Sermon for Sunday, November 9th, 2014 || Proper 27, Year A || Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78: 1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1 – 13 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
So: Is rudely demanding what one needs from others ever accepted as kind or appropriate behavior? Is refusing to share what one has with those in need ever loving or merciful? And since when is slamming the door on desperate strangers viewed as either welcoming or hospitable?
In this perplexing parable from Matthew’s gospel, it seems each of the characters is as morally indefensible as the next. The foolish bridesmaids are demanding and entitled; the wise bridesmaids are selfish and stingy; and the bridegroom himself is just plain mean. What the heck is going on?
It might help to know that many think this parable says a lot more about Matthew than it does about Jesus. And that’s because it’s quite likely that a lot more of this parable originated with Matthew than with Jesus.
Remember that Matthew’s community of mostly Jewish Christians had been waiting 50-60 years already for the Risen Christ to return– waiting, waiting, always waiting—and believing all the while that he’d come any minute now to herald in God’s Kingdom and establish his reign on earth. That was their hope, their conviction, and their proclamation–and you can be sure they paid a bitter price for it: they were exiled from the synagogue, ostracized by their friends, shunned by their families, and brutally terrorized by Nero and his thugs. No small wonder that some of them were having second thoughts.
And no small wonder, then, that Matthew’s gospel is so filled with fear-producing parables and threats of judgment! Matthew doesn’t want his people to give up or lose faith, and apparently he thinks fear is a powerful motivator. In fact, Matthew’s gospel says more about judgment, hellfire and damnation, and the so-called weeping and gnashing of teeth, than all of the other gospels combined!
But Jesus? Well, not so much. Jesus comes to save all those who bear a striking resemblance to the ones Matthew has him condemning to the fiery flames of hell. The foolish ones, the sinful ones, the ones who don’t fit in, the one’s left out in the cold with a door slammed in their faces.
So a lot of scholars conclude that Matthew either created this parable himself, or reinterpreted it with a rather heavy hand, “spinning” it to address the circumstances and the fledgling faith of those for whom he wrote it. Those who were waiting, waiting, always waiting.
And waiting is hard. We all know waiting is hard. It’s hard enough waiting for lab results from a doctor, for an acceptance letter from a college, for the job offer you’ve been dreaming about, or for the perfect someone you’ve been praying to meet….waiting for your phone to ring, your ride to come, your computer to connect to wi-fi…waiting for the right time, waiting for things to get better, waiting for someone else to change.
Waiting is hard! Really hard. Especially in our highspeed-hightech-insta-everything world. We Americans do not, as a whole, wait well.
So it’s pretty hard for us to imagine what it would be like to be sitting in this church today with a very real expectation—like the one that Matthew and his baby Christians had— that Jesus himself might suddenly reappear this afternoon, tonight, or tomorrow. We can’t begin to understand what it was like waiting for the Savior of the World to come any day now, or to live our lives as if his coming was just around the corner, waiting, waiting, always waiting—trying to be faithful and fighting off complacency, when– according to our watches—he is already long, long overdue.
But I’ve decided that’s okay. Because I think Matthew got the whole motivated-by-fear thing all wrong. I know a lot of churches still use that technique, but the Episcopal Church is not one of them. The Jesus we meet in the scriptures as Episcopalians is a Jesus who motivates and inspires by love, mercy, and heart-breaking compassion. A Jesus who forgives sins not seven times or seven times seven times, but always and forever; who is as generous with the laborers who by no fault of their own work only one hour, as with the ones who work eight; who proclaims that even tax collectors and prostitutes will enter God’s kingdom and will do so before the arrogant, the self-important and the self-righteous; the Jesus who invites everyone to his banquet, welcomes all of us to his table, and who teaches us to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Now that, it seems to me, is a Christ worth waiting for. So wait we do. But while we wait, we don’t fall asleep like the bridesmaids in our gospel. Instead, we are awake to His presence all around us through the Holy Spirit: in the face of the loved one by whose bedside we keep vigil, in the pure joy of a child’s gleeful delight as he does the St. Stephen’s dive off the top stair over there, in the transcendence of an amazing piece of choral music sung by our choir, in the awesomeness of a moon-ring in the autumn sky, in the generosity with which we share what we have with others, in the enthusiasm with which we open our doors to welcome all who knock.
And we pray to be vessels of Christ’s Spirit in the lives of all those we encounter, especially those outside of these doors—those we encounter in the daily rhythms of our lives, day in and day out, and those we encounter unexpectedly—perhaps even uncomfortably—in those wonder-filled moments of hidden grace at the train station, the super market, the office; the shelter, the nursing home, or the hospital.
Advent is just around the corner, and we’re going to hear a lot more about the coming Kingdom of God, and a lot more about waiting for Christ’s return.
But as we do let’s not forget who we are or whose we are: We are a people motivated not by fear, but by love. A people sealed by baptism in the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. A people who don’t have to wait forever to experience His presence, because we know it’s right here: in the bread and in the wine, in our relationships with one another, and in the offering of our lives to the world in His name. Amen.