32nd Sunday of Year A: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

There is a tradition of writing about Wisdom which can be found in the Bible, and across the Ancient Near East. Wisdom Literature seeks to explore the perennial questions of who God is and how humanity should live. The term ‘wisdom’ means much more than knowledge. It refers to how knowledge is used with judgement, something which comes with maturity and experience, and leads to our flourishing. In our first reading this morning we see Wisdom personified as a beautiful woman . If we love Wisdom, then we will recognise her easily. It stands to reason. Wisdom is an attractive quality. 

To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. (Wisdom 6:15-16)

To be wise is to be freed from care or anxiety. Nothing in life or death can trouble us because we have fixed our thoughts on Wisdom. Such wisdom comes from God, it is divine, and not human. In fixing our minds on Wisdom, we have fixed them upon God, the source of all wisdom, or as a prayer in the Prayerbook puts it:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, which knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen 

Our second reading, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, deals directly with questions of death and resurrection. Clearly some people have died, and there are members of the church community who are worried by this, so Paul is trying to allay their fears. He encourages them:

‘that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’. (1Thess 4:13-14)

This is our hope as Christians. Because Jesus died and rose again, and we share in His Resurrection, we know that our earthly life is not all that there is, that something greater awaits us. Paul has hope for the future, which is why our passage ends: 

‘Therefore encourage one another with these words’ (1 Thess 4:18)

Paul speaks of the future and Christ’s Second Coming to encourage the Church, to give it hope, and to remind us that God keeps His promises. We can have hope, because its source is God. Our ultimate aim is to be with God forever. Through what Christ has done we can have this hope. And on this Remembrance Sunday , we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us and we encourage each other as a community.

In today’s Gospel Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom. Normally He says that, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven IS like…’ whereas in this passage He says, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven will be like…’ Jesus is teaching about the future, a future reality which will come to be, rather than something which is already the case. This future reality is His return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. 

The parable pictures this as the return of the bridegroom. The problem is that half of the virgins were not prepared and did not have spare oil to keep their lamps lit. The bridegroom has been  delayed and the virgins have become drowsy, and have fallen asleep. When the bridegroom eventually arrives half of them are not ready, and have to go to buy oil. They therefore miss meeting the Bridegroom and so are shut out of the marriage feast. This may sound harsh, but Jesus tells the parable to warn us to be prepared, to be vigilant. 

The point of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is that we will not know when Jesus will return, so we need to be ready to greet Him when He comes. This is not just to be ready in practical terms, but also in spiritual ones. How are we ready to meet Jesus? Are we living out our faith in our lives? Have we got things ‘in order’? Just as wisdom comes with age, so we can use our lives to prepare. Such preparations are wise, and a joint effort: we can prepare together. That is what the Church exists for: to help us to get ready to meet Jesus. 

There are two inescapable facts in our readings this morning: first that our earthly lives are finite, they will come to an end, and secondly that Jesus has promised that He will return. Death and Judgement may not be something that we like to think about, but they will happen, and we cannot, if we are serious, simply live our lives as though neither will take place. Many in the world around us live this way. Is it wise? Not at all, it is the opposite of wisdom.At this time ofRemembrance we, therefore, also reflect on our own mortality and the way in which we are living our lives and what we are doing for those in need.

To be prepared means to know what we are facing and to be ready for it. It is a mark of spiritual maturity that we can contemplate such things without fear. If we are prepared then we have lived out our faith, and we know that the God who will judge us is a God of love and mercy. God died for love of us, and to give us the hope of eternal life with Him. This is the Heavenly Marriage Feast which we, as Christians, look forward to.

If our lives are characterised by Faith, Hope, and Love, there is no need for fear. The world around us is scared of Death and Judgement, because it has no hope of eternal life. The promises of the world are empty, whereas what Jesus promises us is real, and is for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News, in fact it is the best news possible! Our life on earth is meant to be a prelude to an eternity with God. This is what we believe and hope for as followers of Christ.

If what we believe in our hearts and how we live our lives are in perfect synchronisation with each other, then we need have no fear, as the promise of sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is there for us. We do not need to be anxious, and we can get on with the business of living our lives secure in our faith. This is what it means to be a wise virgin with a lit lamp and a flask of oil, ready to meet our Lord . This is the purpose of the parable: to warn us in advance so that we can be prepared and not be surprised, so that we can be wise. We can therefore be lamps of faith in a dark world, ready to shine love, and hope on those around us.

