Signs of Christ’s coming…

Matthew 25:1-13
Rev. Dr. Christy Newton
12 November 2017

Matthew 25:1-13
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then 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.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”  But 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.”  
And 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.  Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*

Signs of Christ’s coming… next 3 Sundays leading up to Advent… 
Anticipating Advent…
     In this story, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives teaching his disciples, critiquing the practices of the Pharisees, and talking about the signs of Christ’s coming.  “Tell us,” the disciples say, “when will this be?  And what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”  Context—so much injustice, storms…
     Jesus answers—like he so often does—with metaphor and stories.  We hear, “Be ready.”  “Be watchful.”  “Stay awake.”  “Be faithful.”  “Be fruitful.”  Then, beginning in Matthew 25, we hear 3 stories that further elaborate and explain what Jesus is talking about.  The first is this story of the Ten Bridesmaids.
     It is important to remember that the gospels are not histories; they are not historical accounts.  They are theologies—presenting a particular point of view about how God works in the world.  And in Matthew’s gospel, he puts this story in Jesus’ mouth and starts it with, the kingdom of heaven will be like this. . . . 

     Then as now, this story is reflective of the gross disparities present in society.  The 10 bridesmaids are broken into 2 diametrically opposed groups:  in modern-day parlance and understanding, we might describe the 2 groups as the clever, pretty children of privilege and the stupid, plain children of working-class, single parents.  And this is where our problems really begin. . . .
     Although this is supposedly a parable about a wedding, there is no bride!  And the bridegroom shows up late. Very odd.  This is a big clue that this is not really about what we might think it is about at first. . . .  Part of the Jewish tradition of that time was for the bridegroom to come to the home of the bride’s family, where the party would continue.  The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived by lighting his way with their lamps.  The 10 bridesmaids all show up with their lamps, lit and ready to welcome the bridegroom.  And they wait . . . and they wait . . . and they ALL fall asleep.  All 10 of them fall asleep.
     And then, at midnight—who starts their wedding party at midnight?!—the groom finally arrives.  But after all this time, 5 of the bridesmaids—let’s say the stupid, plain children of working-class, single parents—realize they are running low on oil and need more.  So, sacrificing their pride, they turn to the clever, pretty children of privilege—or maybe to their sisters, friends, and family—and they say, “please share with us . . . give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning. . . .” 
     But the pretty children of privilege say no.  If we give you some, there might not be enough for us. You will just have to go out and buy some for yourselves.  This zero-sum mindset is unfortunately and unhelpfully pervasive in our culture:  If I’m going to have more, you’re going to have to get less.  Remind you of current conversations about taxes?  Sharing isn’t going to cut it.  Abundance is not a reality.  I’m going to get mine, no matter what it costs you. 

     And then, we also run into a literary problem that really doesn’t make sense:  Just how far away is the bridegroom?  He must be already in sight.  So, really, how much extra oil are they going to need?  Clearly, the clever girls could have given them some oil; they were just being stingy and petty. 
     And where are the others going to find oil to buy at midnight?  Come on now!  And even if there is a place for them to buy oil, do these girls have pocket money for extra oil?  Are you kidding?  They’re just kids, and their moms hold down two jobs and still can’t make ends meet. The rich girls have all the oil they need.  Their parents set up their lamps, made sure they had extra oil, got them new outfits for the occasion, and showed them the proper way for a young lady to greet a bridegroom.
So, of course, the bridegroom comes and the smart, pretty, rich girls meet him and escort him into the banquet. And the door is shut.  When the others return, knock on the door, and ask for the door to be opened, they are turned away, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 
Is this troubling to anyone else?
I think I have told you the story before about a talk I heard Fred Craddock give to a group of child advocates.  But it is good enough to tell again: 
“God, don’t you have too many children?  God as single parent. . . 
Molly Shepherd adopted 57 children. . . . 
Those who are able help those who are unable. . . .  That should catch on. . . . 
That is the purpose of government.  And church.” 

