Delivered to Bloomington Inclusive Mass on November 9, 2014
There is a Robert Duvall film from 1997 entitled “The Apostle.” It begins with an opening scene where a charismatic fire and brimstone minister is traveling down the highway in his car. He comes upon the scene of a car accident and has no choice but to pull over and stealthily slip past the first responders, with his massive Bible in hand. He makes his way into a hayfield where he comes upon a twisted and contorted car with a man and woman inside barely breathing. He reaches into the car, past the man who is propped up by the steering well, in a semi-cationic state, and silences the radio. The minister then proceeds to question the man as to the state of his soul and invites him to accept Jesus, as Lord and Savior, incase he perishes the same day. The man, in a state of shock, nods yes and almost indistinguishably says, “Thank you.” The minister, seemingly “high” from his accomplishment, then begins an oratory of praising God and explaining the presence of angels and the miracle that has occurred. The man sits catatonically, perhaps dead, with his wife lying dead on his lap, as the minister strolls off in all his glory.
Many of us here do not find this story all that shocking. We were raised in religious contexts that affirm the need for a “moment of salvation” above all else. Common decency and respect for others took secondary place to our calling to be saved and to save the lost. We are not surprised that the minister in “The Apostle” did not sit quietly with the man, asking him if there was anything he could do to ease his transition from this life to the next. Instead of asking him if he could pass on words or important messages to any of his family and friends, it became a heated moment of needing the man to somehow prove he had accepted Jesus and was ready for death. Instead of offering compassion and love, quietness and peace, the minister offered the fears of a dark future filled with fires of hell. Christianity has been quite good at demanding these “magical moments of salvation,” over the centuries and it is by no means limited to the Evangelicals.
I am reminded of an all to common event in the Orthodox Church that both my husband and I have witnessed firsthand. Before the priest offers Holy Communion to the people gathered in worship, they are reminded that they need to be prepared properly to receive. I have no issue with this simple admonition. As matter of fact, our Mass asks the same of us. Each week we pray to be forgiven, to forgive ourselves and to love more deeply so that we might truly celebrate God’s gifts. However, I watched many times as a person would come to receive communion, only to have the priest shake his head and cover the chalice with a linen cloth. The person seeking to commune was denied, they were not prepared in the eyes of the priest, and therefore were worthy of public humiliation. From recent reports in the media, we know the same has been happening in the Roman Catholic Church, where bishops are seeking to make examples of those who do not agree with their every whim and political stance. Yes, the church has been very good at leaving people out in the cold, in ignoring the present needs and pains of individuals - and instead of offering healing and compassion, the Church has offered only rhetoric, pompous ideals and heavy-handed judgment.
The mostly real-life caricature of the minister in ‘The Apostle” and the many sacramental priests, denying communion to those seeking God over the centuries, have found the validity for their actions in today’s Gospel reading. Quite frankly, at a quick glance, it is a pretty awful parable and it goes against so much of what Jesus has taught us in the other parables of Matthew, Mark and Luke. If you remember, just a few weeks back, we heard another parable about a wedding celebration in which the master of the house asked his servants to bring everyone inside to celebrate, good or evil, and presented to all who came a shiny new wedding outfit. In that parable the people did not need to prepare whatsoever for the celebration, they were simply embraced whole-heartedly. But today we are told something entirely different. We hear about ten virgins, each bearing oil lamps, five of them with an extra supply of oil, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The bridegroom is late and so, understandably, the ten virgins fall asleep waiting. When he finally arrives to greet his bride the five virgins with extra oil meet him, while the other five going searching for oil only to be locked out of the celebration.
There are many issues with this parable, or at least with the typical interpretation we were taught as children. How many of us here were led to believe this is Jesus talking to us about salvation and being ready for his coming or our own personal death? How many of us have feared, at some point in our life, that perhaps we aren’t prepared enough to receive Jesus and may suffer the fate of the five virgins waiting outside in the dark with the door of heaven slammed shut to us? Today, I give you the opportunity to lay those awful interpretations down and allow yourself the same mercy that God already gives to you on daily basis. To begin with, there is great debate that Jesus ever told this parable in the first place. The parable itself goes against the bulk of Jesus’s teaching and appears to be an addition by one of the two authors or editors of the Gospel of Matthew. Instead of a message of compassion, inclusion and good news, this parable reeks of judgment, fear and retribution. The parable is likely the storied response of the early Christian community to their exclusion from worshipping side by side in the synagogues with their Jewish brothers and sisters. They were not happy to have been thrown out of these Jewish worship places and wanted to make sense of it. Sadly, their way of dealing with exclusion has led to almost 2,000 years of the church priding itself on treating people poorly and feeling justified in abandoning those who do not meet their expectations.