May our lamps of faith be filled with oil so that they may burn brightly to the honour of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Remembrance 2019

We are gathered here on this special day to do a number of things together. First and foremost we give thanks for the safe deliverance of these islands from the World Wars of the previous century. These were wars on a scale never before seen. The first was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, yet within twenty years a greater conflict began which brought even more death and suffering to millions across the world. Hardly a day has gone by in the past century when there has not been a conflict somewhere in our world. 

It is now one hundred years since we first marked the anniversary of the Armistice by stopping in silence for two minutes, and praying: in remembrance of all those who gave their lives for our country, and for all who suffer as a result of war. For one hundred years we have engaged in a public act of remembrance. 

In 1919 the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, commissioned a cenotaph (which means empty tomb) to stand in Whitehall, London, as a focus for an act of remembrance, when most of the war dead lay buried overseas. The original wood and plaster structure, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, was only intended to stand for one week, but it proved so popular that a permanent one was created in Portland Stone ready for the 1920 Armistice Day.

Since 1919, the Cenotaph has become the central focus for national commemoration especially during the National Service of Remembrance held on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday nearest to 11th November. Its meaning has developed and the Cenotaph now memorialises those who have given their lives in all conflicts since the First World War.

Throughout the country, local memorials were erected to remember the dead of the First and then the Second World War. Like the Cenotaph in London, these became the focus for local Remembrance ceremonies and we keep this tradition here in Maenclochog today, starting our Remembrance Service outside at our Village War Memorial. 

Our act of remembrance is not simply to recall a past event, or to bring the dead to mind, but something more. By remembering today, the sacrifice of countless men and women, we continue to show our thanks for the peace and prosperity which we now enjoy. 

We give thanks for to all those who have served, and continue to serve this country, both at home and abroad, and for the continuing work of the Royal British Legion in supporting veterans and their families. As a country we have asked much of our sons and daughters, and we continue so to do. ‘Cariad mwy na hwn nid oes gan neb; sef, bod i un roi ei einioes dros ei gyfeillion.’ ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13). They died that we might live. 

Their sacrifice calls to mind another sacrifice, made on a hill outside Jerusalem, ‘ble bu farw ein Harglwydd Iesu Grist drosom ni’. We remember this sacrifice too, as Jesus died for us. It is the heart of the Christian Faith, and the greatest demonstration possible of the saving power of love.

Love is at the heart of remembrance. Our human love comes from God, the source of all love. This love has the power to heal wounds, to comfort grief and loss. One hundred years on from the end of the First World War, the world still needs healing. This is beyond our capabilities as human beings. We need God’s help. Our God loves us, and longs to heal our wounds. He gave His Son to die for us, on the Cross, a painful death at the hands of enemy soldiers. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead. His tomb was empty, and just as with the empty Cenotaph in London we are reminded that death is not the end. The Christian belief in the Resurrection of the dead and the life to come gives us all hope.

On the first Remembrance Day, one hundred years ago, two minutes silence was introduced. At 11 o’clock, as well as remembering the fallen, we take time to pray for peace. There are two words for peace in Welsh, ‘heddwch’, and ‘tangnefedd’. The first, ‘heddwch’ means an end to hostilities, the Armistice ceasefire which we celebrate today. But ‘tangnefedd’, the other kind of peace, is something far deeper and richer. It is the peace of God, the shalom of the Hebrew Old Testament. This is the gift of God, a feeling of wholeness, which brings about healing. So when Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’ ‘Gwyn eu byd y tangnefeddwyr: canys hwy a elwir yn blant i Dduw’ (Mt 5:9) He is envisaging something both radical and world-changing: something which heals, which forgives, and which loves. Today we commit ourselves to making peace a reality: here and now — in our community, in our families, in our relationships, in what we are, in what we say, and in what we do. We can never be too busy to do this. When we take the path of peace we honour the memory of those who gave their lives so that we might live. 

So let us therefore commit ourselves to help create the peace which Christ came to bring, for the glory of God, and the good of all human kind. Our Lord Jesus Christ has shown us another way to live — the way of love and gentleness. In memory of what Christ did here on earth, and continues to do, we can experience the peace of the Kingdom of God, where wounds are healed and divisions are reconciled. Today we give our thanks for those who sacrificed themselves for us, and we honour their memory by treasuring the peace won at so great a cost. 

