Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Many Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations use the Revised Common Lectionary, a series of lessons in a three year cycle which means the same four lessons (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel) come up once every three years. This means that you will hear the same lessons read each Sunday in many congregations in different denominations. This also means that, if you worshiped in another congregation this weekend, it is a good possibility that you would hear a sermon on today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
And, in many of these congregations, you might hear a sermon about being ready for Jesus’ return which could come any time – “for you know neither the day nor the hour” the text tells us. “Be ready for Christ’s judgment,” some preachers are probably saying today. “Do not be like those foolish, unprepared bridesmaids.” And, I must admit, I probably have preached a sermon with a similar theme in the past.
Not here. Not today.
You see, I now think that the themes of “preparedness” and “judgment” are not what this text is about. I now believe this is a lesson about waiting.
The text itself is rather confusing – where’s the bride? How can the wedding be taking place in the middle of the night? Why is selfishness – the bridesmaids not sharing their oil with others – seemingly affirmed? Why would the bridesmaids without enough oil for their lamps go shopping in the middle of the night? What sort of Jesus, if we assume the bridegroom is standing in for Jesus in this parable, what sort of Jesus would say “I do not know you” to anyone and keep anyone out of his kingdom?
Once again, we need to look at the context, the time and place when Matthew wrote this parable. It is about 80 AD. Jerusalem and the Temple have been destroyed by the Romans. The Jews are in panic mode and are “circling their wagons,” so to speak. In their panic, the Jews are cracking down on sects within Judaism, Christianity being one of these. They have even shut the Christians out of what is left of the Temple.
The Christians are not in much better shape. They had spent the last 50 years or so waiting for Jesus to return. Surely with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, Jesus would return. But he did not.
Thus, Matthew writes about the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25. Then he writes the parable of the talents, next week’s Gospel. And then Matthew writes about the Last Judgment, the text for Christ the King Sunday in two weeks. These are all parables in Matthew 25 and all texts seemingly about preparation and judgment.
Thus, it is important to see these texts as a part of a series of lessons, a series which ends with Jesus affirming his continued concern for the poor and hungry, as we will hear on Christ the King Sunday – Jesus states it clearly, those who are not concerned about the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned – without concern for these marginalized people, one will not enter God’s kingdom.
But, that is for Vicar Scott’s sermon in two weeks. Today, we have those wise and foolish bridesmaids.
I have never been much good at waiting. Not one of my strengths, to say the least! I like to be first in line at the airport or at a concert or film. If someone steps aside in a line, I usually am not hesitant to step ahead.
As some of you know, before coming here to Mt. Olive, I had nearly a year of waiting for a new call, waiting which included four months without work or salary. This waiting was not fun, far from it. It was even a little scary at times. Would there be another call for me? How would I pay for health insurance? What does God really have in mind for me? I was impatient, worried and even prone to some “poor me” feelings. Not a happy time.
And then this call came and now here I am living and ministering with you all! And you have all been so welcoming and kind to both Kris and me. Thus, the waiting was more than worth it. God took care of us, again, as God always has done.
Thus, I think today’s text is for me, and for you. Because I believe this gospel lesson is not about Jesus coming soon, but about patiently waiting for Jesus whenever and however he comes.
And, this waiting is not idle time – there is work to be done in God’s kingdom. While we wait, we are to reach out in love to others, especially all those who live outside of our regular contacts – the poor, the homeless, the sick, anyone not loved by society or the church.
The so-called foolish bridesmaids did make one mistake, I believe. Instead of waiting with the others for the bridegroom, they left. They did not wait. Certainly there would have been plenty of light from the other bridesmaids who had enough oil – There was no need for the foolish bridesmaids to leave even if their lamps had gone out. But, instead of waiting, they left, they ran away and, by the time they returned, it was too late.
We should not be foolish in this way – there is no need to run away from Jesus’ love for us, even as we wait, patiently or not.
Waiting is difficult, no question about that. Waiting for something that is overdue (like the early Christians felt about Jesus’ return), waiting for something you are not sure will even come, waiting that involves active participation even when we are not sure for what we should be preparing. That kind of waiting is challenging.
Waiting is often hard, really hard, and can be full of anxiety.
What are we waiting for? What are we looking forward to? Some waiting is anxiety producing – test results from your doctor, a signal from a family member or friend with whom you had an argument that all will be okay, waiting for a time of sorrow to end, or even waiting for a new job – all of these can be difficult times of waiting.
But, there are also opportunities for us all as we wait. Each time we work for justice, as Amos invites in today’s first lesson, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we bear one another’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, reach out to the friendless, or do any work to make this world that God loves a better place, we testify to Jesus’ presence.
Thus, that is our task, I believe, in response to this Gospel text – active waiting for Jesus’ return. We do not know when Jesus will return and, other Gospel texts tell us, our task is not to sit around idly until that time or to worry about when that might be since it could be tomorrow or in 1,000 years.
And, there will be days when we, you and I, are foolish. It is easy to grow weary in life and in the church. I know it is for me, I suspect it is for you also. But, that is all the more reason for us to wait together as Christians, and to keep busy with the work that Christ has called us to do on this earth. While we wait we can “encourage one another” as St. Paul tells us in today’s second lesson.
So, we help one another in times of pain, loss or bereavement. We celebrate achievements and console others after disappointments. We give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed and courage when we or others are afraid. We are people who help each other to wait, prepare and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage one another with the promises of Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be followers of Christ. And that is why we come together for worship, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of God.
We wait patiently, at least most of the time. We serve others. We hope. We pray. And, while we wait, we keep busy doing God’s work here on earth. And, we know that God is with us as we wait, even when we do foolish things. We can sometimes be like the wise bridesmaids, prepared and ready for anything. We can sometimes feel like the foolish bridesmaids, unprepared and ready to run.
When we are foolish, when we are wise, in whatever state we find ourselves we have the promise that God is with us, always, today and all days.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for Pentecost 22, “A,”
Written by Rev. Eric Shafer.
November 8 & 9, 2014
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica