All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve. From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.
So right now my plan looks like this:
March 10 We Agree to Differ Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)
March 17 We Resolve to Love Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)
March 31 We Unite to Serve Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)
April 14 Join the Crowd Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)
April 21 With Fear and Great Joy Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)
This week we come to the final 3rd of the motto: We unite to serve. And to help us reflect, we have a story often referred to as The Parable of the Bridesmaids.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
As always, context is key. We are in the last life of Jesus’ life. He has been teaching in the Temple courts. And in chapter 24, we get Matthew’s version of “the mini Apocalypse.” Jesus tells the disciples about impending cataclysmic events. The immediate focus is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but it also seems to encompass predictions about the end of the world.
The parable of the ten bridesmaids is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. It opens a section of three stories that serve as a transition from the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 24 to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last week, which begins in chapter 26. Read in sequence, the three parables (the ten bridesmaids, the talents and the judgment) convey a common mood of heightened expectation and a common summons to a live in awareness that the reign of God is at hand.
The parable of the ten bridesmaids, however, presents certain challenges for the interpreter. Simply put, it is hard to shake the impression that verses 1 through 12 (the story itself) convey one meaning, while verse 13 (an interpretation of the story) suggests something entirely different. Taken alone, the story paints a stark contrast between preparedness and lack of the same. Those who are wise plan ahead and prove ready, even if they have fallen asleep; those who are foolish fail to plan ahead and end up missing the party. So the message seems clear enough: live as one of the wise and you will always be prepared –an apocalyptic anticipation of the Boy Scout motto.
But verse 13 takes this tidy scheme and turns it on its head: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This makes a strange conclusion for a story in which everyone—wise and foolish alike—failed to keep awake. Matthew has apparently taken this verse from Mark 13:35, where it serves to sum up a very different parable. And the admonition to “keep awake” (grēgoreō) is a loaded one. It is the very same request that Jesus will soon make of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 25:41).
To be honest, verse 13 is my favorite part of the passage. In these words I hear an invitation to live “a wide awake life.”
And that seems very relevant to our motto.
But first, a confession: I wonder if I have been going about this the wrong way. I have been treating the motto as three independent clauses: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve. Maybe we think they describe three different and equally important aspects of our life as a church. And I think about that approach, the more mistaken it seems. What if the motto is meant to be read more like a story? What if the motto outlines a plot? First, we agree to differ. Then we resolve to love. Finally, we unite to serve.
Why do I prefer this approach? Because some of us seem to invoke the motto as a kind of lowest-common-denominator approach to doing church together. We agree to differ. Well, yes, we do. Our church begins in the recognition that our relationships with each other are not contingent on our agreement with each other. As members of Plymouth Church, we value and respect people who do not agree with us.
But we don’t stop there. We start with agreeing to differ…and then we push on. We resolve to love. Mere tolerance of each other is not enough. We commit to cherishing each other, learning from each other, remembering that each of us is equally entitled to all of God’s grace.
But we don’t stop there. We agree to differ, we resolve to love and then we unite to serve. The church as an organization exists for the benefit of its nonmembers. We are not here for our own sake. We are here to have an impact on the world.
And Matthew 25:13 gives us such a suggestive image. What does that look like? The wide awake life. Keeping each other alert to all that God is doing so that we can play our part.
We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to Serve.