When Eli was first learning to talk, he asked me, in one of those lucid moments little kids get some time, “Mommy, what makes sumpfin funny?” Well, I answered slowly, I think things that are funny are usually unexpected. The guy who expects to just be walking down the sidewalk steps on a banana peel. The guy who asks a reasonable question (who’s on first?) gets an unreasonable, unexpected answer. Just yesterday, we took our dog for a walk to the small lake near out home, and as she stretched her neck out to try to get a really good look at a duck, she lost her footing and fell right into 3 feet of water. We helped her out and then laughed and laughed. What is unexpected is funny. Which is not to say that everything that is unexpected is funny, ha-ha. Sometimes unexpected things are more like funny, peculiar. Take the gospel story today, for example.
This story, which only appears in Mt, keeps being told – through the generations – and in each generation it’s peculiar in a different way.
First it was told by Jesus. Although, he probably did what he did well and often, which was take a familiar story or image and repeat it. As Jesus told it, it would have been in the oral tradition – a story told and repeated over and over. Here’s Jesus, and his mostly male listeners are sitting around, and Jesus would have begun a story that would be familiar to them as a comic story, maybe even a little bit of a raunchy one. Sort of the first century Palestine version of “ a guy walks into a bar” – and the men in that first audience would be identifying, no doubt, with the male bridegroom. But then Jesus, who always wants his listeners to identify with the outsider, remember, twists the story, so we’re identifying instead with 5 girls stuck on the wrong side of a closed door. That’s the first generation understanding of the story, Jesus asking us usual to identify with those who are outside.
The kingdom of heaven will be like this: like a reversal of who’s in and who’s out.
So the first telling of the story. And then, there was a second telling and that was by the gospel writers, who wrote down the stories of Jesus that were important to them, or furthered his message in some way. As Mt retold the of the bridesmaids, his emphasis was on the end of days and being prepared to enter the kingdom. As Mt tells it, the bridegroom is not so much the guy we are to identify with, the bridegroom is is JESUS. He’s also interested in who is in, and who is out – the twist is that those who seem to be insiders in the final judgment are really outsiders. The final judgment may mean many things to many different people, but for all it is a new order of things, the end of business as usual. (These paragraphs owe much to Seasons of the Spirit curriculum.)
The kingdom of heaven will be like this... the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, the end of business as usual.
The story was told again and again, and in each new generation is meant something new. in the 1700’s, John Wesley (who founded the Methodist church and was a great lover of humanity) wrote a commentary on the bible and to him the story was, typically, about love. “Love in their hearts,” he scrawled in the margin next to the 5 wise virgins, “and they daily sought a fresh supply of spiritual strength until their love was made perfect.”
The kingdom of heaven will be like this…like the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, like the end of business as usual, like love made perfect.
A century ago, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an American social activist and leading figure of the early woman's movement, wrote that this story is really about how, as women, we cant rely on men to help us or give us what we need in life. “The sin of neglecting and burying one’s talents, capacities and powers,” she writes in her introduction to this story, “and the penalties which such a course involve, are here strikingly portrayed”
The kingdom of heaven will be like this…like the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, like the end of business as usual, like love made perfect, like a talent unburied…
For us, 21st century believers and seekers, this is this story seems to raise more questions than answers. Wait a minute, we think, Jesus is always teaching us to SHARE, and now it’s the wise virgins who are not sharing? Also, the door is shut to those who don’t prepare? While we understand that our god is a god is god of judgment as well as mercy, that seems a little harsh.
What about that closed door? That word for door, is the same word used by Mt later for the covering of the tomb where Jesus is laid after the crucifixion and before he rises again. It’s not a door that stays closed. In fact, in other places in scripture, Jesus refers to himself as a gate. And what about the sharing? Well, there are some things that cannot be shared, some things that we cannot do for others, but can only give to others by example. As Anthony Robinson says, “One of these is faith, another is spiritual growth and maturity. Oil here is a metaphor for both. Sure the faith of others can help and inspire us, but when push comes to shove, we can't borrow faith from someone else or substitute another's faith for our lack. Neither can we, at the last minute, gain wisdom of heart or spiritual maturity. These are the product of a life of integrity, responsibility, and doing one's own work.”
The kingdom of heaven will be like this…like the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, like the end of business as usual, like love made perfect, like talents unburied, like a door that seems closed, but really opens, like integrity and responsibility. The great thing is, in our generation, it can be all those things for us, and more.
The kingdom of heaven will be like this. How will tomorrow’s generation tell that story? I don’t know for sure, but for the children of my son’s generation, it is my prayer that it will always be one of their “I was there”s - the events of this week, as we elected the first African American, a son of an immigrant (and a 20 year UCC member) to the White House.
It’s important to pause on this “pinnacle” of history and remember the sacrifice and hard work that has led to this moment, , Leonard Pitts an African-American writer, explained in his column earlier this week, because “For most of the years of the American experiment, “we the people” did not include African-Americans. We were not included in “we” We were not even included in “people.” What made it galling was all the flowery words to the contrary, all the perfumed lies about equality and opportunity. This was, people, kept saying, a nation where any boy might grow up and become president. Which was only true, we knew, as long as it was indeed a boy and as long as the boy was white. But as of today, we don’t know that any more.”
The kingdom of heaven will be like this…like the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, like the end of business as usual, like love made perfect, like a talent unburied, like a door that seems closed, but really opens, it’s like “integrity, responsibility, it’s like looking back with gratitude at sacrifice and hardship, and looking ahead with what President-Elect Obama called in his acceptance speech “unyielding hope” -- hope that does not flicker and die out, but that keeps burning all through the long night.
DC resident Wayne Floyd told this story on Tuesday afternoon. Brothers and sisters, the kingdom of heaven will be like this:
“Voting for the first time in a new neighborhood, I arrived at my polling place this morning at 6:30 a.m. to find a line down one side of the block and halfway up another. Just in front of me was an octogenarian African American matriarch, dressed to the nines, and proudly refusing all offers to move up in line or to sit down in someone’s folding chair.
I took my place in line at the same time as a twenty-something young man, who with the air of entitlement that only youth can fully muster, loudly complained: “How long ago did this line start, anyway?!”
“Honey,” the elder in front of me replied, “…This line began a looooong time ago … way, way, way before even your mama was born!” “Speak it, Sister” somebody further in front of us chimed in, in response to which the sage of Farragut Street added her parting shot to all who would listen: “You need to know that I can remember when we couldn’t even be in line to vote! So don’t you mouth off about the line being sooo looong! All you had to do was show up!” (http://www.blogging-thomas.org/?p=85)
The kingdom of heaven will be like this…like the reversal of who’s in and who’s out, like the end of business as usual, like love made perfect, like a talent unburied, it’s like a door that seems closed, but really opens, it’s like integrity and responsibility, it’s like gratitude, sacrifice, unyielding hope. It’s like showing up, just showing up.
I don’t really know what the kingdom is like, but I do know that everything we here at this church do day by day and week by week is practice for creating the kingdom. As we bless and dedicate our time and talent sheets today, as we pray about our private promises to God, and what we might give back in the year to come, as we worship, as we eat together, as we argue and make up, as we sing, as we maintain our beautiful building, as we sit in meetings, as we serve a meal at a homeless shelter, as we teach children. In all those ways and in countless more, we are living a new and old story, a story that begins “the kingdom of heaven will be like this…”