Some of you may remember the great college basketball coach John Wooden, who won many national championships at UCLA in the ‘60’s and 70’s, and was famous for his coaching methods, and principles. At the first practice of the year - every year – he spent time teaching his players how to put on their socks: college-age men, including those who’d been on the team before and had already heard it, being instructed in the right way to put on their socks. Wooden did this because, he knew, if you don’t do this the right way, you’ll get blisters on your feet, you’ll be in pain, and you won’t be able to play your best. This was a tiny example of one of Wooden’s core principles, which was this: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. The better you prepare, the more ready you are to play the game.
The same idea operates in the life of faith. It’s what Jesus points toward in his constant reminders to us, throughout the gospels, to be alert, be awake, be ready (this is the point of the parable of the bridesmaids in today’s gospel, which I’ll get back to in a bit.) He’s telling us to prepare; and this is why: our lives on this earth are grounded in an infinitely larger life, the life of God. This is reality; and it’s the basis of our faith. Part of the work we do here in church we prepare ourselves to see this; in one of our Eucharistic prayers, we pray to God, “Open our eyes, to see your hand at work in the world about us.” As we do this, we grow in the knowledge and love of God.
I think God’s presence often appears closest to the surface when something big in our lives is about to end, and something else is about to begin. We have examples of this in all three lectionary readings today.
The Old Testament passage, from the book of Joshua, describes a scene at the very end of the Exodus; the people of Israel are now safely settled in Canaan. This represents the fulfillment of God’s promise in the covenant with Abraham centuries before, the promise of a home for God’s people. So the huge event of the Exodus, which took many years, is coming to an end; and their new life in the Promised Land is about to begin. In today’s reading, Joshua – Moses’ chosen successor – is at the end of his life, and gives his final address to the Israelites, reminding them of their part in the covenant: that they are to “serve the Lord”; to have no other gods before the Lord.
As we heard today, Joshua tells them, You can choose not to do this: you can choose to serve the gods of your ancestors, from way back in the old country; you can choose to serve the gods of the folks who live around here now, the Canaanites. Joshua has seen the same fickleness among the Israelites that Moses did, and he puts it directly to them: Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. And the people answer right away, We will serve the Lord. And they go on, about this: they give emphatic assurances that they get it, once and for all, now, about their commitment to the Lord their God.
But immediately upon hearing this, having just gotten the answer we would expect that he wants, Joshua says something absolutely extraordinary: right away, he answers them, You cannot serve the Lord. This shows what a great leader he really is: he is taking them the next step. He knows that there are going to be times when they don’t serve the Lord, when they abandon God, when they act in their own self-interest. When Joshua says, You cannot serve the Lord, he is saying exactly the same thing Jesus tells Peter when Peter swears his loyalty: Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.
It’s no different for any of us. This is what it means to be human. And part of our preparation, as people of faith, is to know that we are always, forever, dependent on the mercy of God. This is the knowledge in which we are to live every day. It is the foundation of our hope: which is what enables us to keep always moving forward.
The reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has to do with the end of our lives, in the context of the second Coming of Christ) something big ending, something big about to begin.) This was an event which Christians in the first century thought would happen in their lifetime. Paul has been told that people in the Thessalonian church were concerned about those who had already died; concerned that, after the Second Coming, those people would be in eternal isolation from their loved ones who were still alive to be present at Christ’s return. So, for them, it was a question of community: they were afraid that, for many, the communion of faith would be lost.
In this passage Paul tells them that this is not so. He gives a majestic, poetic vision of the Second Coming: that God will descend from heaven, with the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet (wouldn’t those be something to hear!); and at this, Paul says, the dead will rise first, then those who are alive, and together they will meet the Lord “in the air” (not still on earth, not yet in heaven: in a new place), and then all will be with the Lord forever. This vision is therefore one of beautiful assurance that God will uplift, and preserve eternally, the loving community we have grown into here on earth.
Paul makes clear why he’s telling us all this at the beginning: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” It’s not that we won’t grieve at the death of those we love; but as people of faith, we grieve in hope: because we know that God will make all things well. And Paul ends with an instruction: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” This is part of our preparation, part of being ready, this act of encouraging each other, in the face of death, with the knowledge that God is going to break into our lives, once and for all.
The parable of the bridesmaids is also usually understood in reference to the Second Coming; and, unfortunately, we tend to hear this parable in kind of a threatening way, as a warning about the sternness, and the finality, of God’s judgment; but I’m going to suggest something more. The bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom, who’s away from his house because he’s negotiating the terms of the marriage contract with the bride’s father. No one can tell how long that’s going to take, so the wise bridesmaids bring extra oil for their lamps, but the foolish ones do not.
So when someone, far into the night, says the bridegroom’s coming, they all jump up to refresh their lamps; but the bridesmaids who haven’t prepared properly don’t have enough oil; and they ask to borrow some from the ones who do, the wise ones. Those say, No, if we do that there won’t be enough for any of us, you’d better go out and buy some. So they hurry out to do that, but by the time they get back, the bridegroom has returned, the party has started, and the doors are shut, they can’t get in. And when they call out, Lord, lord, open for us, he answers, I do not know you.
This sounds cold, because, of course, he does know them, they’re part of his wedding. But in the original Aramaic, the literal meaning of these words is, “I have nothing to do with you”. Knowing someone, here, means not simply being aware of who that person is, but having a positive relationship with him or her. It’s the same expression Peter uses when he denies Jesus (he’s not saying, I’ve never seen this guy before; he’s saying rather the opposite: I know who this person is; but we have nothing to do with each other.
The bridegroom is saying to the bridesmaids who didn’t prepare, We don’t have a relationship. But it’s not the bridegroom who’s broken it off. The bridesmaids did that when they failed to bring enough oil for their lamps; they didn’t do their part. And they compounded their failure when they asked to borrow oil from the others, which would have ended the relationship with the bridegroom for the others as well.
So when the bridegroom says, I do not know you, he’s not pronouncing sentence. He’s just stating a fact: he’s acknowledging a condition which they have created. They have shut themselves out. And that is a terrible thing; because what they have shut themselves out of is the biggest party of them all.
So let us not neglect to prepare: in the tiniest ways: in putting on our socks. Because God offers us little tastes of this big party, every day of our lives. Thanks be to God.