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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Matthew, Matthew, Matthew!


The Ten Maidens - Matthew 25:1-13
Pentecost XXVI - Proper 27A
November 9, 2009 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, when I read Matthew’s perspective on Jesus, I have to scratch my head and said, “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! That’s not the Jesus I know.”

Sometimes I have to work very, very hard to hear the mission and ministry of Jesus through Matthew’s obvious 'agenda.”

So, let’s start with the setting of this gospel passage. What I know about weddings in ancient Israel is that the process was a long and involved one.

It began with a proposal, which was really more like a business deal. You know – the party of the first part (that would be the father) would arrange with the party of the second part (that would be the prospective groom) for an appropriate exchange of some sort of currency (money, goats, etc.) for the property (that would be the woman, the bride-to-be).

The woman, once married, was expected to move into the home of her husband, and they often lived with his parents. After the proposal was made and a deal struck between the two men, a date would be set and the prospective groom would come to fetch his bride-to-be so that they might “know” one another. That meant, of course, that they would have “carnal knowledge” of each other.

Once evidence was given that the woman had been, in fact, a virgin (usually by hanging the bed clothing out the window), the party of the third part (that would be The Party) could ensue and the marriage could take place – perhaps within the next day or so – including the signing of the Ketuba, or marriage contract. I know. How romantic.

What we are witnessing, in this passage, is the point at which the groom is coming to fetch his bride. She has asked 10 of her friends to assist her (I can only imagine how much anxiety there was in all of this. I’d need all my girlfriends around, too).

Five of them have prepared for the night by getting extra oil. Five have not. Matthew reports that Jesus says that those who were not ready were not allowed into the party, and so it will be for anyone who is not ready when Jesus comes again.

Okay, okay. I get the point. We all need to be ready for the second coming of Jesus. What I don’t get is that if we’re not, we won’t get into heaven.

That is decidedly not the message of Jesus heretofore.

It is, I have no doubt, the message Matthew wants to communicate to the original audience of this gospel – all those slackers who were not following the People of The Way – in exactly the right way.

My friend Dylan Breuer calls this image of Matthew’s Jesus as “Christ-inator,” after the robot assassin Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the first Terminator movie – an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.

Matthew’s “Christ-inator” ‘vill be baaak’ – and it won’t be pretty. Not ready? Too bad for you. You won’t get into the Eternal Banquet that is already taking place in the Realm of God. Pity.

This is me, still scratching my head, still saying to myself, “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! That’s not the Jesus I know.”

It is, however, the Jesus that many fundamentalist Christians believe in – and want you to believe in as well. Haven’t crossed all your ‘t’s’ and dotted all your ‘i’s’ in this life?

Their ‘Christ-inator’ will banish you to the far reaches of the seventh rung of hell. Haven’t crawled on your knees for a hundred miles or fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to repent of your poor, miserable, wretched life of sin? Their ‘Christ-inator’ will feed what is left of your mangled body to the dogs of hell, after he has dragged you to the four corners of the earth and back from of his heavenly chariot of fire.

Umm . . . No, I don’t think so. I’m not buying it. There is nothing in scripture that supports that image of Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will refresh you. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:30)

Please note: That was the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel. We're now in the 25th chapter. I'm thinking something must have happened along the way.

Jesus also said, “And when I am lifted up, I will bring all to myself.” (Jn. 12:32) All. Not some. All. I could go on, but I'll stop there.

You see, you have to read through Matthew’s agenda to hear the mission and ministry of Jesus. You have to get through the message he was trying to give to his original audience in order to get the original point of Jesus.

And that is this: The party has already started. Jesus, the groom, has already consummated his relationship with his bride, the church. The Eternal Banquet has begun and we are all invited. And, we have to get ready for the Realm of God, which is at hand.

How to get ready? Well, we only have to look to our baptismal covenant for a few hints about what is expected of us. There’s something about faithfulness: continuing in the apostle’s teaching, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.

And, obedience: Persevering in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

And, evangelism: Proclaiming by word and example the Good news of God in Christ Jesus.

And ministry: Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

And mission: Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

That’s a pretty big “honey-do” list from Jesus, the groom, to his bride, the church: faithfulness, obedience, evangelism, ministry and mission.

But, here’s the thing – the really, really important thing, which you’ll discover if you pay at least as much attention to the verbs as you do to the nouns: It’s all about continuing, and persevering, and proclaiming and seeking and striving.

God knows we are human. God understands the human enterprise, for it was God who created us and established us in community. Jesus understands, too, because he once shared out human condition and lived among us.

Which is why I believe he will not come again as the ‘Christ-inator’. Rather, when Jesus comes again, he will come among us as he did the first time – as something that surpasses our expectation and brings surprise that will delight and confound us.

The people of ancient Israel expected their Christ to come as a King, to liberate them from injustice. He came, instead, as a babe to teach them how to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.

