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The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Nov 12

Texts: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-20 and Matthew 25:1-13

May 17, 2004 was a big day for my family. It was the first day that same sex partners in the state of Massachusetts could file legally for a marriage license. I remember it as a beautiful, bright Monday morning. I met my mom Ann, and her partner Karla at Newton City Hall. The local UCC minister was there—smiling broadly and handing out flowers to couples as they entered City Hall. Mom and Karla went to the clerk’s desk and I witnessed as they filled out their marriage license. The moment was filled with emotion. A lot of joy, but also pain at having had to wait so long.

Mom and Karla had lived together for twenty years in a deeply committed relationship, weathering the ups and downs of being a lesbian couple in the 1990s. (Remember that the 1990s were in the last century!) Ann and Karla came out to family, with mixed results. A great deal of acceptance, but also some rejection. One favorite uncle decided never to speak to my mom again—for the rest of his life. They endured being “outed” at work, and received public and private threats which were sometimes terrifying. My family still bears the scars of those years.

I speak of this, not to evoke fear, but rather to celebrate the cultural shift that is taking place toward the acceptance of gay marriage. And to call attention to all the patient and painstaking preparation that led to Equal Marriage in Massachusetts. The SJC’s Goodrich decision, handed down in November 2003, was the legal precedent that opened the way. But before that came years of organizing, strategizing and careful preparation. In June 2005, Mom and Karla were married in their backyard—a joyous celebration with dozens of family and friends present—and I officiated. There are not many people who can say, “I married by mother!”

Matthew’s familiar story of a wedding banquet and the wise and foolish maidens is about faithful preparation in a time of waiting. To understand the parable, it’s helpful to know something about marriage traditions in the time of Jesus. This was the custom. First, the couple was betrothed, and then legally married. Later came the celebration, when the bridegroom would come to the bride’s home.

The bridesmaids—waiting at the bride’s home for the arrival of the bridegroom—would then escort the bride to the bridegroom’s family home, where the wedding banquet would take place. (1) The young women or girls at the bride’s house were extended family—probably sisters or cousins. Their job was to light their lamps and to celebrate as the wedding feast got underway.

In Matthew’s story, the bridegroom is inexplicably delayed and so the bridesmaids are caught unaware. They do not know when he is coming. Perhaps they have all fallen asleep waiting, as their oil lamps burned through the night. The wise maidens are prepared for any eventuality, with a back-up store of oil to resupply their lamps. The foolish maidens have no more oil and are unprepared when their supply runs out.

For Matthew, the coming bridegroom is clearly meant to signify Christ. We know this because in chapter 9, Matthew has already described Jesus as a bridegroom. And in chapter 22, Matthew tells a prior story of a wedding banquet, using the same metaphor of Jesus as the bridegroom. (2)

The bridesmaids are meant to signify the early church. So, the church (bridesmaids) wait and prepare for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ) and for the future immanent wedding banquet (or heavenly feast.)

This is where it gets interesting! The bridegroom is inexplicably delayed. We know that Matthew’s community—in the mid first century—was already grappling with the delay of the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ. They had expected it to occur immanently—within their lifetimes.

Matthew speaks to the uncertainty of waiting. How do we wait—faithfully—when we do not know what to expect, or when? What constitutes wisdom or foolishness in this context? What does faithful preparation look like in this between-time when we have received God’s promise of justice and righteousness, but have not yet realized the fullness of that promise.

What is wisdom in this context? What is faithfulness? These questions are at the heart of the Christian life, both for Matthew’s community—who expected an immediate temporal event in the return of Christ, and for us—two millennia later.
Matthew’s answer is simple, if unsettling. Be prepared! He delivers his message with a seemingly harsh story of bridesmaids who are not prepared, and are thus excluded from the wedding banquet. They have not planned ahead, made provisions, and kept a store of oil. In order to play their part at the banquet, they have to go and get fresh supplies. When they arrive late, the door is firmly closed.

Now, I for one can’t quite buy that the whole point of this parable is “no second chances.” On the contrary, it seems like God’s grace is inexhaustible, and we are constantly offered new opportunities for faithfulness.

Matthew nevertheless makes the point forcefully. He wants us to feel urgency and to understand what is at stake. If we are always looking to a future time to start living faithfully, there are some things for which it will be too late. At least here on earth in this between-time. Our own experience teaches us the truth of this. It can be too late to make amends, too late to ask forgiveness. It can become too late to protect the planet from devastating effects of carbon emissions. Too late to send relief to people who are dying from famine. There are some faithful actions we need to take now, without delay.

It’s not up to us to save the whole world. God is doing that. But it falls to us to live faithfully, when the bridegroom is delayed, when we can barely imagine God’s promise, and when it seems an awfully long time in coming. One author puts it this way. “The early Christians had to adjust to the reality that Jesus did not return, as they fully expected, and that their mission was to wait expectantly and in the meantime, live faithfully, courageously and hopefully. [This] is our mission still.”

In Matthew’s story the drowsy bridesmaids fall asleep. It is not their falling asleep that concerns Matthew, but their lack of preparation. Here I want to urge caution. This scripture does not advocate a state of hypervigilance. And this is not how we should read it. Not at all. The call is to faithfulness and hope.

If, perhaps, Matthew’s community has grown lax or inattentive, our twenty-first century concerns are rather different. At this historical moment, given what’s going on in Washington, many of us are poised in a state of hypervigilance. We wake up in the morning, not knowing what new—and awful—news will flood over the airways. Sexual misconduct. Nuclear weapons. Racial violence. Islamophobia. The dismantling of environmental protections. The dismantling of healthcare.

We understand—we know—that part of living faithfully is attending to these present realities as we live towards God’s kin-dom. But Matthew doesn’t call us to be flooded with cortisol in an ever-alert stance. This is not a spiritual way to live. It is not faithful and it is not wise.
Jesus would never ask this of us. What Jesus calls us to do is to calm and center ourselves. To watch for the signs of God’s in-breaking—the small grace-filled moments when we hear an invitation to deeper faithfulness. To set the table, again and again and again, for the beautiful, temporal feast that lies on this side of the kingdom. The Way of Jesus is a way that is grounded in God’s nourishment and goodness.

We are called, whether through prayer or study or service, to root ourselves firmly in God’s goodness, and to play the long-game toward the coming of the kin-dom.

This is also what we are asked in this fall stewardship season. Grounded in God’s grace and promise, to recognize what we need from First Church, what the world needs from First Church, and—finally—what First Church needs from us. I hope—we hope you are prayerfully considering a pledge for 2018, as we live together into God’s vision.

This is the way of courageous and faithful living to which we are called. To imagine the world that is coming into being, the world which God is creating, and to respond with generosity and hope. God summons us to new life, deepened commitment and active waiting in hope. May we step out together with wisdom.

1) Jewish New Testament, p. 46
2) “And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?’” (Mt 9:15) See also, the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14.