Pentecost 24, Proper 27A
In the name of God: keep us awake and make us ready. Amen.
I’ve spoken often of my love of musical theatre. I certainly appreciate the stories that are told, and I’m entertained by the music and dancing, but even beyond those aspects of what the genre means to me is that I love the structure of a musical. Plays have more latitude – the generous nature of prose leaves space for structural innovation and flexibility. But musicals typically follow a more standardized structure – not always the case, of course, but it’s pretty common.
One of those key elements of structure in a musical is that it typically ends with a recollection of where it began – often it’s a restatement of a musical theme, but sometimes it’s even more explicitly in the story. In the show that Michael was just in, which closed a couple of weeks ago, the storyline literally ends where it began – to such an explicit degree that it’s even spoken about in the dialogue. One character says, “It seems we have traveled in a circle.” Another responds, “Indeed, and to draw a circle one must end where one began. Yet who resembles any of the fools who started on the journey here?” They didn’t end up where they intended to end up, but instead at an old place with new eyes. The ending resembles the beginning, but it represents new growth – advancement, progress.
The same sort of thing is happening in the gospel here. Here at the end of the year, we are hearing shadows of the Advent message we heard nearly a year ago.
Now – I almost never reference the original languages of the Bible in my sermons, but here it’s really important. Don’t let your eyes glaze over, I’ll be very quick…
The word that’s used here that our translation calls “bridesmaids” is parthenos. It means woman – typically a young woman, some translations say maiden. But the thing that’s interesting here is that it is the exact same word that’s used at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel – the word that describes Mary, Jesus’ mother. There, our translations and certainly our traditions commonly use the word “virgin”. The fact that this word is used in these two ways could lead to some interesting questions, but the observation I see is here is that this word, used at these two times, really helps us to get at what Jesus was trying to teach in this parable.
Like most musicals, it brings us shades of our earlier experience, but with a new perspective.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, this woman, this parthenos, brings Jesus into the world. In the parable, her spiritual sisters usher the one for whom they have been waiting into the wedding; the great banquet, the feast. “To draw a circle one must end where one began.”
As Jesus is preparing for the end of his story on earth, he returns to where he began – at least as Matthew tells it.
And then, at last, the parable is punctuated with that two-word summary: keep awake. Words that we’ll hear again in Advent as we prepare for the coming of Christ. Like the young women who were wise: keep awake. Like those wise ones who were ready to greet the bridegroom, keep awake and be ready to meet Jesus.
This instruction to keep awake reminds me of the colloquial expression that you’ve probably heard on the news from time to time: “woke”. Like many of us, you may have first heard about it a few years ago when the Black Lives Matter movement was getting so much attention. One of that movement’s rallying cries was to “stay woke”. More recently it’s been brought up again by some politicians railing against “woke” politics. But the thing is, “keep awake” and “stay woke” are pretty similar in their meanings.
Being “woke”, as a concept, originated in African American culture – particularly during the Civil Rights movement. The idea was simple – it was shorthand for advice to the African American community: don’t be blinded by the freedoms you do have to such a degree that you fail to see the threats that are around you. You have been awakened to the reality. Now stay woke. Stay awake. Be watchful. Be ready.
Jesus’ message in the parable is very similar. It’s not about refraining from sleep – it’s about being ready for the coming of Christ. “Keep awake… for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
We, too, have been awakened to the reality of Christ. We know the power of Jesus in our lives. But that doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. That doesn’t mean our salvation exists solely in the silo of our belief. The fact that we have been awakened to this faith doesn’t mean our own experience is the be-all and end-all of this faith. Don’t be blinded by your experience of faith to the degree that you fail to see and hear the continuing call of God. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
In telling this story, Matthew’s Jesus brings us back to the larger story’s very beginnings. And that’s what “keep awake” really means. It means remembering your ignorance and being ready to grow again. And once you’ve grown again, being ready to grow again.
“To draw a circle one must end where one began.” But in the end, we see where we began with new eyes. We are not the same fools who started this journey back in Advent last year. Nor are we the same fools who started this larger journey in our entrance into faith in Christ.
We keep listening for God’s calling and keep striving for new growth. We stay woke. We keep awake. We stand ready and prepared for wherever Christ calls us next.
That’s the goal. And in a few weeks, we get to start back at the beginning again. But this time further along the journey than we were before. Thank you, God, for making all things new. Amen.