It’s good to be back! As most of you know, I have been away, hiking in the desert of southern Utah for the last two weeks. It is an amazing place, rugged and dry, with beautiful canyons carved into red sandstone. While we were there, we did some long hikes into remote areas. One of the things that I do before going on a long hike is to load a trail map onto my phone so that I don’t get lost. And then I put a spare battery for my iphone into my pack. Because that
way if something goes wrong, or if we get delayed, my phone with that map loaded onto it won’t run out of battery. Because if things don’t go as planned on a wilderness hike, being prepared can really matter, in fact it can even be the difference between life and death.
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 carry a spare battery, my phone will last longer. 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? But 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.
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 bring extra oil for our lamps, whatever that might represent, now I’m starting to get pretty uncomfortable. This is harsh. Is this really what Jesus is saying?
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, the things we talked about so often. How do we hold these two together?
Matthew’s gospel pushes us deep into this tension. Have you noticed how for the past few months in our gospel readings, just about every parable that Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew 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 a sorting into the wheat and the weeds, and the weeds are then thrown into the fire and burned?
It’s tempting for us to resolve the tension between judgement and grace 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 people who have endured such things, that in the end none of this matters?
Two weeks ago, for All Saints Day, we reached back into the gospel of Matthew and read the first part of the sermon on the mount, the beatitudes. The third beatitude reads: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”
How do we get from here to there? Think about the beleaguered community that Matthew is writing to. Think about persecuted minorities around the world today. Think about Indigenous peoples whose land was taken away. Think about refugees, the millions who have been forced to flee their homes, to leave behind the land that may have been in their family for generations. Think about innocent civilians in Gaza and in Israel. What would it mean to say to them “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?”
Surely these words only make sense if we have faith that somehow, ‘in the end’, whatever we imagine that to mean, God cares about what’s going on, God will judge and God will act to bring about God’s kingdom.
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 the evil oppresses us, and we feel powerless and we suffer and those we love 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 want to use that language, 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. There will be an accounting.
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. But though it is a word that we need to hear, it is not the final word. Jesus tells many stories such as the parable of the bridesmaids that we heard today, but these are not the final story.
This story of the bridesmaids who ran out of oil finishes with these words. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Isn’t it ironic that the next day, when it is late, after the last supper, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to Gethsemane to pray, and he says to them, “stay awake with me”. And what do they do? They fall asleep. And Jesus is arrested. And sentenced to death. But neither is this 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, of a great stone being rolled into place to seal the tomb, seemingly forever. But then, in God’s most dramatic act and most powerful word, those doors are forced open. Stones are rolled aside and the door we call death, even that one is burst open.
The five foolish bridesmaids weren’t prepared, and they 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.
Homily: Yr A Proper 32 Nov 12 2023, Trinity.
Reading: Mt 25.1-13
Image by Tembela Bohle