Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, November 08 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Joshua 24:1-3a,14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Sometimes, when world events are preoccupying, the lectionary gives you exactly what you need. Other times you get one of Matthew’s difficult parables, and must work a bit to see how its interpretation can speak to us now. The introduction of this parable is interestingly ambiguous—it translates as “the kingdom of heaven is sort of like this”—but maybe not like this in an obvious way; maybe in a way that requires a bit of additional unpacking of the text and its possibilities, which doesn’t leave us thinking that the kingdom of God is like a door slammed in our faces forever. The scenario is, at least to begin with, fairly sensible in terms of what we know of the wedding customs of the time. The friends of the bride are waiting for the groom to arrive at the bride’s house. After his arrival, a night-time procession will escort both bride and groom to the groom’s house, where there will be a final party. The groom, however, appears to be in no hurry to get this thing done, and while they are waiting the bridesmaids— all the bridesmaids, let it be noted, because this is important—fall asleep. Then, at some delayed, unexpected moment, the bridegroom arrives. Half of the suddenly awakened group, it seems, have an adequate amount of oil for their lamps; the rest, whether due to poor planning or to poverty, do not. Those who aren’t able to keep lamps lit ask the others to share, but they are refused, and are told, basically, to throw themselves upon the mercy of the free market. While they are away making their purchases, the bridegroom arrives, and the door is shut; and when the other bridesmaids arrive, they are locked out and denied entry.

Now, it’s important to notice that the command, the warning, which is given is not “have lots of oil for your lamps.” It is “stay awake” —and every single one of the bridesmaids falls short of that command. They are all asleep when the bridegroom arrives. And in that sense, they have all failed already. When the moment of crisis, the moment of decision, comes, none of them is actually ready. When the bridesmaids with sufficient oil refuse to share, and tell the others to go and buy oil in the market, they are doing precisely the same thing the disciples do at the beginning of the story of the feeding of the five thousand. “We can’t afford to feed all those people! There isn’t nearly enough to go around! Send them away to buy food for themselves!” Because that’s how you’re supposed to get food, and oil, and whatever else you need to get through your days—transactionally. As a market purchase. For a price. But no, says Jesus. That’s not how we do things around here. That may be how the world works, but it’s not how the kingdom works. Everyone is fed, and there is no price, no transaction, no measurement.

So what we have, really, is a story in which the people on both sides of that door have failed; and those on the inside have perhaps failed more grieviously than those on the outside. Outside, the poor and the feckless, the confused and the irresponsible, and inside the self-satisfied, the selfish, the hard-hearted. The community is wounded, split, cut in half by that unyielding door, and the celebration is incomplete, the bride—who is notably absent from this whole story—deprived of half her friends and attendants. A broken community—like the communities in which racialized and low-income people are compelled to go out to work in a global pandemic, bearing the cost of illness while the privileged are able to hide. Like the broken community in the United States, where open hatred has been fostered for years, and healing, if it can come, will be long and hard.

So—however is this like the kingdom? Well, it may be that Jesus, or whoever put this story together, really intended only to deliver a warning about how we need to be alert, watchful, aware of the moments of crisis and decision which face us. It’s an important warning—and maybe the storyteller just got caught up in colourful details about weddings and silly girls, and didn’t really think through the larger implications of the whole narrative. Or maybe it’s Matthew, who takes such obvious delight in ending parables with warnings of eternal punishment, at work again.

But there’s another detail here, which may change the whole picture. When the bridesmaids come back after buying more oil, they are, it seems clear, returning to the house where they started. The bride’s house. Not the groom’s house. For some reason, this family seems to be truncating the wedding ceremony, and holding the party at an intermediate stage. But that door will, it must, open again.

And the kingdom—the kingdom begins when those inside open up that door and come out onto the street, where the other bridesmaids have been waiting, waiting perhaps a very long time. The people the church and the society haven’t had time for, or has looked down on, or haven’t even noticed really, out there on the street. The excluded and the dispossessed. The ones who find so many things falling all to pieces all around them The anxious idealists, the extravagant dreamers, the ones too honest to pretend that it’s all okay. The people who voted this week at the literal risk of their lives, the people around the world resisting, speaking with the voice of the prophets, demanding those rivers of justice, building hope where they can. Still waiting, for they have nowhere else to go.

And perhaps, after that door opens, the insiders apologize, perhaps they are willing to be reconciled, but maybe not. Maybe the other bridesmaids forgive them anyway, somehow, on God’s horizon. There is a procession still to be had, a bride to be escorted. There is the bridegroom’s house still to be arrived at, the house where everyone comes in, and a party which the street celebrations across the United States yesterday can only begin to foreshadow, a joy without qualifications or warnings.

There’s another group of people, you know, who fall asleep at a moment of final crisis; the disciples in the garden of Gethesemane. “Stay awake,” Jesus says to them, as he says here. And they don’t. Traumatized and exhausted, they fall asleep instead; and when they are woken, when Jesus steps forward to enter into his final and greatest work, they do not have the resources to deal with it. They scatter, they run away, they betray. They fall quite comprehensively short of the demands of the moment. And yet the door is not shut for them, not then and not ever.

Thomas Merton wrote a little poem about this parable, almost a throwaway, but worth reading I think:

There were five howling (or scatter-brained) virgins
Who came
To the Wedding of the Lamb
With their disabled motorcycles
And their oil tanks
But since they knew how
To dance
A person says to them
To stay anyhow.
And there you have it,
There were five noisy virgins
Without gas
But looking good
In the traffic of the dance. (but well-involved in the action of the dance)
There were ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.

A person says to them to stay anyhow. Somebody, a nobody in particular. The one who comes and tells us all that we can stay. That we can be part of the general dance. A person, somebody—the true bridegroom, by whom and with whom and in whom all things are always dancing.