Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 9, 2014

2014.11.09 “While We Wait . . .” – Matthew 25: 1 – 13

Central United Methodist Church
While We Wait . . .
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 1 – 13
November 9, 2014

He, Qi.  Clever Bridesmaids, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: heqigallery.com.

He, Qi.
Clever Bridesmaids, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: heqigallery.com.

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25: 1 – 13

 

[Before beginning the sermon, Pastor Haley intentionally delayed, sitting down, reading the bulletin, finally standing up to say . . .] 

Waiting.  For some of us, waiting is one of the most difficult things life asks of us. While some of us are born with a measure of patience, others of us are apparently devoid of it.

Whichever we are, a person with a lot of patience or a person with little patience, what is certain is that life gives us plenty of opportunity to practice patience, in things big and small. Because, as we have to learn sooner rather than later, waiting is part of life.

BTW, after my travels around the globe, my observation that most of the people on the planet are much better at waiting than we are, probably because they get so much more experience at doing it.  I will never forget waiting hours for a bus in India, then, when it arrived, finally boarding it. Then they announced, it would be an additional hour before it left.  In Africa, I remember ever so patient African women wait in clinics for hours, never complaining.  Here in America, we go berserk if the doctor is late 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, back here, there are elevators, and long lines at the grocery store and Post Office. There are interminable stoplights. And, no matter where you go, there are trains. (Someday I hope to live in a town without a train track.) One of the great mysteries of life is that when you’re waiting to catch a train, it takes forever.  But when you’re stuck at a train crossing in your car, they go by every two minutes. How can that be? The other day I was sitting with gates down for the Yellow Line tracks at Skokie and Oakton, essentially the same as putting a temporary 15 foot wall up between you and your destination. I could have easily dozed off, and it brought to mind memories of how when I worked as a firefighter/paramedic – we used to go out – usually in the middle of the night, for a “driver slumped” at the freight train tracks.  There was never anything wrong: they’d be there slumped over the steering wheel, asleep, car in drive, and if they and we were lucky, foot on the brake. As I waited at Oakton and Skokie, for a moment I thought: “That could be me!”

But if we have to wait for small things in life, we also have to learn how to wait for the big things: Christmas and birthdays, acceptances and graduations, engagements and weddings.  Birth and even death, both can take awhile. Moms and Dads, remember those labors, especially of first children? And if you’ve ever done a bedside vigil for someone who is dying, breath by agonizing breath, you never forget it.

Schooled in life by our experiences of waiting, the last thing we may want to hear is a parable about waiting, even from Jesus. And yet that is exactly what we hear in the Gospel today. Let’s see if Jesus’ story about the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, might not only make us wiser about the waiting we have to do in our lives, but wiser, better, people.

In Jesus’ story, it was waiting – specifically waiting for the groom to arrive – that did the Bridesmaids in.  Some of us know a lot about weddings, and we know what it is to wait for them to start. I’ve seen weddings delayed for many reasons, including late minute alternations by bridesmaids attempting to fit into their dresses (did they really eat that much at the rehearsal dinner?), and weddings delayed by waiting for important people to show up, including brides, grooms, and parents. As Millete will tell you (and has learned for herself), my advice to accompanists who play preludes at weddings is to bring all the wedding music you own, because you never know when you are going to need it.

Anyway, in this wedding Jesus told about, as they were waiting for a bridegroom whose arrival they thought was immanent, they even went outside to watch and wait.  But one of them got a text message that the groom was delayed. 3 pm came and went. 6 pm came and went.  9 pm came and went, and darkness fell.  Good thing they had their lamps. While they waited, all of them fell asleep, like sitting there at the train tracks.  Bridesmaids slumped!

Then around midnight there was a shout that woke everybody: “The groom is here!” They awoke with a start and grabbed their lamps, which they discovered with a shock – due to the long wait – were running low on fuel.  But five had planned ahead and brought extra oil.  The five who were foolish, said to the five who were “fuel-ish,” “May I borrow some extra fuel?” To their shock, the answer was “No, your lack of planning is not my emergency!”

Off went the bridesmaids who were ready into the party, leaving the other five stumbling around in the darkness.  You can almost hear them singing the White Rabbit’s little ditty from the Walt Disney version of Alice in Wonderland: “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

By the time they made it to the door, it was shut.  They beat on the door only to discover the groom wasn’t in a much better mood than the other bridesmaids, eyeing them suspiciously through the window and having the nerve to say: “Do I know you?”

