110820 Pentecost 23
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Matthew 25:1-13
As I begin this sermon about choice, I must mention the obvious that last week a majority of Americans made their choice to end the nightmare of the last four years and begin a new era. Yet, as we celebrate that reality, we must also face the truth that the United States of America might more accurately be referred to these days as the Divided States of America. Last week showed some of the best and worst qualities of our country. The turnout, the vote count, and the cautious reporting are all signs of historic strengths of this nation. The election of Joe Biden offers hope that those qualities might be restored to the mainstream, and that “United” might one day again become an accurate description of the country. But we also saw the current president stoking the flames of violence, and his followers shouting, Stop the count and Count the votes, depending on whether their leader was winning or losing. And our hopes are tempered by a divided electorate, and by a Senate that still might be able to block efforts by the new president.
The bridesmaids in the Gospel story we just heard were also a divided community. Any of you who’ve had the privilege to be in a wedding party know the camaraderie that is usually built around the joyous event. But something went wrong in this group. The bridesmaids were split between those called wise and those called foolish. The wise bridesmaids could have encouraged and helped the foolish ones; but they refused to help; instead sending them on a wild goose chase looking for oil at midnight. The wise ones were welcomed into the party with the bridegroom, but they didn’t get there through kindness or compassion.
All ten bridesmaids made bad choices based on a false view of the bridegroom’s character. They saw the bridegroom (God) as harsh and punitive, who would never forgive being unprepared. The wise ones told their companions to go look for oil and the foolish ones erred in not thinking for themselves. Wouldn’t the foolish ones have been better off trusting the groom not to leave them out just because their lamps were not lit? They still had five lit lamps to greet him with. And he had been delayed. Surely, he would have understood their running out of oil.
But they decided not to trust his graciousness and went looking for more oil at midnight. They returned in the pitch black of night, with their lamps still unlit. Could the bridegroom even see their faces as he peered out the window into the night? He could legitimately say, I don’t know who you are. I can’t even see you. He also may have been frustrated that they’d wasted time going off to look for oil in the middle of the night when their five friends still had lighted lamps. The crucial question is, would things have been different for these five foolish bridesmaids if they’d stayed with the light of their friends and trusted the bridegroom to be understanding and gracious with them? The foolishness of the five bridesmaids was that they chose to accept the view that the bridegroom was a person who wouldn’t include them if they ran out of oil. But the actions of the five bridesmaids didn’t show true wisdom either. The Letter of James says, if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. (3:14-15) So those five may have been well prepared Girl Scouts, but they weren’t very good friends.
So, it matters what view of God we choose today. Nelson Mandela said, instead of hatred and revenge we chose reconciliation and nation-building — true and relevant words for us today. We always have the chance to make the unexpected choice that leads to life rather than death. If we’re going to allow God to find us, we need to put away the gods that our ancestors served, as Joshua said. We need bigger images of God than the nationalistic and militaristic visions that inspired our Hebrew ancestors. Put away the gods of old! Leave your old haunts, as Abraham and Sarah did, and discover a new God, of sufficient size to embrace the whole universe. The ‘other gods’ Joshua called them away from are not just religious – they are any substitute source of what we need and want. How we spend our money, our time, and our reputation, and where we go to seek the things that satisfy us, are indicators of what we value.
The leaders we follow are another indicator of the God we serve. The last two presidential elections have made clear that people who call themselves Christians follow different views of God and adopt diverse value systems based on the god they follow. The same is true for Jews, Muslims, and others. We are invited to follow God with faithful, open-spirited commitment to a particular vision of reality and way of life, which might be at cross purposes with the culture at large, political opponents, and other religious expressions.
Jesus, like Joshua, invited his followers to be like Abraham and Sarah: leave old gods behind and discover the God who continues to be revealed in new situations. What old gods – even Christian ones! – do we need to leave behind to be faithful to the Holy One? And what are the consequences of leaving one god to follow a different vision of the divine? Christians often treat Jesus’ teachings the way Jews treated Moses’ teaching. Jesus criticized his contemporaries for turning Moses’ teaching from being a religion of the heart into a law written in stone: Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. (John 5:45-46) Many Christians have similarly turned Jesus’ teaching into letters of stone.
One place where stone religion currently gets it wrong is around religious freedom. It’s important to see this clearly because the Supreme Court will deal with this issue a lot this year. An originalist view of religious freedom should go back to what the nation’s founders thought about the matter. They had fled oppressive religion in England and wanted to make sure that religious authority didn’t interfere in people’s ability to live freely. Yet much of what is called “religious freedom” today seeks to guarantee that same kind of religious authority. Many get this backwards. Hopefully, new leadership in the country will temper the Supreme Court’s excesses in this and other areas. Our choices matter!
Friends, the task of healing the nation is spiritual work. Any church that wants to be true to Jesus must make that work central to its mission. It has been central to St. Athanasius’ mission for a long time; but it’s time to up the ante. The choice made last Tuesday offers a new beginning. But it is just that: a beginning. We have myriad choices to make ahead. In two weeks, this congregation will make choose how much support we will give to St. A’s mission of being a healing community. Financial support is an essential element of the mission. But so is our investment in the mission itself. How will you choose to offer your time, talent, and treasure to make St. Athanasius part of this nation’s healing? That is what is at stake for us in these days.