Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon: Learning to Wait

Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church
November 16, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

Learning to Wait

I don’t think I am unduly telling tales out of school to observe that some scripture passages are more challenging for preachers than others.  Not to say that any scripture is ever all that easy to preach, mind you; even a favorite like Psalm 23 presents a challenge to the preacher if only because it is so well-known and beloved that it can be hard to find something to say about it at all.
But there are passages that are challenging for different reasons.  Some passages are challenging because of what they have to say.  Sometimes it’s puzzling, sometimes it’s a hard word to hear, and sometimes (especially if you wander over to Revelation) its just flat difficult to make any sense of it.
And then there are passages like this parable from Matthew 25.  This presents a different kind of struggle; the struggle to create a sermon on a passage when you can’t shake the memory of preaching a sermon, very recently perhaps, maybe even out of this same gospel, that seems to point to some very different conclusions than the scripture at hand today.
There is much about this passage that “feels off.”  What Matthew records here just doesn’t seem to fit rightly with what Matthew or other biblical writers say elsewhere.
Episcopal priest and blogger David Henson made this point rather dramatically in a sermon in which most of the verses from this parable are paired with verses, frequently from Matthew’s gospel, which seem  to be at odds with the text for today.  For example, take the simple sentence describing the bridesmaids: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”  Calling five of them “wise” seems nice enough, until one remembers 1 Corinthians 3:18-19: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  Worldly wisdom, as it turns out, doesn’t always come off looking good in the New Testament. 
Or how about the “wise” bridesmaids’ response to the “foolish” ones’ request for oil: “No! there will not be enough for you and for us.” Yet earlier in this very same gospel Matthew records Jesus saying “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt. 5:42) Not only do the “wise” bridesmaids come off questionably for that attributed wisdom, they also end up looking like jerks at the best.
Those (bridesmaids) who were ready went with him in to the banquet” (25:10) calls forth “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mt. 19:30) To finish the verse with “the door was shut” recalls this fierce rebuke from Jesus just two chapters before: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt 23:13)[1]
It just feels…off.
The point here is not to dismiss this parable.  For one thing, the Revised Common Lectionary insists on bringing it around at least once every three years, and who knows how much Christian education curriculum will also include this story.  Besides, it’s not our place to toss out scripture that disturbs us.  There is something to be learned from this parable.  It might also be, though, that after decades or even centuries of reading and hearing it, there might also be some things the church needs to unlearn as well.

It’s perfectly appropriate to come away from this parable having learned that we don’t want to end up like the foolish bridesmaids, lacking oil for their lamps and hunting for a 24-hour Quik-E-Mart in first-century Israel.  On the other hand, the wise bridesmaids are not necessarily objects for our emulation save for the fact of having extra oil.  Nowadays that might qualify them more for an episode of Doomsday Preppers or some other “reality” show than as examples for our emulation.  It’s one thing to be “in,” but there is simply too much weight of scripture against them to celebrate figures that play a role in keeping others “out.”  The parable cannot become an excuse to turn into hoarders of the gifts of God, whether physically or spiritually.
We might also want to re-think what it means to wait for the Lord.  Somehow it seems to have snuck into the collective subconscious on this parable for many decades or even centuries that the foolish bridesmaids were somehow at fault for falling asleep, and therefore not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom.  Of course, the problem with this is that the parable explicitly tells us that “all of them became drowsy and slept.” (25:5).  The so-called “wise” bridesmaids were just as conked out as the foolish bridesmaids.  Yes, we need to “keep awake” as Jesus says at the end, but that can’t be what brought shame to the foolish bridesmaids if the wise bridesmaids did it too.
Also, our task in waiting is not to busy ourselves with twisting bits of scripture into codes or clues to nail down the day and hour of any “rapture” or other apocalyptic event.  Jesus says plainly in verse 13 that we “know neither the day nor the hour.”  Trying to prove Jesus wrong?  That’s about as unbiblical a thing as one can do with scripture. 
We should also steer clear of any interpretations of this parable that foster or encourage an “us against them” mentality.  There is no “insider” vs. “outsider” contrast here; no “Christian” or “un-Christian,” no “saved” vs. “lost” in the way we church folk tend to define things.  All of the bridesmaids are part of the same wedding party; they all are invited guests.  Only the lack of lamp oil causes the foolish bridesmaids to be left out.  Now this ought to chill us a little bit, but Matthew has already cited Jesus as saying this same thing much more clearly and explicitly in chapter 7; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) There are many who talk the talk, to put it in modern terms, who will find themselves on the outside looking in, because they didn’t walk the walk.
So what do we learn from this?  No matter how difficult or challenging the story might be, is there something we should be taking from this parable as a positive instruction for our lives?
Here it is worth remembering that this parable doesn’t stand in isolation.  These thirteen verses are part of a longer passage of instruction Matthew records, comprised of chapters 24 and 25, in which Jesus is teaching on what we commonly call the End Times.  Theologians use the fancy word “eschatology” to talk about such passages in scripture.  This was in fact the last of five great blocks of teaching found in Matthew, and many of the ideas and images found in this teaching block echo ideas and images from those earlier teaching passages, now putting them into service of this idea of how it all turns out in the end, and why.
Chapter 25 actually consists of three parables, each one probably more familiar than the last.  Verse 14 picks up with the so-called “parable of the talents,” in which the one who fails to manage wisely what the master left behind is the one who is not only left out, but thrown out, while the ones who multiplied what the master left them were welcomed into the “joy of their master.”  Finally Matthew records the “parable of the sheep and goats,” in which what is somewhat cloudy in the first two parables is made clear; the “sheep” were the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the imprisoned. 
The Australian theologian William Loader puts it this way:

It is about sustaining the life of faith. It is another version of Matthew's theme of elitism. Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. [emphasis mine] Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.[2]

Light bulbs have to be replaced (even the fancy new energy-efficient kind, eventually).  Flashlights need new batteries.  The oil in our lamps needs to be replenished, and regularly. 
That oil, that fuel for a life lived in Christ, is not replenished by spiritualized words and lofty-sounding pronouncements.  It is not replenished by calling ourselves “Christians” over and over again (or denouncing those we disagree with as un-Christian).  It certainly is not replenished by checking off lists of do’s and don’ts, carefully drawing lines to make sure “we” are “in,” and “they” are “out.”  “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
And that will, as the sheep and goats learn to the surprise of both, is to feed, give drink, care for, welcome, clothe, take care of, visit.  We refuel our lamps by plunging into the work of God.
We refuel by entering into worship, not as an accommodation to our whims and tastes, but as a desperately needed encounter with the God who drives us out into the world to do God’s work.  We refuel by diving into the scriptures to understand God’s call upon us, to seek in Jesus’s life and work our own life and work.  We refuel by opening ourselves to the unpredictable and unsettling movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls us in ways we cannot expect or predict. 
In the end, this is how we wait.  We wait because we are called by a merciful and gracious God who wants no one left out.  We serve, because we know what is to be the foolish bridesmaids, fumbling in the dark with empty lamps, but also because we know what it is to be the “wise” bridesmaids, fearfully hoarding our treasure from those who need it so much more than we, the very Spirit we were meant to share.
We wait by feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by questioning why there are so many who need feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by being the body of Christ, by walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  Anything less is a robbery of the God who calls out of darkness into light, who calls us to love God with all we have and to love neighbor as self. 
With lamps trimmed and burning, with lives fueled by God’s love moving through us into the world in word and deed, we wait.
For faithful waiting, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] These examples and more from David Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection),” (Accessed November 4, 2014).
[2] William Loader, “First Thoughts On Passages From Matthew In the Lectionary: Pentecost 22,”

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