Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost: November 8, 2020
Year A, Proper 27: Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise”.[i]
As I pondered this Gospel, I found myself laughing just a little about the lack of preparedness shown by the five bridesmaids. I tend to be a classic procrastinator, so I identify to some degree with the bridesmaids who didn’t have any oil in their lamps. I often have to scrounge to find where I put the oil for my lamp, which in my case would be my latest charging cord for my phone.
We could surely look at this Gospel in terms of preparedness for God’s kingdom. But in today’s world when I suspect we are all a bit exhausted I think we can also find other meaning in this gospel.
Matthew’s gospel was written some forty to sixty years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. There were now followers of Christ who had not been present during Christ’s earthly life and anticipated his return in the very, near future. This parable is told only in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is perhaps trying to spell out very clearly for those followers the need to be ready for Christ’s return.
I think one of the things that irk me is that the bridesmaids are considered foolish because their lamps burned out. Where was the bridegroom? Why did he keep them waiting? The bridesmaids had been prepared. Have you ever watched a candle burn? Sometimes, near the main altar candles might only be only six feet apart but depending on a floor vent, one candle can burn to nothing while the other is still almost full.
Maybe the bridesmaids’ lamps were leaking, maybe they were closest to the door, expectantly awaiting the bridegroom and so they truly were caught unaware. Can you imagine the panic and then their disappointment when they returned and discovered that they have been left out of the big event?
We often hear the term burnout. In our world, burnout is a very real issue. When burnout happens, we find it hard to light our lamps. Parents and grandparents are burned out – they were burned out before COVID and now that burnout is multiplied exponentially. Teachers are burned out. First responders are burned out. All of us are burned out in some way. We’re burned out by the negativity we hear in the world around us.
Like the bridesmaids in the story, each of us needs a supply of fuel. How can we get our supply?
We gain resources when we participate in this worship with one another. Even on Zoom and Facebook Live, we can gain that sense of community that energizes us. Fuel for our lamps becomes available to us.
Doing this is not easy. Again and again, we fall short. But repeatedly, we are free to re-enter into prayerfulness. This present moment need not be lived as something that simply flees. Instead, we can experience it for what it truly is: time in which God is present – present to us, present with us, reaching toward us, calling us forward into life.
Five days after the election, some now have fuel for their lamps – others believe that lamps have been extinguished. Having gone through a long – often acrimonious – divisive political campaign, how shall we live together now? And what is our role as the Church to be an instrument of communion?
After leading the Israelites through the Red Sea and the desert for decades, Moses was not able to actually get to the Promised Land. We’re minded in today’s readings that it was actually Joshua who got there.
But there’s a necessary step the Israelites must take before they can get across the River Jordan. The step is, they must choose whom they will serve, which means they must make a covenant in how they will live. Because if they do not serve YHWH, if they do not again commit to God’s covenant, they will bring the old world with them and their old ways of seeing. New land requires new behavior sealed by a new covenant. Remember what Joshua says? Choose this day whom you will serve – the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, or the Lord.
Remember our mission is stated in the Catechism: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. All people – All – Republicans and Democrats. Those who are happy today and those who are in despair – All.
That is our mission. The challenge we have been given is to keep enough oil in our lamps, to roll up sleeves and work for the kingdom that is always coming and God breaking into history. The message is to keep our lamps “trimmed and burning”.
The early Christians had to adjust to the reality that Jesus did not return as they expected. We, too, have to adjust to realities that the world is not as neat and tidy as we would like. Our oil lamps are not always full and sometimes in the context of faith we discover that we have proverbially run out of oil.
It’s not inconceivable that we might face delays like the bridegroom’s late arrival.
It’s not surprising, unfortunately, that dark times come to every generation. Today’s young adults are as worried about their future as are older generations who hand it off to them.
But the parable speaks of a source of sustaining hope and spiritual sustenance. While we each have to seek our own spiritual sustenance, we usually discover what we also need is community with others, seeking spiritual fuel together.
Jesus emphasizes the importance of faithful community throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and he tells us that life in Christ happens when two or more are gathered in his name. That is when Christ promises to be with us, and we can be assured the Holy Spirit is among us as we are gathered together.
We do not know the hour that Christ will return. So, at every hour we need to be thoughtful, ready to celebrate with the joyful and ready to mourn with those who mourn. We might get frustrated when the things we hope for don’t happen on our schedule, or when the things that happen are not what we wanted at all. But God has great things in store for us – we need to remember to keep a supply of oil for our lamps at hand.
And that has to be enough on those days when our hearts break at the pain and suffering in this world. For alone we cannot alter or change it. But we can keep our lamps full of oil. We can keep our lamps “trimmed and burning” as signs of promise and hope as we await Christ’s return.
We are approaching the end of the Christian year. As always, the Gospel lessons focus on the end of things and the return of Jesus. It’s a time for us to take seriously the message that one day Jesus will return. Our job is to be ready.
[i] New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 25:1-2
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.