November 12, 2023
Joshua 24. 1-25 — Joshua recites the story of the exodus and invites the people to renew their commitment to God. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Holy One.”
Psalm 78 — recalls that history, giving thanks that although the people were rebellious, God still forgives and provides. (It’s long see an excerpt, adapted, below.)
1 Thessalonians 4. 13-18 — proclaims that at the final coming of Christ, those who have died will be raised to new life and join the living, to be with Christ.
Matthew 25. 1-13 —The parable of ten wedding attendants.
At Schechem Joshua gathers the people who have recently come into the Promised Land from their wilderness wanderings. His telling of the exodus story is a tale of God’s gracious and consistent care. But it’s couched in an ancient image of God that’s basically a great big human being, with human intentions, actions and feelings. You might want to help folks find a way to appreciate this image of God’s interventions (“I gave them over to you…It was not by your sword or by your bow”) as an expression of God’s faithfulness to us—without taking literally its more destructive dimensions (“I destroyed them before you…”). I hope we have grown beyond the archaic notion of God being “for us” by being against others, whoever they may be. Ancient Israelites saw both their victories and defeats as God’a actions. Maybe we can see that those military actions were human acts, not God’s, but God was present in all of it.
What follows is an invitation to the renewal of the Covenant that’s rooted in Joshua’s own life. “You can do what you want, but as for me and my household…” That’s a pretty solid evangelistic approach. Don’t coerce people, just show them how it works. Joshua offers something that feels more like a final exam than an evangelistic pitch. “Are you sure you wan to do this?” Joshua asks, “because this is going to be really hard.” What if instead of proselytizing we warned people that obeying the Spirit is hard work, that following Jesus doesn’t always make your life easier or maybe even “better”—just more true and purposeful? Joshua’s “examination” of the people isn’t necessarily a deterrent to faith, but a warning that living a life of love and justice is hard, and it’s going to take commitment and discipline. And we’re going to need God, and each other.
As the flight attendants say, “We have begun our initial descent into the Reign of Christ.” The lectionary begins to point toward the coming of Christ. As it winds up the story of the escape from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land, it anticipates our entry into a different kind of Promised land at the second coming of Christ. But note: if you’re going to read a scripture like this in worship, sooner or later you need to talk about it. We don’t need to take the imagery literally—fodder for all those hokey “Rapture” movies in which people literally float up into the sky… and then what? Live where, the upper mesosphere? Maybe all the way out to the exosphere, dodging communication satellites? Our out in deep space? Let that go.
Paul is using poetic imagery to suggest that we are liberated from the physical bounds we now know, not that we physically “meet the Lord in the air.” But with or without the part about being “caught up in the clouds,” the notion of an afterlife in which we get to meet loved ones who have died is truly comforting for a lot of people. So be careful how you deconstruct it. I think it’s important to be honest with your people: we actually don’t know anything about the afterlife, other than that it’s in God’s hands. So it’s got to be good. Even if we discard all our specific ideas about the afterlife, at the very least we can affirm that we are part of something greater than ourselves that even death can’t cancel. Our faith in resurrection isn’t certainty about what we, or life, will be like after we die, but that all of life, and even death, in in God’s loving hands. True faith is not having lots of comforting ideas about the future; it’s trusting God especially when the future is completely unknown.
By the way, if you give yourself permission to fiddle with the lectionary, and you want to preach on the parable of the wedding attendants, you might pair it with next week’s Epistle reading, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, about belonging to the day instead of the night.
The usual interpretation of this story is: “Be prepared. Jesus is coming any minute, so be ready for the rapture.” So the theme is waiting, being ready. But wait. How does one prepare for the rapture? I can’t think of what that means, other than living your life the way God wants you to, whether the rapture is tomorrow or in the year 4046. (It seems just as likely that we should have to wait 2,023 years as the writers of the New testament should.) Liturgically it makes sense to focus on the imminent coming of Christ, since we’re we’re approaching Reign of Christ Sunday, and Advent. Jesus is coming. Be ready. So come to the marriage feast of the Lamb….
But all of this is post-Jesus interpretation, arising in a community that had expected Jesus’ return, but after 50 years he still hadn’t. There was some anxiety about how long they had to wait. That’s Matthew’s concern, but not Jesus’. I don’t think he told parables about himself. Besides, if Jesus is the groom, we are not wedding attendants. We are the bride. So let’s find another angle to this story.
Maybe it’s about how it’s easy to say you believe in God, but more important to actually live as if God is a part of your life. The foolish guests act like they don’t really expect the critical moment to come. How differently would we live if we actually expected Jesus to show up in our living room tomorrow?
Maybe it’s saying: “Have faith, and keep the oil in your lamp of faith burning. (Again. How do you just up and “have faith?” Easier said than done. And, wait. If you are the light of the world, then you don’t need oil. You already shine. So what’s with that?) So maybe putting oil in your lamp is about feeding your soul. What do you need to do to fill your lamp? What helps you grow spiritually? What strengthens your love? That’s the oil. Maybe the story is saying: “Practice spiritual discipline so when you really need spiritual strength you have it.”