They wanted a Strong Defender who would fight off their adversaries He came, instead, as one who was as defenseless as a newborn to teach them (in the words of Alice Walker) that our enemies are only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise.

Jesus continues to teach us these things, to surprise us, if we have eyes to see and ears to listen to the world around us. The Realm of God comes closer to us every time we engage more fully in our Baptismal Covenant – every time we seek to be faithful and obedient and strive to do the work of evangelism and mission and ministry.

We are more prepared to enter the Realm of God we listen – really listen – to the anxiety or fear in others in these times of economic uncertainty and try to find some concrete way to alleviate it.

We are more prepared for the Eternal Banquet when we do a random act of kindness for a neighbor who has fallen on hard times.

We are more prepared to take our place at the Lord’s Heavenly Table when we hold our tongue and respect a political difference – deflecting our anger at one person’s celebration, or curbing our enthusiasm in the presence of another’s sense of defeat.

St Luke reports that Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk 17:21) People, get ready. There’s a wedding party already going on in your soul. The invitation was in the mail the day you were baptized.

I do believe, when we get there - when we ALL get to heaven - St. Matthew himself will be among those who meet us at the Heavenly Gate saying, “Are you ready to dance?"

Jesus said, “For you know neither the day nor the hour” when He will come.

Are you ready? Amen.

9 comments:

Stuart said...

From reading your sermon, Matthew is a problem because of representations of Jesus embodied in the Parable of the Bridesmaids.

Luke's Gospel, then, would also be a problem because of texts such as Luke 13.25 - 27: "When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, "Lord, open to us,' then in reply he will say to you, "I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, "I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!'"

Mark,then, would also be a problem because of texts such as Mark 13.35-36: "Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly."

So we have texts from all the synoptic Gospels in which images of preparation and wakefulness are used by Jesus in the context of parables. Parables which suggest that a lack of wakefulness and preparation have terrible consequences. Whether or not you agree with Jesus' message, its presence in Matthew, Mark & Luke would suggest that they were of concern to him.

If I were preaching on this text, I might use the parable to illustrate how the GLB community in California was not awake to the task of reaching out to African-American Christians and did not prepare to reach out to these communities properly and consistently. And so we find ourselves shut out of the wedding feast. Many GLB folks are blaming the African-American community when, in fact, our own lack of illumination (probably attributable to racism)that was responsible for our failure to do proper, consistent, long-term outreach and education.

That's just one way one can talk about these types of parables without dismissing the consistent witness of Jesus concerning unpreparedness and its consequences. I think these themes are of great importance and speak positively to myriad peoples in myriad ways.

I believe, then, one can fruitfully engage these parables without having to resort to either dismissing the text, patronizing the author, or adopting a facile concept such as the "Christinator."

Sincerely,
Stuart

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Stuart, you had me until that last cranky comment at the end.

Here's the thing about preaching: It's not an Adult Ed class. While a sermon can be educational as well as instructive, the time for a sermon in the midst of a Eucharistic celebration is a time for inspiration and edification.

I would certainly make your points in an Adult Forum or Adult Ed Class - but I could not see myself taking the time to make that point in the pulpit on Sunday.

Here's another thing about preaching: It's all about the community, the congregation, the "audience". St. Paul knew that.

Yes, your point is absolutely positively correct about the connection between the theme of the 5 Unwise Maidens and Prop 8.

And, that was not what my community, my congregation, my "audience" needed to hear this morning. That's my call to make as their pastor.

That's the other thing about preaching: it's a mixture of the prophetic, priestly and pastoral nature of Jesus, whose representative I am in that pulpit.

So, here's the last thing about preaching: It's also performance. Some people hate to hear that, but it's true. Yes, it can be 'entertaining' but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about performance as a public act of theology - of breaking open the word with honesty and integrity which means I bring my whole self to the task in that pulpit.

Rather than dismiss it, I think I spoke to the need to prepare for the coming of Jesus by the kinds of acts of kindness and mercy and justice which would make sense to my community.

I didn't dismiss Matthew, I engaged him in a humorous way - the way I would if he were standing in front of me in my church. That's part of what I've found engages my congregation in the text - when I engage myself with its author.

Ditto to my colleague's clever use of the term "Christ-inator." I am indebted to her for it. My younger kids absolutely got it and were fully engaged, making comments to me after church and engaging me in conversation.

So, you're not wrong, Stuart. You're just not right for my congregation. Which is not your fault. You weren't there.

I wasn't preaching to you. I was preaching to them. I just let you listen in.

If you or anyone else can take something positive from the sermons I post here, well, to God be the glory.

If you don't, well, may you go with God's blessing.

Sara said...

Thanks for letting us listen in, I look forward to them every week. I guess you must be preaching to me too!

I, too, appreciated Stuart's comment up to the last paragraph. He must have been having a bad day.

Stuart said...

Hi Elizabeth+,

I certainly got a lot out of your sermon:

1. I reflected on your words.
2. I read and studied my bible.
3. I prayed about what you posted.
4. I wrote a long response.

