Just about everything was in order, except for the presence of the bridegroom. No one was sure exactly when he would arrive. Some of the wedding party went out to wait for the bridegroom’s approach and greet him. Because it had turned to evening, the ten bridesmaids who decided to wait on the road, watching for the groom’s arrival, brought along their lamps.
The hours dragged by: to the bridesmaids’ disappointment, there was no sign of the one they awaited, and eventually, their eyes closed in sleep.
When they heard a cry announcing the approach of the bridegroom and his friends, they startled awake and prepared their words of welcome. As their lamps were flickering with the last of the oil that fueled them, those of the young women who had come prepared with additional flasks of oil topped up their lamps, and they burned brightly.
Half of the young women had not had such foresight, however, and they watched in horror as the last of their lamps’ light sputtered and died.
You know the rest of the story: the wise bridesmaids did share their oil with their friends whose oil had run out, but instead, proceeded with the bridegroom’s party to the wedding hall, where the door was shut behind them. When the other young women finally arrived, having replenished their oil, they were denied entrance.
We know all about waiting in the dark.
Way too much waiting, not knowing when what we wait for will come.
Today’s parable from Matthew is largely about judgement, about the sad consequences that befall the ones who do not prepare for the challenges they might face. Jesus’ words to the disciples to whom he tells the parable are cautionary: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, referring to God’s judgement at the end times.
As I’ve suggested, however, it’s also a parable about the difficult experience of uncertainty, of hoping and waiting without knowing when we’ll have what we seek.
It is, as well, a parable about the need for light in the darkness, when the way ahead is uncertain and unclear, a light that shows the road so that we can move forward with confidence.
And it’s this powerful metaphor of light and darkness that I’d like to pause to dig into a bit this morning.
Light and darkness are a recurring metaphor in the biblical tradition; when you look it up, you find that there are more than 40 instances, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, in which light and darkness are compared, as well as 335 times when “light” is used on its own.
Light and darkness are both recognized as “good” as God separates the two in the act of creation.
And the Psalmist cries out to God (in words that are echoed in our final hymn this morning) –
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
Jesus is never quoted as contrasting light and darkness, but he did frequently make use of light as a metaphor, about knowledge of God’s love as illumination to the human community, urging disciples, for example, to “let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus actually refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), clearly building on the image of light as illuminating the way.
Unfortunately, the biblical tradition has also provided a foundation that human beings, in our frailty, have used to reinforce the sin of racism.
Many times when light and darkness are used together in scripture, the light represents that which is good, and the darkness represents that which is dangerous, which needs to be overcome.
Lutheran Pastor Lenny Duncan, in Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., makes this observation about the way black and white, light and darkness are used as symbols in the Christian tradition:
Over and over again, in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race….
Duncan goes on observe that “these powerful symbols”, our continual association of white and light with holiness and black and darkness with evil, have “ill effects on our community that we have yet to explore”. The power of these symbols has impacted both the oppressed and the oppressors.
So are we to entirely jettison all imagery, all use of this language and these symbols in our faith life? I don’t think so: images of light and darkness are deeply woven into our faith tradition, both biblical and liturgical. As theologian Paul Tillich observed, symbols cannot be intentionally stripped of their power.
Pastor Duncan suggests that we broaden the vocabulary of our symbols, and turn our focus away from exclusive (or even primary) emphasis on symbols that have been used to reinforce racist ideologies.
We need to think and pray and talk about these challenges. As we do so, it also seems imperative to me that as we continue to use (and pray and sing) symbols that are deeply embedded in our tradition but that have contributed to oppression, we do so with penitence for the ways and times that we have been thoughtless, complicit, and complacent, and that we be intentional in our work to transform the way we understand them, to work toward bringing an end to all that causes suffering.
And so here we find ourselves, bridesmaids waiting in the darkness for the sound of the bridegroom’s approach. We wait because we live in this world of viruses and climate change, of injustice, distrust and animosity, and God’s realm has not yet come, and too often we just don’t know what to do.
