Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 5, 2017 Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost,
Advent Preparation Sunday
The church year is designed to help us grow wiser and be transformed by our entering into the experience each church season provides.
Churches have read today’s gospel passage in the context of Advent for centuries. In Matthew’s allegory, the bridegroom is Christ and we are the bridesmaids. The oil is what we need to do to prepare ourselves to welcome and become united with Christ and enter God’s realm.
The story causes problems for many of us because of its harshness toward the bridesmaids who do not have the oil they need. The groom refuses to open the door for them. There is a good reason why this upsets us—it contradicts all that Jesus has taught us about forgiveness and grace, and that whatever we do for the least of people, we do to him.
We need to understand that this passage is not about being exclusive, it is about being awake. It is not about judging, it is about preparing. Being awake and prepared means that we do what it takes to fill our lamps with the oil that enables us to see Christ coming in every moment, and to see the feast that is the realm of God that we can enter here and now.
That oil is called wisdom, and Advent is designed to help us fill our lamps with it through its tradition of increased acts of charitable lovingkindness and practices of spiritual opening and deepening. Advent wisdom comes through elevating both our inner and outer levels of being, or in the words of our covenant, nurturing both contemplation and action.
That combination of inner and outer work is the oil of the wise church. The foolish church goes to sleep and runs out of oil, but Advent is an exciting and moving time in a wise congregation as we fulfill what Christ calls us to be and do, both contemplative and active.
The world needs us to do this. Humans are facing problems that are far beyond anything we have ever seen in terms of complexity and severity. The future of the world depends on us having the wise mind of Christ, a mind that sees that we are all one on this little planet, a mind that sees that what we do to the least of creatures we do to ourselves and to God.
Advent is designed to nurture the contemplation we need in order to see with Christ-like vision, and the action we need in order to respond with Christ-like love. The more fully we enter into Advent, the wiser and better prepared we will be to address problems in a way that creates the realm of God on earth.
The challenge we face is that at the same time that the church season of Advent offers us just the spiritual gifts we need, the secular holiday season drives us into a frenzy of obligations and expectations, or a feeling of being left out and missing the past.
Advent asks what kind of bridesmaids we are going to be. Will we let the season drive us to distraction or paralyze us with despair, or will we be wise and use Advent to prepare ourselves so that we can help Christ come into a world that desperately needs more hope, peace, joy and love?
We may need to think about setting some boundaries and not trying to do everything that we want or that others want us to do this Advent and Christmas. Some demands or expectations we will have to meet, but some we may need to disappoint.
We need to find a balance. We need to be intentional about it because if we do not prepare and put boundaries in place, we can be sure which kind of Advent we will have. The material demands and stresses will overpower our spiritual yearning, or our feelings of imperfection or failure or loss will block us from seeking the light that shines in the darkness.
It would be wise to decide how much time we need for our spiritual Advent, talk to those who will be affected by our taking that time away from other things, and then block that time out on our calendar.
We can decide what Advent activities work for us. We may volunteer for the food shelf or visit neighbors who are struggling. We may light an Advent candle and sit quietly in front of it for a few minutes every evening, or sit in front of the Christmas tree and sing. We can attend concerts and worship. We can spend time reading and reflecting. This Advent we will be having a series led by two extraordinary spiritual teachers that you read about on our website here.
Some Advent activities do not require time. We can make an effort to go through our days more mindfully, savoring the tastes, smells, sights and sounds that tell us of the season. We can cultivate a spirit of watching and waiting, an expectancy for Christ to appear in any moment, in any person or place. We can be more actively kind, looking for opportunities to do the small things that can make a person’s day. We can listen to Advent music of wonder and awe and anticipation.
The main musical themes for me are “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” which I hum to myself for weeks, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 140, Wachet Auf, which includes the hymn, “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying.” Its music expresses the spirit and longing of Advent as much as its words.
Before we sing it, let us pray in silence, listening to what our heart says that we need this Advent, for our sake and for Christ’s sake and for the sake of this world. Let us pray…
(And here is a performance of that Cantata conducted by one of the great Bach masters today:)