Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday November 12, 2023
A couple of weeks ago, former U.S. President Barack Obama released a written statement on Israel. It was among the most thoughtful I have read from a political leader – perhaps the most thoughtful. Of course, Obama has the advantage of not being in power, and of speaking from the sidelines. But he still carries influence, especially when he speaks so eloquently.
In the weeks since, we have seen more reports of the terrible crimes carried out by Hamas against families, young people at a music concert, and children. And we have seen the results of Israel’s response in Gaza – the displacement or death, from air strikes, of countless people, most of them children. And we have seen hatred and prejudice in our streets – and even a swastika raised on the land outside Parliament. Our hearts weep for the tragedy of the history and the inhumanity of it all, committed on Holy ground in the name of God.
Obama’s words were measured and careful. Israel, he said, has a right to defend its citizens, to dismantle Hamas, to rescue those kidnapped from its borders. But Israel, Obama said, must also respond in a measured way, in keeping with international law. This is the complexity from which we must find a solution that, in the clearest of goals, values dignity, safety, and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. Because, Obama wrote, “Upholding these values is important for its own sake — because it is morally just and reflects our belief in the inherent value of every human life.” We must, all of us, argue for those values to be upheld, not just for the sake of future peace in the Middle East, but for the sake of the world as well. That requires a search for balance, he argued, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, but also that Palestinians have been displaced, that the push by some of their past leaders on both sides to find a solution has produced too few results. That a person can condemn Hamas and not be anti-Muslim, and that one can “champion Palestinian’s rights” and be critical of some of the policies of politicians in Israel and not be antisemitic. We can accept complexity, but also firmly and loudly condemn every act of hatred – here and overseas. Certainly we must make sure we do nothing to feed the hate we are seeing in our country.
But in the end, he said, perhaps most of all, for us here, so far away, is that we must try hard not to think the worst of those with whom we disagree. In talking to one another, we will find solutions that yelling never can. What’s more, Obama suggested, if we want peace, we must be peaceful people. If we care for children, he wrote, it falls upon all of us “at least to make the effort to model, in our own words and actions, the kind of world we want them to inherit.”
In essence, Obama was reminding us to stay awake. And is this not the lesson also of our Remembrance Day, a day to remember those who sacrificed so much to keep our country, and the world free from tyranny. Isn’t remembrance also a reminder to stay away. To keep awake to our own prejudices. To keep awake to the forces that threaten freedom, and thrive on intolerance. To stay awake to the times when we fail to listen, when we assume knowledge too quickly, when we pass judgment without wisdom.
When we fail, we might say, to bring oil for our lamps, so that our lights may shine in the night.
This is the lesson of our gospel this morning: stay awake. It is a lesson we will hear repeatedly over the next several weeks and into Advent. In a world of distractions, polarization, and argument, stay awake to the gospel in our midst.
Now, let me just say, I struggle with this metaphor in our gospel this morning. The notion of all 10 bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom analogy has the strong whiff of patriarchy – the women waiting for the men to arrive, competing for that attention, and framed only around how they are judged once the groom shows up. As a parable, it is also clumsy: Jesus isn’t a groom waiting to assess us, and who then shuts the door on us when we fail. Jesus is the shepherd leading and guiding us, who goes and cares for the wayward sheep. Even the bridesmaids are problematic: does Jesus really want us not to share what we have so others may also find the gospel? I don’t think so.
But as always, we can find wisdom here – important wisdom even. So let’s talk about a bunch of people with their oil lamps waiting for Jesus to show up. They can’t say when he is coming. Some of them brought extra oil to keep the lights on to watch for him. And some of them forgot, so that when Jesus comes, they have fallen asleep and their lights have gone out, and in the night, they cannot find their way. The ones with oil refuse to help; and so Jesus cannot know them.
What do we learn from this about discipleship? First, we see that the people who stayed awake and found their way most easily to Jesus had come prepared. They brought extra oil to light their lamps. They made their effort well in advance of the arrival of Jesus.
And so, don’t we learn that staying awake requires advance work on our part? What might that gospel preparation look like? Kindness, surely, and generosity. In the case of Israel and Palestine, it may mean that we seek to educate ourselves, to read and talk through issues calmly. We gather knowledge rather than assume we already have it. We collect the resources we require to serve the gospel -- to be that shining lamp in the night.
Also, what actually happens when those of us with oil refuse those who don’t have any? They are left outside. Jesus does not know them. Is this not a failure on our part? When we have plenty and decline to share to lift others, when we leave others outside the gate even though they want to enter, have we served the gospel? If you look at the parable the other way, we might see that we are the ones who have failed. We have failed to make room. We have failed to help others stay awake. We have grabbed our spot and thought nothing for those left behind. In doing so, did we not abdicate our own responsibility as disciples on earth? When some are left behind, are we not also culpable?
I would think we should be careful not to judge the foolish who forget their oil – for who among us has not been foolish? Perhaps we should save our disappointment for those deemed wise who did not share that wisdom – and who among us has not, at times, kept our wisdom for ourselves?
It is as Obama said. We can spend hours debating what is happening in the Middle East. And we can do it in the safety of our borders, far from the atrocities we are debating. But if we do not hold this one posture true, we have failed. If we want a peaceful world, we must be a peaceful people. If we want people to be thoughtful and prudent, we must also be thoughtful and prudent. We must – each and every one of us – set an example for the way we want the world to be. We must share our wisdom and forgive our foolishness. So that we might – each and every one of us – be a shining lamp in the night. Amen