When I wrote this sermon, I had no idea how the election in the USA was going to end. As of Thursday morning, we were still awaiting news about vote-counting in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania; Joe Biden was creeping up in numbers. As of today, that is complete and Joe Biden won the election; rather an extraordinary week, and what hopeful speeches by both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden! There is certainly healing that needs to happen and a new direction for the United States.
The Scripture reading from Matthew for today seemed very apt in the waiting that occurred last week: “Stay awake; you don’t know the hour.” Well, I did go to sleep Tuesday night and every other night last week; I realize many stayed awake to watch the news. I have to admit that I awoke each morning, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then the fateful Saturday, just like everyone else, to see what had happened.
Was I being foolish, like the bridesmaids in the parable, that I didn’t stay awake to watch the results? But then, how can we prepare for every eventuality? And would my staying awake make any difference in the grand scheme of things? I’ve stayed awake for other important things, like the births of my children, like the evening before my dad died.
Of course, there is a little more to this parable, a form of which Jesus told, but which more appropriately fits in with Matthew’s community later. Matthew and the early Church faced uncertainty after the death and resurrection of Jesus; they held onto the hope that Jesus was going to return very soon as promised. These last few chapters of Matthew are all about the waiting: “No one knows the day and the hour.” “Stay awake, because you do not know the day.”
There was an expectation, felt early on by Paul, certainly, but also the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and even John—that Jesus was going to return soonish and love would prevail on a grand scale. Paul was first, writing in the early 50s, some 15 or 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. His earliest writings speak of Jesus’ return being very soon. His later writings aren’t so hopeful of an imminent return. Mark thought, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, that the time was ripe for Jesus’ return to complete the peace and promises made. That was echoed in Matthew and Luke, who wrote their Gospels a little later than Mark. And John, later still, in his own way, wrote about Jesus’ return and the coming of the Spirit and the end of the age.
But here we are more than 2000 years later. And frankly, most of us in the mainline churches aren’t waiting anxiously for Jesus’ return. Our more conservative siblings in the Church are focused on Jesus’ return as if that were the most important thing. This theology of Jesus’ return is often accompanied by a teaching that some will be taken to heaven, but most of us will be left behind. There’s a whole novel series about being “left behind.” That would be me—being left behind, and I wouldn’t be alone!
In the mainline traditions, we’ve focused less on heaven as a goal in the afterlife and more on how we might create heaven today. How can we create peace today? How can we live Jesus’ teachings today, in the here and now? What happens here on earth is important! Elections are important. Peace is important. Cooperation is important. Caring for one another is important. Love is important. Making sure that health care is accessible is important, that people have a place to live, education, clean water, and freedom is important!
I remember an Irish theologian telling a story about the afterlife. It was a twist on the fundamentalist idea of the rapture, that is, that only the faithful will go to heaven. Peter Rollins was the theologian. The nub of the story is that at the end of time all those who are faithful ARE taken up to heaven, but then God calls the angels together after they have collected the faithful and says, “It is time for us to leave and take up residence on earth, for it is there we will find our people who need us.” God and the heavenly host leave heaven and take up residence on earth, supporting those who had chosen to help the poor, being with the suffering, the broken, the lost, the afraid, the ones “left behind.” As Rollins himself ends the little parable, God spends time with “the few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.”
Maybe the wisdom of the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids isn’t about the feast itself. Or perhaps it is only indirectly about the feast. Maybe the story is about the work of the Church in caring for those who aren’t welcomed in. Those who are struggling to live. Those who are seeking justice. Those who have faced the death of a loved one. Those who’ve been abused by others or by societal structures. Those who face mental illness. Those who are alone. Those who are burnt out. Those who are persecuted for their gender identities or sexuality. I think this parable of the 10 Bridesmaids is our invitation to continue the work of love, compassion, hope and grace WHILE we wait.
How many people have we heard say, “It isn’t about the destination; it is about the journey.” Interestingly, I looked up this quote to see who said it first because it has become such a cliché. It has been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he didn’t phrase it this way; he said, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” Lynn Hough offered something along the lines of what we have in 1920. In 1854, someone wrote to young people in a tract to tell them that “your life is a journey, not a rest.” For you modern music buffs, you might know that the rock band Aerosmith released a song called Amazing; one of the lyrics reads, “Life’s a journey, not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings.”
The Very Rev. Stan McKay, former Moderator of the United Church, a 1st Nations Elder from Northern Manitoba, often spoke about walking together as a metaphor for the journey of life. We walk together side by side, each of us offering our leadership at appropriate moments, listening intently to one another in respect and with honour.
We could use more of this walking side by side and not just in the US. We could use the wisdom of Stan and other elders. We need the Wisdom of Matthew and Jesus about preparation and waiting, and about who we are to attend with love, with hope and with compassion. I have to say that this is the theology in which I was steeped growing up—a theology of doing, of action, of living faith, which is all about the journey, not the destination. We’re on our way together. May peace go with us!
 For more info, go to https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/08/31/life-journey/.