Shaun is a resident of the Seattle Interbay area and a representative of the District 7 Neighborhood Action Council. Neighborhood Action Councils – or NACs as they are known - emerged in Seattle in the aftermath of the 2016 general election. There is one in each electoral district in Seattle and on their website they describe themselves as a politically independent coalition of hyper-local neighborhood councils, committed to combating oppression and supporting our neighbors where the state fails them through mutual aid, solidarity, and direct action. Shaun and District 7 NAC became involved in supporting Tent City 5 and worked in close partnership with the Tent City Ecumenical Support Network. Together these two groups, along with a number of others, helped the residents of Tent City 5 find a new piece of land on which to set up their temporary homes because under current city ordinances Tent City 5 is not allowed to remain on the site in Interbay where they have been since the end of 2015. Finding a new piece of land is no easy task. Tent Cities are easy to disagree with.
On the face of it, it maybe seems obvious to some that the NAC and the local church would partner given their mutual goal of supporting neighbors, but really Shuan had lots of reasons to distrust the faith community. As a member personally of a deeply marginalized community and as someone representing those on the underside, Shaun has seen the church, or at least parts of it, move slowly to speak out for those Shaun loves and cares about and even act against what Shaun understands to be in the best interests of those who do not have power. But there was something about the way the church in Interbay went about serving the Tent City 5 that developed in Shaun a firm and trusting partnership.
In Interbay, the faith community has been very active in its support of Tent City 5. And district 7 NAC became a solid partner of the faith community in this work because as Shaun expressed it, the faith community was able to express its goals in ways that were “hard to disagree with.” The faith community, she explains, were careful to make it very clear to those they were hoping to serve and to potential partners that they were there to support the agency and the goals of the tent city residents. They would come at this work with the assumptions that others were trustworthy, they would honor the self-governance structure of Tent City, they would listen deeply to what was needed and then do what they could to offer support or to connect those who had expressed needs to other networks of support.
Thanks to this approach a large a diverse group came together and really got to know the stories and the needs of their neighbors in Tent City 5. Many people who worked with this group were encouraged to move through the offense that Tent Cities are – and they are an offense; no-one should have to sleep in a tent on the streets of one of the wealthiest cities on the planet – and they moved passed the assumptions they had about why people lived in Tent Cities to get to know the stories of regular people looking for community, looking for some safety, looking for a way back to the life they want and need. The church as it bases its work in the world on the dignity, the agency, and the honest-to-goodness needs of their neighbors is hard to disagree with.
It takes some work, I think to get to that which is hard to disagree with in today’s text from Thessalonians and Matthew. If it’s there, its exists somewhere within the story of a second coming that has not come; gender roles that keep the maidens waiting meekly for the arrival of their lord; an apparent lack of sharing in the face of need, and last but by no means least, Jesus’ rejection of those who want to be with him. Frankly these things offend me, and they confuse me and maybe embarrass me a little bit. Not because I think I know better than God. That happens sometimes I’ll admit, but no its because everything I have learned and heard from this gospel, this way convinces me that the God I know and need is a God who keeps God’s promises, a God who believes in the equality and worth of all humanity, a God who asks us to serve each other, and a God who is full of grace.
So what do we do? Well I think it helps to look closely, and then pan out. If we look closely at the time and place in which these texts were written we will see some cultural expectations that are no longer quite as powerful. In the times these texts were written down for the community stories of God breaking in from the heavens where God is thought to reside were accepted. It was a way that the tradition had understood God to intervene and especially so by communities that were under persecution like the Thessalonians. When nothing in this world tells a person they should hope, and yet they know they are built for hope and justice, then this hope, this right to justice, in known in a God of sudden and often violent supernatural in-breaking. Everything I have witnessed tells me that I come to know and trust God in the here and now in sacred moments in this world.
And as for the gender roles – we’ll in the time and place of this text women were chattel. We still have some work to allow women to claim a woman’s full agency and worth do we not? But the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and continued presence with us is equality and the honoring of each person. This story is delivered sometimes in the cultural norms of the time and we must transcend them to get to that which we can’t disagree with – that all are created equal.
As for those other maidens not sharing their oil and Jesus apparent lack of grace. Those are a little harder to accept. But if we pan out we remember that they are embedded in a collection of texts whose overwhelming message is that Jesus that came to teach the very opposite – service to those who need it and God’s overwhelming grace, so they must be there to make a different point, to direct our attention to something else. I think the point of these limits as that they are placed in this story are to tell us that just as others have agency and may sometimes need the community to affirm and stand up for it, so do we. If we want a life that is close to God we are cautioned to take some agency and act in ways that do not mirror the foolish bridesmaids.
These foolish bridesmaids are not there to tell us that it’s all over if we mess up. There is always another chance – that is the whole point to the resurrection – no-one is lost, life and love wins. But at the same time it is the case we will know more fully the love and claim of God if we learn some wisdom.
The bridesmaids lost the chance to go to the party that is the kingdom of heaven because they didn’t bring enough oil. They didn’t take the time to think ahead, know what they would need, and make sure they were prepared. So maybe it’s a lesson in being as prepared as we can be. But is that all it is. I also wonder what would have happened if they had just stuck together, trusted that he was near instead of running somewhere else to find light, trusted that he was near, not paid attention to the voices that told them they didn’t have what they needed, trusted that he was near and helped each other find their way to him in the dark. I don’t know, he seems a little cranky in this case, so maybe in this case it was just simply about thinking ahead and bring the oil they needed, but so often I have seen this God of ours show up in surprising ways in dark places. I have seen community who are struggling find the love and the way forward they need in each other and in the deep faith that they can find their way to God in the dark. I have witnessed and been coaxed to new levels of trust in God and the way God shows up from those who know darkness and who know more intimately than those with more oil the deep value, sacredness and gift of each human life need of each human being.
This does not mean that those of us with more oil get to leave well alone. The best I can say about those other bridesmaids is that they really did not have enough to share. But everything that Jesus tells us elsewhere is that when we have more than enough we have a responsibility to help those who don’t. This section of stories about what the kingdom of God is like ends with the assurance that we will find God as we offer food to the hungry, a blanket to the freezing, and as we visit and get to know those who are excluded from society. As we join others in the darkness, as we share any extra oil we have God shows up in powerful and unexpected ways.
This is what those who came around Tent City 5 found out. These were ordinary people making a meal and finding their way through really hard conversations. People who believed that encampments have no place in a society that values all of its people but at the same time advocating for these encampments as a way to give agency and care to those who are closed out. People who on the surface had every reason to disagree, businesses and those unhoused; the church, the city and those who have learned not to trust those with power came together to find a place to build needed temporary shelter because it was hard to disagree that these human lives have worth and are entitled to a place that will help them live into the sacred life they have been given.
There is a truth that sits at the heart of the life of the church: all live is sacred. The way of Jesus asks us to give ourselves to this, to go into dark places, confusing places, contradictory places and to look for the God who loves all people. When we do this the way of the church is hard to disagree with. We will find partners and we will find a peace that transcends the disagreements of this world.