Friday, October 9, 2015

Stuff Matters: The Ten Bridesmaids (St. Al's@5, Oct 11 2015)

Homily: St. Al’s@5, Oct 11 2015, St. Albans
Reading:  Mt 25.1-13

Stuff matters.  I like that.  I like living in a world where stuff matters.  Where if I put in the extra effort, I can get an A on that paper I’m writing.  Where if I’m loving to the people around me, my relationships get better.  Where if I bring extra oil for my lamp, my lamp won’t go out.  God created a world where stuff matters, where actions have consequences.  God created us in such a way that we can choose, that we can do things, things that have an impact on our relationships with each other and with God.  I like that.  It gives our lives meaning.  It enables us to live lives of purpose.  In fact, just imagine what it would be like if stuff didn’t matter.  If nothing mattered, if my choices were meaningless and my actions had no impact.   Why bother getting out of bed in the morning?  Thankfully, God created a universe where stuff does matter and God created us to be people that matter, people whose choices and actions help to shape our relationships and make a difference in the lives of others.

I like that.  I give thanks for that.
But you can only push it so far.  In today’s gospel Jesus tells a story about bridesmaids.  Some of them forget to bring extra oil for their lamps, and as a result, they get locked out of the wedding banquet.  Is that okay?  Are these the sort of consequences that make sense to us?  It gets even trickier when you put this story into context.  Jesus tells this story in response to a question about the end times, about the day of his return, the return of the Son of Man.  Everyone listening would have recognized the image of the wedding banquet as a symbol of our final union with God beyond this life.  And the foolish bridesmaids have been locked out.

I like living in a world where stuff matters.  But when you push it this far, when we’re talking about matters of ultimate concern, our eternal fate, things like that being decided based on whether we brought extra oil for our lamps, now I start to get pretty uncomfortable.  This is harsh.

Our faith sits in this tension.  On the one hand, we believe in good and evil, in right and wrong, in the importance of justice.  Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbours and we believe him and we believe that it matters.  But we also believe in grace:  in second chances, in forgiveness, in God’s unconditional love for us.  How do we hold judgment and grace together?

Matthew’s gospel pushes us deep into this tension.  So far in our St. Al’s @5 parable series we’ve been looking mostly at parables from the gospel of Luke, and one of Luke’s main concerns is social justice, how we treat each other here and now.  Think of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or the Good Samaritan.  But the parables that Matthew records in his gospel push us beyond the here and now, into matters of ultimate concern.  If you read the parables in the gospel of Matthew, you’ll notice that just about every story that Jesus tells ends with some sort of judgment.  One of those “or else” statements tacked on to the end.  With a “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” With sheep and goats.  With a sorting into the wheat and the weeds, and the weeds are then thrown into the fire and burned. With foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding banquet.

There is a tension between judgment and grace. And it’s tempting for us to resolve the tension too easily.  By saying in essence, that stuff matters, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  Matthew will not let us off the hook that easily.  In part, that’s because he was writing to a community that was very different from our own.  Matthew’s community had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.  They had been thrown out of the Jewish synagogues and persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  Families had been split, tensions ran high and those who persisted as Christians were suffering for their faith.  How can you tell those people that in the end none of this matters?

This morning, for Thanksgiving, we reached back into the gospel of Matthew and read from the Sermon on the Mount.  You’ll recall that the Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes.  The third beatitude reads:  “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  When Jesus says that, do you believe it?  It’s not at all obvious to me that the meek will inherit the earth.

How do we get from here to there?  Think about the beleaguered community that Matthew is writing to.  Think about people in the tiny village of Kermaz in central Syria, who are caught between the military forces of the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, ISIS, and just this past week were pounded Russian forces, causing most of the villagers to flee their homes.  What would it mean to say to them “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?”

Surely these words only begin to make sense if we have faith that somehow, ‘in the end’, whatever that means, God cares about what’s going on, God will judge and God will act to bring about God’s kingdom.  Faith that one day God will turn our world upside-down.

There is, over and over again in the gospel of Matthew, a word of judgment.  In fact there is a narrative of judgement and it goes something like this:

Yes, there is both good and evil in our world, and sometimes good and evil get all tangled up like the wheat and the weeds, and we don’t know what to do and we feel powerless and we suffer, and this is a big problem.

Therefore, for God’s kingdom to be fully realized, for the meek to inherit the earth, for the hungry to be filled, evil will have to be dealt with, because this stuff matters, it matters to us and it matters to God.

But how all this gets sorted out, final judgement, if you like, that’s in God’s hands, not ours.  All that is evil in God’s sight, violence, war, abuse, oppression, these will not stand in the end, they will be burned like garbage in a fire, and the meek will inherit the earth and the hungry will be filled.

For oppressed people, this is good news.  In fact for all of us, this is good news.  Stuff matters.  God cares.  God wants us to be with him for all eternity in a kingdom that is free from all the junk that pollutes our present world.  Some doors will be closed on the way from here to there.

In the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, the foolish bridesmaids encounter one of those closed doors.  That is a word of judgment.  The word of judgment that Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew is a word that may be difficult to hear, but it is a word that we need to hear. Stuff matters.  God cares.

But it is not the final word.  Jesus tells many stories such as the parable of the bridesmaids, but none of them are the final story.  The final story takes place on a cross and then in a tomb.  It too is the story of doors being closed, seemingly forever.  But then, in God’s most dramatic act and most powerful word, those doors are burst open.  The stone is rolled aside and the door we call death, even that one is burst open.

The five foolish bridesmaids arrived late, and they found that the door was shut.  There’s a lesson in that to be sure.  But will they get in?  Will that door ever be opened?

For that, you have to read all the way to the end of the story.  Past the cross and past the tomb.  And the final word is grace.


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