- Parish House
Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 25:1-13
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Jason and I recently went to a wedding. I think this was the first time in twelve years of marriage that we got to attend a wedding together. Usually one of us is working the event. The novelty of the situation dawned on me as soon as I opened the invitation. My mind started to work on the details immediately. Weeks if not months in advance, I thought about what needed to happen for us both to attend. I made a list. I sorted out childcare and what to wear and how the hours on that Saturday would go. I mentally scheduled how Sunday’s sermon would get finished and when the grocery shopping and house cleaning would get done in the hours leading up to the late afternoon wedding. That’s how my mind works. I’m a planner. For the record, Jason did not fret about the details in advance, since we’re opposite personalities in that way. I have learned over the years that one way is not better than the other. I can see that worrying about details in advance can sometimes add an unnecessary layer of stress. But in my weaker moments, I do tend to feel a little self-righteous about the way I do things.
Maybe that is why, for years, I have read the parable of the ten bridesmaids’ as a kind of manifesto for planners. When Jesus says, “Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour,” one could take this to mean that you need to be always ready, if not over prepared for the coming of the kingdom. The parable can make the gospel sound like the motto of the boy scouts and girl scouts – be prepared. The winners in the parable are clearly the five bridesmaids who packed extra oil for their lamps in case of unforeseen circumstances. When the bridegroom comes at midnight, much later than expected, their lamps have plenty of fuel. The losers are the other five, who have to go wandering around in the middle of the night trying to find an oil vendor who’s still open. And when they return, the door to the wedding banquet is shut to them for good. Judgment seems to come to those who have not planned well.
All of which is a very convenient interpretation to those of us who like to plan ahead, or who would like to think that our spiritual fate is determined by how well we complete our to-do lists. But such a reading is superficial at best. At worst, it’s deeply distracting from the wisdom in the story. The parable of the bridesmaids is not about doing the right thing.
Right action is not really what separates the five winners from the five losers. If it were, we could quickly point out that the winners refused to share their extra oil with those who ran out, a distinctly unChristian behavior by all accounts. So what, then, did the winners get right? The only real distinguishing factor between the bridesmaids is faith. The parable is not about right action, it’s about right belief.
The bridesmaids who ran out of oil, they were the ones whose faith was primarily in the world, in the way that weddings usually go. On that schedule, they would have had enough oil. They did everything right, everything expected of them. They thought of themselves as justified by their acceptable works. The ones with extra oil, on the other hand, would have had no real reason to pack more. The wedding was not supposed to be delayed. Who starts a wedding banquet at midnight anyway? They looked foolish by the world’s standards. But they trusted in a different reality. Their faith was not in the ways of the world but in the bridegroom.
All of which points to the truth that we are not saved by the ways of the world. The world tells us that violence and victory are the most powerful forces. The world wants us to fight, to win. Or, to be the best or the most prepared, the smartest, the most lovable. The world is a score-keeping place, and we can easily slip into thinking that our salvation works like that, and that God is keeping score. But that’s not the gospel. The gospel tells us that we are saved by one who died on a cross, taking all the world and its sin into himself. Death on a cross looks like losing, not winning. The cross offers a counter wisdom, a strange, inverted logic to unlock the mystery of our salvation that is achieved for us through Christ. All that is asked of us in return is to stop spinning around in a frenzy of self-justification and to believe.
The real note of judgement in today’s story is that at some point, we do run out of time. Jesus isn’t clear about whether that’s our personal end or some final culmination of this grand story. Either way, that final end note is meant to shape our belief now. In the words of Robert Capon, “some day, late or soon, it will be too late even to believe. We become what we do. If we trust, we become trusters, and we enter into the sure possession of the one whom we trust. If we distrust, we become distrusters and close out the only relationship with reality ever offered to us.” The parable asks us to trust now.
And while the final note might sound frightening, that part about keeping awake and not knowing the day nor the hour, we have to keep in mind what we’re waiting for. It’s the heavenly banquet, closeness with God, a party. Jesus’ parables of judgement are consistently about how we have the power to shut ourselves out of that party, which we do through our unbelief. But the invitation comes first, the bridegroom waits for us all. We can become trusters.
I was recently at a meeting with some fellow downtown pastors. We get together regularly, and I’m very grateful for them. We talk about the shared opportunities and challenges we face in our downtown churches. We talk about our to-do lists. This past week, we talked about how we have all sensed an increase in stress and anxiety in people around us. We tried to name some reasons. Maybe its how divided we are politically. Maybe it’s two recent mass shootings, one in a church of all places. The list of possible causes could go on. We wondered out loud with each other how to hold fast to Christian values and how to preach them in the face of uncertainty and disagreement. One of the pastors reminded the group about the many times in the gospels that Jesus said to fear not. And that our security lies not in this world but in him. I feel that message coming through today’s parable as well. In this sometimes turbulent world, keep awake. Here is the bridegroom. Become trusters.
We certainly didn’t solve much at the pastors’ meeting the other day, but it was life-giving to be reminded that our salvation is not the product of mastering our to-do lists. It was life-giving to be reminded that our true security is not dependent on fixing all of the intrenched problems. The gospel is meant to free us from our earthly anxieties. Following Christ is not about escaping the world but rather putting it in proper perspective. That is what faith is for. And it brings peace to our minds and souls that we can’t simply reason our way into. If we believe, if we trust, we become trusters in that peace.
As for that wedding I mentioned at the beginning, being with Jason at the banquet was lovely. There was plenty of lamp oil, and no one was shut out of the party. I think that’s rather close to the wedding banquet that God has in mind for the end of the ages.