I engaged with what you wrote and cared deeply about it. How is that not a positive reaction to a sermon? Rather than spending time relaxing in front of the TV, I was moved to meditate and study Scripture. If my reactions were not completely "positive," I hope they were thoughtful, respectful constructive, and carefully proposed.

I didn't know that your sermon posts were in a different category than your other posts. Your other blog posts invite comment and inquiry. Now that I know that sermon posts are a window into your homiletic work at St. Paul's Church, I will read them as an "observer," not a participant. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

I'm not sure how to react to the words at the end of your response. "Go with God's blessing," reminds me of the dismissal at the end of Communion. Am I being sent forth because of my comment on your sermon?

Sincerely,
Stuart

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Stuart writes: "Go with God's blessing," reminds me of the dismissal at the end of Communion. Am I being sent forth because of my comment on your sermon?"

Heavens no! First of all, I'm thrilled that you got so much out of my sermon. And, it's perfectly fine to disagree with me. I was simply pointing out why I didn't take the track you seemed to have expected me to take.

Your note was cause for my refelcting on the art and science of preaching. And, for that I am grateful.

I was trying, as nicely as I could, to say, well, if you take something positive from my sermons (which, apparently, you did even if you didn't agree), to God be the glory. And if you didn't, well, no offense taken.

Ah, the joys and perils of communication in cyberspace.

Hope you come back again, and I sincerely hope you always provide me with another perspective.

Strop said...

Wonderful, beautiful post. Makes me feel human and fabulous and capable of great love.

Much, much better than the total turn off I get from those people who think the way to convince others to lead a good life is to batter them around the head with scripture quotes and a bible.

dontheescort said...

So what is it that made some of the sleepy bridesmaids not prepared for the kingdom? Was it because they didn’t have enough oil? The way I read it, preparing by doing works, like storing up oil, is not the issue. In our parable, the bridegroom doesn’t say the bridesmaids can’t come in because their lamps are going out. An oil shortage is not the issue here. The reason the foolish bridesmaids did not get into the banquet was their own decision to go running off looking for oil just when the doors to the wedding feast were being opened wide for them. The bridegroom didn’t send them away, they were the ones who decided they were not ready for the wedding feast.

I like to imagine another version of this parable, a version where the foolish bridesmaids don’t go running off looking for oil because they didn’t believe the bridegroom would let them enter the banquet. I imagine a parable where the foolish bridesmaids stay put, right next to their wise but selfish sisters, and let the bridegroom decide if they are ready to enter the banquet or not. It’s not that they aren’t prepared, it’s that they believe they are not prepared – the foolish bridesmaids are the ones who turn away from the banquet because they believe they need more preparation. What the bridesmaids do is a little bit like not coming to worship because we don’t think our clothes are nice enough, or we can’t sing well enough, or we don’t have something to put in the offering. It’s a lot like turning away from the Lord because we think our burden of sin is too great, that some of the things we have done in our lives can never be forgiven. It’s exactly like not trusting God, not believing that even though God knows everything there is to know about us, God still loves us enough to accept us just the way we are.

Just as it’s not up to the bridesmaids to decide if they are ready to enter the wedding banquet or not, it’s not up to us to decide if Jesus loves us or not, or if we are worthy or not. We know it’s not what we have done in the past that makes us worthy or unworthy. It’s not about how we worship, or about how much oil we have for our lamps. It’s about the covenant, it’s about God’s faithful love for us, it’s about the transforming grace and power of Jesus Christ in our lives that saves and redeems us and opens to us the gates of heaven. Our faith is such an amazing story of undeserved grace and salvation. This parable about the bridesmaids reminds me of the story of Cinderella, where the most beautiful girl in the kingdom doesn’t go to the ball because she doesn’t have any nice clothes to wear. But we know the prince doesn’t let her get away. Just like the shepherd searching for his lost sheep, the prince goes looking for Cinderella. He searches the entire kingdom until he finds her. And then he takes her home to his kingdom, where she lives with him, happily ever after. That’s my wedding feast parable. The one with a happy ending for all the bridesmaids. The one where we don’t decide if we are worthy or not, but we let Jesus decide. The one where we trust God enough to stand humbly before Him, laying all of our sins at His feet, knowing that even though we have no oil for our lamps, the fire of faith still burns within us. Because of our faith, we trust that the light from that God-given fire will illuminate the world, and show us the way into the kingdom of heaven.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I know this will seem a little off Topic, but during my studies of Superstitions and folklore I found a lot of entries about Europeans believing that dreaming of a being in a Wedding was a Death Omen. After seeing this, I can see how such a vision my potentially be interpreted that way.

And interesting post about perspective, Agendas, and the ritual of being lead through a liminal state.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

To "Anonymous" who posted a comment on 3/19/11. I do not post anonymous comments - especially those that do not follow the guidelines above