Proper 27, A
(Seated in front of the altar, facing the congregation)…. I’m waiting…You’re waiting…
You can see where they might fall asleep. The bridesmaids, I mean. No smart phones. Just lamp trimming to keep them going really.
You’re waiting, I would imagine, for me to say “May what I say and what you hear be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” You’re waiting for me to get up and make some sense out of this mystifying parable. Failing that I could at least get up and relate some amusing anecdote my children have provided for our mutual entertainment. Anything to end the waiting.
I’m waiting for… I’m not sure. Maybe for the parable to make actually make some sense. I identify with one correspondent who wrote in an e-mail this week:
“I learned early on that I am ‘wired’ in such a way that to do things well in advance of any deadline is dangerous territory for me. In ministry, I discovered that any sermon I wrote early in the week usually ended up flat on the sanctuary floor, where no member dared to touch it. So, I stopped doing that – writing sermons. . . I do the exegesis and study,…, I let the words/thoughts/phrases chase each other around in my head, until they all seem to fall into place. Sometimes they wait until Saturday night, sometimes they join me in the shower on Sunday morning, and occasionally they delay their arrival until just before the service starts.” (Thom Shuman, Midrash, personal correspondence)
Sometimes it takes a while for the Good News to become clear. So I wait. Sometimes I wait better than other times.
Winter came early this year. We certainly didn’t have to wait for that. It seems, somehow, that Advent came early as well. Advent is the season of waiting, after all – not our current ordinary time. Still, last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent for some churches who participate in a growing movement to transform Advent from a 4-week to a 7-week season. Advent has only been a 4-week season since the 19th century or so. The Orthodox Church has celebrated a 7-week Advent for centuries. Changing would not require adjusting the lectionary at all. These last weeks before Christ the King Sunday are already about waiting, preparing. We begin and end the the church year waiting, preparing, yearning for Jesus to come again even as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation, the first coming, the baby in the manger. A 7-week Advent might serve to eliminate that sense of Advent as merely a countdown, a marker of the crazy season that leads up to Christmas – so loud and shiny and brassy and in-your-face in the world out there. Maybe if Advent were longer we would have to learn to wait.
As a culture, we show little aptitude for waiting. We fill the waiting. With phones. With computers. With plans. With shopping and glitter. We fill it rather than experience it. The maidens didn’t experience it either. With nothing to fill the waiting, they fell asleep; the wise and the foolish alike.
Christianity has been described as a “waiting religion”. When Paul wrote today’s letter to the Thessalonians, the people had been waiting for Christ’s return for many years. Those with first hand accounts of Jesus were dying off – people began to fear they waited in vain. Paul sought to reassure them. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
2 generations after Paul comforted the Thessalonians the author of Matthew penned this parable. He’s the only Gospel author that included it. The Evangelist needed to emphasize not only the sure benefit of waiting and its necessary unpredictability, but that waiting engendered an urgency, an immediacy of preparation. He needed to keep the people motivated.
2 millennia after the Evangelist struggled, it’s possible that we have lost the urgency. Certain groups place high emphasis on the apocalypse, but for the most part it holds little sway in our day to day lives. Oscar Wilde wrote, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin; it’s a nice arrangement.” Merely the fact that we show up here week after week suggests we may have taken on a somewhat less utilitarian existence than Mr. Wilde. Still, we would do well to take heed of Amos’s reminder of the dangers of complacency in our faith. We happily remember the truth that “God loves you just the way you are,” and just as happily ignore the truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
One professor tells a story of a student who committed to a regular discipline of prayerful scripture reading. His wife had gone visiting out of town. He and their 2-year-old English beagle Sadie had their home to themselves. “Every night around 10:00 he would sit on the love seat and spend half an hour on [his] devotional reading. Soon [Sadie] got the notion that this was a good opportunity to pursue her own spiritual growth, so she began hopping up and sitting next to him on the couch and putting her head in his lap. One night he got caught up in watching the news and didn’t go to the love seat at the prescribed time. Sadie came over and began to pull at his pant legs. One night he was exhausted and went to bed at 9:45. Just as he was drifting off to sleep he heard a whimpering and felt the blanket being pulled off the bed. Looking over the side of the bed, there was Sadie, his bedspread in her teeth, there to call him to prayer. He decided that some dogs were bird dogs and some dogs were sheep dogs, but that Sadie was a prayer dog. This parable of the Ten Virgins is a Sadie the Prayer Dog parable. It reminds us of the urgency in what seems to be an endless future.” (Alyce McKenzie, Bridesmaids, The Time is Now, Patheos, 2011)
As we live out our faith in an imperfect, troubled world, this parable can motivate us to take action in response to environmental abuse, [poverty, hatred] and injustice while effective action is still possible. (Paraphrased from Alyce McKenzie, Bridesmaids, The Time is Now, Patheos, 2011)
Poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:
Bridesmaids await the groom.
Some run out of oil.
The others decline to share.
Right when the groom comes
the unprepared ones run off to buy oil.
The others enter the hall without them.
When they return, the groom rejects them.
Bridesmaids who aren’t prepared,
others who refuse to share,
those who run away right when they’re needed,
those who are happy to desert them,
and a groom who refuses to admit his friends:
none of these people are behaving well. None.
How is this like the realm of God?
A voice in your heart recoils, says,
“This could all be different!”
There. That is like the realm of God.
That is what we are called to do in the waiting. Recoil from injustice, from selfishness, from exclusion. Pray, love, act, feed, vote, teach, comfort, clothe, transform, LIVE like Christ will be here tonight. Because He will. Tonight and tomorrow and a week from next Thursday. The Kingdom breaks in to our every day, glimmers of hope, trickles of justice until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”