“Those who are able help those who are unable” helps me make sense of this troubling parable.  Most often I hear teaching on this parable that amounts to “be like the wise ones, bring extra oil”—extra faith maybe or extra preparedness, I don’t know. . . .  But I don’t want to be associated with these so-called wise ones.  I believe their example and behavior is absolutely unacceptable.  They don’t seem to have any concern for the plight or exclusion of the others.  They certainly don’t help, even though they are able.  They simply go off to the party—as if they somehow earned it.  See, we got in because we are wise and prepared…. But do only the wise make it into the kingdom of God?  
What do we learn from the gospels about sharing, serving one another, and God’s incredible, abundant, overflowing grace?  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  At the heart of Jesus’ message lies a generous God who invites us into greater and deeper and wider generosity even at great cost to ourselves.  And by contrast, the so-called wise bridesmaids in this parable seem to be more like the Pharisees that Jesus so often criticizes.  Last are first.  First are last.  So, the kingdom of God is like what?
Exclusion may be consistent with Matthew’s idea that there are some in the community of Christ who really don’t belong there, and when judgment is rendered, they will be exposed and shut out from the blessings of salvation.  But I’m not so sure he got this idea from Jesus.  In fact, it seems absolutely contrary to the heart of the gospels.  Although the church has frequently shut doors over the centuries, God doesn’t shut doors.  And Jesus unquestionably occupied himself with breaking down barriers that kept people separated, excluded, and apart.  Even Biblical ideas of judgment are consistently about restoring and reclaiming those who have gone astray rather than punishing them.  Biblical judgment is more about mercy than retribution.  In God’s judgment, the final word is not death; it is that God’s steadfast love endures forever. 
And yet, the interaction at the end of this parable sounds so final and condemning:
“Lord, lord, open to us.”           “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
How does this relate to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7?  “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  Curious.
And then, Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  Jesus does not mention oil or the wisdom or folly of those who do or don’t bring extra.  Jesus’ critique is for those who fall asleep. . . .  But ALL of the bridesmaids fall asleep.  Does this imply that none of them were prepared and attentive enough to get into the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus seems to be telling his disciples to be ready for what comes, to be engaged with the world and the presence of God, to work to make the kingdom of heaven a reality here and now, to stay awake and be attentive. 
But do you remember what happens in the very next chapter in Matthew—in Matthew 26?  Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John with him and asks them to stay awake with him as he prays.  And the disciples, who have just heard this story of the bridesmaids and the important charge to stay awake, instead, go to sleep.  They go to sleep as Jesus struggles with what lies ahead….
What a perplexing scene we are left with:  Inside is a group of selfish bridesmaids who refuse to do what Jesus taught—to share generously.  Outside is a group of excluded bridesmaids who experience rejection despite their last-ditch efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  And then we have sleeping disciples who don’t seem to understand what Jesus has been teaching them.
And we, too, are left to wrestle with this story.  The kingdom of heaven will be like what?  Where is the hope?  Where is the grace?  How can we call forth the very best in ourselves that is always willing—radically and even foolishly—to share oil with whoever asks?
I think the answer lies in Molly Shepherd’s rule:  “Those who are able help those who are unable.”  It’s not about having extra oil or running out in the night to get extra oil.  It is not about knocking on the door or staying awake at the right time in the right way.  We all have been wise, and we all have been foolish.  We all have been asked to stay awake, and we have slept.  Yet the promise of God’s love remains.  Through all our attempts and failings and successes and do-overs, our God is with us, desiring the best for us, bursting forth new life, and opening doors that have been corroded shut.  Now, it is up to us to be awake and alert for ways to share this new life.  It is up to us to be prepared to share the light that we’ve been given.  It is up to us—in whatever ways we are able, to help those who are unable. 

Let it be so.  Amen.

What We Need Is Here

Living Stones

Horseback on Sunday morning, / harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet / of summer's end. In time's maze
over fall fields, we name names / that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open / a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise, / pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us, / pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds / them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need / is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be / quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
                               —“The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry

In the wake of so many tragedies in our world—more than I can adequately name—we might be tempted to enter into a season of scarcity. There’s not enough of this.  Not enough of that. The world is burning.  The world is drowning.  Health concerns and health care cause many of us great anxiety.  We witness the prospect of nuclear annihilation being tossed around in frivolous tweets.  We experience a sinking feeling as ocean waters rise.  Even the leaves are dying and falling off the trees. There is so much loss.  So much worry.  So much grief.  So many reasons to pull in and try to insulate ourselves. 
But as I’ve been reminded lately, even and especially during this time when death seems to surround us, we are also surrounded by the deep promise and possibilities of life.  It is during this time—when leaves compost and seeds swirl down lavishly and find their way into the earth—our world is again blanketed in hope.  Beautiful possibilities are planted even in the most difficult times.  I root my faith in this belief.  Everything is not always going to go my way.  But even in the bleakest times, I believe, something beautiful is preparing to be born.  That is what I hear when Wendell Berry says, “What we need is here.”  We don’t need a new earth or heaven.  We need the fierce belief that what we need is here, the strong hope that God’s promise calls us boldly out of our insulation, and the resilient courage to unearth the beautiful possibilities that are preparing to burst forth.
So, let us take heart, dear friends, during this season of hope and possibility.  What we need is here.

