Around the time Paul wrote our epistle from today, Ephesians, the Roman Empire was abuzz with excitement over the new emperor who had taken office. He was full of energy, popular with the common people, eloquent and charming. Since they didn’t have Twitter or cable networks in those days, in case you had somehow missed the news, coins were issued with his image, showing him wearing a crown symbolizing his divinity. Statues of him went up in outlying towns, so that you would remember whose subject you were. I think I should tell you his name: It was Nero, who became one of the greatest persecutors of Christians.
So the government sent heralds from town to town announcing the good news of this new emperor. And let me assure you that, as the NT scholar NT Wright has written, “when the emperor came to power, the imperial heralds did not go around saying, ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Caesar if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they said, ‘Nero is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
It is into that world, which is not really so different from our world, that Paul wrote his own good news, which boils down to: “Jesus is Lord! Get down on your knees!” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day when we proclaim the universal rule of Jesus Christ over all nations, all principalities, all powers, all time and space, and every domain of human endeavor. When we make the great Christian confession: Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord. This is a phrase we can use without anyone troubling us if we mean by it only something private and interior. Now everyone knows that the Roman empire eventually persecuted believers, but one of NT Wright’s interesting insights – I’m going to be borrowing from him a fair amount – one of his interesting insights is that this empire had no problem with believers who talked only about a personal interior experience with Jesus, something private and spiritual that gave them comfort and strength.
There were believers like that, just as there are now, people who had a sort of breakaway church. To oversimplify drastically, one big part of what this breakaway group believed was that what you did on the outside, in the public sphere, didn’t really matter. You could surround yourself with wasteful decadence, or wipe out the livelihoods of your fellow countrymen with crooked loans, or have promiscuous sex, or exploit people of a different race or religion -- none of that mattered as long as you had a private spirituality.
Well of course, this was perfectly fine with Nero and the empire. No threat to their agenda at all. No reason you can’t say “Jesus is Lord of my heart, but the system I live under is the practical lord of the real world and determines everything I actually do.” The Roman Empire could behave any way it wanted, crush anyone it wanted, and the privatistic believers wouldn’t care because it didn’t have any relevance to their personal spirituality.
So the Roman empire liked the breakaway Christians fine. But the traditional Christians – now that was a different matter. When traditional Christians said “Jesus is Lord,” they didn’t mean ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Jesus if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they meant, ‘Jesus is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
And this was something very different. This was a claim that Jesus’ lordship was for every realm of life, not just for your private comfort and interior spirituality, and that it just might come into conflict with something Nero or Rome was doing. And those were the Christians who got thrown to the lions.
The empire had proclaimed: There is a new world order! Nero rules! But Paul proclaims in Ephesians today: There is a new world order! And it broke into your world of death the morning Jesus Christ rose from the grave. Paul writes: God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
For mainstream Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection is the first installment of a new reality that has a public, not just an private effect. Real physical public resurrection entails belief in a God who acts to put real, physical, public things to rights. And that’s why we have Matthew 25 as our Gospel this morning, one of the Bible’s best known passages about serving the hungry and visiting the sick and making a real, physical, public difference in this age and in the age to come. In Matthew 25, we hear Jesus commending those who have already been living publicly Christian lives in the midst of the empire, for, he says, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
If Christ is King – if Jesus is risen from the dead and bringing his Kingdom into being, we cannot but do what those people in Matthew 25 were doing, act in the world as agents of that Kingdom. We cannot but love. We cannot but serve. And we cannot but do it, not in private but in public, in the real world, the world where Christ rose from the dead and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It is a great joy to be speaking to you from the nave of Emmanuel today. The stained glass windows, the organ, the high altar with the unique Sarum frontal, the Lady Chapel. It is all still here and such a pleasure to be in it. The quiet, calm as the sun streams through bouncing colors on the walls bring such a peace as I sense the “great cloud of witnesses” who have prayed in this space over the past 100 plus years. We have received a true gem from those who have come before us; the corner of State and University has been a beacon of Christ’s love in the downtown area for all these many years. And as has been said before, now it is our turn to see that this very special place continues to reflect Christ’s light and love into the world. Circumstances have changed since the early 1900’s and circumstances have certainly changed since March 2020 but the church’s mission and God’s love for us remains the same. God’s arms remain open to hold and help us and yes, to push us to show His love to the world. It is here for the experiencing.
This morning’s gospel contains a parable that Jesus told near the end of his life on earth. He told it to those closest to him; those who would become the church, his body on earth, once he was crucified and risen. I would like to look at this lesson with this in mind. Hear it as a parable given then to the church that would be, and today as a parable given to this church, Emmanuel, at this specific time, the time of pandemic.
Upon first read the gospel this morning seems to be contradictory of what we know from other scripture about Jesus and his teachings. What is a talent anyway, what is the point Jesus is making? Are these lessons about capitalism, investment strategies, how to deal with a floundering stock market, or what? This is a difficult parable, I admit, made up of powerful images, both literal and metaphorical, and one that will lend its gems only when we have worked at it some. We will need to dig a bit to see its beauty and to see what it means for us.
Babies are bad at waiting, which is almost certainly not a surprise to most of you here. Try as I might, I can’t convince Pepper to calmly accept that I need to finish my spaghetti before I can feed her, nor does it work that I promise in my calmest, most loving voice that I just have to grab a load of diapers from the dryer before I can change her. For Pepper, there is no such thing as a five-minute grace period. Instead, it’s zero-to-60 tears and then screaming if I don’t catch her drift soon enough.
