionary Resource webpage this week.

In Canada and throughout the British Commonwealth, Remembrance Day falls on November 11th each year.  It marks the ends of the hostilities in the First and Second World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).  On the same date in the USA, Veterans Day is similarly celebrated.  It is a day of sacred memories for the dwindling few service men and women remaining from the Great Wars of the 20th century.

Sacred?  Yes, sacred.  Is that the right word for terrible conflicts in which so service people and civilians died?

If sacred refers to a premature awareness of your own mortality, a total focus on the present moment, a valuing of others’ lives more than your own, and on feeling a part of something larger than your own life, then, yes, the word sacred seems apt and appropriate here and synonymous with my understanding of God’s vision of Shalom, God’s In breaking Kingdom, God’s Peaceable Reign. For all that and more, I say, thanks be to God and may it be so, amen.