Advent 1, Proper 27A: Matthew 25:1-13
The Rev'd Cameron Partridge
November 12, 2023
Advent 1, Proper 27A: Matthew 25:1-13
Rev'd Cameron Partridge
November 12, 2023
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to Advent. Today we pivot into an extended, seven-week observance of the season this morning for, as it turns out, the seventh year in a row. Together with some Methodist and Lutheran congregations as well as congregations in our own Episcopal tradition, influenced by some early Christian traditions of observing a longer Advent, we are participating in an ecumenical practice of observing this season of anticipation with added intentionality. Our weekly readings continue as the wider church has assigned them, but we pull an Advent veil over them. We listen to them with Advent ears. We let them work upon us with Advent influence. Advent stems from the Greek term Parousia, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” The season prepares for, and locates us within, the coming of the divine reign, the kingdom or – as Verna Dozier called it inspired by Howard Thurman – the dream of God. This dream, this just reign, is what Jesus was born to bring in his own personhood and body, what he announced and called us into throughout his ministry. In that kingdom the last become first, the wounded are healed, the oppressed are liberated, the hungry are nourished. In that reign, all things, all creation, will finally be brought to completion through Christ through whom all things are made. Advent invites us into a practice, a posture, a way of anticipation, located in the already and not yet. Already, Christ has come and announced the divine reign. Not yet is it completed. If our Church Year is peppered with “hinge days,” as I like to call them, then Advent can be seen as a hinge season, forming us for deep awareness of the thresholds and borders in our lives and in our world, proclaiming to us their sacredness, calling us to attend to God’s just dream there.
Our Gospel passage from Matthew this morning dramatically invites us into a posture of anticipation as the kingdom draws near. We hear of ten young women, translated by the NRSV as bridesmaids, who are waiting. Their role, in accordance with first century Palestine custom, is to accompany the bridegroom to the home of the bride, then to the home where the wedding and a subsequent banquet would take place. All of them are tired, and as time unfolds, they all fall asleep. But then finally at midnight a shout alerts, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” This is where a division manifests: half of the women were wise enough – the Greek term φρόνιμοι might better be translated as prudent – to have brought extra oil, while the other half simply brought their lamps, not anticipating the potential length of time. But quick, the so-called foolish ones say to the prudent, lend us some of yours! No, the prudent respond, we might all run out. Quick, go out and get more! While this race occurs, the Bridegroom comes, the procession unfolds, the great banquet begins, and the doors close. Those who return with restocked oil turn out to have missed their chance. Be watchful, this parable intones, be prudent, be prepared. Not prepared because you know exactly what will happen and when, but precisely because you don’t. In the in-between space of waiting, humility and watchfulness are in order.
But wait a minute, you might ask, as I have been asking as I sat with this text this week, and in years past: how is this scenario a reflection of the kingdom? I love that it is a banquet, indeed a wedding banquet centered upon relationship, upon feasting and celebration, upon joy. I appreciate that women lead the way in this story, unique to Matthew’s gospel, embodying the wisdom tradition that Jesus strongly uplifts. But I am disturbed by the scarcity in the prudent women’s response to the prompt to share their oil. I agree with biblical scholar Raymond Brown who has commented, “If [this parable] were a general picture of ideal Christian life, the wise virgins should have had the clarity to share their oil with the foolish.” Clarity indeed, and generosity, a quality characteristic of a kingdom symbolized by a banquet of abundance.
I am also challenged – honestly, disturbed – by the excluding response of the Lord of the banquet when the young women return with their oil. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12). One might reason that he could not know them because they were absent when he emerged for the procession. Yet again, one might ask, as with the sharing of the oil, why not be generous? This phrase is not unique to this passage: a similar wording comes up earlier in Matthew (7:21-23) where Jesus says “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father in heaven… I will declare to them ‘I never knew you’” (Matthew 7:21-23). And in the parable of the sheep and goats coming up in two weeks, the goats hear something similar when their failure to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit the imprisoned is revealed. But this last instance lends a greater, hope-grounded clarity to the troubling phrase: how we treat one another in this world extends to, reflects, and impacts our relationship to the One who made us, who redeemed us, who calls us to anticipate and participate in the divine dream. When we welcome, when we clothe, when we feed, visit, heal, and stand in solidarity, we do so not only with communities who have experienced oppression, we do so with and for God. If and as we stand at the door, we can knock, knowing that it will in fact be opened (Matthew 7:7), that the God who has numbered the hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:30) does in fact know us, tells us not to be afraid, and finally calls us home.
