The First Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Gospel Reading & Preaching of the Word: Matthew 25:1-13
On Sunday 8th November, the highlight for me was the Hymn TIS 154:
“Great is your faithfulness”
“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see:
All I have needed thy hand hath provided--
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
The history of this hymn is not long, but it brings into our hearts and souls a feeling of comfort in the everlasting and predictable faithfulness of God and the joy of hope with the dawn of each new day - and the faith we can have that everything will continue to “be right with the world” as long as God is in control.
It is once again that beautiful time of year when the jacaranda trees splash our streets with riots of purple to be admired against perfect blue skies. November again! As I stand on my front patio and look out I wonder at the miracle that unfailingly unfolds each year and I cannot believe that another year has gone by already. I find I measure time differently as I grow older and I take time to enjoy these annual miracles instead of rushing thoughtlessly by. I was really excited a few years ago when one of our daughters showed me a photo she had taken of a beautiful rose she had seen in the garden of Auguste Rodin in Paris. “I remembered you told me before I left for my trip to ‘take time to smell the roses’ so this rose reminded me of your advice,” she said. We often wonder if our children of whatever age take notice of those “throw away” bits of advice on life which we randomly scatter to the wind.
Hymns are like prayers and I think the reason why everything seems to fit together with such complete harmony in “How Great is Thy Faithfulness” is because the writer of this beautiful poem/hymn, Thomas Obediah Chisholm, sent it to his friend, the musician William Bunyan who felt the strength and the joy of the words and prayed for guidance that he might write the perfect tune to help others to experience the same feelings that overcame him when he read his friend’s poem. William Bunyan first published the hymn in 1923, but strangely, it was not until the Billy Graham Crusades began to travel the world with George Beverly Shea making the hymn “his own” as he and the Crusade choirs introduced the beautiful words and music to “old” and “new” Christians around the world that its popularity grew. Thomas Chisholm died in 1960 and in his lifetime he wrote 1,200 poems and hymns.
Perhaps you have noticed that I have been avoiding moving on to write about the theme of the reflection/sermon on Sunday 8th November. The Parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids has worried me for many decades now – in fact it has upset me since I was a child. I have read and tried to appreciate and understand the various theologically accepted meanings of the parable – yet it still suppresses my faith and assurance about the love and forgiveness of God. It is a negative effect all round for me - as are some other rather harsh bible stories; although I must confess I am not a person who spends long periods of time in bible studies. My faith is strong – but simple. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4: 8-9
Please stop reading now if I have offended you; but if you read on I would like to offer my suggestions and “alternate” thinking about the story which begins with such authority; “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” Then the story is told and the conclusion is; in verses 12 and 13; “But he (the Lord) replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
In my 20th and 21st century thinking, I can’t help wondering why any of the bridesmaids wasted their oil by keeping their lamps alight while they were waiting and falling asleep.
It would surely have been a better idea to keep just a few of their lamps burning for safety or to make themselves visible to the bridegroom in the place where they waited. Then there would have been oil still available to be shared when the bridegroom arrived. Or alternatively the wise bridesmaids could have taken the arm of their less prepared companions and showed them the way to the bridal feast along with the bridegroom. I am rather shocked that the wise bridesmaids were selfish and made no attempt to share their light to go and meet God. I get a little confused when I view this story alongside the one told only in Luke’s Gospel, where servants were sent out twice “to the highways and byways” to bring in strangers to replace those who ungraciously failed to attend or made insulting excuses. Going back to the story told this week, I am appalled to contemplate that those bridesmaids who had failed to make contingency plans in case the bridegroom was late were to be shut out by God with no chance of forgiveness.
In his sermon, the Rev. John said; “The foolish attendants were unprepared. They ran out of oil and were unable to obtain more. So, when their moment came, they lost the opportunity to help light the way. They were unable to act out their appointed role in the community. They lost the chance even to witness the wedding.
I am puzzled by the context of the following thoughts that the Rev. John expressed next; “Over and over again Jesus shows us what God is like. Today, he illustrates the truth that God takes no vacations. God never takes a break from offering love to us graciously. God is always prepared. God never stops forgiving us. God never ceases to watch over us. God never rests from the desire that we follow in his way. God never lets up on loving us, no matter how much we may rebel and stray. God is always ready.”
I am not saying that I do not agree with all those positive remarks about God’s love, forgiveness, constant care, presence and Grace – I am just saying that I still have problems with the thought that because we do not know when God will come; isn’t it possible that some good people may not be ready at the exact moment God comes? I just have difficulties believing that God will shut us out in the cold and the dark and will unequivocally reject us for ever if we are not ready when He comes.
In my search for an answer to my questioning of the parables and their interpretations I have read some articles on Jesus' Ministry and Teaching. If you have a computer and are interested, here is the link from which I will record a couple of short quotes that I found interesting. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/ministry.html#parables
John Dominic Crossan: Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University. He has written eighteen books on the historical Jesus and earliest Christianity.
He asked the question: Is this [style of teaching] unique to Jesus?
“The parables are unique only in a very limited sense, in that the primary teaching of Jesus is not taking texts out of the Hebrew scriptures and explaining them, blasting them, commenting on them. What he is doing is telling a perfectly ordinary story. And using that as the major teaching. "The Kingdom of God is like this." Now you have to think, well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? That's your job as the hearer. So it's open to anyone. And that's, I think, the point of the parable.”
The next question: So right from the start his teaching depends on interpretation?
“If you teach in parables, you give yourself to interpretation. If you really want to tell people what to think you preach them a sermon. If you tell them a parable then you're leaving yourself open, inevitably, to interpretation.”
In the same way I worry about having to interpret parables; I question the work of artists whose paintings or sculptures require me to stand in the art gallery and listen to a long recording on a hired electronic device which explains what the artist was trying to express.
I think I will play the Youtube recording of Thomas Chisholm’s beautiful hymn once more and “sign off” with the thought:
“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see:
All I have needed thy hand hath provided--Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”