Sermon for Remembrance Sunday- 3rd before Advent Year A 2020 St John’s.
As someone born only 2 years after the Second World War ended- I was brought up in a world desperate to forget and move on from the horrors of that conflict. I knew that my parents had looked after a young brother and sister who had survived the bombing of Coventry for some time, but they were reluctant to say much about it, Relieved that after a long wait they had a child of their own, I suspect that like most parents they were keen to protect me from too much dark reality. But I still remember the images that confronted me when, as a toddler of about 4, I crept into a cupboard where old copies of Picture Post were stored, and opening one of the magazines I was faced with an article on the Nuremburg War Trials, and vivid black and white photographs of heaped up piles of emaciated corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave after Auschwitz was liberated. My mother grabbed the paper away from me, but the picture stuck in my mind, I can still recall it.
At our best we steel ourselves to revisit the dark times that war and hatred ignite in us all; try to make sense of what happened, and learn how to never return to such depravity. But, as Jesus warns his followers, we fail to read the signs of the times again and again. The worst has often arrived before we know it.
In her own retracing of the events that led up to the Holocaust Gitta Sereny, (‘Into that Darkness’ ) the Jewish journalist, looked at the slow, almost imperceptible, way in which the Nazi regime arrived at the Final Solution. It began with a thirst for racial purity and superiority, eugenics, the survival of the fittest, and later, of course, the eradication of anyone who stood in their way. It was this self-serving creed that infected much of Europe, and sadly still informs our present economic and political life. Self-survival at all costs, usually at the cost of others, has not gone away. What began as the so-called “mercy killing” of disabled babies, people with learning differences, the mentally ill, ended in mass slaughter.
Reading the signs of the times is left to the prophets amongst us, often hurriedly dispatched or silenced for their pains. Too late we cry out for vengeance, or justice. But Amos does cry out. And he is not a professional prophet, simply a shepherd, horrified at the injustice and poverty in his world. Jesus cries out, and calls his followers to be alert, aware. In the Gospel today he urges us to read the signs of the times; live out, and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God, “when justice and mercy will be seen through all the earth.” Too often his disciples have preferred to remain silent. We have only to look at our past history on abuse, and racial prejudice.
We hear Amos pioneering a new and radical sort of prophetic ministry. Unlike the earlier prophets, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories are part of a limited, local narrative, Amos and the prophets who followed him, ( Jesus the foremost of them), were very aware of the larger political and international scene. Amos is grounded in the present political reality, challenging social injustice and corruption, and terrorism, not just at home, but also abroad. He has just hinted that God is about to intervene to put an end to this sorry state of affairs, even going so far as to inflict on His chosen, but wayward, people the same sort of punishment that Egypt once suffered, when plagues devastated their country. This time it is Israel that will meet God’s judgement. Amos turns the popular image of the “Day of the Lord”, on its head. In the past the ‘Day of the Lord’ signified the moment when God would act decisively for his people, giving them victory over their enemies, a day to celebrate and rejoice. But now, says Amos, Israel must expect a day of reckoning. Its obsession with religious observance is not matched by its moral practice. True worship will always flow out into just and right living.
In today’s Epistle Paul is writing to the congregation he founded in this cosmopolitan city and port, made up mostly of former pagans, and “God-fearing” Greek, converts to Judaism, now won over by his preaching. He has been unable to visit them, but Timothy, his fellow worker, has come back from there with encouraging news of their communal life. There have been false rumours that Paul was saying that the ‘Day of the Lord” had already arrived, and that the return of the Risen Christ was imminent. People were worrying about what would happen to their friends and families who had already died. Paul reminds them that they are living through a time of waiting, when evil will do its best to thwart God’s plans for his creation. But they should take heart. The day of the Lord will come when they least expect it, and the Victorious Risen Jesus will come in glory to gather up his own, to be with him for ever.
It is this dilemma the early Church had, trying to understand why the Day of the Lord was so long in coming. This resulted in the tweaking of Jesus parables by the Gospel writers, as they tried to address their own situation. The story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids we have just heard in today’s Gospel comes from a bundle of parables with a common theme. Matthew has gathered together Jesus’ stories about faithful and careless servants left to care for an estate whilst their master is away; A house owner who took no thought for security, and now finds to his dismay he has been burgled while he and his family were asleep; and finally this morning’s story, the story of the bridesmaids. Five are alert, and prepared, and five put off until later what they need to be doing now.
Jesus was telling these parables in the last few days of his life. He has already proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and now he proclaims that he is about to take upon himself the work that Daniel foresees in his image of the Son of Man, the one who comes from heaven to bring about both judgement and blessing. This mission will of course be violently opposed by those who are hell bent upon self- preservation at the cost of others. Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover, and has just had a furious confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, hell-bent on his destruction. He warns the 12 that the moment of crisis is approaching. They seem to be unaware of what is about to happen to him, despite his repeated warnings. Incarnate Love, the Ser4vant King. challenges, even terrifies us, with his courageous refusal to show anything but giving and forgiving. He inspires us, and takes our breath away, at one and the same moment. Washing the feet of the disciples at the eleventh hour he reaffirms the call to servant-hood, which alone can redeem and transform our world, our relationships, our own disordered lives
In the last century this Gospel urgency to bring in the Kingdom of God prompted Pope John the 23rd, to act. Aware of how much the Roman church had drifted apart from reality, or any real dialogue with the present, or even with the other Churches, he convened an Ecumenical Council, Vatican 2, which began meeting in 1962. One prophetic phrase from Scripture summed up his vision- “Reading the signs of the times.” As one recent commentator writes,
“The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel”. He points to the ever-quickening pace at which our world is developing. If the church is not to lose its credibility it has to present the faith, live the faith, in ways that make sense to our contemporaries. Eventually the document “Gaudium et Spes” (Joy and Hope) emerged. It reflects Jesus’ urgent summons to us as his disciples, to be alert, awake, reading the signs of the times, and ready to speak a prophetic word to our contemporary society and culture as Amos did. Jesus does not leave us easy answers and solutions to our present, but he assures us of his Spirit and his guidance and sustaining love. But it is our cry that must be heard, and our action that must be potent and visible.
Today we are called not only to remember, to remember with gratitude those who gave their lives for our future, and those who still bear the scars of that conflict with evil, but just as vitally to cry out for justice now, to commit ourselves to the work of justice and mercy- now.