I am grateful for the invitation of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Albany for their invitation to preach today. This sermon is based on Matthew 25: 1-13 and the Accra Confession. I used the confession in honor of it’s 10th Anniversary and of the many new members at the Westminster Church from Ghana and neighboring countries in Africa. Following worship 30 members of the church sat down to talk with me about the Accra Confession, economics and faith.
Imagine the scene of a wedding celebration in the midst of a difficult way of life.
A wedding that is a respite, a grace.
On the wedding day the men in the family take a Sabbath pause to play games, have races with each other and their animals. The groom would pay the bride-price to his father-in-law at his father’s house. After paying her father the groom would lead nighttime walk of his friends and family back to the bride’s family home. Her friends would wait with her at her parent’s house and when they saw the groom getting close, they would go out, walking towards the groom and his processional—and as it was the custom, they would walk with poles that had oil lamps perched on top of them. Then the bride would come and walk beside them, and they would repeat the same walk, all together, back to the groom’s home for the wedding feast and party.
But here’s the thing:
There is no timetable to this wedding celebration.
You do not know when the groom would arrive.
Perhaps he would be held up at his parent’s house negotiating with his soon-to-be father-in-law.
Or the distance between the homes was long and took time to travel.
It was the job of the bridesmaids to be ready for any contingency.
To be ready for a long night or a long day.
To have enough oil.
It was their job to be prepared.
And as Matthew’s Gospel tells it some of the bridesmaids were.
And some were not.
Some arrived at the party and enjoyed the festivities.
And for the rest, the door was closed shut and did not open back up.
Where do you hear yourself in this Parable?
As the groom who is about to start a new life and who has prepared a party to celebrate?
As the bridesmaids who were ready and prepared?
Or do you hear yourself as the bridesmaid who always gets into the party and is always on the right side of the door.
Or as the bridesmaids who did not want to share, afraid that there will not be enough to go around?
Maybe you are like the bridesmaids who only had a little bit of oil and not enough time or ability to get more?
Or are you like the groom who shuts the door and refuses to open it to those who are a little late and without enough resources for the party?
Where do you hear the world in this Parable?
The world of endless parties?
The world where everyone can be prepared and ready?
Or the world that has communities that are fearful to share, knowing that they cannot afford to give a single thing away?
As those in this world who throw caution to the wind and refuse to be prepared, even when they can be?
Or at its worst, the world that intentionally closes doors so some cannot ever enter into the feast or the party?
How do we get out of our own lens or our own minds when we read this Parable?
How do we hear Jesus in new ways and find meaning in it that speaks to our personal lives and the lives we inhabit and the challenges we face as global citizens committed to the way of Jesus Christ?
One of the lens through which some of us hear this parable is that of people who have grown up and lived our whole lives in North America. We have cultural values of preparation, saving for the future, having endowments, retirement plans and insurance to see us through any contingency. Those who do not save or put away for the future are sometimes judged as wasteful or “without a game plan.” We might even use the word “foolish” which is the traditional way of describing the bridesmaids in this Parable who run out of oil and do not have enough to make it into the party.
But the reality is that many around us cannot save for the future because there is not enough to go around for today. There are many around us who cannot prepare because there is not a structure that is strong and resilient around all communities in equal ways. For some of us when the oil in a lamp runs out there is no replacing it, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes today we look at our systems and our structures that we have inhabited for a long time, places we love and whose oil we have replenished year after year. But less of us are filling up those oil lamps today. Not everyone finds these places as important as we do. And so we worry and grow anxious about the future of these organizations and places, even our beloved congregations, rather than wondering why others no longer see them as having value and meaning.
Questions and habits around resources is a tricky conversation to have.
Another lens through which some of us in this congregation hear this Parable is from our lives in another country that is not the United States. These experiences are different and honored in another way. The greatest learning of my life has been that the cultural expectations around resources in other countries is oftentimes very different than those I was raised with here in the United States and taught to expect that everyone would share. I was taught to judge those who did not the values of my native country. That is the sin of privilege in dominant culture. My husband is an immigrant from Colombia, South America and so many times our ideas are so different. I have come to learn and appreciate and grow into a new lens—a new way of reading and knowing the world around me. And so has Juan.
Every time I read a Parable like this one from Matthew’s Gospel, I wonder to myself,
“Through which lens am I reading this passage from the Bible?”
“Is my lens or my mind bound up in my culture?”
“Does that lens or my mind blind me to what Jesus is saying?”
Ten years ago in 2004 a Confession was written by the then World Alliance of Reformed Churches, an organization that gathers together over 7 million Reformed Christians from many denominations and many countries…and the Confession was named after the place in which it was written: Accra, Ghana. The Accra Confession spends its time thinking theologically and prophetically about economic and ecological problems that are present in today’s world. This Confession came out of the questions and challenges that Reformed Christians who were not from North America had about the economic way of life of Western countries that they saw as causing great and permanent injury and harm to their communities. We will read a bit of this Confession today as our Affirmation of Faith and during the Second Hour we will spend time together reading it in depth and discussing it.
As in the Accra Confession, the central question that this Parable opens up is one of resources and the ability to prepare. As I read a Reformed Confession from another part of the world the mind through which I read this Parable is opened up into a new way. The image of the shut door is one of challenge for us today. There are many places in this world where a door is closed and some people and some communities are cut off from the feast, the celebration or the party:
…Millions of children and adults around the world die every year from malnutrition and hunger. Most of it is preventable. If we do not respond and change our ways, the door will be shut forever for these people and the communities they live in. What is our call as people of faith who seek wholeness for all?
…The latest United Nations Climate Report was released just two weeks ago. It paints a stark picture of what climate change will mean to our planet and for as Christians, to God’s Good Creation. The door is shutting, and when it closes, it will be closed. What is our call as people of faith who seek abundant life for all generations and for all living beings? What does it mean for us as people of faith when we desecrate and trample the original Good Gift of God—the Creation?
…Many people of color and immigrants in the United States encounter closed doors every day. Systemic police brutality, racism, red-lining and education discrimination continue around us. Closed doors. Shut doors. What does this challenge us to be and to do as people who seek to follow Christ in whom there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female?
The Parable ends with the admonition, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour!”
Theologian Walter Wink says of this Parable, “The times we haven’t responded to God’s invitations to act add up to our unlived life. It is difficult to die with so much lost opportunity.”
Matthew’s Gospel offers a challenge in the midst of our waiting to meet Jesus.
The challenge is to not wait and do nothing.
The challenge is to renewed discipleship, prophetic action, the casting aside of false idols, waiting actively with hope and a renewed sense of call.
We do not know the hour or the day when Christ will come—but we do know and understand what our calling is:
We are called to make sure there is enough oil in our lamps for the journey, risking the opportunity to share the life-giving oil in our lamps so that the doors will not be shut on anyone. We are called to stand and speak out against systems of power and control that keep whole people, whole communities, sometimes even whole countries from even having oil to put in their lamps in the first place.
In today’s Parable we are reminded of the eventual time when the Banquet will be for everyone—but in the meantime our call is to open up the space for all to be filled with God’s love and care.
We are called to proclaim abundance even when our hearts might be filled with the anxiety of scarcity.
May it be so. For you and for me.
For all of Creation.
 This adaptation and imagining of what the wedding party in Matthew 25 might have been like is from Walter Wink’s telling of it in Hunger for the World: Lectionary Reflections on Food and Justice, Year A ed. Larry Hollar. (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2004), page 191.
 Ibid, page 193.
Photo Credit: Westminster Presbyterian Church