Good morning. My name is Justin Remer-Thamert. I’m the program director for the NM Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
This morning, we’ve heard four readings from the Bible, each of which speaks of the nature of God. Since I like things to be more participatory, I would ask that you shout out words from the reading that you heard that describe God’s nature. What aspect of Creator was shared?
Wrath & destruction, darkness, distress & anguish. Is this how you understand God?
It goes without saying that this is the image that many in our world have of God—or perhaps more accurately—how they perceive God in light of those of us who supposedly are cast in God’s image.
Last night I went with some friends to a fundraiser for an organization called Women for Women International. They started with a film that looked at reconciliation efforts in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and Rwanda. Particularly striking were the stories of the violence in Rwanda where one in every eight people was responsible for carrying out mass atrocities. Starting with small acts of calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” a devastating conflict arose where some 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days; by and large the murders were done with machetes, clubs and knives.
No culture that I know of has been free from some level of violence and atrocity. Consequently, how do we explain this? It’s our nature. Human nature. Our reptilian brain.
But I ask, is this your nature? Personally?
Under the right circumstance—or more correctly the wrong circumstances—perhaps you would. Perhaps I would. Poverty. Violence. The fear of reproach: these drive us to do terrible things.
Children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are being asked by some of the most violent gangs in the world to go to the houses and businesses of neighbors and pick up extortion money for the gangs. It starts often with these smaller acts and progresses from there. And those who refuse to comply? We know many of them flee—either alone or with family—because they know the consequence for not complying is their own persecution, maybe death, or that of their family. Can you imagine being put in this position as a child or parent? I honestly can’t.
The 3rd servant from our story in Matthew lives in this reality. He tells his master, “'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” Focused more on safety, security and the assurance that nothing would be lost, he buries the talent entrusted him in fear. Understandable when a talent was enough to live on for many years.
And what is the Master’s response?
“'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers.
throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Phew. His fear of harshness proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And this is where the parable ends. But perhaps it should be where our story begins. If we step back and look at where this story falls in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we are filled with visions—not of sugarplum fairies dancing in our heads, but apocalyptic nightmares of zombies and destruction.
Starting in Chapter 24, we hear prophesies of the destruction of the temple, signs of the end of the age, nation rising against nation, earthquakes and famine. And “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” There is foretelling of persecution, people fleeing to the mountains, false Messiahs, enveloping darkness everywhere. “Woe to those who are pregnant and nursing infants.”
It is amidst this destruction that we will see the promise of salvation.
Six years ago, on a study abroad in El Salvador, a nun named Sister Peggy told me a story she remembered from the Salvadoran war. She and a woman who was seven months pregnant were hidden in a ditch, waiting for the night to pass, hoping no soldiers would come. Sister Peggy had no food with her; the woman had a small stack of tortillas which she brought out for them to eat. Sister Peggy insisted the woman eat them to nourish herself and her child. But the woman extended the tortillas saying, “Today we share our food. Tomorrow we share our hunger.”
We are told to keep watch and not slumber, to be faithful even when we think our actions go unseen. To be prepared as half the bridesmaids in last week’s reading were not, failing to bring extra oil for their lamps. Ironic that today, the servant who tried to conserve his resources rather than risk the talent be lost is reprimanded by his master and tossed out.
But judgment, as we will hear next week, is not so much based on the outcomes of our efforts, but the heart behind them. I can’t help but do a spoiler for next week because it’s one of the best known references for how we should treat immigrants—even if there are 40+ other references in the Bible. It is the one who feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger and visits the imprisoned who will find salvation.
And then? And then in Matthew’s Gospel comes the plot to kill Jesus.
When we see the bigger picture around, the parable of the talents becomes clearer.
Is it a lesson in stocks and bonds? Not so much.
Is it about our gifts and abilities? Not completely.
Is it about justice and consequences? Getting closer.
There are many layers. But I think the heart of the message is about taking risks. That which we are given is not to be hoarded. I could have just as easily been born across the border or in the midst of war—as many are.
Our faith, our gifts, our time and possessions, even our lives are to be put in circulation.
My Board and your treasurer would be mortified to hear word from a book called The Christian Center which says we shouldn’t be so concerned about our balance sheet as taking audacious actions to preserve principle over principal. As Rhonda McIntire, Rector of San Gabriel Episcopal says, their church gives away nearly all they receive, focusing on “Outreach before In-reach.”
