Proper 27, Year A
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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There was a time long ago, way back in the 1990s, when businesses and other organizations were developing mission statements as a way of summing up in one brief sentence what their purpose was. And of course lots of churches started doing it too. I was a newly ordained deacon back then. And all of us newbies had to do Post-Ordination Training– POT– better known among the clergy as Potty Training. Well, at one potty training session, the leader was stressing the need for parishes to develop a mission statement. And he went around the table asking whether each of our parishes had done so. There was this understanding that we who were fresh out of seminary were going to hop on every new bandwagon and pull our parishioners on board with us, whether they wanted to or not.
Well, my rector was not the sort of person to jump on any kind of bandwagon. And he wasn’t happy with where this conversation was going. So when his turn came to answer the question, he plunked his brief case on the table, dug out his big leather-bound Bible and slammed it down on the table, came down on it with his big index finger as he looked defiantly at the leader and said, “That’s my parish’s mission statement!” It was like one of those moments we read about in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, after Jesus had shut down the Pharisees, who had been firing trick questions at him without any success. St Matthew says, “And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mt 22:46). We three new deacons just sat there in stunned silence. The other two felt sorry for me.
The most common church mission statement I’ve seen over the years, especially among Anglican/Episcopal congregations, is “To know Christ, and to make him known.” You see it on lots of Sunday bulletins. And it’s a nice, simple statement of what the people of God are called by God to do. But the problem with it is that it’s so general, it’s such a catch-all kind of statement, that it doesn’t challenge the people who adopt it to do much of anything. We’re not comfortable with the idea of challenge. We’re more afraid it will drive people away from our particular congregations than we are hopeful that it will draw them closer to Jesus. Before I went to seminary, I was part of the team in my home parish that developed a very eloquent, gutless mission statement. It didn’t challenge us to do anything new or different, but it did make most of us feel really good about ourselves. You see, most mainline congregations are more concerned with their declining numbers than on doing the uncomfortable work of the Gospel. So we’d rather pin our hopes on the latest guaranteed-to-get-results-without-sticking-your-neck-out gimmick in order to shore up our attendance and our budget, than really get to know Christ and do the real, hard work of making him known to others.
That’s why we craft mission statements that don’t have any meat on their bones. The main thing they seem to do is make the congregation feel like they’re keeping up with the times, and that by putting that statement on all their bulletins, and in their newspaper ads (which nobody under 55 is ever going to read), publishing this catchy mission statement is going to bring people up to our doors by the busload. Well, it hasn’t worked yet. And the Baby Boomers (my generation) who started drafting those statements 20-30 years ago in order to draw in “the young people” can’t figure out why. But the reason is simple, and obvious: most of those pithy little mission statements don’t really say much of anything. Because it’s impossible to boil the Gospel of Jesus Christ down to one simple sentence that we mainline, liberal Christians are comfortable, and confident, sharing.
The best one-liner I’ve ever seen is the one from Campus Crusade for Christ: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” But, as I said, we liberal mainliners for the most part aren’t sure what to make of that. We’re not even sure whether we’re actually supposed to believe that, much less tell it to somebody else. But yes, we are supposed to believe it, and we are supposed to tell other people because, in Jesus, God has said that he does indeed love us and does have a wonderful plan for us.
I was initially embarrassed by what my rector said at that potty training session– not just about the mission statement question. He thought everything we talked about that day was a waste of time. And he shared that with the group, which embarrassed me even more at the time. But everything he said really challenged my thinking. And over time I came to agree with just about everything he said that day, so that now I’m extremely grateful to him, and for the two years I served with him.
Now, having trashed church mission statements in general, if we were to try to come up with one for Jesus’ own ministry, I’d suggest that the opening clause of today’s collect would be a pretty good place to start: “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life…” That’s pretty much the whole purpose of Jesus coming into the world. But we need to unpack it, because it has an awful lot of substance to it.
First, what does it mean that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil? What has the devil done that needs to be destroyed? I bet a lot of us don’t think about that too much. Lots of Christians aren’t even too sure whether the devil is a real person. The correct answer to that is, Yes. He. Is. Way at the end of the Bible St John describes what happened way before the beginning of the Bible. “There was war in heaven,” John says, and the dragon and his angels were defeated. “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels with him” (Rev 12:7-9). Why did this all happen? Because the devil tried to set himself up as equal to God.
Now jumping to the beginning of the Bible we see him trying to persuade our first ancestors to set themselves up as equal to God. It’s the devil’s way of getting back at God. He couldn’t pull himself up to God’s level, so he’s determined to drag every other creature down with him. What he successfully tempted the man and woman to do was to commit the first-ever human sin– pride. And every other act of sin ever since is the outworking of that first one. They haven’t all required the devil’s direct involvement, but he certainly helps to keep things moving in his direction, bringing ourselves down to his level. And that’s what Jesus came to destroy– the power of sin and the negative effects of sin, the things that move his creatures away from God, or that keep us from seeing how God is continually reaching out to us, the things that would prevent us from becoming “children of God and heirs of eternal life.”
