Sunday, November 12, 2017
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-13
Despite the increasing likelihood of catastrophic effects of climate change, the possibility of earth-destroying nuclear war, and the somewhat less likely scenarios of a major asteroid hitting the planet or, say, the zombie apocalypse, most of us don’t stockpile goods in an emergency underground bunker. Maybe we buy some extra canned goods heading into winter or get a generator to cover power outages from storms, but most of us don’t have a plan to survive months or years beyond a catastrophic world event. As much as I like to be prepared, I figure as someone who grew up in the suburbs I’m not likely to have the survival skills to make it even with a stockpile of goods. Sometimes it seems almost foolish to stockpile so much more than we need for scenarios that at least seem not likely to happen.
Which maybe puts us in the camp with the five supposedly foolish young women in Jesus’ parable. They have prepared reasonably for an expected evening arrival of the bridegroom. They filled their lamps to the brim to account for delays caused by traffic, car trouble, or having to run back to pick up forgotten items. They were reasonably prepared. But the bridegroom doesn’t come in the evening, or even a few hours into the night. After hours of keeping each other up with chatter and merrymaking, the bridesmaids finally fall asleep – all of them. The bridegroom, for reasons known to no one but himself, does not arrive until well after midnight. And by now, all the reasonably prepared people have run out of oil for their lamps. It’s the absurdly over-prepared people that Jesus praises in the end, the ones the others thought a little crazy at the beginning for bringing so much. Why spend so much extra time, energy, and money for such a highly unlikely scenario? It’s the ones who, in their sheer abundance, were in retrospect living as if the feast had already begun.
I admit that a big part of me doesn’t love this. I am a person who appreciates logic, reason, and calculated risks. If the bridegroom can’t get himself together and arrive on time, then he ought not expect lamps to be burning when he gets there. And frankly he then has no business shutting anyone out for his own delay.
But what does any of this mean for us? What is it we are supposed to be overly prepared for? And what kind of preparations ought we to be making?
Maybe it goes without saying that it feels many days like the arrival of God in our world, the kind of entry that sweeps away violence and hatred and war and death itself, is delayed beyond what we would like. Even if we concede that such a day also brings the kind of justice that will put us in our place, we long for the promised kingdom. We pray, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” when a gunman walks in on a church community at worship, when disasters destroy whole islands and help is slow to come, when there is no justice for people whose skin color is too dark or whose first language is not English, when our own pain nearly breaks us. “Come, Lord Jesus, not quickly, but right now.” And while we see glimpses of the promise, the world is still groaning in pain.
And we get tired of waiting. It is hard to maintain hope and to hold onto faith when God’s coming seems like a distant and even at times unlikely possibility. We hold our vigils and say our prayers, we pour our time and energy and financial resources into justice work, we gather as community to accompany one another through joyful days and difficult moments. But it seems that precious little changes and all of us sooner or later fall asleep. We get tired of the work, we get tired of the waiting. Our lamps go out, and darkness seems to rule the hour.
Yet this parable calls us urgently to be ready, even in the most troubled hours in the depths of nighttime when we are fast asleep. Now I don’t think we are expected to stockpile goods like those who live in fear of end times. But maybe we can learn something for their zeal in preparing for what seems like a distant and unlikely possibility. Instead of the carefully calculated lives many of us live, I think we are called, in the waiting and longing, to prepare for a feast of wild abundance beyond our wildest dreams by living out of a mindset of ridiculous, absurd abundance, with the hope that God is coming despite a lot of evidence that seems to suggest otherwise. That’s what stewardship is really all about – living in the midst of a world where we continue to long for – to hope for – the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace with a mindset of abundance. Giving of ourselves, our time, and our possessions as if we could burn oil all night long and keep it going till the next day and night and on and on. It’s the mentality that Jesus might actually come at anytime, so we are free to give generously and without calculation for the care of those in need, the protection of God’s creation, the work of peacemaking, and the sharing of the Good News of God-with-us through it all.
Today we, those of us who are a regular part of this community, will be invited to make a pledge of our money and our time. We will be invited to consider the ways in which we have seen the fulfillment of our hopes and to examine what it is we still are hoping for. We will be invited into prayerful consideration of what we have offer in the coming year to the work of this community. We do this not because it earns us a seat at the feast or because we live in fear of being shut out, but because letting go of a piece of our carefully balanced budgets and carefully calculated schedules is an opportunity to loosen their hold on us, to open us up to the possibility of abundance even in the long, dark night of waiting, and to live now not in fear but to live as if we are already dining at the wedding feast.
To be prepared for the arrival of God’s abundant feast for all creation is to celebrate what we know is coming, what we know is already a reality, that God’s victory over all things is complete and the feast has begun. And it is a matter of great urgency that we begin living that life of absurd abundance while we wait for God to wrap everything up, because God doesn’t want us to miss out on a single moment where we could be enjoying the atmosphere of the feast. God wants us to know the freedom of God’s wedding banquet before the bridegroom even gets there.
I don’t know fully what to make of the part of the parable where some people get shut out of the banquet. There is plenty of other Biblical evidence for wide open doors to the feast. But I do know that you are invited – all of you – to two great feasts today where Jesus waits with open arms. One of those is in the parish hall after worship where the council is hosting lunch for everyone to celebrate the abundance of God in our community. And the other is this table, where you who are tired of waiting, you whose lamps have run out of oil, you who have fallen asleep and given up hope, you who are excited for the coming of God. You are invited here, for bread and wine, the body of Christ given for you. And for a moment we will actually sit down at the wedding feast and know that the long-awaited one is here in our midst. We will continue back into a world of waiting, but we will do so filled with the presence of the one who is both already and not yet arrived to bring the peace and justice we long for. Amen.
-Pastor Steven Wilco