Be Prepared


Back when I was in high school, in Christian circles there was a craze for a series of books called “Left Behind”, about one particular interpretation of the end times. 

They were written in the style of a Tom Clancy or Dan Brown thriller and spawned a multimedia empire of movies and video games, which for a certain period, dominated Evangelical Christian Culture, which, considering I lived in the midst of the Bible belt, I could not avoid.

Written by a pair of politically and theologically extremely conservative authors, their vision of the apocalypse is honestly pretty awful on all levels.

Theologically, they embrace the rapture, the bodily assumption of all born again Christians into heaven before the destruction and violence of the apocalypse, which is not how most Christians throughout history interpreted Jesus’ return.

The idea that we Christians, who literally worship a man and God who suffered and died from violence, should be cheerfully absent from suffering, rather than in the midst of it, tending to and in solidarity with the victims of suffering is against the bedrock principles of our faith. It makes a mockery of the crucifixion.

Even more disturbing, they sensationalize and even seem to relish the death and suffering of the authors’ political enemies- liberals and progressives, Muslims, Catholics, LGBTQ people. The anti-Christ is the child of a same sex couple. 

That is literal demonization- turning your opponents into demons.

This is disgusting. I’ve never understood this glee for punishment that some people have about Christ’s return.

Perhaps it is a side effect of an incredible degree of self-righteousness- not even that they are on the side of God, but that God is on their side, that they will be winners and their enemies the losers. That when judgement comes, that they will escape it, gleeful watchers.

It is to people like this that the prophet Amos is speaking to in our first bible reading.

To introduce Amos a little bit, Amos is a prophet, kind of like Jonah, and the prophet’s job is not to tell the future, but rather, to stand as a mediator between God and the people of God.

He’s a relatively early prophet, and the whole book of Amos is fascinating for a number of different reasons.

From a secular standpoint, the prophet’s writings are important: the first two chapters are as far as I know, and I’m happy to be corrected, one of the first times war crimes are condemned in history. He explicitly condemns wartime violence against civilians, especially women. It’s not the basis for the whole of our tradition of human rights, but it is an important first step.

Then there’s our passage for today, which starts by saying (and I am paraphrasing here)

“Oh, you think the day of God is going to be easy. Because it won’t be. Not for you.”

To understand this passage, we have to know who Amos is speaking to.  He’s not talking to the general populace, to the working class, but rather to the elite of society, both political and religious.

Widespread among these elites is the belief that God will save them from foreign foes, yet at the same time they are violating God’s laws by being corrupt and trampling the populace under their feet.

If Amos sounds brash and harsh in this passage, it is because he is unequivocal in the knowledge that God demands fairness and rightness, especially towards those who have little. Earlier in the book, Amos not only condemned war crimes, but also says that the wealthy and powerful would “sell the poor for a pair of sandals.” 

These are the folks that Amos is trying to shock into decency with these meaningful and sometimes scary images of the day of the lord being not a day of great light, but darkness, a day that comes like a lion.

The difference between Left Behind and Amos is that Amos takes no glee in this pronouncement. He knows that he will suffer alongside the people. Thus, Amos pleads and cajoles these elites, reminding them that God is not on their side, and indeed, that they need to get back to God’s side.

Furthermore, this passage is, not, in fact, a call to end music programs or stop having Sunday worship.

But rather, it is a reminder that God despises the hypocrisy of those who would prize art, wealth, and beauty, but not human life. 

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”

This section ends, however, with this note: God’s justice will roll down like water. God’s righteousness will flow like a stream. This is the certainty that Jesus would later use in his sermon on the mount. These are the words of a prophet.

This imagery, after the anger of the earlier pieces, should grant us, if not peace, then hope. The waters are not destructive, like the flood of Noah, flowing waters that will cleanse. They will cleanse from this world the injustice of systems, and to leave behind new life in its midst.

That this will happen is inevitable; our job as Christians then, is to make our world as much like the next as we can, to uphold justice and righteousness, to transform our world so that when the streams come and cleanse, there will be as little flotsam and debris as possible.

