Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wedding Bells

Matthew 25:1-13

It’s important that you not be late to a wedding, especially if it’s your own. If you’re a bridesmaid, and you’re late, you might as well go home!

Over the years I’ve been to, been in, and presided over many weddings, so I have a few tales to tell. On one occasion I was sitting in the office with the groom and best man, waiting for the bridal party to arrive. You see this bridal party had decided to get ready at home and come in the limo dressed to go! Well, after some delay word came that one of the bride’s maids had gotten sick, and the limo had returned to the house. We finally got the wedding started, about an hour late. I’ve had to chase down fathers’ of the bride, groomsmen, and even brides maids. It’s not pretty when things go wrong! Fortunately, Bryan and Felicia’s wedding came off without a hitch – in spite of the rain!

1. The Kingdom of God is:

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God, or as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven. Both phrases refer to the same thing. Jesus came, Matthew tells us, to proclaim God’s reign in all of its fullness. Jesus often uses parables to describe God’s coming reign.

In this parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a wedding that’s been delayed. In this case it’s the groom who’s late, and the bride’s maids are ready and waiting for his arrival. Unfortunately, the groom is delayed, not just an hour, but hours upon hours, and as the night dragged on, the bride’s maids fell asleep. I must say, that’s not the kind of wedding I want to perform!

If you’re like me, you probably don’t like delays. We get antsy when an airplane flight gets delayed, especially if we have to make connections. Waiting for the doctor is no fun and when we’re hungry, a delay in serving dinner can make us quite grumpy. Delays can cause complacency and even sleepiness. The longer the delay, the more distracted we get, which is why military units can’t stay on high alert for long periods. After awhile, they lose their edge, their cohesiveness, and their attentiveness. At some point they have to stand down and relax.

The kingdom of God, however, is like a wedding that’s been delayed indefinitely. And yet, the groom could arrive at any moment and we must be ready when he arrives.

As we listen to this parable, what is Jesus telling us about the kingdom? I hear three things: Be ready, be prepared, and be engaged.

2. The Kingdom of God Requires of Us:

  • Be Ready
Fires don’t usually occur at convenient times. They can start just as easily at 3:00 A.M. as 10 A.M.. That means that fire fighters have to be ready to go no matter what time it is when the bell rings. They can sleep and play games, but when the bell rings, they had better be ready to go. I’ve known some fire fighters, and they tell me that their life is kind of like the bride’s maids in this parable. It’s all hurry up and wait. But, when the action comes, it will come without warning! And that’s the way it is with the kingdom of God. When God calls, we need to be ready!

  • Be Prepared

Getting back to the wedding for a moment, if you’ve ever planned and prepared for one, you know that it can be a time-consuming and complex process – especially if the prospective groom wants to get into the action. You have to pick out the dress, the tux, and the clothes for the attendants. There’s the wedding and reception sites to book. Honeymoons have to be planned, and invitations must be ordered and mailed. None of this happens overnight, unless you decide to elope to Las Vegas. And since this is Michigan, even that takes some planning! So, if the groom is late, someone’s going to pay!

In this wedding story the groom is delayed, but we’re not told why. In fact, we don’t even know where the bride is. Not only that, this wedding is so delayed that the bride’s maids fall asleep. A funny thing, though, some of the attendants plan ahead and bring extra oil for their lamps. So, when the groom arrives, they can light their lamps. But the others didn’t plan so well, and when the groom arrived, they couldn’t light their lamps. I don’t know what the first group knew about the groom, but they were prepared. What is interesting is that both the wise and the foolish bride’s maids want to be at the wedding, but only the ones who are prepared get to go in. The message – be like the Boy Scouts, and be prepared.

  • Be engaged

I don’t know about you, but I find this parable a bit disturbing. For one thing, it threatens my theology of inclusion. I hate to hear about people getting left out, especially if they really want to be there. I don’t have a good answer to why they’re excluded. I’ve looked for answers, but the experts are as stumped as I am!

But for a moment I’d like us to set aside that question and focus on what Jesus seems to be saying in this parable and the ones that surround it. All of them seem to say: be prepared, stay ready, and keep your trust in God, so that on the day of judgment you’ll be found worthy. One of the parables talks about how we use our money, and another one talks about signs and warnings that seem strange and yet so common. I think the message here is this: Things will look normal until the very end, so don’t procrastinate, just be ready when the time comes.