Maybe it’s about the light we bring to the world instead of expecting the world to give us light. Maybe it’s about how your relationship with God isn’t dependent on anybody else’s. You can’t just borrow some faith from your neighbor like oil. You have to develop your own.
If you want a “moral of the story” there are ideas like that. But there’s way more than that going on here. The parable isn’t just a fable, “a story with a moral.” It’s an experience in many dimensions with multiple layers, that can open our eyes or raise questions in many ways. Maybe it’s not trying to “tell” us anything, but inviting us to experience something that gives us a new perspective. For instance, this story ends up pretty sadly—the foolish ones being left out in the cold. Matthew would have been happy to make the story end like this: he thinks there are people in the church who should, at least in the Final Judgment, get kicked out. But that doesn’t sound like Jesus, who believed in radical inclusion. If “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt. 21.32) then maybe foolish people are, too. Maybe Jesus isn’t telling us an idea, but inviting us to wonder. Maybe at the end of the story we sit with the foolish ones in the dark and wonder how our friends could be so cruel as not to share. And what about the partygoers inside? Are they really happy with half the guests missing? Maybe not. And the groom, saying “I don’t know you” to half of his friends? Just because they’re late—after making them wait all night!? Our sadness or disappointment, maybe even loneliness, might teach us something: I don’t like it like this. I would rather have all of us together. What if the “wise” ones had been wise enough to be prepared to share? That’s a story I’d like to be part of. I don’t need oil just for my lamp—I need oil for my neighbor’s lamp. Maybe Matthew thinks of it as a story about making sure we’re included, even if others are excluded, but Jesus uses it as motivation to share, and to include everybody. …. Or maybe this story evokes something else for you. Play with it.
It’s easy to imagine the story is about certain people, or groups of people. But maybe all ten of the wedding attendants are me. Some of me is wise, some foolish. What are the foolish parts of me that get left out because I don’t admit the light of God? What are the parts of me that are prepared to welcome God into my consciousness, prepared to celebrate?
Call to Worship
Leader: God of love, we come with our hearts lit to meet you.
All: We rejoice at your love and faithfulness.
Loving Christ, we come to be part of your celebration.
We want to be part of your community of joy.
Holy Spirit, we want to reflect the radiance of your love.
May the light of your joy and love shine in us, in all we do. Alleluia!
Leader: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
All: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
Let everyone who hears say, “Come!”
Let all who are thirsty come, for Christ will turn none away.
We come, O Love, to worship in your light, to feast upon your grace. Alleluia!
Leader: God of love, we long for you. We search for you. We wait for you.
All: Light the lamps of our hope, so we may wait and watch with patience.
The world is often dark, and it feels late.
Light the lamps of our faith, so we may shine with your light.
There are still those who wait in darkness.
Light the lamps of our love, sp we may share your light with others.
God, we open the vessels of our hearts to you;
we hold the wick of our hearts to the flame of your love.
Fill us with your light. Amen.
Leader: God of love, you provide everything for us.
All:Life is a banquet of beauty. We come to the feast!
God, you are faithful; your love is steadfast.
You have married the world. We come to celebrate!
And what of those who don’t have enough light?
We will share our light, so that all may come.
Fill our lamps with the oil of your love, God,
fill them to overflowing,
so that we may share your light with others. Amen.
Leader: Light of our night, you rise among us.
Congregation: We waken to your glory, and we praise you.
Light of our lives, you illumine our way.
We follow your radiance, and we thank you.
Light of our souls, you shine within us.
Alleluia! We open our hearts to your presence, and we turn to you,
that we may follow your light, and walk in your way.
Come, Spirit of Life, and transform us by your grace. Alleluia!
Collect / Prayer of the Day
God of faithful love, all of life is your wedding feast, celebrating your Covenant with us. We want to be part of your joy. Proclaim your love to us again, in word and in silence. Declare your faithfulness. We will be present for you, and listen in trust and enter into your joy. Let our whole lives be your praise. Amen.2.God of love, we wait for your coming; we long for your presence. We trim our lamps with the oil of hope, eager to celebrate with you. Come, O Lord; speak to us who wait; in your Word invite us into the hall of your light and warmth. Amen.
Loving God, we look for you. We wait for you. Fill us with the oil of hope and attentiveness so that we may see you when you are near, and see to enter into your presence. Amen.
Eternal God, we are like bridesmaids waiting for the groom to appear. Give us oil in our lamps, that we may be ready. Give us hope in our hearts, that we may be awake. Give us your Word, so that we might bear your love into the world, in the name and the spirit of Christ. Amen.
(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)
There is a wedding,
and the joy of love and faithfulness.
