Cozy Christianity

Matthew 25:1-13

Some of you remember Jill McAlister. She used to be our sexton. Jill once shared with me how the McAlister family celebrates Thanksgiving.

It begins on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when she gets the whole family together on Tuesday and start the prep. It’s washing the veggies, cutting up the veggies, assembling all of the recipes. Everyone works and then for dinner they get take-out Chinese.

 Wednesday is when they assemble the casseroles. There are eight – count ‘em! – eight casseroles to assemble. Spinach, Broccoli, Sweet Potato, Regular Potato, plus three more.

 The young people do  the desserts:  Three kinds of cool-whip salads: Ambrosia, Pistachio , and – for the little one to assemble – the cherry jello with fruit. Then all the casseroles get baked while they make the hors d’oeuvres. There’s the stuff mushroom caps, the shrimp dip, the hot smokies, the chili rellenos casserole the won tons and the scallop rumaki. After a long days work, they sit down for a dinner of taqitos and guacamole.

Finally Thanksgiving Day arrives and Jill is up early to get the stuffing made and the turkey in the oven. The kids assemble the spaghetti salad and the green salad. Later on she’ll heat up the eight casseroles and put out the pies that she picked up from Costco:  two pumpkin, one apple and three berry. At noon, 22 family and guests sit down for Thanksgiving Dinner. And they play games and visit and eat for the rest of the day. It’s a lot of preparation. And it’s a memorable celebration that they all look forward to every year.

Now  few years ago, my mother invited all the singles and spares from her church for Thanksgiving Dinner. She did the turkey and stuffing. Everyone else was charged to bring something for the table. I looked forward to that dinner. I  imagined all the different dishes that people would bring. So you can imagine my surprise when this one guy walks in with a couple of cans of garbanzo beans. He opened the cans, poured the beans in a bowl and set the bowl on the table. That’s it.

Now, you know what had happened. He had probably gotten preoccupied with other stuff. Then on Thanksgiving Day he realized that he needed to bring something to dinner. By then it was too late to prepare anything. So he grabbed a couple of cans out of the pantry.When everyone left, I told my mother,  “If you ever do this again, invite that woman who made that pecan pie  Invite the guy who brought the brandied sweet potatoes. But, Mother, don’t invite Mr. Garbanzo Beans.”

People who wanted to have a memorable Thanksgiving celebration prepared. People who wanted to honor my mother for her hospitality, made an effort. Like Jill McAlistar and her family did.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus has a message here. It’s  not for the world, it for his church. It’s a message about preparing ahead.

The scene is a wedding banquet. Tradition puts the banquet at the groom’s home. And at that home, great crowd would the house and pour out into the street.

As they gather, the groom and several of his close friends follow tradition and make their way to the bride’s home – probably located in another village. Once she is ready, the bride joins the groom and his friends to form a little parade. From there, the groom will escort his bride back to his family home for the marriage feast. They will deliberately take the longest route back, wandering through as many streets as possible so that most of villagers could see them and cheer them on. That little parade might be a little disorganized, but what they lack in organization they will make up in enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, back at the groom’s house, the crowds waits into the night.. Among the guests are ten young women – each with a lamp that is lit. It was unthinkable for a young woman to move about in the dark without a lamp. The ten young women are very circumspect in their behavior. All have lamps, all the lamps are burning. But there are differences among them. Half of them have brought extra olive oil in small flasks, while the other half did not take that precaution.

The parade winds its way slowly through the village. It takes a bit longer than these young women anticipate. But the wiser ones realized that it could be the middle of the night before the wedding party arrives. It gets late and they get drowsy. So they place their burning lamps on a window ledge and doze off as they wait.

Finally the front of the parade enters the alley and a cry goes out,  “Behold the bridegroom!  Come and meet him!” Everyone rushes onto the street.

The young women jump to their feet and begin to service their lamps. To their horror, five of them suddenly realize their mistake. Their lamps are almost out and they have no reserves. The other five take out their flasks and fill up.

The five foolish women crowd around and demand some of their oil. Politely, but no doubt firmly, they are told, “There’s not enough for us and you.  Solve your own problem.” Everyone knows everyone in a little village, so acquiring more oil shouldn’t be any problem. So off they go. In the meantime, the groom arrives with his new bride and the entire crowd sweeps into the house and the door is shut.

Here is why I say that this parable is for us, the church. Jewish custom required 10 men to form a synagogue. It requires 10 men to hold a valid wedding ceremony.

But in the New Testament, the church is always feminine – the bride of Christ. Ten men might represent a Jewish synagogue. But to represent the church, Jesus would choose ten women.

Like the church, all ten had been invited to the Wedding Banquet. Like the church, all ten had accepted the Lord’s invitation. And, like the church, all 10 expect the groom – Jesus – to arrive.  They just don’t know when.

But there is a big difference in these women. The distinguishing characteristic between them is how they spend their time waiting in expectation for the groom’s arrival.

How do we handle expectation? Expecting something soon can keep us alert. Some of the most alert moments of my life have been spent in a dentist’s chair expecting the drilling to begin. Expecting dinner guests to arrive soon heightens our alertness.

On the other hand, expecting something to happen way in the distant future can make us careless. Expecting Jesus in the distant future can make us careless about keeping his commands. We might have warm feelings of devotion toward him. But a careless coziness with the Lord doesn’t substitute for obedience to his commands.

There are some who teach that a dramatic conversion to Christ is all you need – just have a lamp and you’ll be alright. You don’t need lessons on living a Christian life. They figure that Christian preparation can even be an obstacle to true inward faith. Their motto is “once saved, always saved.”

