November 8, 2020

The Other Side


Isaiah 2:2-4 NRSV
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3     Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Romans 12:9-21 (The Message)
9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Matthew 25:1-13 NRSV
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids[c] got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.[e]
I was writing this sermon on Tuesday the day of the Presidential election, the day after a gunman shot and killed four people in Vienna and wounded twenty-three others, three days after sword attack killed two people in Quebec, a week after a deadly knife attack in the French city of Nice, and several days after the Arizona Coyotes announced that they had renounced their rights to their top pick in this year’s NHL draft, because the player that they had picked was convicted in juvenile court four years ago when he was fourteen, of bullying and assaulting a black classmate with a developmental disability.
And I am, and was, basically thinking about how to square my Christian faith and its teaching to love enemies and do good to them, with what is going on in this world and the tendency of this world to point fingers at each other and point out that the other is a monster.
The reality is that sometimes there are pretty monstrous acts done in this world by a human or some humans towards other humans.
Case in point. Jesus. An innocent man executed in a horrible way.
But Jesus isn’t alone. Innocent people die by the millions in this world.
Today on Remembrance Sunday as we honour those who sacrificed their lives for our freedoms and rights, let us not forget that in World War One, more civilians died than soldiers. They died of military actions, crimes against humanity, and by war induced starvation and disease. Most estimates say that over ten million civilians died as a result of World War One.
And World War Two was much worse with double the number of civilians dying than military personnel. Something in the order of 50 million civilians died as a result of World War Two.
The horrors of war are too numerous to recount and the numbers of people killed are staggering, but it seems to me as I ponder the election and terrorist acts, and even a particular case of racism…
That the disturbing thing is, that there is a common element running through so much of society which I believe is part of the cause of war, part of the death of so many, part of the horrors of genocide, terrorism and bullying, which things are still alive and well.
And the other disturbing thing, is that this common element of war, terrorism, racism and bullying is not only propagated by those whom we think are the bad guys, but also by the people whom we think are the good guys.
That common element is this: To see the other side, the other person, not only as enemy, but as monster and not human.….
And however, we see that enemy or other, politically, racially, religiously, gender-wise, socio-economically, imbalance of power… sexual orientation… or whatever the difference or conflict…
However, we define that enemy…
…to see that enemy as a monster, less than human and therefore not deserving of human compassion, sympathy, forgiveness, reconciliation or sometimes even of life.