Almighty God, hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all whom we remember this day. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Walter Kleinfeldt’s album showing the aftermath of a skirmish during the Battle of Somme, 1916 (7).jpg

Remembrance 2018

‘Gwyn eu byd y tangnefeddwyr: canys hwy a elwir yn blant i Dduw’ Mt 5:9

Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, when I was at school, I saw something every day which has had a profound effect upon me. Daily I would pass by bronze tablets with the names of the old boys who had died, in the service of their country, from the First World War onwards. I didn’t know them, boys my own age, or a little older, but simply being surrounded by their names made me both aware and grateful of who they were and what they did.

For the Great War there were 1,157 names: more than one-fifth of those who left the school died in war. They were not unusual in this, but the scale of loss is hard to imagine nowadays. Girls at school were told afterwards that they would never marry, or have children, as there weren’t enough men. Up and down the country, every city, town, and village, every family was and still is touched by grief and loss.

Today we remember the fact that exactly one hundred years ago on this day the guns fell silent, and the ‘War to end all wars’ finished, having cost the lives of somewhere up to nineteen million men, women, and children. Some sixty-million people were to die in World War II, and there has hardly been a day in the last hundred years where someone somewhere has not died in war. Faced with such staggering statistics it is hard to know what to say. Such a tremendous cost of human life, love, loss and grief should shock us to the core. The freedom, peace and prosperity which we now enjoy was won at the cost of the lives of countless men and women. It is right and good to pause and remember them. 

When we recall the sacrifice made by people from this village, this country and all over the world, our remembrance must be an active one which has an effect in our lives. We recall the generosity of those who have tried to ensure that we can live lives free from warfare and suffering, a generosity which must leave a mark on our lives, and help us to learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them in the future.

No-one has not been touched by the events of the past one hundred years. Many people, members of our own families, gladly offered, and still continue to offer themselves for the safety and security of humanity. An act of remembrance has a deeper significance when we know that members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are on active service overseas, working for peace and stability, for a safer, fairer, world, where people can live in peace and plenty. We remember too all the victims of warfare, the countless millions who have lost their lives in a century characterised by conflict. Our reaction will, I suspect, of necessity, be a complex one: a mixture of sadness and thankfulness, gratitude and grief. While we are grateful to live in comparative peace after a period of wholesale slaughter, we cannot fail to be moved by the cost of military and civilian lives, which continues to this day. 

Peace then is not simply the absence of war, but the right ordering of the world around us: living the way God wants us to live, in harmony, and love, one with another. That is why peacemakers are children of God. What they do is possible because of what Jesus Christ has done for us: ‘Ac, wedi iddo wneuthur heddwch trwy waed ei groes ef, trwyddo ef gymodi pob peth ag ef ei hun; trwyddo ef, meddaf, pa un bynnag ai pethau ar y ddaear, ai pethau yn y nefoedd’ ‘and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:20). Without Christ’s sacrifice none of what we are commemorating makes sense. Christ bought us peace by the shedding of His own blood. In the face of anger and aggression His only response was love. Christ is our peace, and Christians are called to follow Him. We do so knowing that the Cross is not a place of shame and defeat, but rather victory. The love of God has triumphed, and all will be well. 

Does God want us to fight? No! War may be just, and undertaken for the right reasons, but we are supposed to live in peace. Human nature longs for wealth and power and is willing to stop at nothing to acquire it. Christ, however, shows us another way — the way of love and gentleness, which longs to heal and reconcile. It’s what Christ did here on earth, and continues to do — to draw people into the peace of the Kingdom of God, where wounds are healed and divisions reconciled. We are thankful for those who sacrificed themselves for us, and we honour their memory by treasuring peace won at so great a cost. We are serious about it, because it is the will of God, and the means of human flourishing. It is precious, and it is for everyone. We are thankful that we are alive and able to give thanks for those who gave their lives for us, and we commit ourselves to being peacemakers in our own lives, in our community, in our world. What greater tribute could there be than to work for a world where all may live in peace, for such is the Kingdom of God. In so doing we honour their memory and share the treasure they have given us with humanity — we are generous, after the example of Generous God, who loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us.

The Kingdom is a radical place which seeks to transform humanity into the image of God. We have been trying to bring it about for two thousand years and we will continue, in church or chapel, and in our daily lives, to make God’s Kingdom a reality here and now, through what Christ has done for us, and the sacrifice of our forebears. We will remember them.

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