Grounded in that hope, we might also hear in the young women’s painful doorway exchange a further Advent call: a call to attend to connection among those we know and love, among those we do not know well, those with whom we disagree, and indeed those we might not know at all. What if we hear in the pain of exclusion, a pain that may well evoke our own experiences over the years, an Advent call to compassionate awareness, to listening with acutely attentive hearts, seeking to repair relationships that may be challenged, especially amid the pain of our world so rife with conflict?
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Here I will close with a parable of a different sort, a story from my childhood that popped into my head as I sat with this gospel passage and simply would not let me go. Perhaps some of you may recall a children’s book by the author Don Freeman. Published in 1977, it is entitled Dandelion. It tells the tale of Dandelion, a lion who discovers one morning that he has received a fancy invitation to a tea and taffy party given by Jennifer Giraffe. “Come as you are,” the gold script closes. It’s today! He realizes. “Good thing I planned to get a haircut!” Not only does he get a haircut, but he goes all out. He gets a perm, and a manicure. He goes out and buys a fancy jacket, a top hat and a cane. He arrives at the party looking truly fashionable. When he knocks on the door, Jennifer Giraffe, her neck festooned in strands of pears, leans out and looks at him. When he says he has arrived for the party, she replies, “Oh I’m sorry sir, but you are not anyone I know!” And closes the door! I remember being astonished and heartbroken for him as I heard and read this as a child. How could she?! Poor Dandelion is devastated as he sits on her stoop. A rain storm drenches him, ruining his perm. He hangs his jacket on a tree and returns to the stoop, picking up a new bouquet of dandelions from the sidewalk cracks. He decides to knock once more once his hair has dried. And what do you know, this time she welcomes him. “We’ve been waiting for you for an hour!” she says “I hope you weren’t caught in that terrible rain storm!” she says. Once inside, all the animals at the party welcome him. And then Jennifer Giraffe regales them with the story of the super dressy lion who had shown up an hour before. To my amazement, Dandelion laughs with them. He laughs with them and says, can you believe it? That was me! Jennifer Giraffe is horrified. She is so embarrassed she gets tangled in her long pearl necklace, stumbling over herself to apologize to him. Dandelion accepts her apology and then, implicitly gesturing toward the “come as you are” line in the invitation, says that he should never have tried to get so dressed up for the party in the first place.
I appreciate several things about this moment. First, the fact that Jennifer Giraffe apologizes. She never should have excluded him in the first place, but the apology matters. Second, I like the fact that Dandelion is able to laugh with them. I’m not sure I would be able to do that in such a situation, but I’m glad he is. His laughter comes across as unabashed and authentic. But third, I wish he had not apologized for what he had worn, because he looked amazing. Why not own it and flaunt it?! Why shouldn’t he have gone to that party in all of his fabulousness and fully expect to be welcomed for who he was. Which on that day was particularly fabulous.
And so, dear friends, we come into Advent: a space and time of story, of parable, of welcome to a threshold. A space of anticipation and of challenge, a space of hearing Christ’s call to prepare for the in-breaking of the divine realm, an amazing banquet, already and not yet. May we in all of our experience, all the stories of our lives, anticipate the nearness of God’s dream in all humility. May we prepare for it with full generosity and a spirit of rooted abundance. May we share the love of God and one another abundantly, seeking always the path of restoration and repair. And in the resilient spirit of Dandelion, may we be able and inspired to laugh along the way, transformed by the inbreaking of God’s spirit flowing among us and opening up possibility where none is apparent. May it be so. Amen.
 See the website of the Advent Project: http://www.theadventproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/rationale.pdf See also William Peterson’s further development of the idea in What Are We Waiting For? Re-Imagining Advent for Time to Come (New York: Church Publishing, 2017)  Verna Dozier, The Dram of God: A Call to Return (Boston, MA: Cowley, 1991)  Partridge, “Preaching on the Hinges of the Holy: Toward a Homiletic Theology of the Christian Liturgical Year” in Preaching and the Theological Imagination in ed. Partridge and Guiliano Preaching and the Theological Imagination. Studies in Episcopal and Anglican Theology, Vol. 9 (Peter Lang, 2015), 59-76.  Drawing on William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Press, 1999). William Peterson calls Advent a threshold season in What Are We Waiting For, p. 55.  Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 275.  Case-Winters, 275-6. Elaine Wainwright, “The Gospel of Matthew” in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary, Volume 2 (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 657.  Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), n. 63, p. 199.  Don Freeman, Dandelion (Viking Press, 1964) It actually was published in 1964. It can be found read online here: https://youtu.be/ZrWPayAIqv0