But Christians live in a time of expectation – we live in “the already, but not yet.” Jesus tells us that the way we handle this time will have eternal consequences. And in this morning’s Gospel passage, he gives us three tips for living in expectation of His Return.

Tip #1: Don’t count on borrowed resources. It’s typical for kids to count on borrowed resources. I remember our trips with the kids to Camp Surf. The adult chaperons got together to plan out what we needed to bring. The mothers rattled off the list: Extra sun block, extra towels, extra sweatshirts. I jumped in and asked: “Wait.  We gave the kids the list of things to bring.  Why do we need extras?”

I got the look from the mothers. “Fr. Gordon.  These are kids.  Someone will fail to prepare. So we will be prepared and they can borrow from us.” Borrowed resources might work okay for a kid’s camp out. But when it comes to Christ’s return, you stand with what you brought.

The foolish bridesmaids saw that they did not have enough oil. So they asked their wise friends to loan them some of theirs. But that was not possible. 

You can’t borrow your own preparation for the coming kingdom/ You can’t borrow someone else’s commitment. You can’t borrow someone else’s discipleship. You cannot borrow someone else’s faith. You can’t inherit it from your parents. God has no grandchildren, only children.

Back in 1988 the evening news reported on a photographer who was also a skydiver.  He had jumped from a plane along with several other skydivers and filmed the group as they each dove out of the plane. One by one, he showed each crew member jumping out. Then he pull his rip chord to open the chute.

The last skydiver opened his chute and then the video went berserk.  The announcer reported that the cameraman had fallen to his death. It wasn’t until he reached for the ripcord that he realized he was free falling without a parachute.  Up until then, he was enjoying himself and was absorbed in what he was doing.  By forgetting the parachute he made a foolish and deadly mistake.  And he was in no position to borrow one from anyone else.

Tip #2 – To live in expectation, you have to commit to the Long Haul. Remember the Paris Peace Talks to negotiate the end of the Viet Nam war? Remember how much time they spent just negotiating the size and shape of the negotiating table?

Le Duc Tho represented the North Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese wanted a rectangular table. But he insisted on a round table. And then he made other demands about that table. The negotiations over the shape of the table went on for months.

A lot of people thought that was a clever tactic by Le Duc Tho. You see, he knew how impatient the American public was becoming with the ongoing war. And he wanted to give the impression that the North was in no hurry to end it. They were in it for the long haul. That negotiation posture gained the North a lot of concessions from an American president anxious to conclude an unpopular war.

The foolish women expected the groom long before he arrived. The wise ones were also expected the groom momentarily,  BUT they were committed to the long haul. They prepared for it.

Commitment to the long haul requires advance planning. There is no such thing as instant discipleship,  There is no instant maturity.

The authentic Christian life is not just the initial thrill of conversion. It’s the tenacity of Jacob showed when he wrestled all night long with the Angel of the Lord. He would not give up until he received the blessing.

St. Paul knows something of the long haul. No one had a more dramatic conversion experience than he did when Christ appeared to him on the Road to Damascus. Then he spent the next 13 years in preparation before beginning his ministry.

Paul did not live from one spiritual high to the next. Read about the hardships he endured – imprisonment, beatings, a shipwreck, even snake bites! For Paul, faith was the day-in and day-out service gave to the Lord and the Lord’s church. It was being faithful in season and out, regardless of whether he felt God’s presence. It was a determination to faithfully serve to others.

Martha’s Market is up and running online this year. And like all the other years, the ladies will bring in a good chunk of change to bless the community with their outreach. But the success of that boutique was determined long before we went online last month.

It takes the weekly commitment of women coming together to do those sometimes mundane and tedious tasks to have products ready for sale. It takes someone else working diligently in his workshop all year turning out woodcrafts. There was planning, innovating, advertising scheduling. The blessings of that boutique require a commitment to the long haul.

That’s how Jesus wants us to live – committing to the long haul.

Tip #3 – Living in expectation requires us to assume responsibility for our own failures.

Let’s face it, we do stupid stuff sometimes and things go wrong. What do you do when you exercise poor judgment and then things go wrong?

When things went wrong for the foolish women, they started shouting at the others. “Give us some of your oil!” And when they arrived late and found the door closed, they cried out to the bridegroom, “Lord! Lord! Open the door!” There’s no recognition of their fault. There is no remorse for their foolishness. They seem completely oblivious to their choices that landed them in this predicament. Someone else must fix it for them.

It’s easy to duck responsibility for our poor judgment, but it’s not wise. Everyone knows who messed up. They might not say it, but they know it. And until we take responsibility, we will just keeping making the same mistake over and over again.

Ask King David. Here was God’s chosen king – a man after God’s own heart. That didn’t insulate him from doing stupid stuff. It didn’t stop him from committing adultery. It didn’t stop him from covering up his sin with murder. But here’s where David was wise. When Nathan the prophet called him out for his sin, David didn’t deny it. He fessed up, sought forgiveness, and then amended his life.

Everyone’s going to fail sometimes.  It’s part of the human condition. Living in expectation of the Lord’s return means taking responsibilities for our failures.

It’s interesting how the parable ends. In the final scene, the shortsighted crowd of five women finally acquire some oil. They get their lamps working and arrive back at the house. “Sir, open to us!” The groom replies,  “Sorry.  I don’t think I know you.” Is that the end of the story?

Ken Bailey was the Canon Theology for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He was a recognized expert in ancient Middle Eastern culture.Hear his take on the ending.

As is often the case, the reader of the parable is left hanging.   Does the bridegroom relent and let them in or not?  The reader is not told.  The locked door is what they deserve.  We do not know what they received when the conversation is over. 

[But] in the Middle East the word “no” is never an answer, rather it is a pause in the negotiations.  

The reader has to finish the play.