Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, November 12, 2023

2023 YEAR A pentecost 24

Pentecost 24, 2023
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I know it’s bad form to complain about your job, but that Gospel text we just heard.  And the next two Sundays are just as . . . challenging.  When these readings come up again in three years, I’m taking a November vacation!  But, okay, enough complaining out of me.  On the upside, today is one of those Sundays where all the lessons fit nicely together, frightening though they may seem.  And the theme that holds them together is Community.  Let’s start with the First Reading we heard today, from the book of Joshua.

It begins with Joshua gathering together all the people with a message from God.  There’s a section that gets skipped though, from verses 4 to 14, where we would’ve heard the long history of God’s faithfulness to the people, bringing them out of Egypt and giving them a homeland.  Then it picks up with Joshua asking the people to choose which god they will serve, and he delivers that famous declaration, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  You’ve probably seen that on bumper stickers, or cross-stitched onto throw pillows.  

Then there is some back and forth, with the people saying “us too,” and Joshua saying, “I don’t believe you,” until at last the people say, no really, “The Lord our God we will serve.” And then Joshua makes a covenant with the community that day.  A covenant.  An agreement to live in a relationship with God and one another.  It’s the renewed promise of community rooted in following the God of Abraham.

And there’s the Psalm we read together.  “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. . . . that the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God.”  Beautifully put.  Here we see the community promising to continue the story by telling their children what God has done.  They promise to pass down the stories of God’s mighty deeds, so that the “horizontal” community will also be a “vertical” community, and will continue throughout the ages, continuing in the same covenant made with Joshua on that mountain.

And then we have that section of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessaloniki.  Now it’s important to know the background in order to get this right.  Scholars pretty much agree this letter (probably Paul’s first) was written in about 52 AD, which is only like 20 years after the Resurrection.  Most Christians at that time believed Jesus would return in their lifetime.  But some members of the church in Thessaloniki had already died, which caused church members to doubt . . . well, everything.  If Paul was wrong about this, maybe he was wrong about all of it.  So Paul writes this letter, to assure them that their hope is not in vain.

But you can see why they were distraught.  They’re living together in this Greek city, converts to Christianity, evangelized by Paul.  They had the impression Jesus would be back any minute, before any of them died.  It makes sense for them to be worried: what happens to those who have died?  Do they miss out on the promises to the faithful?  So Paul writes to them, “We do not want you to be uninformed . . . about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  
As others do.  When Paul says, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he is not saying that Christians aren’t supposed to grieve.  He is not saying that grief only belongs to people who have no hope.  No, Paul is talking about how they should grieve.  Don’t grieve the way others do.  It is entirely expected and appropriate that you and I should grieve for loved ones we have lost, but we are to grieve amid the hope of the Resurrection.  Our grief is different, because we know that death is not the end of the story.

And then we get the part where it’s about community:  “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Paul makes the case that those who have died are safely in God’s hands, and then he tells us to comfort one another with that good news.  The ones we love who precede us in death are not lost to God.  Jesus will call them out of death into life, just as we will each be called into new life.  Encourage one another with these words, because we are a community, called into covenant with God.

And then . . . the Gospel.  Where to even begin?  We used to call this parable “The Foolish Virgins,” which from the start focuses on the negative.  Fortunately, our translation uses the word Bridesmaids instead of virgins because, well, we just don’t talk that way.  And it is so different from most of the other parables we hear in the scriptures.  Usually, we have some connection to these stories.  Like we know what a farmer is, and we know what a fishing net is.  But this parable is completely disconnected from our culture and customs.

We do not have 10 bridesmaids accompany the groom to his own wedding; we don’t use oil lamps; we teach our children to share with those who don’t have enough.  Plus, the groom shows up late to his own wedding.  Half the wedding party is told he never knew them after being sent on a wild goose chase to the stores everyone knew were closed.  And the “Keep awake therefore” at the end of the parable doesn’t fit with what happened, since all 10 bridesmaids fell asleep.  There is no fairness here; there is no love; there is no Gospel in today’s Gospel.  This parable is confusing, archaic, and scary.  There.  I said it.

But what really got me off track this week was this:  Over my lifetime, I’ve unconsciously bought into the notion that this parable has to be about that One Big Day when Jesus returns.  And maybe you have too.  You know, the One Big Day that the people in Thessaloniki were waiting for when their loved ones died unexpectedly.  And Jesus’ finishing the parable with, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” plays right into that idea.  And there are plenty of televangelists and preachers who will tell you all about how that One Big Day is coming, and even give you predictions about when it is going to take place, and give you a list of the people who will be “left behind.”

There are complicated theological names for these beliefs, such as Pretribulation Dispensational Premillennialism.  (It’s so much easier to say “Episcopalian,” I think you’ll agree.)  We see this thinking in our popular culture too, like with Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in the 70’s, and Tim Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series more recently.   Basically, this approach to Christianity focuses on that One Big Day when Jesus will return, and then pulls in all sorts of random verses from the Bible to explain how and when this One Big Day will occur.

For people who obsess over this stuff, today’s parable about the 10 Bridesmaids is one of their go-to stories from Jesus.  On the One Big Day, some people will be ready and welcomed into the kingdom of God, and some people—like bad Scouts who were not prepared—will be told that Jesus never knew them.  “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,” except those of you who weren’t ready.  And the only way to get any joy out of that interpretation is to assume that you are one of the oil-toting wise selfish bridesmaids.  You know, one of the people who was always ready for Jesus to return.

But here’s what we lose by focusing on the One Big Day.  We miss out on today.  We miss out on right now.  To overemphasize the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, is to forget that Jesus is already here among us.  Everywhere.  All the time.  So focused on being prepared for some day that we miss this day.  So getting ready for the return that we miss the right now.

Yes, we are waiting for Jesus to return.  And we are waiting in community.  You are not waiting alone; you are waiting in community.  And, you are not out running through the streets looking for oil at midnight because your selfish neighbors wouldn’t share with you.  And—most importantly—you are not waiting for someone who is not yet here; because the bridegroom is already here.  Right here, right now.  Jesus is living in us and among us.

I seriously want to rename this parable from “the foolish bridesmaids” into the something like “the selfish ladies who lied about scarcity.”  Some people had plenty to share, but wouldn’t.  And they were keen to tell the others to go scurry around looking for scraps, while they feasted and welcomed the bridegroom.  They convinced others to leave the party in a panic, by telling them they weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or popular enough.

The kingdom of heaven is like this:  Some people will tell you that you are not loved and welcomed and accepted exactly as you are.  Don’t fall for their made-up distraction.  Because God loves you just as you are, because God made you just as you are.  You have plenty of oil in your lamp.  Don’t believe the liars who tell you you need to go find something more to make yourself worthy.

Here’s something else: When the priest holds up the bread and wine and says, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” you could hear that as “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  We don’t know the One Big Day when Jesus will return, but we do know that he is here today in our community, right where he has always promised to meet us.  Jesus is already here.  And you do not need any extra oil for your lamp.  Because Jesus loves you.  And you are enough.


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