Proper 27 (November 6-12)
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13;
1 Thess. 4:13-18; Amos 5:18-24
FAITH IN A WELCOMING BRIDEGROOM
We took a couple weeks off from the regular lectionary for Reformation Sunday and All Saints Sunday. Now, we’re back for the conclusion of those long Sundays after Pentecost, sometimes called Ordinary Time, and for the conclusion of reading Matthew’s Gospel. On December 1, we’ll celebrate the New Church Year with Advent, and switch to reading Mark’s Gospel.
I think I’m ready for the switch, after a climax to Matthew’s Gospel that features a string of very difficult parables. We have another hard one this morning, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, and there’s two more to go. I struggled all week, once again, with this morning’s parable, until I finally got help from a couple of colleagues on the Internet.
It begins with this drawing of the ending of the parable [Cerezo Barredo’s drawing of the five foolish virgins]. You can look at it a moment, while I put it up on the screen.
- Notice how it features the foolish bridesmaid shut-out in the dark, in the middle of the night. You can feel the frustration of being left out.
- But notice another detail of this drawing which I think is correct: three of these foolish bridesmaids are holding their lamps, and they’re still not lit. Two of the bridesmaids look like they haven’t even bothered to carry their empty lamps with them any longer. It makes one rethink, perhaps, why Jesus calls these bridesmaids foolish.
- Normally, we first assume that these five are foolish for not having brought along enough oil, like the other five. They were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival.
- That’s true enough, but there might have been an even more critical mistake that makes them foolish. Having made the mistake of not bringing enough oil, they compounded their mistake by going to look for more oil at midnight. Where are they going to find more oil at that time of night — especially wandering around in the dark without their lit lamps? There were no street lights, then. And oil was too precious a commodity to light deserted streets with lamps. It’s a wonder they didn’t get lost! But here they are back at the wedding reception hall with their still unlit lamps.
- No, their more critical mistake, I think, was to leave and go look for more oil. Wouldn’t they have been much better off sticking with the five bridesmaids who had enough oil for their lamps? Wouldn’t they have been better off trusting the bridegroom to not leave them out just because their lamps were no longer lit? They still had five lit lamps to greet him with. And he had been delayed. Surely, he would have been understanding of their having run out of oil.
- But when they made the decision to not trust his graciousness and to foolishly go looking for more oil in the middle of the night, they returned in the pitch black of night, with their lamps still unlit. Could the bridegroom even see their faces as he peers out the window into the night [from a second story window in the drawing]? He can legitimately say, “I don’t know who you are. I can’t even see you.” He also may have been frustrated that they had wasted time going off to look for oil in the middle of the night when five of their friends still had lighted lamps.
- The crucial question, I think, is this: would things have been different for these five foolish bridesmaids if they had stayed with the light of their friends and trusted the bridegroom to be gracious and understanding with them?
Trust. Faith. The foolish bridesmaids were foolish by not trusting that the bridegroom was a person who would seek to include them, even having run out of oil. What about us? Do we have enough trust that Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, is a person who seeks to include? Especially those who have made mistakes in their lives and are penitent about them? Jesus was always criticized for being inclusive of the wrong people. He ate with sinners. Not long before telling this parable, Jesus had been embroiled in controversy with the chief priests and elders of the people, and he told them that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before them (Matt. 21:31). Jesus included people where we tend to exclude them. Have we had enough trust in that Jesus throughout the years? Have we tended to include others because of Jesus, even when we are tempted to exclude? To what lengths are we willing to go in having faith in Jesus, the welcoming bridegroom? Will time finally run out on us when we foolishly lack trust in Jesus?
Let’s take a look at our history at Our Savior’s. I was pastor at Emmaus, the mother church for Our Savior’s, so I know some of that longer history, too:
- Our churches began as the First Scandinavian Lutheran Church of Racine in 1851, made up of a mix of Norwegian and Danish immigrants. That lasted for only about 20 years before the Danes and Norwegians decided they couldn’t do church together, and so they split. Were they trusting in an inclusive Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, when they split?