As we wait, we are the laborers in the vineyard, to call on another of Jesus’ metaphors. The bridegroom’s approach is ours to hasten. Our lamps must light the way to the wedding banquet. And Jesus shows us the way.
Our call is to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other of the love of God that surrounds us, even in those moments when it is hard to discern.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to exercise resilience and hope. We are called to roll up our sleeves and do the work we have been given to do. It’s work that we know and understand – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner.
The oil that will keep our lamps burning is the strength we draw from our sacred stories, our worship, and our fellowship with one another; it is the presence of God’s Spirit.
Let us keep watch. Let us do the work. Let us those lamps burning, with hope. Amen.
By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew records one of Jesus’ many encounters with the religious leaders who worried about Jesus growing popularity and authority. In it, they ask Jesus a question that Matthew says was “to test him”.
I’m wary, as I have remarked before, about Matthew’s pretty consistent attempt to discredit the Jewish religious authorities; I’d like to think that perhaps the Pharisee’s question to Jesus about which commandment was the greatest may have been offered sincerely.
Certainly, those great life questions – “How shall I live my life?” and “How do I choose what is right?” are questions we all should wrestle with.
We’re now in a time of year we call Stewardship Season. In it, our tradition invites us to reflect on our blessings and asks us to consider the ways we choose to make use of the gifts God has given us.
So, think with me about this…..
That concept of Stewardship reminds us that we are stewards of our lives - we could also say “caretakers”, or “trustees” – they all mean the same thing
We don’t choose to be born,
We don’t choose, AND we don’t earn
These are gifts provided – not always easy gifts, but gifts given into our keeping by God – AND THEY ARE ALL IMPERMANENT.
All of the benefits we “possess”, all of the things that make life comfortable and convenient, all of the pleasures that make our lives meaningful, can disappear in a flash. We’ve seen it, this year in particular, that illness and accident strike, and natural disasters and human evil change the course of lives overnight.
We are stewards, caretakers, trustees of our lives and the blessings that fill them
To use an image from Brother Curtis Almquist of SJE, in a sermon I heard years ago, but which has remained with me since that time:
If we truly believe and understand that what we have is gift, something we hold in our safekeeping, how can we do other than live generously, in thanks?
I read an article recently in which the author distinguishes two kinds of economies – transaction economy, and gift economy.
In a transaction economy everything has a price, and we pay for what we need.
Most of our lives are lived in a transaction economy.
In a gift economy, on the other hand, what is given is given without expectation of anything in return. Healthy families and friendships are examples of gift economies, in which people extend themselves for others on the basis of love, without expectation of return or reward.
God’s gifts to us of life and freedom are gift economy. As is God’s gift to us of God’s own self, in the life of Jesus, showing us what it means to hold the gift of life in open hands and share it without expectation of repayment.
In a gift economy, we know that we are loved; we care and are cared for, we give and receive, living a cycle of kindness and generosity in which we deepen our relationships and understand the meaning in our lives.
Our challenge and our possibility as Christians, as “members of the Jesus Movement”, is to live in the reality of the transaction economy of the world WHILE ALSO striving to live with open hands and generosity, offering and sharing, in acknowledgement and gratitude.
So, practically speaking, how do we approach this?
And in particular, how do we figure out how to respond to the request we have all recently received, to make a pledge of support to this parish in the year ahead?
Each of us needs to figure this out, in prayerful conversation with God - what we can share and with whom.
The biblical standard is to tithe – to give 10% of what comes in to us back out to others. In “Bible Study for Nerds” this week, in fact, we read the passage in which this idea originates – Jacob’s prayerful declaration of gratitude to God after his dream at Bethel of the stairway open to heaven. He declares that Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know it!
Jacob then goes to pledge that “of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
Tithing is affirmed by Episcopal Church as an appropriate proportion of our income to share with others.
Not everyone feels able to reach this standard, and given existing financial circumstances for so many in these days of pandemic and uncertainty, many of us feel less confident about the future that we would otherwise. Let me suggest a few principles to think about in considering how and what we each might share with others:
Living generously is one of the ways we can “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind… and love our neighbor as ourself.’
