Soul-Filling Community of Faith

The gospel of Matthew is anxious for the fledgling community of the church, trying to make its way with new believers in a hostile world trying to tear community apart. Many of those to whom Matthew writes had been excommunicated from the synagogue and abandoned by their families, facing the imminent threat of a hostile empire without the comfort and safety of those supporting structures. Christian believers were struggling just to survive in that dark time, so there is urgency to form a bold and committed union with other bereft souls in a community of faith. 

It was a similar situation for the Hebrews in this day's reading from Joshua. As a fledgling community with only God's Word as comfort, they are trying to make their way in a hostile world. Joshua had led them into the Promised Land occupied by intimidating nations with high walls and attractive idols; and they, too, faced imminent threat without similar fortification or defense. The Hebrew were struggling just to survive on that crucial threshold between wilderness wandering and settlement in God's promise. There is urgency to solidify their commitment to God and to one another in a new community of faith.

So if community formation is so urgent, why do Jesus and Joshua seem to make acceptance into it so difficult in the lectionary readings this day? In his farewell speech, Joshua rallies the people with exhortation and invitation to serve the Lord as he and his family pledge to do. Yet when they respond enthusiastically, remembering how God has already freed and protected them, Joshua flatly rejects the people's pledge, slamming the door in their faces with an unexpectedly terse and emphatic, "You can't serve the Lord!" (Joshua 24:16-19)

Jesus' invitation to the community of believers is equally confounding: "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like...ten bridesmaids [who] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom." The ten seem equivalent in their response and enthusiasm at first:  ten lamps burning; ten bridesmaids sleeping; ten bridesmaids waking up, hearing the groom arrive; and ten bridesmaids excited to get the party started. But, uh oh, only five have enough oil with them to keep their lamps lit. So while the five who are running on empty go out looking for a 24/7 convenience store, the others go into the party and shut the door. The callous groom refuses to open up even when they return well supplied with lamps burning, crying their confession of faith, "Lord, Lord." But the door remained slammed in their face with an unexpectedly terse and emphatic, "I don't know you!" 

On its face this parable fits with our human expectation for responsible citizenship in a competitive society: those who store up for themselves and refuse to share seem to come out on top. So then, keep it all for yourself, even when it means another woman will have to go out in the dangerous dark of midnight with no light. You can even gossip and snicker about her situation when she leaves and turn the music up so you can't hear her banging on the door to come in. But this parable does not fit with other things Jesus says in Matthew about not judging that splinter in your brother or sister's eye; about how if we knock, the door will be opened; or about forgiving not just seven but seventy-seven times. It doesn't fit with the story of Jesus blessing five loaves and two fish shared among thousands of people until all were satisfied, with abundant left-overs. It does not fit with Jesus blessing children or the search for the one lost lamb. It doesn't even fit with that other confounding parable where the kingdom is like a landowner who includes everyone in the work of the vineyard and pays them all equally no matter what time they arrive. As the Sesame Street song goes, "One of these things is not like the others." This one just doesn't feel like Jesus or sound like the gospel.

If we are confounded by Joshua's farewell speech that seems to frustrate the very commitment to community that he has spent his life guarding; if we are frustrated by Jesus' comparison of the kingdom to ten bridesmaids with flickering lamps--maybe that is because the kind of community to which they invite us is unlike any other, and its fullness requires more of its individual members than we care to admit. Have we forgotten about the narrow gate, the weeping and grinding of teeth, the parable of the weeds and the wheat or that other parable about the one tossed out of the wedding for being improperly dressed? Jesus said those things in Matthew, too. This, too, is the gospel of the Lord.

As much as we want to argue against or rewrite the ending of this parable, we cannot do it. Because this is not just any wedding party, nor is this regular lamp oil like a commodity to be traded, sold, gifted, loaned, or bartered according to the Uniform Commercial Code. As much as the wise bridesmaids may want to share, they cannot do it. Because, as many who have studied this parable closely realize, this kind of spiritual fuel you just cannot get from someone else. Just as you can copy a friend's math homework, but not the hours of studying he put in understanding all the steps in the process. Just as a surgeon may successfully transplant a heart from one body to another, but can never transfer its original recipient's love for her children, or her passion for crossword puzzles and gardening. There are some kinds of preparation we can only do for ourselves, spiritual reserves that no one else can build up for us. It's something we each have to receive, cherish, and deepen in our own souls for ourselves.

So this parable impresses upon us the importance and the urgency of fueling up. As all ten bridesmaids awaken to realize, the time for acquiring oil and building reserves will run out suddenly and unexpectedly. Dark times come into every life, and it's in the darkness that we most need the sustenance of the kind of oil Jesus is talking about--assurance of the abundant promises of God, peace that passes understanding, and a depth of hope that can sustain us through the darkness of disappointments and failures, devastating loss and grief--closed doors of all kinds. We will need hope urgently when our child is sick or parent helpless. We will need peace urgently when we realize there may not be enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month. We will need love urgently when we wonder whether a relationship will last or we fear how long it must be endured. We will need joy urgently when the pain of loss and grief seems never-ending.   

Dark times come to every generation. Today's young adults are as worried about their future as are we older generations who hand it off to them. No matter the results of last Tuesday's midterm election, present reality presages a grim future for emerging generations. The context into which young adults are coming of age is characterized by the unrest of terrorist attacks, unrelenting war, economic instability, and environmental destruction. So they turn to dystopian novels, video games and stories about zombies and apocalyptic end-times to help them imagine worst case scenarios and begin to deal with the terrifying crises that lie ahead, hoping reality will not be as horrifying as what we imagine.  

Polls tells us that young adults trend toward having no religious affiliation self-identifying as spiritual but not religious. In a time when deeply spiritual experiences are hard to discern among the sound bites, Tweets,  Snap Chats, and Instagrams that deliver  only fleeting, short-term returns and an insatiable appetite for more.  Young adults seek spiritual fuel from experiences like enjoying time with pets, family, and friends, preparing and sharing food, and finding God in the beauty of nature--what Elizabeth Drescher calls the four F's of contemporary American spirituality: family, Fido, friends, and food.

But the parable speaks of a source of sustaining hope and spiritual sustenance beyond what any of these can provide. Because while we each have to seek our own spiritual sustenance, the irony is that we usually discover what we need in community with others, seeking spiritual fuel together.

Jesus emphasizes the importance of faithful community throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and he tells us that life in Christ happens when two or more are gathered in his name. That is when Christ promises to be with us, and we can be assured the Holy Spirit is among us as we are gathered together, each replenishing our spiritual reserves.

Given everything Jesus tells us about community in the Gospel of Matthew, he cannot be satisfied with such a fractured community as these ten bridesmaids. And neither should we ignore our discomfort with its ending. Thank goodness we hear this parable while the bridegroom delays and the door to the party is still open. We have the blessing of being ten bridesmaids together, each individually seeking deeply satisfying spiritual sustenance, and together receiving the nurture of a spirit-filling community of faith. Beside one another, we receive assurance from Word and sacrament that sin and death do not have the last word. Beside one another, prayer rises up without ceasing even if in silence or sighs too deep for words. Beside one another, we study God's Word and share experiences of that Word living in the world. Beside one another, we serve a world in need and witness God's constant work of resurrection and transformation. Beside one another, we sing and the songs of faith imprint deeply with enduring reserves of grace and joy. Beside one another, God's spirit moves to meet the reality of human suffering with the mystery of hope. Beside one another, in the community of faith is where the love of God continues to appear in surprising and unexpected ways.

That is why Joshua insists each one of the Hebrews commit themselves to being a community of faith not just on one day of intense emotion, but through a lifetime of "inclining [their] hearts toward the Lord." (Joshua 24:23) Ten bridesmaids sit together holding their flickering lamps against the darkness, waiting expectantly for the party to start--because that community of faith is where we hear the good news that the bridegroom is surely coming to make all things new and Jesus already is among us offering those enduring gifts of the spirit. All of those things we cannot borrow or lend, we cannot buy or sell, we cannot earn or withhold. Our spiritual sustenance is right there all along; we simply come to receive the gift, to share it, and to cherish it day and night in sure and certain hope that for each one together in this community of faith, the best is yet to come.