Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.

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Goods in Conflict

I don’t remember much from my seminary Ethics class.  That isn’t to say that I don’t think I make ethical decisions, but rather an admission that Dr. Tim Sedgwick is way smarter than I could ever hope to be.  One of the topics that I do remember is the concept of goods in conflict, of which, my friend Evan Garner reminded me in response to yesterday’s post. Evan writes, in part, “I want you to push even further on what it means for Judas to be right. Despite the editor’s notation about being a thief, he is right. Jesus might be right-er, but it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. That would be right, too. For me, the challenge of the passage is sorting between two right and good options.”

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In John’s story of Jesus being anointed by Mary, there is more than one right answer.  There are, as an ethicist might say, “goods in conflict.”  Despite John’s need to undermine Judas Iscariot (a task Judas needs no help in accomplishing), Judas points out a truth by suggesting that the nard Mary used to anoint Jesus could have done more good if it had been sold and the money given to the poor.  Jesus, on the other hand, is also right in pointing out the good that Mary had done in anointing Jesus for burial.  Remember the context of this story, Jesus is having dinner with Mary, Martha, and the recently resurrected Lazarus six days before the Passover.  In John’s timeline, this puts it 5 days before Jesus is crucified.  The plot to kill Jesus is already afoot.  Tomorrow, Jesus will enter Jerusalem with a royal parade to shouts of salvation and praise.

Things are about to get really real, and Jesus knows that his time has come.  What Mary does for him is nothing short of steeling his resolve to finish the task set before him.  It is true that the nard could have been used to feed the poor, and clothe the naked, but the greater good here is that in his anointing, Jesus Christ is now prepared to walk the way of the cross, the way of life and salvation for all creation.  There will be plenty of time to care for the least, Jesus tells Judas, but for now, it is the lost who he is worried about.

Choosing between two or more goods in search of what is good-est isn’t an easy task.  The Kingdom isn’t a zero sum game.  There aren’t always winners and losers.  There are, more often than not, choices made between several very good options, which is where discernment comes in.  Jesus knew the right choice because he knew the will of his Father.  He was able to choose the greater good because he could see the bigger picture.  Jesus isn’t telling us to be ignore the poor and be wasteful with our resources all the time, but in that moment, around that table, with those people, pouring out a costly ointment to prepare him for what was to come was the good and right choice.