Be Ready

Be Ready

Sunday, November 12, 2017
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 27)

Focus Theme:
Be Ready

Focus Prayer:
You let us choose, O God, between you and the false gods of this world. In the midst of the night of sin and death, wake us from our slumber and call us forth to greet Christ, so that with eyes and hearts fixed on him, we may follow to eternal light. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Matthew 25:1-13

[Jesus said:] "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."

All readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Focus Questions:

1. How much do you think about the return of Jesus, and how does it affect your faith life?

2. How do justice and grace relate to each other?

3. What do you think Matthew would say today about our many books on the end-time, or the predictions of preachers about a specific date?

4. Is this parable about staying awake, or being prepared? What's the difference?

5. In what ways have we as a faith community drifted away from the values of the Reign of God?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

In these later chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, as Jesus draws closer to his death (and, of course, to rising again), he speaks at length of "the end times." Matthew has drawn together a number of parables and sayings of Jesus to provide a rather intriguing challenge for us today, two thousand years later.

We note that one theme throughout these stories is the question (literally) of timing. Jesus' disciples have started it all off by asking him, at the beginning of Chapter 24, for some insider information: When are all these things you're talking about going to happen, and how will we know they're about to happen, so we can be ready?

No easy reading

We assume that they want to be prepared, but maybe (like us) they just don't want to have to prepare any sooner than absolutely necessary. Or perhaps they're just longing to know that fulfillment, and perhaps vindication, too, are at hand. Jesus' response in these two chapters has been called "The Little Apocalypse," and it's not easy reading. If the disciples were looking for reassurance, the words of Jesus must have given them a lot to think about.

After speaking at length about the end of the world in the previous chapter, Jesus begins to tell his followers several parables, three of which we'll study closely in these final weeks of Year A. But right before this week's passage, Jesus has spoken about a master's unexpected return that catches his unfaithful servant off guard, one who thinks he has plenty of time to misbehave, to beat his fellow servants and to eat, drink, and (presumably) be merry. Today's parable about ten bridesmaids follows the harsh warning about the fate of that unfaithful, unprepared and surprised servant.

Keeping an eye open toward the future?

Most commentaries on this text provide some background on marriage customs in the first century. While we can't be sure about the details, scholars believe that getting married took both time and effort. There were actually two stages: first, the agreement, not between bride and groom but between their families, and second, the fetching of the bride by the groom for the wedding ceremony, followed by a celebration that went on for days.

Richard Swanson suggests that this was a good chance for unmarried women and men to connect, for prospective husbands and wives to find each other, so these young women might have been keeping an eye out for their own futures as much as watching for the bride's groom. It's no wonder, then, that "the young women have a huge interest in being noticed favorably," he writes. We may be surprised to hear that five of them refused to share what they have, a note that clashes with the rest of Jesus' teachings about generosity. Perhaps, Swanson continues, "This competition may help explain the odd actions of the young women."

Prudence over generosity

The story, after all, isn't about generosity or sharing, but about being prepared. Swanson thinks "prudent" may work better to describe the young women who brought enough oil. Prudence, he says, is "a well-honed ability to navigate in the real world, making the best of the quick decisions that end up guiding a surprisingly large chunk of a person's life...a useful and practical wisdom."

Five of the young women had sense enough, then, as Thomas Long puts it, not to be "ready for the groom but...for the groom's delay." If the bridesmaids, both the foolish ones and the wise (or prudent) ones, represent the church today, how ready are we followers of Jesus for his return? What does ready, or having "enough oil," look like almost two thousand years after Jesus died and rose again, promising to return one day, but not saying when? "The wise ones in the church...hold on to the faith deep into the night," Long writes, and "even though they see no bridegroom coming, still hope and serve and pray and wait for the promised victory of God."

Familiar words that give us pause

Jesus' story ends with the foolish young women being locked out of the party. His words sound familiar to readers of Matthew's Gospel, because we remember another harsh warning from Jesus, as he finished the beautiful Sermon on the Mount, about people who sound religious but haven't lived out their faith, who haven't done the will of God. When those people cry "Lord, Lord," Jesus says that he'll claim he never knew them (Matthew 7:23).

Harsh and chilling words, indeed. Today, we don't like to focus too long on these stories or the warnings they convey. Many mainline preachers, for example, would rather move on to the crucifixion than linger any longer than necessary on The Little Apocalypse. Most of us, of course, don't mind preaching on Matthew 25:31-46, also about "the end of the world," but that's because what we need to do is so clear in that story.

What do we need to do?

Today's text, about oil and bridesmaids and wedding parties, is a bit more of a challenge, but we remember that these early Christians in Matthew's community, a generation or so after Jesus had ascended to heaven, were still scanning the skies, setting their sights and their hopes on his quick return. We suspect that the first generation may have believed that Jesus would return in their own lifetime, but by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, there had already been a delay. And perhaps that delay prompted some questioning and some falling away. Matthew's account, including these difficult parables, certainly addresses that falling away.

Today, we are two thousand years of delay later, and our questions may be just as pressing: What are we do? What does "ready" look like for people of faith? When will things change? What is God going to do about the mess that we're in? When will our enemies get what they deserve? (We just can't help ourselves any more than they could, long ago.) We even have to wonder, unlike any generation before us, if we ourselves will bring an end to the earth, or at least to life upon it.

"Trouble and beauty" in the Gospels

There are two questions we might ask: Why does Jesus speak so harshly, and how are we to take his warnings, how are we to live faithfully in anticipation of his return but also prepared for its delay? Fred Craddock describes two types of parables, "those that offer a surprise of grace at the end...and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties." Craddock notes that we need both kinds of parable, and the "justice and grace" they convey.

We often need to hear about grace, but we also need to hear regularly about justice. While Craddock writes of cause and effect, Arland J. Hultgren describes it as "both threat and promise, law and gospel." One of my favorite phrases, heard years ago, is the image of "trouble and beauty." Matthew's Gospel has plenty of both, from the graceful lilies of the field to these unprepared bridesmaids, hearing the terrible words, "I do not know you" (25:12).

As we wait, then, for the return of Jesus and the fulfillment of all things, how are we to live in the meantime? Like the five "wise" or prudent bridesmaids, how can we be prepared? It may be true of every age, but today we're tempted to be preoccupied with the end times, to read the countless novels about the end times, to look for signs that the end is near, and perhaps to neglect care for the earth or good stewardship for future generations, if we believe that Jesus is about to return any day now, so it doesn't matter.

In the meantime, shining with God's love

Ironically, we can be so busy reading novels and looking for signs that we miss the ways God is acting and speaking today, in this meantime. We might miss opportunities to do God's will: working for the healing of the world, caring for the good earth we were given, offering our own gifts in the transformation of an unjust society, reaching out in compassion to a world that is physically and spiritually hungry.

Do we prefer dramatic, even chilling, predictions of cataclysmic events--God's sudden intervening in history--over the day-to-day wonders of God's hand at work in the world, and our call to participate in that (perhaps) slow transformation?

"Do not fear"

However much we may be anxious about a dramatic end time, our faith reminds us of how often the Bible says, "Do not fear," and then challenges us to work here, on earth, for the bright day of God's reign in its fullness, which is glimpsed in every act, every moment of compassion, sharing, and justice. Even as we trust that we will be with God one day, in glory, we taste the sweet goodness of generosity and love right here, right now, through ministries of sharing the abundance with which we are blessed.

"In the meantime," we are ready to shine with love, and justice, and joy. I'm thinking of the people in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, who, in the face of slow aid from "outside" (they are actually part of the U.S.) after being devastated by Hurricane Maria, draw strength and endurance from the collective spirit of the community, looking after one another, sharing what they have, seeing the best in one another.

Longing for Jesus to return

Keeping faith is not easy. In fact, for those who suffer it may be difficult not to long for Jesus to return right now and make all things right (more about this in two weeks, when we do study Matthew 25:31-46). But we might also approach these stories with gratitude, which is always fitting, not just in November, for the wisdom they offer and the prudence they encourage. Jesus told us how to live according to the values and vision of the Reign of God, and loving God and our neighbor expresses the heart of his message.

Loving God will inevitably lead us to worship God rather than idolize the false gods of modern culture (like materialism and nationalism and militarism, to name only two). Loving our neighbor will lead us to greater compassion and a firm commitment to justice, to making this a different and better world for all of God's children. This kind of living isn't sitting around and waiting; it's active and fully engaged in the present moment, as we trust in a future that is in God's hands, even if the timing of that future is unknown to us.

An ending, and something new

Arland J. Hultgren suggests that keeping faith "includes care of the earth and making peace for the sake of future generations. It is necessary to plan for the long haul, remain faithful, be wise, and stay strong." We note the difference, of course, between "making peace" and simply avoiding conflict.

M. Eugene Boring says that such faithfulness makes it possible to "lie down to sleep in this confidence, rather than being kept awake by panicky last-minute anxiety." But it also requires endurance: "Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed." No wonder we're tempted to yearn for a sudden intervention when God takes care of everything.

However much we may fear a dramatic end, Hultgren reminds us that our faith sees "the end" not as the end, but as "the doorway to the new--the new age, the new creation." We can trust, as Paul says in today's reading from 1 Thessalonians, that "we will be with the Lord forever" (4:17b). This, for us and for all creation, is "finally good news." Indeed!

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

James Russell Lowell, 19th century
"All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action."

Albert Einstein, 20th century
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Martin Luther, 16th century
"Where there are no good works, there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known."

Booker T. Washington, 20th century
"Lay hold of something that will help you, and then use it to help somebody else."

Augustine of Hippo, 5th century
"If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 20th century
"I set up and staged hundreds of ends-of-the-world and watched, enthralled, as they played themselves out."

Jimmy Carter, 21st century
"We should live our lives as though Christ was coming this afternoon."

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