“New Visions of the Wedding Feast” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 12th, 2017. (Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 & 6:17-20, Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Matthew 25:1-13)
I want there to be time for you to share anything that our celebration last night left you wanting to share, or to reflect on the incredible light that some of us came to know in our brother Claude Johnson who died this week, so I was tempted to just open things up for our collective reflections, particularly give that the parable in our Gospel today is one of my least favorite parables. But then I also felt some of you coming from out of town would want to hear from me and as I listened I found the Spirit was raising things I thought we need to address—- so here goes.
To be able to hear what the Spirit is saying I often find it helpful to be clear about what the Spirit is not saying. In other words, to be clear about the bad news version of any particular text, so let me try to be clear about that.
First, I grew up hearing the King James translation of this parable in which the word used for these young maidens, or bridesmaids, was translated as “virgins” so it was known as the parable of the ten virgins. The Greek word for virgins is the same word as the word for young women, so I’m not saying that translation was wrong, but in it’s hard not to hear a story about virgins who save their oil versus those who don’t as not being related to their sexual status. We live in a culture that has put sexuality at the heart of a purity code that’s been used to demean and render impure the vast majority of us. Though I think love is the best context for sex, I think this emphasis on virginity, and particularly virgin women, is part of the sexist, anti-body, anti-sexuality illness our culture suffers from.
Secondly, this parable always comes up around the time of year when the church does its annual financial campaign, which may be a reflection of how few gospel texts really lend themselves to financial pledge drives! However, when you put this text in the context of a financial pledge drive you can see how easy it becomes to associate those who save up their oil, or don’t, to participate in the wedding celebration, with those who save up their money, or don’t, to be able to give to the church. Again, I value learning to save money so you can be generous, but we live in a culture that tends to view the inability to save as a moral failing, regardless of one’s financial circumstances, or how many others you are trying to sustain through your income. So, while I do think it’s helpful for us to talk about money and savings, we also need to remember that Jesus emphasized not savings, but giving your money away and not as a means of looking good to an exclusive church, but as a means of helping others.
Lastly, these wise bridesmaids seem a little nasty in terms of their attitudes towards their foolish sisters. Maybe they couldn’t have shared their oil, but couldn’t they have at least said they were sorry? And what’s with the bridegroom shutting out those who were late to the party? I wouldn’t want to go to the party of some bridegroom who has that kind of attitude. It all sounds like a justification for being self-righteous, judgmental, and mean.
But putting away those bad news interpretations, I found the text began to open up when I tried to think of it within the context of Matthew’s gospel, which is all about showing up and doing what needs to be done for the sake of love and justice. If we understand this as a parable about how well we steward our resources, so that we have the resources we need to do what we need to do, and what helps us to be ready to act when the times comes to act, then this seems something really worth talking about.
For example, I’m so struck by all the folks I keep running into who are burning out watching the news all the time, somehow falling into the pit of thinking that by watching, or hearing, the same bad news, which on cable news shows is presented over and over and over again, that they are somehow doing something worthwhile. It’s as if we’ve become convinced that by going around feeling bad, we are doing something for others, or doing something worthwhile. My own sense is that all many of us are doing is getting ourselves depressed and worn out so that when the time comes for action–we are likely to be too tired and dispirited to do anything. That does seem to me a good example of the deadly nature of real foolishness.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “You are the light of the world.” In other words, God may be the light of the world, but to a significant degree, God’s light shines, or doesn’t shine, through us.
If we take seriously this call to be the light of the world we need to be clear about what keeps our lights shining. Again, I am struck by the bad news legacy of a kind of Puritanism that makes suffering a virtue in and of itself.
How many of us don’t seem to give ourselves permission to get enough sleep, take time to be alone, take time to be with others, take time to have fun, take time to exercise, take time to sing or dance or whatever else it is that keeps our light shining? These days we seem to live in a culture that encourages us either to be self-centered and pursue every possible comfort, or to think that by going around tired and suffering, or one of the grim and determined, we are somehow proving our worth. I don’t buy it. There is such a difference when you encounter someone who cares about others and the world and yet is rested, alive, awake, and energized.