My guess is that whoever we are, we’re not likely to like five of those women.  Because whether we are former Scouts and always prepared, or those who are lucky to get out the door with our purse or billfold and car keys in the morning, on any given day, we could be one of the other, those who planned ahead or those who fell behind.  After all, no matter how much you prepare for life’s contingencies and think you are ready, there are always things that happen that are not possible to prepare for. As John Lennon famously once said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

What then – does this story about waiting and watching, about readiness and vigilance – have to teach us?  Is its point to teach us to always be prepared, or simply to be vigilant, ready for whatever life throws at us, including those critical events in life when God shows up.

In Jesus’ time, that’s exactly what they were expecting.  It is clear from his portrayal in the four Gospels, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, expecting God’s immanent intervention.  What’s less clear is whether Jesus believed that (which most scholars think that he did) or whether those who wrote the Gospels portrayed Jesus as believing that, because the times in which they wrote were so bad. In fact, after Jesus, Jesus’ followers transferred God’s expected intervention to Jesus himself, expecting his immanent return to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. As time passed and Christians watched and waited – the Bridegroom was obviously delayed – they wondered what had happened.  This was what Paul addressed in his Letters to the Thessalonians in AD 51, some 20 years after Jesus.  People were starting to die, and they were wondering what had happened to the promise of Jesus’ return.

By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, around 70 or 80 AD, things were worse: the entire city of Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaism and Christianity, had been destroyed by the Romans. And yet, even in the face of an apocalyptic event like that, Jesus’ return had still not happened, and so Matthew incorporates a series of four parables of Jesus about watching and waiting, readiness and vigilance. Two thousands years later, it still hasn’t happened, and we even more like those bridesmaids, waiting and watching. Some of us are running out of oil, if we haven’t already run out a long time ago. What then, shall we do while we wait, like the two characters in Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait through the whole play for someone to arrive who never shows up.

While we wait, what can we do?  For one thing, we can be spiritually vigilant, expecting and anticipating God to show up in our lives, if not in the second coming of Jesus, in ways we least imagine. It does not necessarily being prepared for every eventuality that might happen, that we become survivalists hoarding weapons and supplies for the coming apocalypse or even the next epidemic.  It means being alert, looking for the presence of God in our lives, and in society.

Most of all it means “not sleeping,” not in the sense of physical sleep, but in the sense of spiritual slumber. After all, in a material society based upon bread and circuses and keeping people entertained and distracted, this is so easy to do. Just check out and go with the flow, never questioning, never reflecting, never imagining that life could be more or that the world could be different. As one of my spiritual heroes, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his classic Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

We need to be awake and alert, vigilant and ready, because really, Matthew or Jesus (as the case may be) were right in their insistence that a Day of Judgment is coming.  Not necessarily in the form of something out of Left Behind or The Walking Dead, as in a time of accountability and finality in our own lives.  It might be in the form of a family crisis or tragedy.  It might be in the diagnosis of disease and impending death. It might even be in the form of our own death. When that day comes, we need to be vigilant and ready.

I think I have told you in the past, I am haunted by a preview I got years ago. I was again working as a paramedic, and got a call for an unresponsive person.  Arrived on the scene to find a distraught wife, and an elderly gentleman death in his bathroom, gone.  He was a retired pastor, and as you looked around his apartment, there was a shredder, he was in the process of going through all his files, probably past sermons, all those piles of paper that those of us who are in paper-intensive occupations generate, the paper trail of a lifetime.  Now it was over, the buzzer or trumpet had sounded, and it was done.

It is said that Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” One of them asked, “How will we know when that day is?” To which Rabbi Eliezer replied, “All the more reasons to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.”

Finally, while we wait, we can live lives and do deeds of justice and mercy. While the door to the wedding feast may be shut in Jesus’ parable, the door is not yet shut for us. There is also a party going on, on “this side of the door.” While we wait, we can actually look around, and focus our attention on somebody other than ourselves, people who may have felt themselves shut out for a long time. Truth is, maybe we can throw our own wedding feast, and invite in some of those who feel like they have been shut out. Truth is, maybe we got have more oil than we need, maybe we can share with those who are running out. Truth is, maybe we are not waiting on God, but maybe it has been God who is waiting on us? And turns out, all this time, God has been OH SO infinitely patient.

So maybe – just maybe – there is some value in this waiting thing, after all.  Could it be?

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