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“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Luke 12:40
I thought of calling this piece, “Defensive Living.” I wanted to write about being prepared for such things as drivers who run red lights, or for checking out where the emergency exits are located or even for preserving your teeth by flossing. Jesus spoke about defensive living in his parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids took enough oil for the lamps, plus some in reserve. The parable concludes with the same exhortation as today’s parable: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” We need to be prepared for the crisis that is to come (we are all too familiar with devastating fires, earthquakes and El Niño floods). We need to keep our gas tanks filled, our cell phones charged, our bicycle tires inflated. We need to keep our emergency pack handy (ours includes a flash light with spare batteries, a wind up radio, a can opener and a space blanket among other things). But I find “Defensive Living” is already taken as the titles of a couple of books whose message is that you need a handgun to protect yourself.
The message in today’s gospel is “Be prepared.” It is important that one is ready. If you are going to run a marathon you need to train for several months. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth where the Isthmian Games were held (a rival of the games held at Olympia). Athletes need discipline and self-control. They need to run with perseverance, which means having stamina.
Medical students learn a great many things without knowing if they will ever come in useful. When we were in Hong Kong, a pediatrician diagnosed a Wilms Tumor in the young child of some parishioners. He had never seen one before but his training taught him to diagnose it. He sent them immediately to the University of Rochester Medical Center where they treated it.
The metaphor concerns some servants who are waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet. They have no idea when it will happen. It could be in daytime or the middle of the night. The important thing is for the servants to remain alert. This is more than a commonplace story. The situation may be urgent, a matter of life-and-death.
Let me illustrate. André Trocmé was the pastor of the Huguenot church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south-east France during World War II. He was posted to this remote village because his pacifist views were not popular with the hierarchy. Even before the war began, he was training his parishioners for the forth-coming crisis, so that when the Jews arrived, escaping from the Nazis, they were ready to provide shelter. They knew that it was their duty to help their neighbors in need. Trocmé preached about the passage in Deuteronomy ordering the setting apart of sanctuary cities where someone who has unintentionally killed another may flee and live. During the war, this village of 3,000 residents saved 5,000 Jews, mostly children. He was aided and abetted by his remarkable wife Magda. One time when the Vichy police came to arrest her husband, she fed them. “It was dinnertime,” she said, “and they were standing in my way, we were all hungry,” None of this would have happened if Trocmé had not trained his parishioners in advance. The two are designated as “Righteous among the Nations,” at Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial.
A second story is closer to home. 20 years ago I attended the Faith-based Coalition for Affordable Housing in Santa Rosa. Members of 17 different denominations attended the city planning board. The land which had been set aside for affordable housing was being used to build high-end properties. For a long time the cost of housing in Sonoma County has been out of sight and there have been few places for low-income people to live. 102 people were there to see that justice was done, a crowd which filled the room. We were led by my friend Rabbi Michael Robinson and his congregant, Stephen Harper. There were a lot of members of the synagogue, Shomrei Torah. I asked Stephen why they were there. He told me that they had been discussing the problem of Affordable Housing and this was their opportunity to stand up and be counted. Most of Friends Meeting were there; they had been holding monthly meetings for the previous 18 months, getting informed and talking about homelessness in our community. We all heard the chairman mutter to his colleague, “I knew that this would happen sooner or later.”
We usher at the Luther Burbank Center. Ushers are the first line of defense for the safety of our guests. Each time we go Betsy or Marcus reminds us what to do in the event of an earthquake: open the doors before the building subsides. We also had training in the event of a shooter entering the building. In order of preference: run or hide or as a last resort fight. These instructions are approved by the Department of Homeland Security. It is crucial that we know what to do in advance.
As Jesus said, “We know neither the day nor the hour.” We need to listen to the prophets when we are “wakened by a solemn warning.” We need to distinguish between false prophets and true prophets. False prophets tell us that everything is going to be fine, fine, fine! But true prophets tells us things that we don’t want to hear, about the coming crises like climate change or the coming financial crash. Whatever the crisis is we need to take action now. Here is the urgency. If we leave it too long it will be too late. So “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning keep me burning till the break of day
Sing hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the Servant King