This morning we are going to spend a few minutes looking at another one of Jesus' parables of judgment. Our worship this morning centers around the communion table, and in a few minutes we are also going to welcome in some new members. The parables of judgment describe a kingdom where God includes everyone before we have the chance to exclude ourselves, and we're going to hear another example of that this morning. This parable is one in a series that Jesus tells about the timing of God's arrival. At the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus makes a comment that all the stones of the temple will be thrown down. The disciples then ask him privately, "When will this be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" And then for basically two chapters, Jesus tells a bunch of different stories that all say, "Nobody knows what's going to happen, so just stay ready." It's helpful as we listen to these stories to remember that Jesus was talking about "the end of the age." Not the termination of the world, but the completion of everything that has been happening so that a new age can begin. As Christians we have inherited this anticipation that someday, some way God will set the whole world right. Jesus got things started and we are called to live like it's already a reality, but we know it's not done yet. Also in case you were wondering, Jesus clearly says that NOBODY but the Father knows when the age will be completed, not even Jesus himself knows. So the point isn't how do we figure it out; the point is how we live in the meantime.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
I hope that you are all planning to come next week, because it's Palm Sunday and because we are going to look at the final parable of judgment. It's the one where Jesus says, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto me." And then he delivers the harshest, scariest sounding description of judgment that we find anywhere outside of Revelation. So that's going to be awesome and you don't want to miss it.
This is also a parable of judgment, but on the week when we welcome in new members, and as we are getting ready to receive our offering next week for the One Great Hour of Sharing, I would like to raise some points from this parable about sharing.
Parables use tangible situations to make intangible points. If we read this parable and get mad that wise bridesmaids didn't share the stuff that we think they could have shared, we miss the point. This is not a story about sharing resources. Throughout the Scriptures God clearly calls us to share with those who are in need. That's not what this is about. The oil is representative of something else.
Keep the bridesmaids in your mind and listen to what Paul says in Galatians chapter 6: "My friends, if anyone is caught up in a trespass, you who are spiritual should restore that person in a spirit of gentleness, regarding yourself attentively, that you should not also be tested. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you shall fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will be something to be proud of. For each one shall bear their own load."
There are some things we can do for each other and some things we can't do for each other. In Galatians the same word is used: "bear" one another's burdens and each one shall "bear" their own load. God calls us to bear one another's burdens, to stand together when life is heavy, to support one another with compassion, to pray for one another with empathy and conviction. To bring meals and give rides and listen and love.
And yet. There are some things that we can only do for ourselves. Although we can bear one another's burdens, we apparently can't bear each other's load. There are things for which we are each personally responsible. We all know someone who doesn't make great choices, and wants someone else to be responsible for that. (Sometimes each of us IS that person.) And ultimately, there are choices only an individual can make and only they can experience the results of those choices.
Faith in Jesus is one of those choices. Now remember last week: faith is not about behaving well. And it's not about saying the right magic words to convince God to accept you. What has been done by and through Jesus is all that needs to be done for our acceptance. Faith means trusting that we are all already accepted and then living like that's the reality. Each of us will realize and experience that differently. But that's the choice we are called to make. Nobody else can make it for us. And according to this parable, there is going to come a moment when not living into our acceptance is going to have some pretty serious consequences.
When we don't ask for help, when we won't receive help, when we refuse to be vulnerable enough to share our struggles or be open to changing our minds, we keep other people from being able to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing our burdens.
But if we give up on our faith too soon, if we decide that God is taking too long and we're not interested any more, or if we think that we will just wait until Jesus shows up and then live differently, this parable warns us that we run the risk of missing the party.
Now this parable is not supposed to shame us or scare us into good behavior. It's supposed to encourage us to be clear-minded and faithful. The only question is: why in the world would anyone want to miss the party? If we know what it means to be ready when the bridegroom shows up, then let's do that! It will not be particularly easy. Admittedly God is taking an awfully long time in showing up. But it will be worth it. It will be meaningful. And it will be all the more so because we have done it together.
As we welcome six new members this morning, we want to remember that membership at a church is like being a member of a family, not like being a member of a club. When a family gets a new member, like a new baby or someone who marries in, that new member doesn’t just assimilate to the family’s way of doing things. The family actually changes because of this new member. So while our new members today will learn some of this family’s traditions, we will also be changed by these new members. We welcome their different perspectives, we will listen to their wisdom, and we will grow and change because of their gifts.
Church membership is not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about who wants to be in a relationship. In church, we are invited to share life with people who are different from us: theologically, politically, racially, economically, sexually. And when we choose to be together, even when we disagree, we grow in grace and love and humility. This is the beautiful invitation of church membership.