Getting ready for the banquet, by Pastor Noel

November 12, 2017    Proper 27A,    23rd Pentecost


      We are nearing the end of the church year, and the end of Matthew’s parables. These last three are his most powerful, scariest, and often misunderstood.

      Combined with the reading from Amos, what we hear today sounds harsh and punishing. But they are really good news—there is always good news!

      Paul thought that Christ would return any day to take the faithful with him to heaven. Much of his advice is about being ready for “any day now.” The letter we heard today is the oldest writing in Christian Scriptures—written decades before Matthew.

      By the time the gospels were written, the church had realized that Christ was not coming back immediately. This part of Mt. asks and answers 2 questions.

      When will Jesus return? No one knows, says Mt.

      What should we do until that time? Here, Mt’s answer is, “have enough oil.”

      So he gives us Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids. Five foolish, five wise.

      This is one of the most allegorized of parables—for centuries folks have tried to make sense of the story by finding symbolism in its various parts.

      In a true allegory, all the parts of the story really represent other things.

      That’s not true of this story, and it’s a parable, remember. Parables tell us that something is “like” the kingdom of God (or heaven). Parables compare, but don’t give us easy answers. We are meant to grapple with the meaning ourselves.

      If we make this an allegory, we say that people and things in the story mean only one thing. That narrows our options on the meaning, and takes away any mystery or wonder.

      There is an interesting factor to this story. It is present also in some of Jesus’ other parables. The main character is absent. The bridegroom doesn’t show up until the very end of the story.

      Robert Capon calls this “the hidden God.” This is a God who is known through faith and mystery and trust. The judgements in these parables are not on the actions of the folks in the story as much as on the faith or lack of faith they show.

      Let’s see if I can help you understand this with a personal story.

      Yesterday I spent several hours at a very warm and noisy indoor pool watching my grandson and his teammates in their first meet of the season.

      The coaches were right there—to hand out cards for the next race and to critique and help the kids. Praise or judgment was given in response to how the kids swam their race.  The kids knew that the coaches were there with them, watching and evaluating, and they swam with that in mind.

      But what if the coaches had been like the hidden God? What if the coaches weren’t there. What if the kids had to trust that the coaches were watching  –  just take that on faith?

      Would they have behaved the same as they did with their coaches right there with them?

      The parables of Jesus often call us to trust, to have faith, in hidden God. Or the hidden coach, if you will. 

      When we trust, have faith, we have the gift of grace. Grace is as mysterious as the hidden God. It is the overwhelming and amazing understanding of how much God loves us, and walks with us, and offers us peace and strength and joy.

      Another factor in Jesus’ parables is inclusion. Everyone is IN unless they opt OUT.

      God is always inviting us to be his beloved, to be part of the family. God won’t throw us out of the family—but we can remove ourselves.

      In the parable I just read, who do you think the bridegroom is? Many have said he’s Jesus, but it could be God, couldn’t it? Or a king, or the emperor.

      And the oil—trying to decipher that symbol has been a problem over the years.

      Some have thought that the oil represents faith. The 5 wise bridesmaids had enough faith so they were welcomed into the party.        

      The 5 foolish bridesmaids didn’t have enough faith so they ran out to buy more.

      Where do you “run out to” to buy faith? No where. We can’t buy faith. Faith is a gift from God, given freely, as we recognize his love and power in our lives.

      Some think that the oil is good deeds. But we can’t run out and buy more good deeds, either.      

      The best explanation I’ve seen is that oil is our relationship with God who is the power behind our good deeds.

      We can’t run out and buy more relationship with God. We keep it alive and healthy as we live in the power of God, as we become lamps that shine with the light of Christ.

      The oil in those lamps—perhaps it’s grace, and God says there is grace enough for all. When we trust God for grace, we don’t worry about our lamps running out, we know that God will supply it.

      The party can represent God’s kingdom. But is it heaven that we are preparing for? Or life here and now?

      And how do we prepare? Our gospel says, “keep awake,” but other translations say, “be prepared.”

      We are prepared as we live to follow Christ and serve others, as he did, to be blessed, as we heard last week in the Beatitudes, “blessed are you…”

      Can the wise bridesmaids represent those who live by the Beatitudes? Those with compassion for everyone? But the “wise” ones were the ones who wouldn’t share their oil.

      Can the foolish ones represent those who rely on the world’s resources? Those who want all the resources for themselves and don’t share. Those without compassion and mercy.

      In his own way, that is what Amos is saying. The terrible “day of the Lord” that he warns against is coming to the religious leaders who think that their elaborate rituals are the only way to a relationship with God.

      God says there is another way. A way of compassion and mercy, of God’s justice. God says that they are ignoring the needs of the poor, and they will be judged on this, not on how well they craft their ceremonies.

      To honor God, to be in relationship with God, and to be prepared for Christ’s return, we must “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” But not just “let” this happen – we are called to be working to make it happen.

      May we all trust God for the oil that will keep the lamps of our lives burning with Christ’s love and compassion.

      May we trust in God’s grace, and know that the door to the wedding banquet is open for us all . Unless we decide to stay away.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details