At St John's Wood Parish 7 November 1999
Matthew 25: 1-13
In the Name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The One God. Amen.
"Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
I bring you the greetings from our Vicar because I spent three weeks with him in Jerusalem last month. John [Slater] is great and he sends his love and prayers to all of you. I am happy to report that John is in good spirit and he is having a wonderful time in the Holy Land as well as in Jordan at Petra and Jerash. Might I urge you to please continue to keep him in your prayers.
This morning I would like to take as my text both the Gospel for today, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour" as well as today's Collect. "Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the king of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority and bring the families of the nations divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."
As we approach the Millennium there is a great deal of talk about the end time. Certainly in the press we read about the fanatics who are preparing themselves to camp on the Mount of Olives on 31 December so they will be prepared for the arrival of the Messiah. But it is not that fanaticism which today's Collect is discussing. Instead both the Collect and the Gospel are calling us to a repentance, they are calling us to be ready.
We are being called upon to do something before it is too late. Too late before the oil runs out so we will not be prepared to meet the Master when He comes. Just like the foolish bridesmaids in today's Gospel. How foolish we are as a world community when we do not see the writing on the wall. When we do not realise that time is running out. Are we prepared for the bridegroom? Are we ready with the Thessalonians to hear the archangels' call and God's trumpet, when the dead in Christ will rise first? Are we ready to be called to account for what we have done during our earthly pilgrimage?
For many of us, reading the newspaper can be a gruesome task. The stories of terrorism, war, calamity - fill our newspapers. The dread of how many people live their lives is ever with us. Watching TV can be even worse. As you know, time and time again, I have spoken to you as the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion about the realities that our brothers and sisters, our fellow Anglicans, face in places like the Sudan and Rwanda. Places where there seems to be no hope.
The cause of much commotion and devastation, of course, is our own inability to live lives which are pleasing to God. The old-fashioned word 'sin' is what I am talking about. Tribalism, hate, dishonesty, jealousy, greed - these sins plague our world. Our sinful nature takes over and we are not able to relate to a God who is "just and gentle" as the Collect says, a God who rules with the authority of love. We do not make the necessary preparations for our future. We exist in a fragmented way. We are like the foolish bridesmaids who do not take time to fill their oil lamps. We just hope it is going to be OK.
However, our readings and our prayers today say it is not going to be just OK. We have a responsibility to seek the better way. We must actively try to influence the world. We must actively try to bring about changes for the families of the world so that all the division, war and endless conflicts can actually cease. This is a tall order. It is only then that we can be ready to face our own judgement and the judgement on the community when God calls us all to our final account. It is going to happen. It will happen to each of us at our own death. Is our oil prepared as was the wise bridesmaid's?
We read the words of today's Gospel. It gives hope, but it also gives a warning. Keep awake, therefore, for we neither know the day nor the hour. We are called to be prepared. We can prepare ourselves in our own hearts, in our minds and in our own souls. We can pray for those in authority as the Collect says. Those who lead us both in the church and in the state are responsible for much of what happens in today's world. Everyone is looking to leadership for answers, someone to take charge of the situations that all of us face. Everyone is looking for leadership that is just. When it is not just, then we experience sin. It does not matter if it is individual sin, or collective sin, sin is sin.
Last week I had an experience with John that I would like to share with you. We were in Gaza, Nazareth and Bethlehem with members of the Compass Rose Society, a group of people who help support the work of the Anglican Communion Office.
Perhaps you have been reading in the newspaper or seeing on your televisions a new crisis which has recently developed in Nazareth, the city of the Annunciation. The City where Mary said her "Yes" to God.
To gain support in the recent Israeli elections, then Prime Minister Netanyahu promised a fringe group of Muslims that they could build a mosque only a few feet away from the Church of the Annunciation. Such a promise was provocative, and on Easter Sunday many Christians were physically attacked as they made their way to church. Many Christian shops were looted, burned and destroyed. This action forced the closure of all the churches in Nazareth on Easter Sunday. The holiest day in the Christian year, churches closed. Can you imagine? While John and I were in Jerusalem the Barak government announced it will uphold the decision of the Netanyahu government. The Church is now protesting, but the cornerstone is going to be laid and as Bishop Riah, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, said, when the cornerstone is laid then the decision is a fait accompli, done. What will be the reaction?
When you think about this situation which has developed between Christians and Muslims we face an absolutely unnecessary conflict. It is sad. It is really sin. It was motivated by the worst instincts of a third party. When you think about this, one shudders to realise that two communities which have lived together in peace for so long are now battling an unnecessary conflict because of the sin of fanaticism, selfishness and mistrust. The motive behind such action is complicated and subversive. How sad it is, at the time of the millennium, the time of the 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ. We look at the Holy Land today and we see it fragmented and shattered in so many ways. This is a serious matter and one that needs much attention and much prayer. Nazareth needs the "Yes" of Mary today.
When we pray the Collect we will ask Christ to restore all of these situations under his "just and gentle rule." What do we think will actually happen? Is it simply hope? Is it something for the Church to respond to, in a realisation that the Church can make a difference if it speaks truth and love?
This is the time of the year that we think about All Saints, All Souls, death, dying, the triumph of the redeemed. It is also a time when we begin to remember those who have gone before us. Those who have given their lives for us in various ways whether through the military or through humanitarian work. The end will come for us all. Jesus warns us in today's parable, "You had better be ready." I ask you, "Are you ready? Am I ready?" Are we ready to be sure that our lamps have enough oil so they can be a light to the world? The light of Christ must be seen in us, so we can be a light to others. So let us be ready. We never know the hour or the day when we are going to be called to meet Christ in that special Second Coming. "Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
This time of the year gives us that necessary space to prepare our hearts, to prepare our souls and bodies. Advent looms. It is time to let Christ into our lives, to let his spirit permeate us. It is only then we can boldly profess that Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. There is nothing to fear. But we must be ready. Are we, like Mary, ready to say our "Yes" to God?
In the name of God. Amen.
John L Peterson
7 November 1999