- So then it was only Danes, and they changed their name to Emmaus. The Danes could live together for only about another twenty years before they imported the controversy from the church in Denmark between so-called “happy” Danes and “sad” Danes. The sad Danes said it was wrong to drink and dance and play cards, etc. So Emmaus split once again; I believe that Our Savior’s was one of the split-off churches at that time in the 1890’s. (I’m not sure whether Our Savior’s were the happy or the sad Danes.) Were they trusting in an inclusive Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, when they split?
- Over the years, more than just Danes began to fill this church, though most of us are still of Northern European descent. The boats stopped coming from Denmark. But over the last fifty years, how inclusive have we been to those we deemed sinners? Were divorced people welcome in the church? How about alcoholics? They have felt so notoriously unwelcome that they had to form their own church of sorts, Alcoholics Anonymous. Were we trusting in an inclusive Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, when we shunned those whom we felt were sinners?
- Today Our Savior’s has a very different challenge when it comes to inclusiveness. We are still mostly of Northern European descent, and the neighborhood in which we sit has a large number of people of a different lineage; many are people of color. Are we trusting in an inclusive Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, as we seek to include people from our neighborhood? We are learning that it takes a whole lot more than just knocking on their doors and inviting them. Culturally, our whole way of doing church has been geared toward folks of Northern European descent for over a hundred years now. Trusting in a Jesus who found ways to include everyone, do you think we can learn to make the necessary changes? Will we be able to do so before time runs out on us and we dwindle to the point of being shut-out of this church we’ve grown to love? Being a disciple of Jesus, who found ways of including people when we are tempted to exclude, is a very challenging thing. I think we need to be realistic about how tough a challenge this is. Time could run out on us. Will we have enough oil? Will we go foolishly looking elsewhere for oil and miss out on the grace of our host, the bridegroom?
Trust. Faith. I’d like to conclude by going back to our interlude two weeks ago of Reformation Sunday. We heard that important Reformation bible passage from Romans 3 that says we are not saved by good works but by “faith in Jesus Christ.” Actually, the translation of the original gives us a choice. I’ll project on the screen the original Greek and the English options for translation:
- I wrote out the Greek for a couple reasons. Explain IHS and Xp symbols in Christian tradition.
- More importantly, notice that the Greek has only three words: faith, Jesus, Christ. It’s part of the grammar of the Greek that this can be translated, then, by inserting a word in English, either of or in. Actually, there’s a way in English to keep it three words, which I put in parentheses: “Jesus Christ’s faith.” But it only works for this first option, which is actually the more common way to translate this grammar.
- The other way, the way that most modern translations choose to translate it, needs other words in English to have it make perfect sense. Here, we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ.
- I won’t go into all the details, but I think the more proper way to translate this is the first way: Jesus Christ’s faith. In other words, we are saved not so much by our own faith but by Jesus Christ’s faith. The event which saves us, first and foremost, is the faith that took Jesus Christ to the cross on Good Friday, and in which he was raised from the dead on Easter morning.
In other words, our faith is in a bridegroom of the church who lived a faith in a power of grace and forgiveness that far exceeds that of the bridegroom in this parable. He comes as our bridegroom week after week after week to host this wedding banquet of which we are about to partake once again. It is our family celebration as God’s children, with each of us bearing the mark of Christ’s cross on our foreheads in oil, an oil that never runs out, because it comes with a grace and forgiveness that follow us everywhere, even from this world into the next. He comes to forgive us and feed us again this morning, even if we feel like we’ve run out of the oil of faith. We are fed so that we not only have faith in him, but so that we are able to receive his faith. We are able to repent and make the changes we need to make in order to meet the changing world around us with this Good News that we have a God whose love in Jesus Christ persistently shines the light of including everyone in God’s family. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 10, 2002