Nov. 12, 2017: Proper 7A
Proper 27A, 2017. Zion, Baltimore.
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
We had moved into the house about two weeks earlier. It was a cute little cape cod style house, which meant that the ceilings in the upstairs were on the low side. Anke was able to paint them with a roller without having to use a ladder. But they were just tall enough to accommodate the bunk beds used by our two younger children. We knew it would be an issue later on, but for now the youngest was still small and skinny enough that she could get into the bed with no fuss.
I don’t even remember the course of events on this particular day, I just remember what happened. There was some kind of racket going on upstairs in the room shared by the two younger kids. I went upstairs to investigate. And what I discovered was a huge hole in the ceiling. One of the kids had been lying in the top bunk with her feet pressed up against the ceiling. How much force does it take to push a hole into a piece of drywall? I don’t know. But a 10-year-old is capable of producing it.
I had been irritated with my kids over the years, more times than I could ever count. I’d been perturbed with their behavior many times. I’d been piqued, frustrated, upset, yes. I’d rarely become angry, however. But on this day, two weeks after having just moved into our new home; only a day or two after we’d finished all of the unpacking, when Anke and I were finally starting to feel more or less settled into our new digs. And now somebody punches a huge hole in the ceiling? And it’s winter time? I was livid. Furious, even.
Anke knew that something big had happened when she came home later that evening, because the kids were all sitting very quietly in the living room. And I was in the kitchen, banging away with the pots and pans, as I prepared supper for us.
God is angry with the people of Israel, furious, even. And as a result, the prophet Amos doesn’t hold anything back.
21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But why all the anger? What has God so upset? It’s because the people of Israel, and in particular the leaders, have lost sight of the two pillars of the covenant: righteousness and justice.
In verses 6 & 7 of this same chapter, the prophet writes:
6 Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!
And just a bit later we read:
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Righteousness and justice. Israel and her rituals are not rejected because they are improper, or false, or because they’re offered to other gods. The problem is the absence of justice and righteousness. Without Israel’s commitment to these things, there can be no relationship to begin with.
God’s repudiation of Israelite ritual ends with two imperative: take away the noise of your singing, but “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Martin Buber notes that God establishes justice, and depending on the human response, it can become God’s ongoing, life-giving presence in the world, or it can pile up into a flood of destructive judgment. Drawing upon that insight, Hebrew Scripture scholar Jörg Jeremias points out that for Amos and all the prophets, the word pair “justice and righteousness” are not “behavioral goals, but rather primarily gifts from God which Israel can allow to flourish, can support, or can obstruct, indeed (Amos 5:7; 6:12) can overthrow.”
Amos underscores the many ways Israel has rejected God’s gift of justice -- has hated it, in fact, thereby turning its benefits for the community into the bitter wormwood of judgment. Yet the fact remains that justice and righteousness are gifts of God. For Amos, justice and righteousness are central to Israel’s identity as God’s people. Having abandoned it, they are now subject to the judgment of that same justice and righteousness.
Jesus is keenly aware of this, which of course is why it’s so central to his message. The Beatitudes are the thesis statement of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s clear that justice and righteousness are their primary themes. So, what does that have to do with the Parable of the 10 bridesmaids, which, for all intents and purposes, seems to be about waiting. What does it even mean, anymore, to talk about waiting for Jesus to return? We’ve been waiting for 2,000 years, after all. And any sense of urgency that might have possessed the hearers of Matthew’s Gospel has long since dissipated. So, how do we wait?
The bridesmaids parable points to the importance of readiness. The last verse, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” is a message of watchfulness, and it suggests that the foolish bridesmaids were not sufficiently prepared. But the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” doesn’t mean that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach. What’s unique about this parable is that it doesn’t simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed. In this parable alone, the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay. If the groom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong with taking one’s lamp full of oil to meet him. But the wise disciple packs a supply of oil, knowing that her wait may be unpredictable.
It is difficult for many of us to be anything like the bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because we have stopped waiting. We don’t give much thought to Christ’s return, let alone what we should do to prepare for it. The parable asks us to imagine ourselves as those who wait for the groom’s return. When the groom comes, the wedding feast may begin! The age-old promise of the marriage between God and Israel will be fulfilled. The prophet Isaiah writes, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11). The prophet sees a restored Israel, where human unfaithfulness has faded away, and is replaced by righteousness and praise.
This is the wedding the bridesmaids await. The author of Revelation writes: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). The bridesmaids await not only the groom but the removal of pain and suffering. The wedding feast initiates the reign of God’s justice and righteousness, the realization of all the hopes of Israel.
To act as wise bridesmaids means affirming our faith in the coming Christ by seeking to embody God’s justice and righteousness. Doing so shows our trust that God is a God of justice and mercy. The return of Christ encapsulates the ideals of God’s reign. It is the vision against which we judge our efforts in the meantime to live according to God’s principles. It is a vision of God’s ultimate justice and righteousness without which our world appears very bleak. The wise bridesmaids keep the vision of Christ’s return, and all that it stands for, alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.
Waiting for Jesus’ imminent return is difficult. But opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us. Each time we work for justice, we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.
This kind of waiting and preparation can be hard to sustain. We can get tired in our work, frustrated by the lack of outcomes, or distracted by the thousand and one other obligations that fill each of our lives. On any given day, each of us may discover we are a foolish bridesmaid. That’s why, as the Church, we are called to be a place where we can find help and support in our waiting as we try to live as an instrument of God’s justice and righteousness.
We are those who wait for each other – wise and foolish alike. We sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. We celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.