If we took the time to look at this parable line by line, we could find a biblical teaching to contradict its almost every thought. For example, we are told in First Corinthians that God affirms those who are foolish and that the typical wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that God will never snuff out a smoldering wick, which seems to say that one does not need an extra supply of oil to be good with God. The parable proudly tells us how the five “wise” virgins refuse to share with the other five and yet Jesus tells us, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Furthermore, none of the virgins would have had a need for burning lamps - the bridegroom would have brought plenty of torches with him and the house would have already been bursting forth with candlelight for the joyous occasion. In the Book of Revelation we are told, “In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.” Any bridegroom worth two cents would never have left his bride’s friends standing in the dark and cold simply because they didn’t have enough oil, the very fact they wished to attend would have been proof enough they were invited to the celebration. Yes, it is best to recognize this parable is the grumpy musings of a group who had been excluded from their once cherished social and religious interactions and left standing outside of a locked door. We all get grumpy when we are excluded and for good reason.
So what can we make of this parable in our progressive faith movement in the 21st century? Clearly, hopefully, we have moved beyond using apocalyptic imagery to force people into our own little boxes of understanding and practice. We can positively accept that this parable is not Christ trying to scare the hell out of us, nor is it Christ giving the church the right to force conversion upon dying individuals or refusing to give freely the sacrament of Incarnate Love, revealed in bread and wine, at the altar. This parable, whether the words of Jesus or an unknown author using their imagination some sixty plus years after Christ’s departure, does call us to a state of being ready and to living life fully.
The Boy Scouts have a motto, “Always be prepared.” God asks us to be prepared, while showering us with grace and mercy for those moments we simply aren’t. Jesus came that we might have an abundant life and this type of life cannot be lived if we are constantly fearful of dying and what comes after. Instead, we are called in this moment, right now, to live a life of completeness, health and well being as we love our neighbors and ourselves, knowing God will take care of eternity. Unlike the “wise” virgins in our parable, we are called to give what we have to those in need, that we might truly know freedom from the weight of possessions and worries. Unlike the bridegroom who shuts the door, we are called as a people of Christian faith to extend a warm welcome to all who seek the possibility of God. Unlike, the minister in “The Apostle,” we will not force our doctrines upon others, but in quiet charity we will sit with those who are distressed and offer God’s love not with creedal statements but with humility and a shoulder to cry on. In our tradition, we will continue offer the Blessed Sacrament to each and every person who approaches this altar, knowing that God embraces the one who returns home no matter their condition or how prepared they seem to us. Never, as a progressive people of faith, will we lock the door to those who desire to celebrate. We will choose to heed the direct words of Jesus, in Matthew 23:13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”
At times we will be wise and at times we will be foolish. At times we will behold God at every turn and at times we will be so caught up in ourselves and our worries we will miss God. Thankfully, God never misses us and the door is always open. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Have we left the door open to God and to others or have we shut it in judgment and in finding ourselves to be better than those around us? God calls us to a state of harmony, peace, inclusivity and tranquility as we journey with one another through this great adventure called, “Life!” Share your gifts, share your oil, be alert, awaken those who might have fallen asleep to the Divine surrounding them, allow yourself to be awaken by God’s grace, keep the door open to your heart and mind and help open that same door for others. Never leave anyone in the darkness; never allow yourself to remain in the darkness; never use the words of Jesus to bring death or bigotry or exclusion. Jesus came to give you life abundant; will you grant such life to yourself and others?
Choose to join the celebration of life. You are always invited! Don’t stand outside a locked door if you missed an opportunity - for God is continually being made known around us, your next opportunity is already here!