In the parable, the 3rd servant lacks courage. As Zephaniah says, “I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs” or in 1 Thessalonians “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.” Fear and complacency bring wrath.
Today are the closing performances of a show at Working Classroom called Bocón (loud mouth). Written in 1988, it tells of a Central American child whose parents are kidnapped and killed by soldiers, causing him to lose his voice. Powerfully acted by 5 youth—two who are just 12—the play shows that the boy will not find his voice or come to the “city of lights” along our border without first facing his fears.
Throughout our recent history we see countless visions of unexpected destruction. After all, the “thief in the night” does not make an appointment.
“Is this Archbishop Romero? Tomorrow I’ll take your life as you celebrate communion.” But as Romero said weeks before his death, “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people ... A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
And so we are told in cliché to live as if this were our last chance to do all the good we can. So lived Jean Donovan, who will be commemorated in a vigil for the martyrs of El Salvador at Immaculate Conception tonight at 6. She was one of four US churchwomen raped and assassinated in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. She was my age. Months after Romero’s death and the massacre that occurred at his funeral, after knowing and seeing several friends killed, she took six weeks away. In a Maryknoll chapel, she expressed fear of the future but made peace with her fear and returned weeks before her death. She said, “There are lots of times I feel like coming home but I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here.” For this, the Psalm today reminds us to “count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
In so doing, we live in the light—not because we ignore our own shortcomings and darkness—but because we approach unknown situations first with faith and love, with the hope of salvation and good. Can we predict what will happen? No. But when we are met as “sudden labor pains come upon a pregnant woman,” we will be prepared to give light--dar luz—as giving birth is referred to in Spanish.
This is necessary in the face of violence. And, as one of our Board members who went to Artesia to do psych evals said, “On my first visit to Artesia I had the sense that most people there were relieved to be away from the anarchy and violence. On my second visit there I could see the long term problems beginning to show up: Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and violent behavior especially in some of the little boys. Violence engenders more violence.”
Violence like that faced by an 8-year-old boy who came from El Salvador with his mother and brother in July. Days after they were put in the Artesia immigrant detention center, he was raped by an older boy, who undoubtedly was also the victim of violence and possibly sexual assault. Despite several instances of sexual assault and reports by the mother to ICE officials, they were told there was “nothing that could be done about it.” To learn more about this and the campaign we are mounting to end family detention and close the Artesia facility—or how you can get involved—attend the Adult Education Forum at 10 or sign up to be on our email list at the table outside with Peruvian handicrafts whose profits benefit the families detained in Artesia: these families whose courage confronts the unknown.
Matthew wrote at a time when there was great risk in preaching the Word; and yet he did not give in to complacency or fear but trusted that there was a bigger picture. When he could’ve seen only an oppressive, cruel and fear-provoking God, he courageously understood the many risks of this life and believed in a Maker who was gracious, generous and abundantly life-giving. So, through our lives, may we live.
From today’s gospel: KEEP AWAKE!
Let me start by saying….What is up with this parable today?
The parable of wise and foolish bridesmaids sounds so intriguing, so cute, so cut and dried. But then I really read the gospel for today. I really looked at what it was saying and I was overcome with many more questions than I had answers. And I am afraid I’m not going to be much help in sorting it all out. But let’s look at it together, shall we?
So we know that a parable is a story told to represent something else. In this case we can be pretty sure that the bridegroom is Jesus and the bridesmaids are the people waiting on his return. That would be us.
The first thing we have to think about is the use of the term “bridesmaid.” In our society, bridesmaids are often thought of us giggling, immature, sorority sisters all dressed alike in unbecoming gowns and probably slightly hungover from the bachelorette party. But a better translation of the original text would tell us the women in this story are virgins or maidens. These young women are tasked with going out to meet the bridegroom and escorting him to the bride’s house for the wedding party. The groom must be treated with dignity and respect. He must be given the royal treatment.
So ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bride groom. We are immediately told that half of them are wise and the other half are foolish. They have taken lamps to light the way. The wise ones took extra oil. The foolish ones did not have such a contingency plan.
And wouldn’t you know it, the groom was late! In fact he was so late all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep while they were waiting for him. (Perhaps they were indeed tuckered out after that bachelorette party.) At midnight they were roused from their sleep with news that the bridegroom was on his way.