As I read this parable, I must ask myself: Am I wise or am I a fool? I suppose how I answer that question depends on the day and the hour. Some days are better than others. Another parable asks the question: Are you a faithful servant whom Jesus will find at hard at work when he returns? I wish I could answer that question with certainty, “why yes, I’ll be busy with the Lord’s work when he returns.” But, can I answer in that way?

By the time this gospel is written, it’s been half a century since Jesus walked the earth. The people had been waiting expectantly, hoping and praying for the kingdom to arrive. They assumed it was just around the corner, and yet here they were, still waiting. Some of them had given up hope and let the flame burn out. But others remained faithful – waiting patiently for the kingdom to arrive in its fullness.

Well, it’s now been 2000 years and counting, and the groom hasn’t arrived. Everything’s ready – the cake and band – even the bride is ready, but the groom has yet to arrive. It’s getting late, and we’re getting sleepy. That cake doesn’t look quite as fresh as it did earlier, and the flowers are starting to wilt. The band is distracted. And yet, everyone is still hoping that the wedding will take place.

Maybe the oil is the key to this passage. It’s the lack of oil that gets one group of bride’s maids in trouble. What did the ones who were prepared know that the others didn’t, and why wouldn’t the wise ones share?

Maybe part of the answer can be found at the end of this chapter, in a parable about sheep and goats. In that parable we hear the goats say to the judge: “Lord, Lord,” but the judge ignores them. Why? Because they failed to take care of Jesus when he was in need. The goats say: “wait a minute, when was that? When did we find you in need and didn’t take care of you?” Jesus answers: You failed when you ignored the cries of the least among you (Mt. 25:31ff.).

Could the oil in this parable be the acts of compassion that God seems to require of us? You can’t just go out and buy acts of compassion at the end of the day. They have to be part of who you are as a person. As James puts it, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-17). It’s not enough, James says, to have faith, true faith must be engaged in acts of compassion.
In thinking about this somewhat troubling parable, I started thinking about ministries that truly express God’s compassion. I thought about a ministry sponsored by First Christian Church of Tucson called Humane Borders. Among other things, Humane Borders puts water out in the desert so that migrants crossing the border won’t die of thirst in the desert. I know that our nation’s border policies are controversial, but the reality is that people are crossing the border looking for a better life, and many of them will die of thirst in the desert heat. Is this not what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the sheep and the goats? You don’t have to agree with why these migrants are crossing the border to understand how offering a cup of water not only saves a life, but ministers to Jesus.

When I hear this parable in the context of a theology of inclusion, I hear good news. I know that we preachers tend to moralize, and that it’s easy to lay guilt trips on people. That’s not what I want to do today. But I do want us to hear the sense of urgency in this call to engage in compassionate ministry. When the groom arrives, will we be ready and found worthy?

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 9, 2008


Anonymous said...

I notice you made no effort to respond to the message of exclusion directed at those who fail to heed the warning.

I too stumble over this issue. Time and time again Scripture asserts that some will self-exclude themselves from the Kingdom. Yet with God all things are possible. Can God not conquer the hardened heart even after death? Will God ever give up on us?

I have come down to praying for this, and praying for mercy.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I have to leave that part of the story unresolved. I know it's there. But I also sense that God is bigger than the message inherent in this parable. The parable of sheep and goats is one of judgment, but are we ultimately condemned or is it a matter of our lives being refined. That which contributes to the common good, the acts of compassion, is that what is taken up into God's presence? Ultimately I have come down on the side of God's mercy and grace, and God's desire to welcome all God's children into the fold!

Anonymous said...

I too think that God's ultimate response to human sinfulness will be dominated by God's desire to embrace all the children of God.

But I feel that the troubling negative messages of judgment and exclusion are messages which I must come to terms with - if only to respond to those who are wholly captivated by those messages. Those messages are directly contradicted by the claims of divine forgiveness, compassion and love. Yet they remain, standing side by side in my Bible. I am certain the New Testament authors saw the contradictions yet they could do nothing but record them, apparently for later generations to come to terms with.