There is grace here: Christ, the bridegroom, willingly takes a door-slam in the face alongside us, and is with us as we seek to prepare our lives for God’s healing grace in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32, year A
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13; Amos 5:18-24
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This has been a heavy, exhausting twelve months.
It’s so tiring, all the time, isn’t it? I’m tired that there isn’t a single day without depressing news, or worse, despairing news. Almost hourly we hear of the latest shenanigans or wickedness from our highest leaders. Almost daily we hear news of shootings and killings, and our Congress, bought and paid for by the NRA, refuses to address it. Natural disasters are no longer natural, aided and abetted by climate change, city after city is pummeled by storms like we’ve never seen.
And it’s more than the news. More than any before us, we’re aware of the complex systems that cause suffering and pain, and we can’t keep up. Seemingly insoluble problems that require all our energy and creativity, embedded systems that we participate in even without knowing. We’re used to confessing our individual sins and trying to do better. Now on top of them there’s an endless list of mountains we need to work on. Just one would take great effort. But there’s not just one. Climate justice. Racism. Devaluation and objectification of women across the culture. Violence and a gun culture. Oppression of the poor in our own nation. And so many more. If we didn’t care, it would be easier. But we do. And God cares. There’s so much our care compels us to deal with. It’s overwhelming. Exhausting.
And this heaviness, anxiety, and tiredness seems to be rising among many of us who care deeply about this world and about serving God in this world.
It would be a help if we could find some relief for this weight.
Here at worship we often find God’s peace. But this past year has been Matthew’s year, and that’s contributed to the weight. This year I’ve had a number of conversations with folks here about Matthew, and how judgmental his Gospel can feel. And the lectionary creators chose a lot of prophetic witness to pair with Matthew this year, so it hasn’t been an easy year to find lightness and joy in our Scripture texts.
Just look at these next three weeks, starting today. To finish the Church Year we’ve got three very hard parables from Matthew 25 and three very angry prophets, Amos, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel. At this point, that seems more weight than we can bear.
But God has promised to bless us with grace when we gather. So we’re going to struggle with these readings until we get it. We’ll emulate Jacob at the river Jabbok, who wrestled an angel, maybe even God, all night, and refused to let go until he got a blessing. With the Spirit’s help, we’re not letting go of these heavy readings in a heavy year until we hear God’s good news.
Our wrestling reveals we’re not being completely fair to Matthew.
It’s true, Matthew’s the kind of student that, just before the bell rings, raises his hand and reminds the teacher she forgot to give homework. Matthew’s a disciple that wants to learn. He packs his Gospel with Jesus’ teachings. And we’ve heard those teachings, week after week, till we feel like all we’ve heard this year is how messed up we are and how much work we have to do.
But it’s not Matthew’s fault we don’t read his whole Gospel every week. We can’t hear all the teachings and skip Matthew’s framing truth and complain we don’t like Matthew.
If we read all of Matthew every week, we’d remember that Matthew starts his Gospel with Jesus’ family tree that includes flawed people, even naming four women. Jesus comes from broken folks just like us. It’s Matthew who says that Jesus’ true name is Emmanuel, God with us, who ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to be with us always. The whole Gospel is about God being with us. Matthew’s the only Evangelist that tells us that Jesus said God wills that not a single person be lost. God wants to save everyone. And unlike Luke, who heard that the Roman officer who crucified Jesus said, as Jesus died, “truly this was an innocent man,” Matthew says the officer said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
So here’s Matthew’s Good News: Jesus is the Christ, God-with-us, born of flawed human stock, who desires to save all, and who is publicly known and proclaimed as God’s Son only when he’s dying, humiliated, on a cross.
We can’t read this parable and ignore Matthew’s greater truth.
Now, obviously the Bridegroom today is meant to be Jesus.
In most of the parables we’ve heard since September, there’s been a figure that seems clearly to stand as God. Or the Son of God. Vineyard owner, ruler, master. That’s true these three weeks, too. Today, the Bridegroom. Next week, the master. Last, the returning King.
But if Matthew is focused toward that critical witness at the cross – truly this is the Son of God – then we have to re-think all those parables. God isn’t where we thought God was in them. God-with-us is dying on the cross. And that changes everything.
Because if it’s God’s Son who’s dying as a criminal, here’s what really happens in today’s parable: the Bridegroom himself has the door slammed in his face. He’s told “I don’t know you,” and is thrown out with the rest of us foolish, unprepared ones. If the Son of God dies on the cross, then this parable doesn’t end the way Jesus said it would.
Now, Jesus told this parable right before Holy Week. Matthew 26, the next chapter, begins the Passion account. Whatever was threatened here, in Holy Week the opposite happened. The Bridegroom was thrown out, along with everyone else who didn’t properly prepare. And the Bridegroom was killed.
This is the astonishing grace we find when we struggle and don’t let go till we hear good news: God-with-us is out in the darkness with us.
God joins us in our foolish lack of preparation, our paralyzed inactivity in the face of such challenging things. There is no greater news. I’ve never felt that I’d be one of the prepared ones. I leave things till the last minute too often. How do any of us know if we’re ready for Christ?
But if God is with us in our struggle to be prepared, it’s a different world. Now we can hear the message of this parable – be ready, get your oil, face what needs facing – with the joy that we aren’t preparing alone.
Amos shows us the oil we need to have ready: justice that rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. That’s what fills our flasks, what lights our lamps. It is God-made, and God-given. And with God-with-us at our side, we can fill up with God’s justice and righteousness and be ready for whatever mountains and suffering and work are before us.
It’s a heavy path ahead. This year has taught us that. It’s going to be heavy for a long time. But we’re not alone. God is here. So we can go on.
There’s one more grace in all this, maybe the best of all.
If God’s justice and righteousness are the oil for our lamps, what will happen when they are lighted? Our preparedness has little to do with life after we die. In Christ’s resurrection we will be borne into new life, and there’s nothing we can do to make that happen. So what are we preparing for?
African slaves in America sang “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning” to each other. They meant it as more than encouragement about life after death. It was also a prayer for God to change the world. As our lamps of justice burn, the darkness itself is lightened. The world is changed. As our lamps of righteousness burn, even if we can only do a small flame, this world begins to see again, and God’s true healing happens. Mountains start coming down. Even in this world. Maybe even in our lifetimes.
We can’t deny that more often than not we’re the foolish ones in this story, unprepared for the challenges we face.
But hasn’t Paul reminded us that the truth of the cross is that God chooses the foolish to shame the wise? That God chooses to save through the foolishness of the cross? It makes no sense for the Bridegroom to allow himself to be shut out of the party, even killed for the sake of the likes of us. But sensible or not, that’s exactly what Christ does.
And that foolish death was just the beginning. For Christ is risen, and all the foolish are restored along with the wise. In the light of the resurrection, the wedding feast of God and humanity can finally begin, even now, and change the world. It’s a feast with no doors to slam, no faces excluded. Where everyone is known and loved by name.
We taste of that feast today and at each Eucharist. We are fed with God’s justice and righteousness, we have our jars filled here each week, so we can be prepared for whatever is to come.
But best of all, God-with-us, Emmanuel, never leaves us. That is the light we’ve been longing to see in all this darkness.
In the name of Jesus. Amen