Sermon Seeds: Be Ready
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 27)
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7 or
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
Worship resources for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 27) are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
by Kathryn 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” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
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” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
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” (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 and chilling 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, 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 (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 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 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” (Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible). 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Indeed!
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
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 and all its mysteries have especially 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?
A pastor’s assurances
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.” Does “how we live” as Christians today reflect the hand of God at work in transforming the world? How much does justice enter into this reflection?
End of the world questions
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 in your heart and mind? 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 you and your church members 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?
For further reflection:
Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Amiel’s Journal, 19th century
“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“If I trust You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven….”
Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, 20th century
“I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”
Confucius 6th century B.C.E.
“Heaven means to be one with God.”
Jonathan Edwards, 19th century
“The way to heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.”
Dag Hammarskjöld, 20th century
“In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment–the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth–until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.”
Terry Tempest Williams, Leap, 21st century
“How do we remain faithful to our own spiritual imagination and not betray what we know in our own bodies? The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century mystic
“In this life we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here.”
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.
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
that our ancestors
have told us.
We will not hide them
from their children;
we will tell
to the coming generation
the glorious deeds
we will tell
of God’s might,
and the wonders
that God has done.
God established a decree
and appointed a law
which God commanded
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.
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.
Be pleased, O God,
to deliver me.
O God, make haste
to help me!
Let those be put to shame
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back
and brought to dishonor
who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say,
turn back because
of their shame.
Let all who seek you rejoice
and be glad in you.
Let those who love
“God is great!”
But I am poor
hasten to me,
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.
[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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!