See you in church,


Walking to the Holy Island

Living Stones 

I am clearing a space / here, where the trees stand back.
I am making a circle so open / the moon will fall in love
and stroke these grasses with her silver.
I am setting stones in the four directions, / stones that have called my name
from mountaintops and riverbeds, canyons and mesas.
Here I will stand with my hands empty, / mind gaping under the moon.
I know there is another way to live.
When I find it, the angels / will cry out in rapture,
each cell of my body / will be a rose, a star.
If something seized my life tonight, / if a sudden wind swept through me,
changing everything, / I would not resist.
I am ready for whatever comes.
                     —from “Clearing” by Morgan Farley

There is a moment when the tide starts to recede, and the ocean floor is revealed as solid ground connecting two land masses that, otherwise, remain separated by the North Sea when the tide rolls back in.  Every day—the tide rolls in and out—hiding then revealing, hiding then revealing, that path that connects those two bodies.  And at some point over the hundreds, thousands of years of this separating and connecting, someone—or a community of someones—erected huge stakes marking the clearest path connecting the two bodies when the tide goes out.  And so, pilgrims have walked this journey from Lindisfarne in Northumberland to the Holy Island for well over 1500 years.  Walking to have their deepest and most important callings revealed to them.

And by its very nature, the walk is perilous.  There are countless stories of people through the ages miscalculating the tides and getting stuck or being washed away into the North Sea along that 4 mile stretch.  And even today, although there is a one-lane causeway connecting the mainland and Holy Island, it is also submerged with the tides.  If you’re on the island when the tide rolls in, you are staying on the island!  And yet, despite the perils—for those who understand the importance of the journey—and who are willing to prepare themselves for the risks—that perilous pilgrim path can lead to heightened spiritual awareness, moral clarity, and fierce courage in the face of obstacles.

And there is a moment when the tide starts to recede, and that grossly infected and enflamed wound of racism, white supremacy, and unchecked bigotry is laid bare for all to see.  We might wish it would remain hidden.  It is such an embarrassment.  We want to look away in disgust.  No, this is not us.  This cannot be happening. . . .  We might be tempted to think, “Where did THIS come from?”  But, really, we know.  And there it is.  Revealing itself over and over.  That festering wound with that precarious scab that rubs away and allows the wound to ooze its pus everywhere.  All over us. 

We can never just walk away from that intensely embedded racism within and around us.  It just can’t be done.  But facing it—honestly, faithfully, forthrightly—is not without peril.  By its nature, racism and white supremacy and unchecked bigotry aim to strip us ALL of our humanity again and again and again.  But for those who understand the importance of the journey—and who are willing to prepare themselves for the risks—that perilous pilgrim path of facing down racism and supremacy can lead to heightened spiritual awareness, moral clarity, and fierce courage in the face of daunting obstacles.

What I am suggesting, friends, is that we must own our own stories—to their core—no matter how painful, inconvenient, or embarrassing they may be.  Or those stories will own us and dictate our movements and behaviors—limiting the possibility of the life-giving transformation God wants for us. 
We have to acknowledge that as faithful pilgrims on the path toward God’s vision for us and our communities, many of us carry invisible backpacks of privilege.  Sociologist Peggy McIntosh documented this concept some 30 years ago.  And these invisible backpacks of privilege are part of our stories.  They include special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks, which white people do not usually want to acknowledge, and which leads to our being confident, comfortable and oblivious about racial issues, while non-white people—lacking these tools—more commonly feel unconfident, uncomfortable and alienated by issues of race. 

For example, I can always find a band-aid that matches Clivie’s skin color.  And I don’t have to educate him about systemic racism for his own daily physical protection.  I never worry in the slightest about being pulled over by the police without just cause.  And I had no concern that my skin color would raise any questions or restrictions when booking an airbnb for a large group in remote parts of Scotland.  These privileges I have go largely unrecognized; I carry them around with me in an invisible, weightless backpack. . . .

We witness racial violence and racial prejudice in big and small ways every day—from hearing that off-handed remark in conversation to watching heartbreaking, soul-numbing news from Charlottesville and our own White House.  Racism and white supremacy play out all around us . . . and within our own hearts.  And it is up to us to acknowledge it, confess it, repent from it, and work to end it.  This, my friends, is a deeply important spiritual issue.  Despite the perils.  Because there is a moment when the tide starts to recede, and we see that there is an opportunity before us. . . .  An opportunity to be authentic and real.  An opportunity to acknowledge our privilege and put it to use for the common good.  An opportunity to build relationships that have the capacity to heal.  Let us be pilgrims together on this path.

See you in church,