To see that enemy as someone with whom there is to be no compromise, no reconciliation, no ability to work it out…
To see that enemy as a cancer to be cut out and discarded…
That is what has been disturbing in the political debates and dialogues not only in the presidential elections of the United States, but politics in general.
That feeling is the other is so horrible, so less than human, is a feeling that often sustains war, terrorism, racism and bullying… that the other is worthless and deserves nothing…because the other is not human…
But crazily enough it is the way we often treat the enemy, or terrorist, or the bully, or the misogynist or the rapist or the drunk driver…
That they now, after committing a heinous crime, are less than human and are not deserving of forgiveness or rehabilitation.
Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, Thomas Merton wrote that in order something like Auschwitz to happen,
It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty.
Merton went on:
As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters: ordinary police and good citizens will take care of everything.
(from Thomas Merton’s book, On Peace, p 81)
The even sadder part, I believe is that the church and Christians have contributed to this, to a large part. I used to wonder why as a child and a teenager and young adult how specifically World War One and Two happened in countries that were considered largely Christian.
How did the followers of Jesus set upon each other with such ferocity…?
I now wonder if it was centuries of theology which vilified the other, the different, the protestant, or the catholic, or the infidel, or the heretic, or the witch, or the pagan, or the puritan, or the Jew, or Muslim, or the non-believer…
…and compound that with seventeen hundred years or so of the organized church taking the metaphor of hell and turning it into a fully-fledged literal holocaust just waiting to burn up all the undesirables in this world…
…is it any wonder that the hell they conjured up in their minds became more real than they ever thought, played out on this earth with two world wars, all by treating each other as worthy of hell.
They ended up creating the Armageddon and the Lake of Fire here on earth.
And that is the warning of the Book of Revelation. If we do not turn towards love and non-violence, we will end up creating Armageddons and Lakes of Fire.
It isn’t God who will do this but we ourselves.
And so, we get to today’s parable, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
And it seems at first that we should throw up our hands in despair, because the parable ends with five of the bridesmaids coming back to closed doors and not getting in.
At first glance it seems to reinforce the very thing which I think is a problem, the tendency of society and the church to separate into good and bad and say that the bad are not human and therefore not worthy of heaven. Kill them or dispose of them or send them to hell.
But let’s take a sober second look at this parable. It is a little troubling to begin with, and maybe you yourself had all sorts of questions.
Where is the bride? Who is the bride? Why are some bridesmaids unable to share? Why at a wedding feast to you have to bring the oil? Isn’t that provided? Why is the groom so late?
But remember. This isn’t a true story of an actual wedding; it is a parable. It isn’t a literal description of heaven or hell, but an angle of view of God’s kingdom of grace.
And sometimes there isn’t an answer, but just things for us to think about.
And the first thing to think about is that this is not a story Jesus was telling the Pharisees and leaders of Israel, and not a story he was telling the crowds. According to the text he was alone with his disciples in private.
We have heard much about the conflict between the Jewish leaders and Jesus; and how Jesus was presenting a different kingdom. A kingdom of love and grace for all, in opposition to the Pharisees and Jewish leaders who very much had a hierarchy of those who were worthy of grace.
But this isn’t about the Jewish leaders, it is about the disciples.
And Jesus tells them there are five foolish bridesmaids and that there are five wise bridesmaids.
I think it is because Jesus is sitting around and he looks at these disciples, the ones he also calls friends. He looks at them and sees their wisdom, their growth, their learning. They have basically left everything to follow him, to fish for people, to spread wide the net of grace that will catch all manner of different fish, or all manner of different people.
He has taught them about a kingdom of grace, where all are welcome, where every human is God’s child, including those who are sick, or done wrong, or a foreigner or from another religion. Grace is open to all.
And Jesus sees that they have received grace, he sees how they will use grace and spread grace.
They are the five wise bridesmaids who fill up with the oil of God’s grace and the oil of the Holy Spirit and they are going to have lots to share.
But Jesus looks at these disciples and see how they have been tested, and how they will be tested by the cross, and how often these disciples failed. Unable to heal sometimes. Lacking in faith sometimes, arguing about who is going to be the greatest. He sees that they will betray him and desert him when the chips are down, and death is real, and the cross is his path.
They are the five foolish bridesmaids who run out of grace, who run out of the Spirit, who look after number one, and forget to build their house of the rock of Jesus’ love grace and forgiveness, but on the sand of their own ego, want and skin.
And maybe you are sitting there this Sunday and it had crossed your mind. Am I a foolish disciple or a wise disciple?
And if you were here, I could take one look at you and tell you what you are.
And even if you are not here, I can tell you what you are.
You are a wise disciple, and you are a foolish disciple.
You are both.
You are not one side or the other. You are not the good guy against the bay guy, or the bad guy against the good guy.
You are both created in the image of God, and fallen.
Sometimes we are wise and sometimes we are foolish.
I have said and thought and believed and done the stupidest things in my life. Sometimes as a Christian or a minister of the gospel I just botched it.
And the worst things I have done, are when I treated others as less than God’s children, less than God’s treasure. I treated some people are worthless, or even garbage, or sometimes I just thought it.
It is so easy to do. To pick someone who is on the other side of you politically, or about matters of race, or matters of human sexuality, or matters of gun control, or abortion… or a whole host of things on which we differ.
It is just so easy to think of the other as wrong, evil, manipulative, unchristlike, going to hell, or worthless.
And we run right out of grace, so much so that we’ve missed the whole wedding.
But there are times when your love is unconditional, your grace is limitless, your forgiveness is eternal, and you welcome someone who has been on the outside for a long time, or you have a good relationship with someone of a different religious persuasion and the spirit of love flows between you…
Or you give a cup or cold water to someone in need. You make a good offering to a local charity anonymously.
Or it seems like everything you do you do for Jesus. That everything you do is a worship moment.
You forgive your enemy. You do good to them.
For whatever reason, you are so full of grace and love that is flows out of you like a fountain, and it feels like this fountain of love and grace is eternal.
And while maybe that happens less often than it could or should, it happens.
And so, we are both wise and foolish and Jesus was giving the disciples and us a reality check and a pep talk.
And while it is easy to make the leap that Jesus is the bridegroom, because other images refer to Jesus as the bridegroom maybe the bridegroom isn’t Jesus who slams the door on the foolish ones.
Maybe the reality is that closed doors are a part of life. Sometimes, opportunities come and they are missed. Sometimes you say something or do something and you can’t take it back. Sometimes life happens, or death happens, or a loss happens, or something is gained, and life is not the same, and will never go back to being the same.
Sometimes there are opportunities to forgive, to say “I love you” to donate, to share, to give, to listen, to embrace, to include, to combat injustice, or right the wrong, but sometime they are there only for a short time and then they are gone. So maybe when a door is opened for you to be graceful, take the chance and be graceful.
Maybe it isn’t that God has shut the door on you, but that we were too busy and missed the chance to be graceful.
And maybe if you are a wise disciple or wise bridesmaid maybe you do share with the foolish ones, because you remember the days when you were foolish.
But here is the good news.
The bridegroom is coming. Grace is coming. Jesus is coming. Love is coming.
You know it is often at a time when we do not expect it. Sometimes it is a person who looks nothing like God. Sometimes we are unprepared for grace and it knocks our socks off.
Sometime love hits us right between the eyes. And sometimes we are just totally oblivious to the Spirit who is as close as the nose on our face.
That is why Jesus says “stay awake.” What I think it really means is stay aware. See God in others. Be God to others. Take those opportunities to share grace and be graceful.
But this is the one thing that everyone who is human has. It is the opportunity to love and be loved. It is the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. It is the opportunity to fill up with the oil of grace and be a light of love to the world.
Jesus’ love is for everyone, so nobody is beyond grace. There is no other side, no monsters, no people to send to hell. We are all humans and children of God. And we are all broken and sinful.
This story come from Charlotte Methuen an Episcopal priest in Scotland.
One Sunday around the time of Remembrance Day a lady came over to her and said: “Look. My brother and sister are both on this War Memorial.”
Charlotte looked surprised and the lady went on. My brother was killed in action, but my sister was a civilian and it was her wedding day and they were getting ready for the wedding, she and her fiancée. When the air raid sirens went off, instead of going into the air raid shelter she and her fiancée went into the basement to continue preparations for the wedding and they were killed by a direct hit by a bomb.
For Charlotte who was from Britain the story was not only a tragic story of the loss of an innocent, but there was added poignancy, because the church she was ministering at the time was in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the bomb that killed that lady’s sister was probably a British bomb dropped by a British bomber.
And it made her reflect not only on the tragedy of war, but living in Germany made her think hard about how to remember on Remembrance Day that there are no sides.
So, I end with her words. I quote:
So many… lost their lives in war, and we remember them today. If their death can awake in us an understanding of our need to break down barriers of hate and the call to all of humankind to discover in each other their common, God-given humanity, then we are remembering them as they should be remembered. And remembering what they gave for us. That we might build a better world. (   Amen.