St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2017)
Amos 5:18-24, Matthew 25:1-13 – “Thoughts and Prayers”
Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. 4 But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.
“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’
“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’
“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.
“Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’
“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.”
In both Scripture readings, the people are waiting for God to rescue them.
Israel in the time of the prophet Amos and the community to whom Matthew writes his gospel have very immediate expectations of salvation. Northern Israel during Amos’ time was yearning for that “Day of the Lord,” as it was called, that moment when God would intervene in history and deliver Israel from its enemies. In this case, Yahweh had already done so by giving King Jeroboam II, the king at the time, victory over Syria, Moab, and some other kingdoms, but Israel was trampling on the backs of the poor and oppressed. That Day of the Lord for which they longed wasn’t going to be so pleasant. Judgement was coming.
Matthew’s church, the readers of this gospel, were awaiting the promised “kingdom of heaven,” or the reign of God, Jesus spoke of—that time when Jesus would come back and sort things out. But in this Parable of the Bridesmaids, Jesus drives the point home through a really disturbing wedding scene that the bridesmaids, who stand in for God’s people, are woefully unprepared. Matthew’s church waits for their Messiah to return and usher in this kingdom of heaven (for real this time), but the problem is some of them are not ready.
In both cases, with Amos and Matthew, the people are doing the faithful thing: they’re waiting with expectation for God’s salvation.
But their errors boil down to one crucial point: they wait passively.
God will come, Amos and Matthew assure us in their own harsh and dramatic ways, but you can’t just plop yourself down onto the cushy status quo, take off your sandals, kick back, and relax and wait for God to swoop in and do what God does. You have to act, too!
When Amos bellows those words that Dr. King made famous—“But let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”—it’s clearly God’s justice and God’s righteousness that will flow, but that doesn’t mean the people are left off the hook. They’re called to participate! They’re called to live into that justice-and-righteousness. That justice-and-righteousness is a gift of a God who is indeed at work in the world, a gift from a God who seeks to deliver from evil, but it’s a gift that requires a response. Like a train coming down the track, the people can either get on board, foolishly ignore it, or even worse, try to obstruct it.
Similarly, the wise bridesmaids in the parable represent those who are expecting God’s justice to come, but they’ve also filled their lamps, i.e. prepared themselves to wait, knowing that it’s going to be long, long night. The unwise ones do no such thing.
Many of our political leaders these days find themselves as empty-handed as the foolish bridesmaids and as stubborn as Amos’ people. They wait passively for God to sort out problems to which their actions and inactions have contributed. When tragedy strikes, they’re quick to offer “thoughts and prayers,” but slow to do anything constructive.
I’m thinking of officials who sent “thoughts and prayers” to Puerto Rico, but who have been reluctant to give aid to that island that’s still in dire straights. I’m also thinking of those officials who offered “thoughts and prayers” for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting and their loved ones, but who said that we couldn’t talk about policy solutions to mitigating gun violence then. I’m also thinking of all the lawmakers who tweeted variations on “thoughts and prayers” for our siblings in Christ in Sutherland Springs, TX, after 26 of them were killed and many more injured, but who have received millions upon millions of campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.
The prophet Amos’ words ring true 2,700 years later: “I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.” Another way is saying it is, you worship God with your mouth, but not with your actions.
Folks in the wider culture have been calling out this kind of hypocrisy online, and rightly so. Those lawmakers I mentioned before have had their tweets about God and prayer posted alongside the exact amount they received from the NRA. There is also a meme (a picture with pithy words on it) going around that has a sanitation truck dumping a load onto a landfill, with the words “thoughts and prayers” painted on the side of it. Translation: your words are garbage.
The saying “Thoughts and prayers,” especially in the minds of people who are not part of a faith community, has become a joke.
They’re right. These words have indeed become a joke, and even more than that—a pious veneer for inaction. This is rhetoric that, on the surface, anticipates God’s salvation, but washes human hands, absolving them of responsibility.
But if you’re the praying type, hopefully you know that to truly be mindful of someone, to lift someone up to God, or to pray for a situation isn’t an empty, passive act… if it’s sincere. How prayer works is ultimately a mystery, but one thing we can be confident of is that it does have meaning and it does affect something, somehow. Whether that’s for healing, or courage, or relief, of any of the infinite number of needs in personal circumstances, or whether that’s for massive, “big picture” injustices, prayer counts for something.
On this topic, I find the words a group of Episcopal bishops wrote this week very powerful:
“In the wake of the heartbreaking shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, we find ourselves both calling people to prayer, and wishing that the word did not come so readily to the lips of elected leaders who are quick to speak, but take no action on behalf of public safety.
In prayer, Christians commend the souls of the faithful departed to the mercy and love of God. We beseech our Creator to comfort the grieving and shield the vulnerable. Prayer is not an offering of vague good wishes. It is not a spiritual exercise that successfully completed exempts one from focusing on urgent issues of common concern. Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action; we resolve to amend our lives…
One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”
That’s the key, preparation.
That’s what prayer does: it prepares us us to embrace what God does and will do.
That’s what Matthew was saying to those awaiting the coming of Christ: prepare to participate in the ways God’s love will rescue and redeem. That’s what Amos was saying, too: prepare for the arrival of God’s justice then by doing justice now.
Now, with “thoughts and prayers,” if we’re truly powerless in a given moment, that’s a different story. There’s something very faith-filled about “letting God and letting God,” as they say in some Twelve Step groups. When prayer is all we have left, when there is nothing else we can do and we come to the end of ourselves, that’s a place where we encounter the Holy. Again, it’s a question of sincerity. But when we use “thoughts and prayers” to as a way to brush past our agency, then we’re being passive.
True, it’s very easy for me to stand up here and point out the hypocrisy of others. Politicians are an easy targets, aren’t they? But I’m a praying person, too, one who does not pray nearly as fervently or as often as I ought to—not just for noble, timely needs like an end to mass shootings, but also for daily needs of the people I know and love. I’ll confess that, as your pastor, I don’t pray for you as diligently as I should. And unlike some of you, I don’t persistently pray for my family every Sunday, without fail. When I agree, “I’ll pray for you,” I often forget to do so; true confession. Like some Senators, my words can ring hollow sometimes.
Maybe what’s lurking underneath my guilt is the sense that if I pray more, I’m responsible for responding more. I might have to be the answer for my own prayer, at least in part.
As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it this way, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Genuine thoughts and prayers do that, they shape our consciousness, they form us over time into agents of God’s love. But they’re never a substitute for action; they prepare us for action—God’s and our own.
Intentional thoughts and prayers are “the oil in our lamp.” So let’s live as those who are prepared for God’s coming justice and righteousness.
Let’s pray with our feet as well as our mouths.