Girlfriend! Get up, fix your hair, put on your shoes, and trim your lamp!
But so much time had passed, all the lamps were nearly out of oil. The bridesmaids who had not brought extra oil asked to borrow some from their friends. The girls with the extra oil said “Oh no you better don’t. There isn’t enough oil for all of us. Go out and buy some more for yourselves…
And so we come to my first problem with the parable. Why were the “wise” bridesmaids so mean? Even if they didn’t want to give away their extra oil, why did everyone need their own lamp lit? Couldn’t each two of the bridesmaids share the light of one lamp? Surely they all knew the importance of their task. Why not use the oil they had and escort the bridegroom as originally planned.
Today’s gospel comes from Matthew. And earlier in that book – Matthew 5: 40-41 – Jesus instructs his followers:
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
So why are we now hearing a parable about some nasty bridesmaids who don’t want to share a little bit of oil? And these bridesmaids are considered “wise.” I’m getting mixed messages here.
But the unprepared bridesmaids scurry off and unbelievably find an all-night bodega and oil supply store in first century Middle East. But after their late-night shopping spree, they return and find the bridegroom has already arrived and taken their fellow attendants into the wedding banquet and shut the door! They knocked on the door and asked to join the party. But the bridegroom says he doesn’t even know them.
(Wouldn’t the dresses matching the other five bridesmaids have been a clue they were on the guest list?)
But they are turned away.
So here I encountered problem number two: Earlier in Matthew’s gospel – Chapter 7, verses 7 and 8 – Jesus tells his followers to
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
I’m confused. Originally there were no conditions on the knocking. Jesus didn’t say “The door will be opened…unless you are an unprepared, foolish bridesmaid.”
So why in this parable are those who knock refused entry?
And then there’s the kicker to the entire parable: Jesus’s warning after he tells the parable – his point to the story he explains as this:
“Keep awake. For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Keep awake? Keep awake?
After that story, you’d think the lesson learned would be something like “be prepared” or “don’t count on someone else to get you into the kingdom of heaven.”’
But “keep awake?”
If that was the lesson of the parable, then all ten bridesmaids failed! All ten of them fell asleep while they were waiting for the groom to show up. And what I find so amazing is that Jesus told this parable to his disciples just days before his crucifixion. In the very next chapter of Matthew we read the story of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane and having to wake the disciples up three times during the night. It seems even the disciples couldn’t really understand this parable.
And I’m just going to throw this out there: I don’t appreciate the description of those entering the kingdom as the “wise” ones and the ones left out in the cold as the “foolish” ones.
Jesus told us directly to lend to those who want to borrow. He told us directly that whoever knocks will find the door opened for them. There were no confusing parables when we heard that good news.
So what are we supposed to take home from today’s reading?
I am afraid we could get too caught up in the idea of being prepared.
What must we do in order to worthy Christians?
What must we do to be ready when Jesus comes again?
What should I be doing to make sure I have enough oil when the bridegroom shows up?
Perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about being prepared as we should sure to “keep awake.” And by that, I’m suggesting that we always be vigilante to the world around us and to our own lives.
The bridesmaid’s biggest mistake was not being awake and ready when the groom showed up. They had been asleep and were not thinking clearly when they were roused.
Their only real job was to escort the groom to the wedding. Perhaps instead of running out to buy oil in the middle of the night, the foolish bridesmaids should have asked the groom what he wanted them to do. They were there to serve him.
If he wanted them to buy oil, they could do that.
If he wanted them to share lamps with their better-prepared sisters, they could do that.
If he wanted them to walk in the dark and maybe stub their toes, then they could do that as well.
So I’m going to venture that is doesn’t truly matter if you are wise or foolish…prepared for unprepared. Sure, it would be nice if we always had extra oil handy in case of emergencies. But we are human and there’s only so much we can do.
We must remember our single task – to escort the groom when he arrives. The kingdom of God is here among us. Let us escort Jesus to our party right now.
We are Christians and our job is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the world around us. I don’t think we are wise to stash away a supply of extra oil for some unknown day and time. The end of today’s parable assures us we will NOT know the day or the hour. I think our time would be much better spent making sure everyone has enough oil for the daily life right now.
What really matters is that your heart - and your mind - and your spirit - is awake and always ready to accept God – accept Jesus – accept the Holy Spirit – when they show up.
For God’s presence is here among us right this very minute.