I heard a speaker last week who said that there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved by consciousness, by our bringing our consciousness to bear on it. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I hope it is. I do know that an awful lot of problems can be solved through giving our full attention to them such that going around being mostly unconscious is definitely not helpful Perhaps if we are not being effective it is because we have so little bandwidth in terms of our capacity for really engaged, nuanced, creative thinking, which leaves us more like a smoldering wick, rather than any kind of real light.
I could stop there, but I think it is even more than a question of what keeps us from being ready and able to act when the opportunity comes–I think this is a matter of a kind of addiction, something that is keeping us from being really alive, something that is in some ways soul killing. I’m less and less interested in sins that aren’t ultimately a matter of life and death, but I think many of us are trapped in a kind of alienation that keeps us living beside ourselves, or looking down on ourselves, operating on remote control, as we follow whatever scripts we’ve been programmed to follow. And the worse part is, as we do it we have this voice inside of us encouraging us to do this, saying: “Good job—this is what it means to be a responsible adult!” We’re not going to be able to overcome this evil unless we name it clearly so we can begin to learn how to live, walk, and be differently.
Lastly, I want to connect this issue of our being called to be the light of the world, if the God feast is going to happen here on earth, to the vision we hear in Joshua today–the vision of covenanting together. I won’t go into all the reasons, but scholars I trust believe this Joshua text is from an earlier context that explains how most of the people, who were living in the land that would become the nation of Israel, came to be part of the people of Israel. That is the covenanting ceremony we hear about is about them being invited to become part of this new people through rejecting the gods of domination and beloving the God of freedom.
If the church is called to be the heart of the world, the light of the world, this is not something we can just do individually. It’s about a process that binds us to one another, a process in which we align our hearts and wills with one another so that together we can do what would be impossible for us to do simply as individuals.
Lately, I’ve been struck by how radically flawed we each are as individuals, but how, when we are able to come together in community, there is always some other person who has gifts in the areas we have deficits, strengths in the areas we have weakness, insights in the areas where we are blind, wisdom in the areas where we are ignorant, the ability to act in a way we are unable to.
This weekend we’re celebrating the gift of this community of the Church of the Incarnation. It would not have fit in well into our celebration last night but, in addition to celebrating the amazing things this community has done over time, it’s also worth understanding the other side of the story in terms of who helped make this feast. While some churches have looked to people with no problems to lead them (good luck in finding them!) the fire and passion of this community has come out of the depths of our experience of what it means to live as limited, radically imperfect, human beings. Lois Leonard, one of the three founding mothers of this church, throughout her life struggled with alcoholism. Another member, who was a state leader in the struggle for people with disabilities–struggled with a drug problem. Many of us, including myself, have struggled with other kinds of addictions, depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and other forms of mental illness or from our inability to recover from unrecoverable losses. Others have suffered from or struggled with a variety of other problems that have made being a full loving human being, capable of loving and being loved, incredibly difficult. While it’s a mistake to think these problems were the source of our gifts, the things we ultimately learned and who we became, as we struggled with these problems, has a lot to do with our gifts and with the passion that comes from understanding how much is at stake.
The gift of community is a hard won gift. It means entrusting ourselves to each other despite all our fears and suspicions. It means learning how to be in relationship with others in such a way that we are open to the spirit and wisdom speaking through them, but in a way in which they aren’t dominating us so that we continue to be able to listen to the Spirit speaking within us. As people raised in our radically individualistic/collectivist society this is really difficult because we’re used to either staying away from groups, or disappearing into them. But the soul that holds our souls in life, the greater heart that our hearts seek to dwell in, only becomes fully manifest in the community of I-Thou relationships.
At a time when we, like those young women in the parable, find ourselves locked out in the dark night by the world of domination and exclusion, we need to come together to share our oil, to share our light, so that we can get renewed, empowered, and imaginative, so we can get in there and transform this world into a place where love and generosity, compassion and justice reign. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
Life is short. And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.
From the Journal of Henri Amiel, Dec. 1868 courtesy of Marcus Borg.