10 Nov 2014
“‘At midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom!”’” (Matt. 25:6)
In the name …
On Wednesday into Thursday I participated in our annual diocesan clergy retreat. This year’s retreat was led by the new pastor of the South Deerfield Congregational Church, Rev. Roger Daly. He’s part time here in town as pastor, but he and his wife are full time at the Hallelujah Farm Retreat up in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. I thought he did a great job. His retreat theme was laughter. Too often, he said, religion is imagined as only solemn and somber. Too often we have a real hard time thinking of Jesus laughing. The picture of the laughing Jesus on your song sheet may seem a little bit weird, but amazingly a picture of Jesus hanging on a cross in utter anguish doesn’t raise on eyebrow. We know the stories about Jesus being born in the poverty of the manger and dying horribly on the cross, but in between there must have been times of laughter. Rev. Daly pointed out that the children came to Jesus. They were drawn to Him. It wasn’t because they favoured Jesus’ interpretation of the Law over that of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were drawn to Jesus because of His personality. They felt His warmth, and He probably made them laugh. He probably laughed with them. So the focus of our clergy retreat was on this idea of the spiritual aspect of laughter.
But almost right in the middle of these sessions, we went off for evening prayer. Part of that time in the chapel was going to Confession. I think that’s a good idea. We priests don’t get the chance to confess all that often. I can’t stand here and give myself absolution. But the examination of conscience that the bishop read to us lasted for 20 minutes – 20 minutes. Now I’m not going to say that we priests are perfect. I think I sinned once like six years ago. But a 20 minute reading of an examination of conscience? How bad are we supposed to be? At dinner I sat across from the bishop. I mentioned that I don’t think the purpose of Penance is to insist on how sinful we are. I don’t see most people as grave sinners. I don’t think Jesus is repulsed by our less than perfect efforts to be good. He knows we’re human, not angels. Then the next morning we go to Mass. The first thing we do at Mass, just like here today, is Confession. It had been twelve hours since the 20 minute examination of conscience the night before. We’re priests at a spiritual retreat. And at morning Mass we were told explicitly to think about how we had sinned against Jesus in just those intervening twelve hours, for seven of which I was asleep! I’m no saint, but I couldn’t think of any sins. And I think in the eyes of the institutional church that translates as pride. We’re really invested in thinking of Jesus as the dying Saviour who forgives sins so we have to create sinfulness all the time, but what disappears in all of this is the laughing Jesus, is the joy of believing in a laughing Jesus.
And boy Rev. Daly’s emphasis upon spiritual laughter couldn’t have come at a more poignant time in the church year. These are the last few weeks of the liturgical calendar. Advent starts the whole cycle over again and that’s only three weeks away. As the calendar comes to its end the liturgical theme is the end-time of the world, the time of God’s fearsome judgment upon sinners. You would think that Jesus would be talking about this sort of stuff in a very, very grim manner. But maybe that’s because we’re so used to pictures of Jesus on the cross and so surprised by pictures of a laughing Jesus.
Now South Deerfield is no major city, but I’m sure it’s much more cosmopolitan than the villages that Jesus’ listeners would have come from. Try and imagine this morning’s parable in the context of downtown South Deerfield. First of all, which friend or family member you know plans a wedding for midnight? We tried to have a bolognaise dinner at 7PM on a Friday evening a few weeks ago and we had no takers because it was too late! Imagine ancient Israel. Weddings today may be about the bride, but 2,000 years ago everything was about the guy. He’s delayed, we’re told. That means he’s taking his own sweet time to get to the wedding. As Jesus is telling this story what do you think the people who are listening to Him are imagining? Do you think they’re sympathetic to the groom? Imagine being at the site of the wedding and waiting and waiting for this guy to show up, and then hearing his excuse that he was delayed. I wouldn’t have wanted to be around my family 26 years ago if I pulled that stunt.
Then, according to Jesus’ story, you have the five foolish bridesmaids being told to go out and buy more oil at midnight. So again imagine South Deerfield. You think Leaders is still open at midnight? Where are these bridesmaids supposed to go to buy the oil? If we can’t imagine an answer in 2014 do you think the people hearing Jesus could in the year 30? They’re starting to smile.
This is not to make light of Jesus’ message of be prepared, of live your life with a driven purpose. This is a serious topic. And yet even in something this serious Jesus still spoke with a bit of humour, with a bit of a smirk. If Jesus could speak about judgment in this way, then it shouldn’t be a surprise to think of Jesus as enjoying life and enjoying people. We surround ourselves with Jesus’ cross, but maybe we should also get used to Jesus’ smile and His laughter. Maybe the church in the great serious mission of bringing Jesus to the all the people of the world needs to reintroduce a joyous Saviour. This is an often times mean and hard world. The church doesn’t need to go out of her way to emphasize to people that they’re sinners as they struggle through all of this down here. The church should do a better job of helping people to hear the laughter of our God and to see the warm smile of our Saviour. Maybe that’s the church that people today need more than ever. So let us pray that our faith may help us to laugh with Christ and to feel the joy of His church. For this we pray in His most glorious name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo