Sermon Seeds: Keeping Faith

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 27

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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 25:1-13
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Weekly Theme:
Keeping Faith

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.

Reflection on Matthew 25:1-13:
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

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 part of the message of all these stories, combined, is the question 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?

One assumes they want to be prepared, but maybe they just don’t want to prepare any sooner than 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 today’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.

Prudence or generosity?

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 looking for their own husbands as much as watching for the bride’s own 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” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

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” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). Five of the young women had sense enough, as Thomas Long puts it, not to be “ready for the groom but…for the groom’s delay.” If the bridesmaids, both foolish and wise (or prudent), 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” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

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 words, indeed. Today, we don’t like to focus too long on these stories or the warnings they convey. Many mainline preachers would rather move on to the crucifixion than linger any longer than necessary on The Little Apocalypse. Most of us appreciate the opportunity to preach on Matthew 25:31-46, because what we need to do is so clear in that story. 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.

“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, and 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. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). One of my favorite phrases, heard years ago, is “trouble and beauty.” Matthew’s Gospel has plenty of both, from the lilies of the field to these 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 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 still speaking to us 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. 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.

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 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, 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, even 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). And M. Eugene Boring says that such faithfulness makes it possible to “lie down to sleep in this confidence, rather than being kept away 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” (Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Indeed!

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.”

Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

The life of faith is not without anxiety. Perhaps that is where many of our questions come from: our anxiety. And in all times and places, death has provoked any number of questions bearing on faith. So Paul is writing as a pastor here, in a very real sense, answering the questions, and perhaps addressing the anxieties that have reasonably arisen in the minds and hearts of the earliest Christians who expected the imminent return of Jesus, within their own lifetime. When they witnessed the deaths of believers, faithful folk who were awaiting the parousia, the “day of the Lord,” they asked Paul for some kind of explanation. How would all of this work, they asked; what will happen to those who have died?

Paul, of course, responds with assurances of what God is doing, of what God is about, in that very moment and in every moment of history. With the resurrection of Jesus, God has set resurrection into motion, so to speak; God has put into motion a transformation that will not only overcome death but will bring believers into the very presence of God (“and so we will be with the Lord forever”). We can be assured, too, that just as God is still speaking, God is still acting today, and we are part of that same great transformation. It’s true that the answers to the questions of these early Christians might be very different from their own understanding of God’s timeline, but the heart of Paul’s argument is true. These events, this process, happens on God’s time, not ours. And those who have died will not be left out.

Swept up in the resurrection work of God

As for the living, in Paul’s time and today, the instruction is clear to encourage one another, to live in hope, and even in times of grief to trust that our story is far from over, that they and we are swept up in the great transformation, the resurrection work of God. John Dominic Crossan sees this transformative process as absolutely basic to the theology of Paul: “Transformation is a process arching from past, through present, into future consummation” (with Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul). According to Crossan, “To claim that God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine justice and peace demands that you can show something of that transformative activity here and now. To which Paul would have replied unabashedly: To see God’s transformation in process, come and see how we live.”

How does this understanding of Paul’s eschatological language differ from that of the popular end-of-world novels and movies today? What sort of hope and fear do such popularized accounts engender? What sort of response do you think the authors of those popular works hope to provoke in their readers? Does an “end of the world” scenario produce fear in your heart, or in the hearts of your congregation? What sort of feelings do they share in common with these earliest Christians, and what sort of expectations? In what ways do you see God “transform[ing] this earth into a place of divine justice and peace”? How does the life of your congregation and of the United Church of Christ “show something of that transformative activity here and now,” in the way that you live? Would outsiders see hope in the life of your congregation? In what ways? How much does the hope of the members of your congregation rest in the anticipation of being with the Lord forever, as Paul says, not just in being able to enjoy an afterlife? How much is God at the center of our hope?

Lectionary texts

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Psalm 78:1-7

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
   incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

I will open my mouth in a parable;
   I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
   that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children;
   we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of God, we will tell of God’s might,
   and the wonders that God has done.

God established a decree in Jacob,
   and appointed a law in Israel,
which God commanded our ancestors
   to teach to their children;

that the next generation might know them,
   the children yet unborn,
that they might rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget God’s works,
   but keep God’s commandments;
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
   and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
   and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
   for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
   and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
   because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
   and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
   and meets them in every thought.

Amos 5:18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
   Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
   as if someone fled from a lion,
   and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
   and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
   and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
   and concern for instruction is love of her,
   and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
   and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
   and immortality brings one near to God;
    so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

Psalm 70

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
   O God, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and confusion
   who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
   who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
   turn back because of their shame.

Let all who seek you
   rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
   say evermore, “God is great!”
But I am poor and needy;
   hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
   O God, do not delay!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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.”


Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.