Despite the fact that we’re all adults here, I think it’s fair to say that we’re not very good at waiting either. Or, at least, we don’t like it. It’s tiring, uncomfortable, and often annoying; and yet so much of our lives is spent doing it. We wait for the mail to arrive. We wait for a favorite movie to come out on DVD. We wait to hear who actually won the election for POTUS. Some of us count the minutes, checking our phones for the latest updates. Others gnaw fingernails or wander from room to room in their house, unable to concentrate on one set of chores long enough to finish anything. Still others of us give up, allowing a sort of malaise to wash over us. What does it matter when this or that will happen? It hasn’t yet. Maybe it never will.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us a parable that really does nothing to contradict our dislike of waiting. It begins innocently enough. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like 10 bridesmaids who are getting ready for the year’s biggest wedding celebration. They’ve donned their best robes and their most precious jewels. They’ve thought of the right things to say to the bride and the groom to express their excitement for this new season in their lives. And they’ve trimmed their lamps in preparation for the journey to the nuptial feast.
The 10 young women are ready for the ceremony to begin; but, as happens way too often in weddings, one of the two main actors isn’t ready. The bridegroom is delayed, so the bridesmaids settle down to wait. Times passes. At first, the ladies chatter quietly, looking up with expectant eyes for the appearance of a messenger at the door. But, as the minutes turn to hours, the talk ends as one by one, the women fall asleep.
Suddenly, who knows how much later, the call comes: “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The women shake themselves awake, readjust their clothes and check their hair, and head for the door, when they realize that their lamps are guttering. The bridegroom had taken so long that their oil has all but run out; and five of the women have forgotten to bring any backup. Looking to their fellow bridesmaids, the five women without oil ask, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But these women, who had just poured the contents of their extra flasks into their own lamps said no. “There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And so our 10 bridesmaids part ways, as five women head to the marriage banquet, and five head to the corner store.
The ending of this parable is remarkable in its ominous severity. After obtaining enough oil to light their way to the banquet hall, the five remaining women arrive at their destination. They’re late, but light now haloes their faces. They knock on the door, expecting to be let in, only to have the Bridegroom himself open and declare with no explanation: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” He closes the door, leaving the women outside in the dark, too astonished to say anything as the light glistens on their tear-marked faces.
And the moral of the story, Jesus tells us, is “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
What do we do with this parable? What do we make of it? Do we, like generations of pastors and theologians, try and identify what the oil actually symbolizes? Is it good works or faith or a secret knowledge only the wise possess? And why, we might wonder, does Jesus conclude his tale by warning his listeners to “stay awake” when all 10 of the virgins—both the foolish and the wise—fell asleep?
These questions, like so many in life, have no easy answers—but that doesn’t mean we’re left out in the cold with our doubt and our fear like the women at the end of this story. The key to finding the hope in this parable, I think, lies in our Epistle passage, in which St. Paul comforts the Thessalonian Christians, who worry that their loved ones who have died before Christ’s return won’t rise with him when he does.
As the days slipped by following Jesus’ ascension, his followers waited for his return. “It is soon,” they thought, “very soon. Any day now.” But then their loved ones, those men and women who first heard and believed in the message of the Apostles, began to grow old and to die. The Thessalonian Christians didn’t know what to make of it. Their Bridegroom was delayed, and the wait was growing longer. Had he forgotten them? Had those who died done something wrong? How long would it be before Christ came back? And would they even survive to see him again?
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died,” Paul writes, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. . . .Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Their endurance was not pointless and their wait was not futile. Paul doesn’t explain why Jesus is delayed; but Paul does give his listeners hope. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Take heart, Paul tells his spiritual children, the Lord won’t forget you.
The difference between the quiet calm of Paul’s message and the grim ending of Jesus’ parable spark against one another, as a professor of mine once said. Here we have reassurance, and there we have tragedy. What elements are missing from one or the other? Do they have anything in common? And how in the world do we make sense of both?
Ten virgins wait for the bridegroom. The Christians of Thessalonika wait for the coming of Christ. Five women have forgotten extra oil, and the elders of the church have begun to die. Will the door be shut when the party finally begins? Or will it be open? Paul tells us that Christ can overcome even death—why then does he not overcome a little tardiness?
“Later the other bridesmaids came to the banquet hall also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’”
What if this foreboding parable isn’t about possessing the right quantity of the right substance in order to be admitted into heaven? What if, instead, it’s about waiting and waiting well?
Each woman fell asleep as the time for the Bridegroom to arrive passed. The wait was too much for them; they couldn’t help but close their eyes. And when the cry suddenly came that he was there, all of them woke up just as disoriented as the other; but five had oil and five did not.
And now I want us to pause and ask a strange question: What would have happened if the five foolish virgins hadn’t left to buy more oil? What if they had just stayed, acknowledging their lack of control over the situation and risking the anger of the Bridegroom, but also banking on the chance that he might forgive them or have some light of his own? What if they had believed that this man was one whose judgment was true and terrible but who was also gracious and merciful? What if they had believed that he who can overcome death can overcome anything—even a shortage of oil.
And that’s where the hope is in the midst of a hard reality: We don’t know when Jesus is coming back. We don’t know when he will return to right the wrongs and fight the final battles that will result in a world washed clean of sin and death. But we do have the promise that he is coming. The wedding has been scheduled, and no amount of delay will put it off forever. We all, each in our own way, will wait. Some may check their phones every five minutes. Others may gnaw their fingernails. Still others may give up and eventually forget. But the Lord is coming regardless, coming with justice and with mercy, that he might open the gates wide to all who would enter in. And until then, we pray just as David once did: “O LORD, make haste to help me! . . . Hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!” AMEN.