Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Nov 12 2017

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
November 12, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matt 25:1-13

Since we skipped the readings set for last week by substituting the readings for All Saints’ Sunday, let’s review our context here.  We had been hearing parts of a conversation, discussion, or disputation – depending on your point of view – between Jesus and various leaders of the Jewish establishment.  But now we are listening in on his teachings directed at his closest disciples.  They are a completely different audience, one eager to hear how God plans to bring justice to the world they inhabit, through this man, this messiah.

Their eagerness, however, does not necessarily translate into a complete understanding of what he is doing – and, frankly, even though we have the advantage of knowing what happened later that week, it may not help us that much either.

Which is why I want to give you some more information about what led up to the parable of the ten bridesmaids we just heard.

The last selection we heard was two whole chapters back in Matthew, with Jesus offering to the lawyer of the Pharisees his take on the greatest commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

In the intervening text – that is, the rest of Chapter 23 and all of Chapter 24 – Jesus then turned to the crowds and disciples and harshly criticized the Pharisees for hypocrisy and how they craved adulation, but treated God and the people with contempt.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” he warned: “For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.  For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you block them.”[1]  “Woe to you, blind guides…”[2]  “Woe to you, for you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”[3]  He really rips into them. 

Finally, he cries: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.  See, your house is left to you desolate….”[4]

Afterward, he left the Temple and the disciples went with him.  They were pointing out the great stones of the buildings and he said that not one would be left on another; all would be thrown down.[5]

They came to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples asked him what sign would show his coming, and the end of the age. He listed wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and famines and earthquakes, and this was just the beginning.[6]  He told them they would be handed over to be tortured and killed, and hated by all nations, and some would fall away and there would be false prophets to lead them astray.  But then, he said “…the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world … and then the end will come.”[7]

Whew.  And that’s not nearly the end of all the warnings and signs he lists, but I think you get the flavor. 

Finally, he says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”[8]  And he tells them three parables.  The first is about a king who puts his trusted slaves in charge while he is away, and when he comes back sooner than expected, he finds them abusing their power, drinking and carousing, so he kills or imprisons them.  The second parable speaks of the bridegroom who comes much later than expected – and finds only five of the bridesmaids ready with enough oil to light the path.

So now, we have finally reached our reading for today.  I realize it took longer than expected … but sometimes that’s just how it is.  Kinda like the bridegroom.

He’s talking about the end times.  That’s important to know for purposes of discussion today.

And obviously, this bridegroom – who quickly morphs into “Lord, Lord,” is most likely Jesus himself, and the arrival is that of the hour that no one knows, not even the Son of Man.  And the wedding banquet is the celebration of the faithful at the end of the age.

So tell me, if you can guess, would the bridesmaids need lamps at the banquet?  (According to Mark Douglas, The answer is no, they would not[9]).  If they didn’t need them at the wedding feast, why did they need them at all?  (To light the path of the groom’s party to the house where the feast would be held.)

And if they did not need the oil for the banquet, was the road so long that they would have run out if the wise ones had shared the oil with their less well-prepared sisters?  We can’t know, of course.  But I suspect that particular question is beside the point.

Lindsay P Armstrong offers us the suggestion that the parable is not about the oil, so much as it is about the readiness and faithfulness of the wise maids during the time when they are waiting.[10] 

And that’s why the oil was not shared – it could not be shared, because however ready we are or however faithful we are, we cannot give our readiness and faithfulness to anyone else.  It belongs to each of us alone.  It is the way we walk, and we no one can walk in our ways. 

It would be like sharing a husband with another spouse, or a child with another parent … and although of course many families are broken and knit together in new combinations, the relationships themselves are not fully transferable. 

Thus, if indeed we see Jesus returning as this late-arriving bridegroom, and we are, in the meantime, simply waiting for that day – which shall surely come when least expected – then we might be wise ourselves if we also were ready and faithful, at any time, to be called to action.

Going further, I think it would be fair to say that we are indeed under an obligation to practice our faithfulness in our lives now, and, if we do not, we might find the doors shut against us when that great day comes, no matter how long or loudly we knock and cry “Lord, Lord!”

[Pause] I don’t know about you, but I find that thought … disturbing, even anxiety-provoking.  I find it so because I am quite aware of the ways in which I fail to do what Jesus taught: to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.  And I do not like to think that God’s mercy would not extend to me because I wasn’t good enough in doing this.

I mean, what if I did bring extra oil, but I tripped and fell and dropped the jar and it spilled out?  Would I be barred forever?

I think in that scenario, I would be still under an obligation to replace the oil that was spilled.  Or as the old song says, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.”

With Matthew, it’s not only grace; it’s works as well.  Works do matter.  I’ve generally thought of works as being the response called out of us by the grace offered – and this is how I still see it.  When teachers call on students, they expect the students to answer; when parents call their children, they expect their children to come.  I mean who knows, there might be a real treat in store!  That’s grace: the calling.  And we respond because we are thankful, because we are bound together in love and regard and relationship.

Grace is always offered; but it’s not enough to say “Yes.” We only fully accept the offered grace when we LIVE the “yes.” And when we have the oil to refill our lamps in this time between, this time of waiting.

Another thing we need to remember, though, is this: God wants us to succeed in this, because God wants to be relationship with us, and God’s grace plants deep within us the desire to be in relationship with God – deeply committed, loving, and always.

Bp Steven Charleston wrote something just the other day that may be helpful to those of us who are squirming in our skins because of Jesus’ frustrated anger.

There have been times in my life when the depth of my spirituality could be measured by a single commitment: I was willing to try again.  The nature of faith is not always heroic, a champion for social justice, or altruistic, a saintly empathy with all of life, but only hopeful, a willingness to stand up once more, dust off the sense of failure and regret, and try again.  Try to learn. Try to listen and try to understand. Try to be kind, try to be forgiving, try to be honest and fair and loving.  Faith is not only what you believe, but what you are willing to try. Over and over again.  The walk of faith is made by getting up as often as it is made by moving ahead.[11]

 

 

[1] Matthew 23: 13.  NRSV.

[2] Matthew 23:16a.  NRSV.

[3] Matthew 23: 23b.  NRSV.

[4] Matthew 23: 37-38. NRSV.

[5] Matthew 24:1-2.  NRSV.

[6] Matthew 24:3-8. NRSV.

[7] Matthew 24:9-14. NRSV.

[8] Matthew 24:36.  NRSV.

[9] Mark Douglas, Theological Perspective on Matthew 25:1-13, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Kindle location 10239.

[10] “Faithful action done now prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God.”  Lindsay P. Armstrong, Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 25:1-13. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Kindle location 12316.

[11] https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/.  Posted November 8, 2017.  Accessed November 11, 2017.

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