Pastor Elizabeth invited me to preach at our host church, Community of Reconciliation, on the Sunday after the election. On Saturday, the election was called for Biden/Harris. A lot of folks resonated with this sermon so I decided to share it here. I hope that this reflection on the Word will give you strength for the journey ahead! - Mike
At this point, it’s hard to know what’s been longer: this Presidential administration, this campaign season, or this week. They each feel ten years long. My whole family is feeling the burden of it - even our children who are only five and seven years old. A few weeks ago, when the President was sick with COVID-19, our son said at the dinner table that he wished Trump would die from it. This is not something we taught him to say. It’s just the sincere feeling of a child who feels powerless to stop the reckless evil of a powerful person. I think that the child in each of us can relate to that feeling, even if as adults we are too pious to wish him actual harm.
I mention this to illustrate just how low my family has been these past few months. And so yesterday, after the election was called, we decided to do something to lift our spirits. In the afternoon, we were driving to Monroeville to visit some grandmas and decided to drive through Squirrel Hill to see if anyone was celebrating.
When we got to Sixth Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues, people were packing the sidewalks, waving flags and cheering. Music was playing, car horns were beeping. And every time the traffic lights turned red, the people poured into the intersection for a 60-second dance party. After celebrating for a few moments, we drove on honking and whooping down Forbes Ave. My son said, “It makes me feel really good to see so many happy people.”
I of course agreed that I felt the same way. But I didn’t say everything that I was feeling. Because at that moment I was thinking about another time that I had been with a group of people at that intersection. I was there two years ago, as some of you probably were, after a white supremacist - inspired by the xenophobic rants of Donald Trump - murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Their names are:
Cecil & David Rosenthal
Bernice & Sylvan Simon
May their memory be a blessing.
And so, the transformation from mourning into dancing that we experienced yesterday was downright biblical. Our celebration took on added meaning because we were with the very people who had suffered tremendously and then worked tirelessly to not only heal their neighborhood but to liberate our nation. And I’m here to testify this morning that this dance party in the street was a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
As it happens, the lectionary has given us a gospel reading this morning that is a parable about the kingdom of God. And in the world of the parable, the kingdom of God is - coincidentally - like a party you’ve waited all night for. The night is also - coincidentally - a good metaphor for the last four years. The night is cold. Your vision is limited. It can be dangerous. You feel fatigued. And if you’re feeling anxiety or depression the night is rarely restful.
But suddenly in the middle of the night a party breaks out. Logs are glowing in the fireplace. You can see the faces of all your friends and family. You feel safe, the door is locked against the night. Your energy is lifted by food and drink and conversation. It’s not just any party, it's a wedding party so your thoughts are filled with good vibes and anticipation for future happiness.
That, according to Jesus, is what the kingdom of God feels like. And we can feel that because even though much of our Christian life feels like waiting through the uncertainty of the night, every once in a while we get to party. And it is necessary to slow down and soak in those moments because they give us bread for the journey.
There is a journey ahead because the kingdom of God is never fully realized in this life. As someone once said, the kingdom of God is both “already here” and “not yet here.” We exist in a liminal space between the earthly ministry of Jesus and the ultimate fulfillment of what Christ has promised for us. There will be celebrations along the way. But we are still waiting for the bridegroom - Jesus - to arrive.
This tension between the already and not yet is something we have to hold even in the midst of our celebrations over the defeat of Donald Trump and the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They are not Jesus. We are still waiting for his kingdom of justice and peace. Until then he has told us to “keep awake.” To keep our lamps burning in the night.
In the world of the parable, the lamp oil represents our good works. Since the Reformation, Protestants have wanted the lamps to represent our faith, something interior to ourselves. But Jesus was probably not talking about our beliefs. In the Jewish literature of his time, lamps and oil represented the law and virtue - the concrete actions that we take to make the world a better place.
This understanding of what it means to be faithful was said memorably by the prophet Amos in this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures. There God tells us that our religious expressions are meaningless - our prayers and songs and even sermons like this one - without real, tangible, manifestations of justice in the world. Justice fills our lamps for the long night.
In the world of the parable, not everyone fills their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids fail to bring enough oil, and when their lamps burn out, expect someone else to fill them. There is a warning here against resting on our victories, against falling back asleep while assuming that others will do the hard, responsible work of filling our lamps for us.
In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. was at a crossroads after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He knew that that level of organizing was difficult to sustain in the long term. But he also knew that relieving the pressure would result in failure. In his message he said: “If we wait for it to work itself out, it will never be worked out! Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil.”
Dr. King showed us what it means to keep awake. It means persistently revolting, agitating, and rising up against the system of evil. Specifically, what he was saying is that whiteness will not give up without a fight. If not resisted, whiteness will hold onto power in our government, in our businesses, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and even in our churches.
And this brings me to a troubling moment in the world of the parable. It’s a moment that confirms the reality of division in the church. When the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise bridesmaids to share their oil, the wise bridesmaids are salty about it. “No! There isn’t enough. Go get your own.” Their hostility was a little perplexing to me at first. Didn’t they know Jesus taught that if someone asks you for your coat you should give them your cloak also?
But rather than condemn the wise bridesmaids the bridegroom - Jesus - seems to share their coldness. When the foolish bridesmaids have finally scrounged up enough oil to bring to the party, they beg to be let in. But he says to them through the locked door, “I don’t even know you.”
Friends, the good news of the gospel this morning is that we are ALL invited to the party. But the less good news is that not all of us will arrive in time. It troubles me that not everyone will get in. But what troubles me even more are attempts to smooth over real divisions without confronting the actual problems that created the division in the first place.
Already, in our country we are seeing calls to put our differences aside for the sake of unity. This despite the fact that over 71 million Americans pledged support for four more years of the bigotry and violence of Donald Trump. This despite the fact that a majority of white voters pledged their support to Trump. This despite the fact that 80% of white evangelicals - our siblings in Christ - pledged their power to support his toxic leadership. Friends, the division in our country is real. And the division in the church is also real. We cannot allow our good-faith efforts to practice compassion and empathy and humility to keep us from naming spiritual failures when we see them. And that includes when we see them in ourselves.
If we want the approval of the bridegroom we will have to follow the example of the wise bridesmaids in the years to come. We cannot say “Peace, peace” where there is no peace. Instead of avoiding conflict for the sake of unity, we will have to continue engaging the conflict that is necessary for justice.
It is how we will fill our lamps for the long night. So that when Jesus arrives and the party breaks out we’ll be ready to dance in the street!