Thus, we are compelled not to passivity, but to readiness and action, not because it will save us, but because our God has called us to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and to let justice roll down.

But I will ask us to think about this readiness and action in a little different light.

That is, I believe our readiness is less about what we do, and much more about our ability to reside in the arms of God ever more wholly.

Readiness is the theme of Gospel reading today. That’s probably the clearest thing about it.

Our parable today is an odd one, with some elements to the story that are, quite honestly, nonsensical, but it does provide us with some hooks to explore.

Pervading this parable is the theme of wisdom and readiness, or possibly, planning. The bridesmaids are divided into two groups, in our parable, the wise and the foolish. The only difference between the two groups is that one brought oil in their lamps and the others did not.

There’s no indication that the wise were betting looking, more spiritual, wealthier, or poorer, but simply that they remembered to have oil in their lamps.

Why having oil in the lamps is important, we aren’t ever told, nor are we given any reasoning for “the foolish ones” to try to go oil shopping in the middle of the night.

But even more than that, we don’t really know what the oil in the lamp is supposed to signify!

Is it spiritual preparation or faith? Zealousness? A scorecard of good deeds? Concern for the poor? We don’t know.

Different pastors and preachers over the past few millennia have preached on it different aspects of it, how apparently you can’t buy this oil, you can’t fix your neighbor’s oil deficiency, how you better stay awake, how you better be ready this instant in case Jesus comes back.

But I don’t think we need to get into any of that today. Because honestly, just like all of those bridesmaids, we’re tired. All of us are tired. We can admit it.  This year has been a decade. Life in these United States in this moment is utterly exhausting.

Whether it’s home and family concerns, economic concerns, a deadly global pandemic with skyrocketing case counts, a edge of the knife election, racism and homophobia, or that mix of all of the above, there is little more that I want to do as your pastor than make church just one more source of anxiety.

This doesn’t mean I won’t challenge us to become our best selves, to be ever more open to Jesus, but anxiety over the state of the oil in our lamps is a lost cause if there ever was one. For Jesus reminds us that his yoke and burden are light. Jesus does the heavy lifting in our religion. Not us.

And honestly, I suppose I can’t help but get into what the lamp signifies a little bit; I don’t think that the oil in the lamp represents any of our own personal qualities and strengths. I don’t think it represents our joy, or spiritual discipline, I don’t think it represents the amount of prayer we do each day or the amount of money we can give.

I think the oil in our lamps represents our capacity to lean on and rest in the arms of God. That’s right, I think it’s better to think of being ready less as the state of strength of our spiritual muscles, then our ability to unclench the sore and seized up muscles in our souls.

If this seems strange, I’ll extend the analogy. I’m not a huge yoga person, but I suspect that some folks here are. I’ve been told that perhaps the hardest stretch and movement in yoga is the final one at the end of most sessions, where you simply lie down on your back on the yoga mat and try to relax all of the muscles in your body.

We spend so much of our days with muscles tight that releasing them becomes almost impossible.

Yet how much better are we able to move when are muscles are loose?

How much more enjoyable is the physicality of life with loose muscles able to move about freely?

So too with our souls.

If we want to do the work of justice that is so sorely needed, we need to learn loosen the muscles in our souls so that we can abide more and more deeply in the arms of our God. We need to remember ever more clearly that there is much in this world that is not in our control. This is not to abdicate responsibility, but to recognize the power of God.

I will not lie to you and say that this is easy work. This is hard.

As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, it is something I work on every single day, and I know I cannot do it alone. I thank God for my wife and dogs, my family, my church, my support communities, and friends that remind me to unclench my soul, to create spaces where I have safe places to do this work. But I know that it is ultimately my work to do.

I hope this doesn’t seem too daunting, or at least any more than that final yoga pose does. But I encourage you to do what you can. Recognize what is in and out of your control. Listen to relaxing music rather than the news podcast. Remember that you are still a good parent if your kids get a little too much screen time. Realize that refreshing twitter and facebook one more time is not going to make the news come quicker or people like your posts more.

I ask us to do these things because we don’t know when we will need those lamps, or when it will be too late.