Waiting in God

Second ComingA sermon offered on November 12, 2017, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16Psalm 701 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Earlier this week, I saw a friend who is not a church goer.  In fact, he’s Hindu but extremely respectful and curious about Christianity. We talked about a number of different things, and then he said, “Well, changing the topic, I’d like to ask you about something.  What do you say to your congregation about the shootings in Texas?”

I hesitated, trying to answer honestly, and so, I said that, regarding the shooting in a church in Texas–as with so many other issues—we name the evil and pray for the victims, but then I tend to try to talk about whatever aspects we might have some influence over—usually that comes down to ourselves.  I often can’t influence the violent thoughts and impulses of others, but I can pray that God would help with those aspects of myself.  If you’ve heard me preach and teach—you will recognize that way of dealing with hard issues.

But I wasn’t entirely happy with my answer to my friend.  A part of what I’m doing is waiting.  As I try to make sense of a culture that continues to lower the bar for decency and public discourse, I’m waiting for people to get tired of it and say, “Enough.”  As person after person uses a gun in anger or frustration or stupidity or accident, I’m waiting for those who profit from the weapons industry to wake up in the middle of the night with a conscience and say, “Enough.”  I’m waiting for answers, waiting for direction, and (to some extent) waiting on God to step in and fix things. I’m waiting of Christ to come back, clean house, and make everything new.

Even as I notice myself “waiting” on God in so many ways, I hate waiting in most other areas of life. Waiting, usually, is not easy—whether it’s waiting for coffee, traffic, or the subway. We wait for appointments, for returned phone calls or emails.

But we wait for the big things, too. We wait for test results. We wait for graduation, for a visit by a family member. We wait for a sickness to pass or a disease to end. We wait for the right person to come. We wait for an appointment with the specialist, only to show up on the long-anticipated day to be told calmly, “the doctor is running about an hour and a half late, but if you’d like coffee, please help yourself.”

Waiting can be an exercise of faith. Waiting can be faithful waiting when it is active, when it has meaning, when it is productive in some way. When it’s not only waiting FOR God, but perhaps, waiting also WITH God.

But waiting can become procrastination.  It can be empty and fruitless. Waiting is worthless when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing. You know that kind of procrastination:

I think of when a couple has issues in their relationship, and so they focus on something in the future and they wait: for a house, for a baby, for better job, for more income. They focus so much on that future goal that they lose the opportunity in the present for the deepening of that relationship. And so, strangely, and to the surprise of others, the relationship fails at the very moment they achieve the long-awaited goal. The waiting has not worked.

I think of all those issues about which we say to ourselves, “I’ll get around to that when I’m retired.” New hobbies, books to be read, people to spend time with, places to visit— all are put off and postponed for what is planned to be the golden time of retirement. But the stock market intervenes, or there is sickness, or there is any number of unpredicted obstacles, and the waiting has not worked.

The Gospel today has something to say about waiting fruitfully, about being alert and prepared and getting the things done one needs to do, in the waiting. In this Gospel, Jesus teaches that if we wait for the future and do nothing in the meantime, the future will be upon us, and we may be caught unprepared.

A wedding in ancient Palestine involved traveling around from house to house. And so the bridegroom and his party might visit a number of places before coming to the place where the bride and her bridesmaids are waiting. Then, as now, weddings parties were often delayed. And so, the bridesmaids who were waiting should have known that the bridegroom would be late. No promises were made. It was a part of their job to be prepared. But when the groom’s party appears, half of the bridesmaids are ready, and the other half is caught without enough oil to see.

Jesus tells this story to instruct his followers about the nature of waiting. Matthew tells this story to the Christians in his community in an effort to say to them, “Don’t just gaze off into heaven and wait for Jesus to come again. There’s work to be done. There’s love to be shared. There’s bread to be broken. The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast that welcomes all. It’s like a party, but if your waiting slows you down in the present, you just might miss all the fun.”

In our Gospel, the bridegroom eventually comes. Throughout scripture, the bridegroom is often a symbol for Jesus Christ. The Church, itself is the bride, and so we wait. We wait for the full return of Jesus Christ, at the end of times, whatever that may look like. We wait for all of those smaller joys that we hope will come into our lives. We wait for a new administration to be formed in our country, we wait for stability in the financial markets, we wait for work or love or health. But the real question for each of us is this: how do we spend our time in the waiting?

Faithful waiting includes prayer, leaning on others, and acting with faith.

The Gospel suggests we fill our lamps. We prepare ourselves by filling ourselves with pray and the study of the things of God—they sustain us like good oil in a old lamp.

Leaning on Others
We prepare ourselves by meeting the risen Christ when we serve the poor and when we serve by their side. We prepare ourselves by sacrificial giving—both with our time, our talents, and our money. We prepare ourselves with the simple stuff of bread and wine, bread and wine turned into Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

Acting with faith
Leaping as well as investing.
We prepare for the future feast of God by savoring each day as a gift, by taking each new day as an extraordinary morsel of food, letting it rest on the tongue, letting each day be tasted and smelled and touched and loved and shared and enjoyed.

In the 4th century, Saint Basil preached powerfully about living faithfully in the Now: He asked,

What keeps you from giving now? Isn’t the poor person there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? “I’m not doing any harm,” you say. “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.” You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone’s use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. (Sermon on Luke).

Sometimes we wait.  Sometimes we act.  In both cases and especially in the middle, may we be sustained by the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy and blessed are those who put their trust in God.” (Psalm 34:8)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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