There is an invitation to enter,
to share in delight.
And there is oil in our lamps,
to see and to celebrate.
Love of God, welcome us in
and fill us with the light of your joy.
God may the oil of your love
fill the lamp of my heart,
that I may share your light with joy.
Prayer of Confession
Pastor: The grace of God be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
Trusting in God’s tender mercy, let us confess our sin to God with one another.
God of love, we set before you all that we are,
all we have done, and all we have not done.
By your grace given to us in Christ,
we come to make peace with ourselves
and with you,
you who grant us your forgiveness and your peace.
[Silent prayer … the word of grace]
… Loving God, you call us to life,
but we have not fully entered in.
You shine your light in our lives,
but we have lived in darkness.
Open our eyes, forgive us,
and return us to the way of life. Amen.
[from Psalm 78, adapted. Stanza breaks are appropriate places for sung responses.]
Listen, O people, to this teaching;
pay attention to these words of truth!
We will tell a story that is rich with meaning,
and utter sayings with truth hidden in them,
an ancient story that we have heard,
because it is a story about us.
We will not hide these stories from our children,
but tell them to the next generation:
the glorious deeds of God, and God’s power,
and the wonders that God has wrought.
God made this promise to us,
so we would never forget God’s grace.
In the sight of our ancestors—
in your own memory—God worked miracles in Egypt.
God divided the sea and led them through it,
making the waters to stand like a heap.
God led them by a cloud in the daytime,
and all the night with a fiery light.
God split the rocks in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep,
made streams to come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Yet they tested God in their hearts,
by demanding the food that they craved.
They spoke against God, saying:
“Yes, God, you struck the rock
so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed.
But can you spread a table in the wilderness?
Can you give bread, and provide meat for your people?”
Yet God commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven;
God rained down on them manna to eat,
and gave them the grain of heaven.
With upright heart God tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand.
Response / Creed / Affirmation
Jesus Christ, light of God, shine in us.
May the oil of your peace fill our hearts.
May the lamp of your grace lead our steps.
May the light of your love shine in our lives.
May we be a source of light for others
who wait for you in the dark.
We believe in God, maker of all that is and all that is to come.
We follow Christ, the Light of God, who as our Bridegroom pledged God’s faithful love to us, who died and rose, and who leads us in grace into the celebration of life.
We live by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God’s loving flame within us, whose warmth gives us life and whose light guides us. In prayerful listening we open ourselves to that inner guidance, in union with all the saints; that we might bear witness to God’s faithful love and the forgiveness of sin, and to the present reality of resurrection and the mystery of eternal life. By God’s grace, in the name of Christ, we vow to walk in the way of love.
Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion
[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) In gratitude we give you our lives, symbolized in these gifts. Receive them with love, bless them with grace and use them according to your will. Light the lamp of your love in us, and guide and sustain us in shining your light in the world, for the sake of the healing of all Creation, in the name of Christ and the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
… Send us out into the darkness to share your light. Strengthen us by your grace to share all that we have for the sake of the healing of the world, to increase your joy, in the name of Christ. Amen.
… Gratefully we give you our gifts as symbols of our lives. Receive them with love, bless them with grace, and use them according to your will. Guide us by your light, shape us by your Word, and send us into the world to serve others for the sake of the healing of the world, in the name and the Spirit of Christ. Amen.
(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)
Be Thou My Wisdom (Tune: SLANE —Be Thou My Vision )
Be thou my Wisdom and grant me your sight.
Help me to see by your love’s perfect light.
Love, be my compass, my balance, my Way:
guide from within what I choose day by day.
Grant me the wisdom to seek and to learn, to
pray for your leading and wait and discern.
Help me to listen with all of my heart,
listen for all of the Truth you impart.
Grant me your Wisdom: a heart that’s made pure,
courage to follow a love that is sure.
Led by your Spirit, listening still,
help me to know and to follow your will.
Fill Me, Love (Tune: Lead Me, Lord)
Fill me, Love, fill me with the oil of love,
may my lamp burn, burn long and bright.
For, Love, you fill me when my heart is empty,
so I may shine through the longest night.
Sharing the Light (Tune: Be Thou My Vision)
Bridegroom, Beloved, all life is your bride.
We come to celebrate here at your side.
Feasting and dancing long brighten the night.
Grateful we are for your love and your light.
See, though, beyond our small circle of light
those who are longing still, out in the night,
those who though seeking have no lamp or oil:
see how the bridegroom still loves them as well.
God who has loved us and filled us with grace
sends us in love to go out from this place,
sharing our own lamps, to bless and invite,
sharing our wealth, our abundance, our light.
This is the true feast, the love of our Lord:
sharing grace widely, for all are adored.
Sharing is how we will find true delight,
sharing the feast and the joy and the light.
Sleeper, Awake [Ephesians 5.14] (Original song)
come rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine upon you.