Sermons

Proper 27 A: Wisdom 6:12–16, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

One thing you should probably know about me right off the bat is that I am obsessed with all things Advent, and, perhaps more strangely, that in my world, the season of Advent begins today. Seven, not just four, Sundays before Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider this a teaser, and if you want to learn more, you’ll just have to come to our adult formation sessions between November 19 and December 24. Curious? I hope so!

 

Lest you think I am completely off my rocker for starting Advent so early, I call your attention to the epistle and Gospel readings for today. We heard the apostle Paul, our patron saint, remind the church in Thessalonica that the Lord is coming and will bring with him the resurrection of the dead. And Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins waiting with their lamps for the bridegroom carries with it all of the classic Advent imagery – eager waiting for a great celebration, lights illuminating the darkness, and the challenge to “keep awake!” If I had had my wits about me this past week, I would have requested hymn 61 – “Sleepers, wake!” This is a classic Advent hymn, calling us to prepare for the coming not just of the baby in Bethlehem but for the Lamb of God enthroned in the New Jerusalem – a symbol for the glory of a world of justice, freedom, peace, joy, and beauty.

So really, if you pay attention to our readings and the hymns that go with them, we’re squarely in Advent. I’m not making this stuff up!

But here at St. Paul’s we’re also celebrating an important moment in the life of the parish, a moment that may seem to some like an unwelcome distraction from the “spiritual” work of the Body of Christ – we’re marking the ingathering of our financial pledges. If you didn’t understand what we were doing, you might think we’re celebrating a different kind of advent – not the coming of the Lord, but the arrival of the money. In a society that can often appear to worship the stock market and increasing profits, the Lord and the money can look like the same thing. I hope we know the difference. I think we do.

But here we are, with our pledge cards, symbolizing our financial commitment to this community and to the holy work that goes on here in the name of Jesus Christ. We’ve been invited to this moment as a sign of our willingness to offer back to God what came from God in the first place – everything we have and everything we are. The money matters, just like everything that has the capacity to contribute to human flourishing matters. Money, in this world, is a tool in our discipleship, part of how we embody God’s abundance and justice. Our money comes with strings attached – in whatever direction the treasure travels, our hearts are sure to go. We know this to be true in our own lives – what we invest our money in, whether it be our homes or stock portfolios or our children or our education or something else, is what garners the bulk of our interest, our anxiety, and our hope.

So today we put our money where our mouth is – we put into concrete form our desire to love God and our neighbor, our desire to let Jesus tug our hearts into deeper communion with him. We’re saying “yes” to the invitation to party with the Bridegroom, “yes” to being part of this grand celebration of love to which everyone is invited.

How do you feel about what you are offering? Are you scared that you’ve promised too much, that you’ll be left without enough oil if you give too much away to those whose lamps are going out? Are you afraid that you’ve promised too little, and that your gift isn’t worthy? Do you wonder if perhaps it would be better to skip the party rather than feel like a skimper, or maybe you feel as if you need to look for sustenance elsewhere, like the five virgins who went off to the market to buy more oil? Are you wondering whether the Bridegroom will actually let you in?

Whenever we are asked to pledge ourselves or our resources, whenever we are faced with making promises that require something significant of us, we shake a little (or a lot). At various times in my life, I have been like both the “wise” virgins and those who were foolish. I have wanted to hold tight to my carefully stewarded riches just in case I needed them later; and I have also found myself unprepared and shamefully lacking in what I had promised to bring. I’ve hoarded my hard won ticket to the party, and I’ve left in shame because I didn’t think I deserved to be there. It’s likely that I’ve also been the one who, maybe unintentionally, shamed those who didn’t, in my view, bring enough to the party, whether that was commitment or money or just a casserole. Each of us can probably find ourselves in both kinds of bridesmaids – we’re human, after all.

I know that this parable ends with the “wise” virgins being let in to the party and the “foolish” ones locked outside, but somehow it doesn’t really sit well with me – and I’m not sure it sat well with Jesus, either. There’s some disagreement among those who interpret this text as to whether Jesus is really saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this, or that it’s the way some people have interpreted or will interpret it. But I can’t help but wonder if the party is somehow diminished by the exclusion of the foolish virgins, as well as by the eagerness of the wise virgins to get them out of the way.

What if the problem with the foolish virgins is that they listened to the wise virgins, and believed that their own empty lamps meant they weren’t worthy to come to the party? What if their foolishness was really about the fact that they decided to look elsewhere for what they needed, instead of staying and partying in the dark? What if there is room in the kingdom of heaven – and by that I mean God’s work of love and justice here among us – for all of us, no matter how well prepared or empty handed we are?

I found an amazing poem by Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk, activist, and writer who died in 1968. He wrote it originally in French, but here is a fabulous English translation. It’s called The Five Virgins (For Jacques):

There were five virgins
Rowdies
Who arrived for the Wedding of the Lamb

With their motor-scooters burned out
And their gas tanks
Empty

But since they knew how to
Dance
They were told to
Stick around anyhow.

So that’s it: there were
Five rowdy virgins
Without gas
But really caught up
In the action.

There were then ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.1

What if this is one of the things we are meant to hear: if you’re waiting for the party to begin, and you’re not sure you have enough to contribute, don’t leave. Stay. There will be enough, and you’ll figure out what you need to offer. Is your light not shining so brightly right now, in your own soul or in the world? Don’t go – stay with us. Do you wonder if the mass shootings will ever stop, and aren’t sure if the Church can offer any words or actions that will make a difference? Don’t go – stay with us. When we tell you we’re not sure we have enough, don’t believe us – we’re just scared like everyone else. Is your motor scooter burnt out and your gas tank empty? Stick around anyhow. You can still dance.

This is really the heart of our ingathering, and the heart of this season of waiting for the Lord Jesus and the Reign of God – accepting God’s invitation to this celebration of life and love and abundance and yes, self-sacrifice. Whatever you have in your hands and heart, and even if you are running on empty – perhaps especially if you are running on empty – stick around anyhow. You can still dance. I promise you, it will be a great party. God’s parties always are.

 

1 Thomas Merton, translated by Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt in A Feminist Companion to Matthew, edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001, p. 178.

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