The Rev’d Cameron Partridge
Advent 1, 2017: November 12, 2017
Several weeks ago, as you may recall, we hosted a Wednesday evening of Communion, poster-making and chant-composition with Ana Hernandez. As Barbara explained in her article for the Flame, several of us had been wanting to have a sign-making party so that the next time we felt drawn to join a march or rally, as so many of us have done over this last year, we would be more prepared. We would be more visibly and spiritually anchored in our faith that urges us out into the world to be agents of the good news of God’s in-breaking commonwealth. Then when I learned that Ana Hernandez would be in town, I thought to ask her to come join us and add a dimension of chant to the evening—chant composition as well as chant learning, she added as we planned the event. It was a wonderful evening. We sang, we drew, we broke bread, we composed, we observed others’ compositions. Barbara’s sign read “They tried to burry us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Gavin and Kateri collaborated on a poster filled with flowers that said, “where there is hatred, sow love.” Dave made a sign with the same message. There were many other signs as well. It was a joyful evening of creative preparation for days and hours that may come unexpectedly. In an important way that evening and those activities were an Advent practice. They prepared us to anticipate God’s in-breaking time.
In our passage from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus once again tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the summer we heard parables about its just, startling, status-reversing character. The last time we heard directly about this topic was on October 15th, when Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet thrown by a king for his son (Mt 22:1-14). There, as you may recall, the king radically expanded the guest list (including “both good and bad”) when the original invitees failed to show up. You may also recall that one of these guests got himself excluded by failing to wear the wedding robe which would have been given to him as part of his invitation, as Lyle Beckman told us in his sermon that day. Today’s reading returns to the wedding banquet image, emphasizing the “unexpected hour” at which the bridegroom will arrive and the banquet will begin. The most basic charge we are given in this parable, as we will continue to hear in the weeks to come, is to keep awake. But what does wakefulness mean in this story? The clue I find most interesting is that it doesn’t necessarily preclude falling asleep. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, we are told that ten bridesmaids await the arrival of a bridegroom which will signal the start of a wedding banquet. Five of these young women are labeled “foolish” and five of them are called what our text translates as “wise.” The Greek term here is not related to σοφία, a term sometimes translated as divine wisdom and used in our first reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (6:12). It is actually φρόνιμοι which in this story carries a sense of prudence, a practical wisdom or pragmatism—someone who has planned for various eventualities. As the story continues, both the prudent and the foolish manage not only to get drowsy but to actually fall asleep. Upon being awakened by the announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival, the foolish ones realize that the oil left in their lamps will not last long. The prudent ones, of course, brought extra stashes. And when the fools ask them to share, the prudent imply that if they did, their supplies would be spread so thinly that all of them would lose. So the fools race off to get their own supplies and while they’re away, of course, the bridegroom arrives, the doors are shut and they are locked out.
While this refusal of entry is—as I always find in these parables—disturbing, the detail I find refreshing is this: wakefulness does not preclude sleep. Wakefulness acknowledges, anticipates our limitations and plans for them. Wakefulness in this parable expresses a thoughtful intentionality about our capacities and about God’s unpredictable timing. Wakefulness understands that God’s time does not run according to human timetables but rather breaks into, can interrupt human time. We cannot anticipate exactly when and how Gods time arrives. But we can anticipate that it does. We can anticipate that we may be caught off guard, perhaps even asleep. Wakefulness cultivates a practical awareness that God’s time is always other than ours even as God also invites to anticipate it and even to begin to step into it.
Becoming aware of this different sense of time, a pattern of time that cuts against the grain of the world’s ordering of time, is an important reason why we have a liturgical calendar. Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the one that most clearly calls our attention to God’s time a time for which we must prepare, must practice. Advent is the beginning of what liturgists call the Incarnational cycle of the church year. This cycle ultimately centers on Christmas, extending through the season of Epiphany before the second major cycle of the year, the Paschal Cycle, continues with Lent and then Easter. Now, in Advent, we leave behind the third major block of time in the church year, the period often called “ordinary time” because of the “ordinal” numerical counting of weeks after the Feast of Pentecost. As you’ve no doubt noticed, our observance of Advent is starting early this year. We are embarking upon a seven week or forty day long Advent in order to prepare for Christmas the way that Lent is designed to prepare us for Easter. In doing this we are joining congregations across the country that are part of something called the Advent Project. This project, which began out of the Bexley-Seabury Seminary some fifteen years ago, is intended to be a movement inviting the Church to embrace a fuller, more intentional period of preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation (Christmas). Its greater duration hearkens back to some practices of the early Church as well as to current practice of our Greek Orthodox siblings. Our readings continue to be as they would even if we still considered ourselves in “Ordinary Time” and we continue to share them with our neighbor churches who will begin Advent in three weeks. Some other Protestants call this time in the year Kingdomtide, while our siblings in the Church of England now begin a countdown, calling today the Third Sunday before Advent. We have in a sense simply moved one of the Advent goal posts, lengthening the field of play. We are marking this time intentionally, beginning to anticipate the peculiar time of Advent and embracing what the readings ask us to take in: that God’s time is other than the wider world’s, that it challenges us to anticipate and participate in God’s kingdom.
This longer observation of Advent is not meant as some esoteric liturgical or church historical exercise, but rather to connect the season’s message to the mission of the Church, to our calling as Christians to discipleship, to carrying out Jesus’ ministry of justice of reconciliation, to practice the basic challenge he issued at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew’s gospel: to turn our very lives around the nearness of the kingdom (Mt 4:17). Rather than get lost in the Christmas hype that has already begun to permeate the stores, to transform the pumpkin patches into Christmas tree lots, a longer Advent also reminds us that this season is grounded in more than one story. Advent is not meant simply to plop us into a narrative that takes us directly to the manger. That has never been its design. Before it shifts to that story of the first Advent, the first arrival or “coming”, this season picks up where All Saints brought us last week—the border of life and death and the ultimate gathering of all things home to God in Christ, otherwise known as the second Advent. Advent as a season calls attention to this border as a place in which to be watchful, to stay awake. Sometimes the stories that are meant to awaken us to the otherness of God’s in-breaking kingdom can be abrupt and challenging, as with the gospel passage we heard today. Others are much more unambiguously hopeful, such as Paul’s comments to the community at Thessalonica: “Encourage one another with” this description, he says (1 Thes 4:18). But Matthew’s parable is more ambiguous. I know I can really feel the absence of kingdom of heaven themes like the feeding of the hungry, the lifting up of the lowly, the reversal of exalted and humbled, in passages like ours today. But this parable as the New Testament scholar Raymond Brown commented, “illustrates well that often a parable makes only one point. If [it] were a general picture of ideal Christian life, the wise [bridesmaids] should have had the clarity to share their oil with the foolish.” This fool, for one, appreciates Brown’s assurance.
But even so, I also feel assured by the way our gospel passage conveys the practice of wakefulness. I appreciate its humanity, the idea that we prepare not only for the in-breaking of a divine Advent beyond us but that we prepare for our own limitations, our own sleepiness. If we were to view the Second Advent through the lens of our incredibly troubled world, we can easily acknowledge that there will always be some calls to action that will exceed our capacities. Some of us will be able to respond to a call for accompaniment, as Gary shared with us movingly in this week’s Flame. Some may sign up to respond to ICE raids that arrive suddenly in the dark of early morning. Some of us will call our elected officials to point out who will be hurt by current efforts to reform the tax codes. Some of us will be too overwhelmed or conflicted to respond. All of us have, I would wager, some mixture of prudence and foolishness. And now several more of us have some fabulous posters, made in a community of love and joy, that we can take out into the world as signs of hope. We also learned a chant every night that Kateri and I have added as a third song that we sing to our boys every night before they go to bed. In that context especially, it conveys that sleepy wakefulness we practice in anticipation of the nearness of God’s time and God’s commonwealth: “Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger. My love is stronger than your fear. Don’t’ be afraid, my love is stronger and I have promised, promised to be always near.”
 In the Church of England this time is counted by the number of Sundays after Trinity Sunday.
 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), n. 63, p. 199.
 “John Bell, “Don’t Be Afraid.” https://hymnary.org/text/dont_be_afraid_my_love_is_stronger