Living generously frees us from being hostage to our possessions. Living generously reminds us whose we are, and helps us to trust the one who gives us life, who surrounds us with a world of beauty and opportunity, who preserves and sustains us all of the days of our lives. Living generously is the way to freedom, and to peace.
In the name of God. Amen
By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we’ve heard a couple of very familiar stories – the Israelites’ extremely bad decision-making in violating the terms of their brand new covenant with God by building a golden calf to worship, and Jesus’ familiar parable of the wedding banquet, in which many of the invitees opt to decline their invitations, other unlikely guests get included, and one poor fellow gets sent to the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit.
I think these two stories have a lot of elements that should disturb us. The primary obstacle in these stories, for me, is their emphasis on a vengeful God.
Yes, in the Golden Calf story, God does back down from the impulse toward vengeance after a timely intervention by Moses (who, I might add, has certainly come a long way from being the guy who didn’t even want to get involved with the mission when God first spoke to him from the burning bush.)
And yes, the vengeful king of the parable is just that, a character in a story.
Let’s take a look at what Matthew, at least, may have been up to in shaping the wedding banquet story the way he has, emphasizing the king’s anger and his violent retaliation against the people who refused his invitation and then killed his slaves.
I think we’d always like to imagine that the gospel writers are always reporting just what Jesus said. Over and over again, though, we can see that separate gospel writers tell the same story in very different ways.
Perhaps the story, as they heard it, had already been modified in repeated retelling over the course of decades from when Jesus actually spoke.
And certainly, when we look at each gospel as a whole, we can see that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each have distinctive themes that are important to them, and that where common stories are reshaped in their gospel accounts, the stories are reshaped to reflect their particular perspectives.
Luke tells the wedding banquet story, too. In his version, plenty of the guests invited to the banquet decline their invitations because they have more pressing business, and the host – not a king in Luke’s version – also gets angry. He doesn’t send anyone to kill the ones who declined, however, let alone burn their cities.
Luke’s host simply turns around and sends the servants to invite those who have been rejected by society, “so that my house may be filled”.
Matthew has turned what was probably a simpler story reflecting God’s radical hospitality into an allegory that conveys what Matthew sees as the history of God’s salvation.
Matthew, many scholars conclude, is telling a story of God’s outreach to Israel through prophets whose messages Israel rejected.
Matthew suggests that because the top-tier guests opted not to accept their invitation, God sent his son Jesus to reach out to the disenfranchised, and that it is this motley crew of sinners and tax collectors, during Jesus’ ministry, and gentiles, in the time of the apostolic church, who get to enjoy God’s salvation.
Matthew is concerned about the Final Judgement that he anticipates is coming, and is, frankly, using fear tactics to try to sway his fellow Jews into coming over to what he believes is “the right side” before it is too late.
So what about the poor guy who was not wearing a wedding robe?
Here’s what we know. It would have been common for folks in Palestinian society to have two outfits – their everyday wear and what we called, in my prep school days, their “special occasion dress”. Everybody knew how to dress for a banquet. Some commentators speculate that because the tradition was so strong and universally accepted, hospitable banquet hosts would have wedding robes available for loan, for guests to slip on over their everyday clothing.
Why didn’t this fellow comply? We don’t know. Maybe he forgot. Maybe it was his disposition to reject social norms. Regardless of his reasons, while he chose to attend the banquet, he also chose not to fully participate. As is unfortunately so often the case for those who don’t comply with expectations, he suffered the consequences.
So what do we do with this story, those of us living in the complexities of the 21st century, contending with the terrors, and I do mean terrors, of global pandemic, environmental destruction, and deep social division?
We focus on our own invitation to God’s banquet.
We focus on
These riches are the wedding banquet to which each of us has been issued an invitation.
God’s invitation to us is to look for her and meet her and know her presence in every moment of every day, and to partner with God in building up his Realm, on earth as it is in heaven.
We’re all invited to the table. We have the option of how fully we choose to accept the invitation.
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