Close of Church Council Fall Meeting 2023
Matthew 25:1-13
The Lutheran Center, Chicago

Grace and peace to you in the mercy of the Most Holy God. AMEN.

Things are coming to an end. Have you noticed? This meeting, which is the last for some of us. This season before winter. The cycle of the church year, bringing us now to the time when we are confronted with the urgency of last things.

I don’t know about you, but I so often feel like I am running out of time. After this trip I leave tomorrow for another short one and then in a week for many days in Tanzania. I have my passport and visa, received the required vaccinations, but apart from that, I’ll tell you, I am not ready. There are leaves on the ground I will have no time to rake. There are pastoral visits I will likely not fit into the remaining hours. There is always more to do than there is time when things come to a close.

What we hear in our Gospel text this morning is the lovely and haunting story of ten young women, poised and waiting — five wise and five foolish – with too much time on their hands.

It’s a parable, of course, which means Jesus used his well-crafted technique to draw us deeply into a narrative so that we ourselves might be surprised as the story unfolds. What caught your ear? What unsettled your imagination?

Years ago, I traveled to Erfurt, Germany, the city where Martin Luther lived as a monk. The Augustinian Monastery sits a few blocks from the town center, and it was there that Luther was ordained as a priest. You can visit the chapel, and if you choose – as I did – you can lay on the cold, stone floor where Luther himself once lay in obedience to God and to the abbot of the order.

But more fascinating than that is the doorway to the Cathedral of St. Mary, which overlooks the town square. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, on either side of the massive main doors are more than life-size sculptures of young women, on one side the wise with their oil lamps and on the other the foolish, whose oil has run out. What held my eye were the foolish ones with their varied postures of boredom and distraction and despair. Two of them rest their heads in their hands, as I know I do when a meeting goes on and on.

Maybe you found yourself elsewhere in the text. Wondering why the bridegroom did not show up on schedule. Annoyed that the five with extra oil refused to share. Quickened with memories of times you have felt shut out or dismissed when the closed door to a party wasn’t opened for you. There is something to captivate each one of us in this text. Hands down, Jesus was so gifted at crafting parables that he would have been the Grand Slam winner at any contest of the Moth where he appeared.

Jewish biblical scholar, Amy-Jill Levine puts an important reminder before those of us who hear this text with Christian ears. She writes: “The people who first heard (Jesus) did not, at first, worship him. Yet they paid attention, because for those with ears to hear, and some patience to ponder, the parables spoke to their hearts.”[1]

It is to those hearts – the deep places of our longing and our fears – that we are called to attend in this closing season of the year. What matters to you, friends? For what would you give your life? On what are you willing to stake your reputation?

Like all meetings of the ELCA Church Council, this meeting has included times in which we have spoken with passion and earnest persuasion to one another. In this time of change and unknowing, it seems as though everything matters even more. Nothing is a small concern. Everything seems weighty in our deliberations. All of us wonder what the future holds.

With this morning’s parable of the ten young women fresh in our memory, perhaps we realize now how quickly in these past few days we made our own calculations of whose words were wise, and whose were foolish. That’s what a governing board does. We speak; we listen; and some speak again. The clock races on and our thoughts turn toward home. It may be that the best wisdom will yet come to us in the terminal at O’Hare or on the interstate, driving home, because nothing is ever solved in just one meeting’s time.

The wise, the foolish; the extra flask of oil; the pleading of the friends; the bridegroom’s delay; young partiers drowsy with sleep; the startling cry at midnight – what does the Master Storyteller want us to hear? Probably not our first thought about always being prepared; maybe not even the quick analogy we drew to circumstances in our lives today. Watch out! Be careful! Stay awake! This is a text to ponder all the way home, as Amy-Jill Levine said of those who first heard Jesus speak.

You see, Jesus has a way of surprising all of us – both wise and foolish. He may have told the tale of a great wedding banquet at which some were ready to enter with blazing lamps when the time was right and others were off, scrambling to finish what they forgot to do, just to see how we would respond. Smug in our preparations or beleaguered by all that is unfinished in us.

Because it is this same Jesus, when asked to show what mattered most to him — to demonstrate what he was willing to stake his reputation on – willingly hung on an old, wooden cross and stretched out his arms to embrace us all.

Eight days before he died, Martin Luther wrote a letter to his wife Katie. He was away from home, off in his hometown, trying to mediate a labor dispute. Katie had learned he was not well and wanted him to return to Wittenberg where she could better nurse him back to health. Luther addressed her in the letter as “Most holy Mrs. Doctor!” and teased her about her great worry, which was keeping her awake at night. And then, Luther said something that we might all inscribe over the doorway of our home, on the walls of our workplace, and above the chancel in our churches. Luther wrote: “Pray, and let God worry.”[2] You pray, and let God hold your cares and concerns.

Friends, we know not the day nor the hour when our own lives will come to an end. For all our plans and strategies, we do not all that lays ahead for this church body we love – the ELCA. But we know that our future rests with God. And so, we journey on, rejoicing every time Jesus meets us on the way. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

Bishop Patricia Lull


[1] Any-Jill Levine, Short Stories. Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2014, page 305.
[2] Luther Works, Volume 50:305-306; Fortress Press, Philadelphia; 1975.