Proper 27 (32), Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
8 November 2020
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
A number of years ago I attended a ‘Celebration of Life’ for a distant relative I had not known. I went in support of her daughter. Now, eulogies aren’t easy to write and there may always be something about which we think later that we should have included it, even though we know that it’s impossible to say everything. But this being an entirely secular service with no mentioning of God, of any god, all I remember about the eulogy is that she enjoyed going to Reno and Vegas and play whatever games of chance one plays there.
I went away from the event feeling empty, and saddened that what seemed to have stood out about this woman’s life was that she enjoyed going to Reno and Vegas, as opposed her love of her children and grandchildren, her care for her neighbours, her engagement in her community. I always thought that there must have been more that could have been said.
And I wondered what might be said about me at my funeral, and I hoped it would be about relationships and people, and hopefully my life with God being evident in my relationships.
One of our favourite movies is the Irish film “Waking Ned Devine.” The film opens in the home of Jackie O’Shea with the TV turned to the draw of the numbers for the Irish National lottery. Shea does not win but the next day finds out in the paper that one of the 52 residents of their village of Tullymore did. He and his friend Michael O’Sullivan do everything to find out who it is. It turns out their friend Ned Divine won the lottery but when Jackie visits him, he finds him dead in his chair, his hand holding the winning ticket, with the TV still running. The news of having won the lottery was too much for him.
It takes his friends Jackie and Michael a little while to realize that they can’t claim the winnings but that the whole village might, with Michael pretending to be Ned. When a lottery commissioner visits their small island to ensure all is correct, he happens in on the funeral for the real Ned but Ned’s name is changed to Michael to keep up the façade for them to be able to claim the prize. It is Jackie who delivers the eulogy,
“As we look back on the life of … (this is the moment the lottery commissioner enters the church)
Michael O’Sullivan… was my great friend.
But I don’t ever remember telling him that.
The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man that is dead.
What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral.
To sit at the front and hear what was said. Maybe to say a few things yourself.
Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew younger.
If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man.
And thank him for being a friend.”
Following the service, Michael, who was named in the eulogy but who has assumed the identity of Ned for the purpose of the villagers collecting the lottery money, with a twinkle in his eye, says to Jackie, “He must have been a great man, this Michael fellow,” to which Jackie replies, “He had his faults.”
The film is a beautiful illustration of friendship, but eventually also solidarity as the prize is to be distributed among the villagers.
The words spoken at the funeral are words, I think, any of us would like to have said at ours, for they speak of affection and friendship.
In our reading from Matthew we encounter the story of the Ten Bridesmaids, five of them foolish, five of them wise. What makes five of them foolish and five of them wise is that the wise ones have brought extra oil for their lamps, while the foolish ones only have their lamps.
Together they wait for the bridegroom whose appearance is delayed. All of them fall asleep. They awake when the one they have been waiting for is near but the bridesmaides who hadn’t brought an extra flask of oil realize that their lights are going out. The flasks the others had brought have enough oil for them but not for all and so the bridegroom appears while half of them have left their post and gone to buy more oil for their lamps.
It is important to remember that all ten of them have a role to play. All ten of them are included. Their role is not to run out of oil and to be the dark foil before the other five can shine. Rather, all of them are to shine.
In the conclusion to the Beatitudes Jesus says to his disciples,
“13You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? … 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Jesus equates light with good works. We have an ambivalent relationship to good works. On one hand we know that our good works won’t save us but that we are saved only by the work of Christ. And today’s parable does not change that. On the other hand, most believe that good works are an expression of goodness, which is why we may say about someone, that ‘he gave his shirt off his back.’
The parables of judgment Jesus tells are not so much stories about judgment as they are stories that bring us a sense of urgency.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas emphasizes that being a follower of Jesus takes practice. He says, he is more than ready to acknowledge that some may find that being a Christian comes ‘naturally,’ but says that that can present its own difficulties. Just as an athlete with natural gifts may fail to develop the fundamental skills necessary to play their sport after their talent fades, so people naturally disposed to faith may fail to develop the skills necessary to sustain them for a lifetime.
By ‘training’ he means something very basic, such as acquiring habits of speech necessary for prayer or serving one’s community. The acquisition of such habits is crucial for the formation of our bodies if we are to acquire the virtues necessary to live life as a Christian. For I take it to be crucial that Christians must live in a manner that their lives are unintelligible if the God we worship in Jesus Christ does not exist.1
In this sense speaking of ‘works’ is not about righteousness but about living a life that is informed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It also connects back to wanting to live a life that is beautiful because it is meaningful, not because of the hobbies we have but because of the love we have.
I am currently reading a memoir on an interracial community and friendship in Mississippi. The story dates back only to the eighties and nineties. When on Friday I read while standing in line for my Covid test, a line struck me that I hope not to forget. The author writes that Christianity labours under the burden of a great historical contradiction, that it was possible to be reconciled to God without loving your neighbour. He writes, “And we believed that whenever Christians had made peace with that fallacy, from slavery to the Holocaust to apartheid, it had spelled disaster for the world.”2 It had spelled disaster for the world because it had extinguished the Christian witness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.
And so the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is told us not as a means of exclusion, but as a reminder of the importance to live lives worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1), an invitation to a richer, fuller life, which God has made possible, so that our relationships may be made holy, and so that what people will say in our eulogies will tell that our lives were about more than ourselves, much more.
Thanks be to God.
1Stanley Hauerwas, The politics of the church and the humanity of God: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-politics-of-the-church-and-the-humanity-of-god/10100464
2Chris P. Rice, Grace Matters – A Memoir of Faith, Friendship, and Hope in the Heart of the South, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 2002, page 155