Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Nov. 8, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Nov 8, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 8, 2020

Have you ever had the experience of seeking God, and then discovered that it is you who has been sought and found by God? It is the paradox being offered here in our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. Here and in Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman, and ‘she’ seeks out those who love her, she graciously appears in our paths, meeting us “in every thought.” Lest we allow ourselves to think God is making it hard to find the Wisdom of God, she is described as “radiant and unfading,” “easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.” Yes, it is we who must be seeking, and also ready to respond when we have been found.

The parable of the bridesmaids is frankly troubling to me. A traditional wedding celebration is imagined here, and a group of girls waits with lamps (probably like the one pictured) to welcome the bridegroom to the house where he  is either picking up his bride or taking her to the new place. They have a general idea of how long it usually takes, but this time the groom is very late. Here’s where we’ll get stuck if we’re trying too hard to fit parable people into our idea of who they are and what it means. When the sleeping ‘bridesmaids’ rise and ready their lamps, having heard he’s finally coming, we learn half have brought no lamp oil and beg some from the others. No, generosity and sharing is not the lesson here. The girls refuse, saying it won’t be enough for them all, and send them to go buy oil for themselves. (Does this sound more like those teenage ‘mean girls’ movies than scripture?) 

Uncaring or self-righteous as it sounds, notice the well-prepared girls don’t ever judge or decry those who are not. The only one here who judges is the bridegroom himself. Again we feel the discomfort with the parable as he shows no mercy, offers no second chance, doesn’t even show kindness or sympathy. This can’t be the parable role we equate with Christ—or can it? Early Christians hearing this gospel had already seen or heard tell of the crucifixion and resurrection, and by this time long awaiting Christ’s return. This parable urges them to faithful vigilance as they anticipate his return. From this setting we see how disciples were shaped by the expectation of Jesus’ return. The bridegroom being late sounds familiar to his listeners because Jesus’ promised return seems both overdue and as yet still known. Matthew has already said in the last chapter, “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” If the Son of Man’s return is unknown, it means one’s readiness is fundamental and essential. The last line reinforces this teaching when the unprepared girls who had to go and buy oil arrive late and are not let in; “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew’s gospel has has several parables making this point in fact.

Last week Carolyn Lukens and I pondered the old question ‘who would you invite to dinner if it could be anyone?’ I think dinner is too short, so I’d want a good long road trip! With Jesus—and Mary Oliver and St. Augustine perhaps. I’d ask Jesus why some of his parables are so harsh, so final, seemingly unlike his other lessons on endless forgiving, loving kindness to even our enemies, and radical welcoming. I’d ask if there is yet another chance for those who weren’t prepared for his coming. Until we can ask directly we will need to wrestle with things like this parable. Maybe that’s a good thing too. We can ask ourselves, ‘Do I feel prepared for the coming of the Son of Man, the Last Day?’ Have I made living a ready faith of the highest priority? This isn’t about constant vigilance, nor are they judged and admonished for falling asleep. The delay was not a test nor incidental, I think we are to expect it. True, we’re not much good at delayed gratification or waiting these days, (anyone hitting ‘refresh’ on election results all week?) The committed disciple treats Christ’s coming as important enough to be present with our light, while also prepared for a delay—the coming Son of Man is more important than dashing off to buy oil and missing the moment.

What is the oil we remember to bring, or fail to? How do we prepare for a Last Day ourselves? The wedding feast begins when the groom arrives, so imagine yourself waiting for him, lamp in hand. Lit? Full or Empty? The waiting bridesmaids are not merely decorative. If this is analogous to the coming of the Son of Man they witness, light his way, and go feast with him; a celebration which is the end of pain and suffering and entry into God’s eternal justice and mercy. For Matthews’s audience it reflects in a new way the promised realization of the hopes of Israel, what the people of God await.

Again, is our lamp lit or empty? As some of you have seen before, this lamp and flask are similar to what was carried. It might be difficult to see how much oil might be in either lamp or flask. We aren’t told if the “foolish” girls knew theirs were empty, do we? With or without, can we refrain from judgment on that half of the bridesmaids? We need to remember that even in joy at having oil enough to witness and enter the feast, half of those among us are not feeling that way, and wishing they too were joyfully feasting.

To be wise carriers of the light, to be prepared to do so at any time, is to affirm our faith Christ who always comes. Comes not in the limited sense of some far off apocalyptic Last Day, but in each of our lives, at any time. Emory University Professor of New Testament, Susan Hylen posts, “Doing so shows our trust that God is a God of justice and mercy. The eschaton encapsulates the ideals of God’s reign. It is the vision against which we judge our efforts in the meantime to live according to God’s principles. It is a vision of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness without which our world appears very bleak.”

Yesterday we heard election results, and if you’re like Michael and me the waiting was pretty intense. There are many important outcomes and people we will wait for in our lives, and yes, the election of a president is surely one of them. One of them. Earlier our Wisdom reading said, Wisdom “goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.” It doesn’t say — she does this if the right person wins the election. Or that our readiness effort depends on who is elected. Part of the flask of extra lamp oil we carry is our actions; tending to people in need, calling on those shut in or lonely, feeding hungry people, spending regular time praying, healing divisions, welcoming those who feel lost, giving our time and wisdom and money to be ready to light the way. 

The Lord’s arrival is certain, the timing is not. So to live as disciples ready to receive the One who comes, is to know Christ as the grounding bedrock of our reality. To live it when we wait and when we see him coming. To live as if we might need that extra oil because we wouldn’t want to miss our Lord’s arrival at the door where we wait, nor to be doing last-minute shopping when he comes seeking us. 

This has been a tough year of learning to wait over and over again. We have been waiting for the pandemic to ebb, a vaccine to be ready, the quarantines to end, people to recover, political ads to finally cease, and our votes to be counted—and counted. I commend you St. Michael’s, because you are those who keep the flask of oil handy! You have been ready and survived all of these things I just named, and more yet to come.  The Wisdom of God has indeed been “radiant and unfading” for us, “easily discerned” by we who love her.

I’ve witnessed you as faithfully equipped disciples who seek Wisdom, and who have sought it against onslaughts of pessimism, selfishness, hopelessness, falsehoods, rage, and apathy—and you found her again and again. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said it last night, “But we’ve also witnessed your courage, your resilience, and the generosity of your spirit.” Yes! When I began a few minutes ago, I asked if you’d ever had the experience of seeking God, only to discover that it is you who is sought and found by God. This is by exquisite design, and from Wisdom we learn that such reciprocity is perfectly intentional.

In President-elect Biden’s speech (and also in prior interviews) he said that when he left home, his grandfather told him “Joe, keep the faith!” His grandmother called out, “No! Spread the faith!” 

As disciples prepared with the lamp oil of faithfulness close at hand, we are called and equipped to do both. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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