That brings us to the parable in today’s gospel. And we need to do a little unpacking here too. Jesus talks in terms of virgins and the bridegroom. A few modern translations, including the one most commonly used in the Episcopal Church (NRSV) use the word ‘bridesmaids.’ But that confuses things unnecessarily, because we moderns think of bridesmaids as the ones who attend the bride at a wedding (whom the bride often forces to wear gaudy dresses to make herself look really good). The word that Jesus actually uses is best, and most commonly, translated as maidens/virgins. And if you look closely at the story, those ten virgins are not attending the bride; theyare the bride. That’s confusing too, but hang on. This is not Jesus advocating for polygamy. He’s very much a monogamist– one groom, one bride. We’ll come back to that.
So here they are, all dressed and ready, and waiting for the bridegroom to come so the wedding can begin. But he’s delayed and they all fall asleep. In our culture the bridegroom and the groomsmen get to the church early and stand around with the priest in the vestry, waiting for the bride to arrive. But in ancient Jewish culture, the bride and her attendants waited for the groom and his attendants to come to her parents home. Then the bride would come out to greet him, and he would escort her to the new home that he had prepared for her. So when Jesus says elsewhere, “In my Father’s house are many rooms… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself” (Jn 14:2-3), that’s what he’s talking about (Lutheran Study Bible, 54).
Then comes the cry at midnight, “Behold the bridegroom comes!” And the ten, who are all set to go meet him, jump up and start to trim their lamps, i.e.they blow them out so they can trim the burnt ends off the wicks and top them up with oil. Only, half of them didn’t bother to make sure they had enough oil. So they asked the other five to share theirs. But that wouldn’t have left any of them with enough in their lamps to last until the groom arrived. You know that feeling, when you’re sure you’ve packed everything you need for the trip. But then as you get on the plane and buckle up you realize you forgot the clothes you were going to wear to the wedding you’re going to. And if you get off the plane to go get them, or if you go shopping once you arrive, either way you’re going to miss the wedding. Well, five of the girls had to go buy oil. And by the time they got back, they had missed the wedding.
So what’s the deal with this story? What’s Jesus really talking about? The New Testament repeatedly compares the relationship between Christ and the Church to that of a bride and groom. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells another parable in which he says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt 22:1). In that story the king is really God the Father, and the son who’s getting married is Jesus. It’s the same here. Jesus is the bridegroom. And at the end of the Bible St John tells of hearing the voice of a great multitude shouting, “Let us rejoice and exult and give [God] the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7). “Behold the bridegroom comes!” The Lamb of course is Jesus, and it’s that very same event that John saw taking place in eternity that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Through baptism all the worshippers of Jesus have been formed into that one body which is the Bride of Christ. So the virgins in the parable represent the Church who is to be joined eternally to Christ the bridegroom.
But what about the five foolish virgins who didn’t bother to stock up on oil? Well, the oil represents our faith, which is continually fuelled by God’s grace. That’s what enables us to stay faithful until Christ returns to take us, his bride, to himself (LSB, nn). So the thing about that is that nobody can expect to get into the kingdom on somebody else’s faith. You can’t borrow. We can share it, and we’re supposed to. We do it, not just by telling others what we believe, but by loving others the way God loves us all. That’s best expressed by our actions far more than by our words. We bring our little children to be baptized on the strength of our own faith and the faith of the whole Church. But part of that obligation of faith, as parents and stewards of the wonderful gift God has given us, is to nurture it in the children we baptize, loving them with God’s love, and teaching them the ways of God. But that all comes from shared faith, which is how every person comes to believe in the first place. If it weren’t for other people introducing us, none of us would ever know God.
But that’s different than borrowing. What the foolish virgins tried to do is something like travelling on somebody else’s passport. It’s not your own. You didn’t do what it takes to get your own. The faith of the wise virgins was fuelled by active participation in the life of God, praying, worshipping, studying the Word through which God has made himself known, being awake to his blessings and his mercy. That kind of faith is shared like a cutting from a plant which, put in its own pot and nurtured, grows into another beautiful plant.
So nurture that faith. That’s what Jesus is teaching through this parable. Be open to God, and receptive to everything he has to give, whether it comes through hearing and understanding his Word, or through the sacraments of the Church, or what a brother or sister shares with you, or by some more mysterious or even miraculous means. And be willing to share it with others in whatever ways God enables you to do that. He’s waiting to engage each one of us in all those ways, because he “loves us and has a wonderful plan for us.” He wants to keep us all as his children, and to raise up more children, and to make us all heirs of eternal life. But whatever you do, don’t be lazy about it, don’t put it off, don’t be one of the foolish virgins. Be on the lookout, Jesus says, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” when the cry will sound that the bridegroom is coming. And do whatever it takes to share with others, because a big part of our work as the Bride of Christ is to do our best to cut down on the number of foolish virgins. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.