Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32)
Sunday, November 8, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (Minute 21:22)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

A people divided in half …
Half on one side and half on the other …
A time when the door is slammed shut in the face of the hopeful …

That’s the kingdom of heaven, as described in the gospel reading from Matthew this morning [Matthew 25:1-13]. This gospel story where five bridesmaids called wise, with oil in their lampstands, but who refused to share with the bridesmaids who had no oil, are welcomed into the banquet …while five desperate and pleading bridesmaids, called foolish, with no oil for their lampstands, beg to be let into the feast, but have the door slammed shut in their face.  

Jesus began the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” But is this really what the kingdom of heaven looks like? Where those who refuse to share are rewarded and welcomed in? While those who made a mistake and failed to plan ahead are shut out?

Today’s parable is the first of three that conclude the Gospel of Matthew. Each of these three concluding parables point to a future reckoning and accountability for current behavior. We read these parables over the final three Sundays of our liturgical year, and they invite us to consider the question: “How are we called to live today, if we knew Christ was returning tomorrow?”

Of this parable this morning, theologian Mark Oldenburg writes:  “We could argue with this story—we could say that those prepared should have shared, that the doorkeeper should be more generous, but these things aren’t the point of the story … Whether the age ends for us with Christ’s return or our own deaths, Jesus wants us to be ready.”

Half the bridesmaids were ready. The other half were not.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be wise disciples ready for Christ’s return.

A brief note that there is no mention of why the bridegroom was delayed. Delay was certainly on Americans’ minds this week as we waited four days for a call in the Presidential election –learning much more about mail-in ballots, provisional ballots, damaged ballots, overseas & military ballots as we waited. We do know that early Christian community lived in the tension of the delay of Christ’s return.  There was an expectation that Christ would return again, but then he didn’t, and early Christians had to wrestle with what it meant to live in the waiting – in the delay.  

So back to what seems to be the point of the parable: how do we prepare for the return of Christ? How do we live in a time of waiting? Or to use the imagery of this parable: what is the oil we are called to use to fill our lampstands, as we wait for the return of the bridegroom?  

Our First Reading this morning, from the book of Amos [5:18-24], gives us an idea about what we can do as we wait.  

In the reading we hear Amos’s prophecy against a people who were described has having many transgressions and great sin. Prior to where our reading picks up, Amos had already named the transgressions and the sin of the people:  they trampled on the poor, pushed aside the needy, took bribes, afflicted the righteous, abhorred those who spoke the truth, and hated those who spoke correction [Amos Chapter 5].

In response, Amos prophesied against them. He prophesied against them not as individuals for their private sin, but against them as a people for their communal sin. Amos spoke against them as a society turned in on itself and away from the poor. A society, using the imagery from today’s gospel reading, concerned only about their own lampstands, who refused to share their oil with those in need, who stole oil from those about to run out, who used their oil to bribe their way past the doorkeeper, and refused to listen to those who said what they were doing was not right.   

It was to this people Amos cried out with the word of the Lord: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your offerings, I will not accept them … take away the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” Amos cried out against all the activities the people did that made themselves feel better, but did nothing to help those in need.

It was to that people then, and to us as a nation now, the prophet Amos cried: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In this cry, as theologian Claire Matthews McGinnis writes: “Amos makes clear that justice and righteousness involve securing the needs and rights of the disadvantaged and those less able to advocate for themselves. A community characterized by justice and righteousness is one in which all its members have access to the protections and benefits of that community.”

Justice and righteousness not as retribution against the wicked or encouragement of personal piety – but rather, love and concern for the poor, the needy, the hurting, the suffering, the wounded, the rejected, the despised, the forsaken, the cast out. 

And so, friends, a proposal …

What if we are called to prepare for the return of Christ by working today for justice and righteousness in the world?  

What if our preparations today, for Christ’s return tomorrow, are all the ways we store up, or better said, give away generous and overflowing amounts of the oil of justice and righteousness?

Our waiting is not passive – as if we wait around with nothing to do. But rather, our waiting is active – filled with works of love and mercy. And what if we recognize that this preparation means we go all in? Think of the difference between the “foolish” and “wise” bridesmaids. They both showed up. The “foolish” bridesmaids were there, the difference was they didn’t take the extra step. In our waiting as disciples of Christ, we are called to go all in as “wise” bridesmaids who both show up and take the extra step.

Here’s what this might look like:

  • We might feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, but wise bridesmaids BOTH do these things AND wrestle with the deeper realities of hunger, poverty, and housing – working for policies creating more affordable and permanent housing, addressing wealth and income inequality, making sure all are paid a living wage.
  • We might care for the sick and visit the prisoner, but wise bridesmaids BOTH do these things AND make sure health care policy is fair/affordable/accessable; and make sure there is fairness, humaneness, and decency in the criminal justice system.
  • We might denounce racism and say they are not racist, but wise bridesmaids BOTH denounce racism AND ask deeper questions about the way race plays a role in society, acknowledge structural and systemic  racism, implicit bias, and the deeply rooted and ingrained ways race continues to privilege and oppress in this country.

Yes, with the prophet Amos ringing in our ears pointing us to our neighbors, we are called today to prepare for the return of Christ by filling our lampstands with justice and righteousness. Our preparation for Christ’s return, is our love and service for our neighbors. 

The Good News today, is that even as we prepare for the return of the Lord, we do not need to fear the return of the Lord.

This parable could be read as frightening, especially if it leads us to ask: do I have enough oil in my lamp? Will my lamp be shining brightly enough for Christ to love me?

But, our justice and righteousness is not for the sake of earning God’s love. Rather, it is for the sake of sharing the love we have first received from God. The Good News is that Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law, who is the revelation and announcement of God’s justice and righteousness, is oil for our lamps!

In the waters of baptism, in the hearing and the reading of God’s word, and in the bread and cup, God’s oil of justice and righteousness, Jesus Christ, is freely given, poured upon us as a complete and total gift of grace. Having received this oil, faith is the spark that ignites it into a flame of justice and righteousness burning with love and mercy for all peoples.

In this hope, we do not fear the return of Christ as a house guest putting us on edge with withering critiques, condemnations and judgments. Rather, in hopeful anticipation we celebrate the return of Christ arriving as a favorite friend, with a bottle of wine under his arm and pizza in his hands.  Not showing up alone, but bringing with him all his friends he met along the way: the man on the street corner asking for money … the new immigrant who can’t speak any English … and the guy from the other political party who’s always posting obnoxious photos and memes on facebook. 

We do not prepare for a private dinner for two with Jesus, where the door is closed and others are left out. Instead, with the oil of justice and righteousness in our lamps, we prepare for the vast blowout block party celebration where Christ calls us all together in love and plenty for everyone.

Together, let’s get ready.

Let’s get ready for that party to which you, and me, and the whole world is invited!

Thanks be to God.