Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25+Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18+Matthew 25:1-13

We had a little bit of a break in our walk through the Pentateuch last week on All Saints Day, but when last we dropped in, we were at the end of Deuteronomy where Moses dies and the mantle passes to Joshua. This morning, we are in the 24th chapter of Joshua, and, can I just say, a lot has happened. Jericho has fallen. The inhabitants of the land have been beaten, dispersed, or killed. The descendants of Jacob, the twelve tribes, have all been allotted their portion of the land, and now Joshua is trying to get them to remember who and whose they are.

And they do remember. “…for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight” (24:17). This becomes the constant refrain. God liberated the people of Israel from bondage under pharaoh. God kept the promises made to the ancestors. God is faithful.

Turning to Matthew, we have also bypassed a few chapters and, in all honesty, he is mostly battling the scribes and pharisees. “Whitewashed tombs,” he calls them. “Blind guides.” “Hypocrites.” Again, Matthew is going off on his contemporary opponents using Jesus as his mouthpiece.

And then we reach chapter 25 which is truly one of the richest, most significant chapters of Matthew’s gospel. And it begins with this tale of the ten bridesmaids.

For all of the ceremony and preparations and expense of a modern-day wedding, we don’t have anything quite like this custom. The grand celebration started before the wedding itself. The bridegroom was accompanied to his bride with singing and dancing and great celebration. The bridesmaids were his escorts to the marriage feast.

In this parable, we have the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids, and right away, I have a problem with that. No, the five so-called foolish ones did not show up prepared, they weren’t Girl Scouts after all, but who would have thought the bridegroom would keep everyone waiting for so long that they all fell asleep waiting for him?

The traditional reading of this parable is that the five so-called foolish ones should have been prepared. The others weren’t obligated to help them. The bridegroom can show up whenever he chooses. But I wonder if we aren’t missing the real foolishness of these five bridesmaids.

Why didn’t they just wait? Why didn’t they just hope that they had enough oil to last? Surely there would have been enough light for their little parade to get to the wedding even if their lamps went out? Instead, they panicked. Did they not know the story of Hanukkah when the oil lasted for eight days? They actually may not have, but rather than just hoping, trusting, wanting more than anything to share in the joy of the feast, they went in search of supplies. Of something else. Of a safe bet.

This is the lesson for us, I believe. Especially in the wake of an election that divided this country in a way that none other has in my lifetime. People are wondering if they need to regroup. To step away from the community and replenish their energy.

At a time when sticking together and supporting one another and trusting that we will all have enough to persevere, this is no time to go in search of something else. Of something safe. There is nothing safe about these times.

The same could be said of the Church. If you’ve been around for a while, you will know that when congregations feel themselves under threat – the money is running out or the people are falling away or the energy is running low – we tend to go in search of a new shiny object. Flashy services or ministries to which we have no real connection or sacrificing our core beliefs to attract people to join us.

Patience is hard. Sticking with what we know to be true is hard. Courage in the face of adversity is hard.

There is no denying that we are in challenging times. We can’t all be together for worship and formation and fellowship. The pandemic will likely keep us apart well into 2021. Do you go looking for something else? Looking for your fuel in other places or activities or simply by insulating yourself at home with your family and loved ones?

Well, I have news for you. It isn’t who we are. Christian faith is acted out in community, in loving and supporting not just those who are part of All Saints but loving and supporting all of our neighbors. Because if we don’t do it, who will?

I wish I could rewrite this story like this.

The ones who did not bring enough oil say to the ones who did, “Look, we didn’t plan ahead, but we’re going to stay here and hope for the best. We want to be part of this. We may not have much to contribute, but we were invited to the party, and we really want to come. Let’s work together to make this party happen.”

In my version of the story as well as Matthew’s, it isn’t the other bridesmaids who stand in judgment of these five. No, it is the bridegroom. It is the Christ figure. It is God. Judgement is not our job. Showing up is our job. Loving our neighbor is our job. Trusting that what we have is enough is our job. Giving what we have to this community of faith is our job. Sticking together when times are tough is our job.

We get to choose whom we will serve. Will we go in search of other ways to fill our tanks or will we stay in the community, supporting one another, and making our way to the great feast together?

There is really no place I would rather be than right here, working and serving together. If my lamp goes out, I know that you and you and you have enough to keep us going.

Thanks be to God for that.

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas