Susan Adams: Psalm 78: 1-7 Matthew 25: 1-13
There is an old Sunday school song ….. “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I long to hear. Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here….” we used to make up additional verses reminding ourselves of a range of stories about Jesus that our teachers wanted to talk about.
It is in the telling of stories that the lives of people, and events of significance, are remembered. Is how most of us learned about Jesus in those far off Sunday School days. It’s how most of us learn about our families, the people and the events that have shaped us.
Remembrance Sunday is set aside as the day when we bring to mind people who died in WWI and subsequent wars, past and present. Most of us wouldn’t know the WWI people personally, but we’ve heard stories about them, especially if they were family members. Those stories colour what we think about them. nd we’ve heard stories of horror and valor, fear and bravery that took shape in the experiences soldiers in the trenches and the gas clouds and the hospitals. In the stories about people and incidents in subsequent wars we’ve heard something similar, though we may have known people personally who fought in those wars. You would think stories of war would shape a different world ! That the horrors and deaths would warn us off the violence and toward more diplomatic means of sorting difference.
These days, Remembrance Sunday usually invites us to remember people we have known and loved who have died. Yesterday I was listening to stories about a colleague who had died, Clay Nelson… some of you may have known him. It was wonderful to hear the stories of recollection from his wife and daughters and a close friend. Remembering people who have dies brings our own past to mind, and remembering our past can affect each of us differently.
Sometimes it can be that we tell stories and then look back with nostalgia to the good old days, perhaps to when things seemed simpler, and people seemed more generous and trustworthy. We wish it could be like that again.
Sometimes memories of the past, handed on as stories of caution or encouragement, can urge us into creative action, or into modeling ourselves on the best bits. Stories locate us and tell us who we are.
The children in our family love to hear stories about themselves when they were younger. “Tell me about when I was born, what did you say?” Tell me about when grandpa asked the lady to let me go in front so I could see!” “ Tell me about when I broke Nana’s best plate.” All sorts of stories, repeated over and over.
You will have stories of your own that are told in your families and amongst friends. Stories shape us, they give us identity, they locate us in family and social group, in community and nation. They help is understand the values we aspire to as a nation. “The All Blacks are our team, they are always kind and considerate to teams they beat -they don’t gloat – they hold their heads up when they lose and are generous to the victors!”
There are stories like these that we are proud to identify with. And of course some stories we want to distance ourselves from – horrible graffiti painted on Jewish property for example, or sending vitriolic texts via social media to public figures.
Sometimes we can latch on to the wrong part of the story for it to be really helpful to us.
Take for example the story from the Gospel this morning often called ‘the foolish bridesmaids’. Usually, when we reflect on this story, we are encouraged to identify with the five bridesmaids who were ready for the arrival of the bridegroom. They were ready with oil in their lamps and the wicks trimmed. We never want to identify with the so called 5 ‘foolish’ bridesmaids who had no oil in there lamps and where sent away to look for oil. We easily dismiss them. (We are not told if they had kept their lamps burning while they waited so everyone had light in the dark of the night!) And, because they has to go searching for oil late at night they missed the arrival of the groom whose arrival they had waited for so patiently. That story is so familiar to us. It’s familiar as a cautionary tale about the danger of not being ready, about the danger of sleeping on the job and thereby missing out.
But what if we told the story differently, told it for a different purpose and emphasised different aspects?
Remember! Matthew’s hearers were probably a Christian-Jewish community suffering exclusion from the synagogue. At the time the Pharisees were tightening up ritual practices and interpretations of the Torah so as to hold the Jewish community together in an increasingly hostile environment.
It’s likely the embryonic Christian-Jews, the Jesus followers, were alienated from their Jewish community and excluded from the synagogue. perhaps the doors were shut in their face as they sought entry. Perhaps they were excluded from their families too.
Rome was reasserting power after the fall of the temple, and the Pharisees and other institutional leaders were clamping down on what was perceived as ‘heretical’ strands of Judaism. They were tightening up protocols and traditional rituals so as to bind the community of Jews together.
In the face of all this I like to think the writer of Matthew’s gospel was encouraging his listeners. Encouraging them to remember who it was they were following, to remember the stories they knew of Jesus….to talk about them in relation to their own current experiences.
Perhaps he was using an oppositional technique to make his point and stir them to think about what was happening.
After all the stories that told of Jesus direct engagement with people
- never mentioned people being sent away for any reason,
- and always there was an emphasis on sharing what you had,
- doors never shut out those who knocked!
And, remember, it was the bridegroom who was late for his own banquet, not any of the guests, not even the bridesmaids who had no oil in their lamps. They, guests and wedding party had waited patiently for a long time it would seem, for him and his entourage to show up! Perhaps they were even uncertain if he would show up!
Is this how we usually interpret the kingdom of heaven metaphor?
How much more helpful it is for us, in our fraught times of despair and uncertainty, to remember this story as one that emphasises
- mutual care,
- sharing of what we have with those in need,
- keeping an open door, even if those who want to come in have previously made silly mistakes or poor choices.
After all it’s not nice to invite people to come to a banquet, a feast, a celebration then keep them waiting and wondering if you would turn up, then shut the door in their face!
We come to this celebration, remembering the last supper Jesus had with his friends that fateful night when he was arrested. We tell our story emphasising everyone is welcome to the table, to the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is the image of generosity and inclusive love.
The sharing of bread and wine with all those who want to come to the table is fundamental to the story we tell. “Come” we say hoping everyone will feel welcome.
That welcome, and generous inclusion of all those who want to be part of the ongoing story of loving compassion, was Jesus way of relating and teaching. There were no closed doors, no selfish hoarding, in his teaching, only respect for the other and mutual care.
That’s the story we tell of the Jesus way we seek to follow!
So it seems to me, that as church, we have got hold of the wrong end of the story of the bridesmaids and the bridegroom. Rather that telling the story as a cautionary tale of exclusion, we should be telling it to remind ourselves of
respect for the other, always;
of the importance of sharing what we have;
and of keeping a ready welcome.
We need to remember who we are as church, remember whose story we gather round and think carefully how we tell that story.
How we tell that story, and how we live that story, will be the story that is told about us.