Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When bad news is Good News

Matthew 25: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 9, 2014

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, the lectionary takes us through the gospel of Matthew toward the end of Jesus’ life. The Church really knows how to cheer people up, doesn’t it? Jesus is in Jerusalem, going head to head with the religious authorities and squeezing in every last ounce of teaching he can with his disciples. In the previous chapter Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple to his disciples. They of course want to know not only how and when this catastrophic event will occur, but they are also seeking some reassurance. Jesus then lays out a series of teachings and parables which scholars call “The Little Apocalypse”, which, when you think about it, is kind of like saying “a little pregnant”. An upheaval is headed their way and there won’t be any rescue coming for them. There are no guarantees as to when Jesus will return. They need to get ready.

The gospel of Matthew was written not long after the destruction of the temple. Matthew’s original readers had already lived through it. Jesus wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was more or less reporting what had already happened. Now these Jewish followers of the Jesus movement were coping with the aftermath, most of them having come to Jesus without ever having met him in their lifetime. It had never really been safe to follow Jesus; now it could be a death sentence. How were they supposed to hang on to their faith and hang together? Jesus’ return has been delayed for who knows how long. What is a community of faith to do?

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a story about community, but not in the way we might think. It’s not a judgment tale about those who plan versus those who go with the flow. It’s not a Martha/Mary thing or if you’re into Myers-Briggs, a “P” or a “J” thing, that is, those who prefer more flexibility to those who prefer structure. And it’s not about sharing or being selfish. It’s about self-care in the time when the resolution or the answer or the saving grace is delayed. It’s about how to be while we’re waiting—waiting without knowing when the waiting will be over.


Passages like this one can often get the short shrift when planning worship. We can’t really say why but we just don’t like messages of warning, of the door being shut rather than opened when we knock. St. Augustine wrote, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” Sometimes we need to hear what sounds like bad news that we might get to the bottom of the Good News.

The other day I had some bloodwork come back, telling me that I am pre-diabetic. Given that my father was a diabetic in his forties and died of a heart attack at 46, this is definitely a message of warning, the door slamming shut on my love affair with sugar and carbs. I know that this is due to stress eating, comfort food, and a sweet tooth run a bit amok, none of which will keep my lamp burning. It’s more like that bit of poetry from Edna St. Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!”

You see, my groom has been delayed. I did not anticipate that we would be living apart this long. Make no mistake; we are in it for the long haul. We will do this until we no longer have to do this anymore. But the delay is taking its toll. And because of this, I need to keep oil in my lamp, not the quick fix that burns off quickly, leaving me wanting more.

Brain science now says that sugar lights up the brain on an MRI in the same way that cocaine does. And it’s not just desserts or sugary drinks—it’s in bread, peanut butter, yogurt, and all kinds of prepared foods. Even though it may not be an addiction in the classical sense, it’s more like a sneaky dependence that can lead to all sorts of trouble like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Of course, I’ve known this all along, but it took a blood test result to put me into action. South Beach diet, here I come.


This parable isn’t a case of “God helps those who help themselves”, which isn’t even biblical, but we can see where someone might have gotten that from this story. Yet I do believe God does expect us to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting another passenger. Much as we might be tempted, we can’t judge those wise bridesmaids as being smug and stingy. Prudence is a virtue. Nor can we judge the foolish ones, either. We’ve all been in their shoes at one time or another. Waiting in the dark can be scary. And that delayed groom who wouldn’t open the door? I know I’ve shut someone down a time or two. How do we live in community, help each other out, but take responsibility for ourselves at the same time?

Thing is, we all have ways of coping with waiting, with a delay, whether it be a spiritual or emotional or relational outcome. But rather than coping methods which can drain us sometimes, we need self-care practices that fill us and sustain us. We’d like to think we’re one of those wise bridesmaids, the older brother to that prodigal one, the workers who were hired first rather than the end of the day, but the truth is, like the disciples in the garden, all of those bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for the groom to show up. I don’t know about you, but I can feel the energy in this church flagging. We need not only oil in our lamps, but imagination to ignite our hearts, compassion to lighten our minds, and joy to sustain our willingness.

The wedding banquet is coming—that time when heaven and earth will be joined as one. Until then, Jesus would have us be ready for whenever he shows up, usually every day, in all sorts of guises. But if we’re not ready, if our lights are out, how would we recognize each other?

from Hilliard United Methodist Church


 One small, attainable step that we could make as a community is to make a commitment to have more healthy snacks after worship or a soup when we’re celebrating. Yes, protein and veggies and fruit are more expensive but they’re also better for us than cookies and cake. Church is where the good habits, the self-care practices should begin and where we can find support for them to continue. We’re all in this together. We need to have a balance. 

Let us remember that we live in a temple of flesh and blood, and that in this temple we worship and serve God. What we put into it to sustain us really does matter. What we put into this Body of Christ to sustain it really does matter. Sunday is the day when we catch a glimpse this wedding banquet, when we strive to make visible the anticipated union of heaven and earth. So let’s celebrate that marriage with what not only sustains but provides endurance for the long haul, that we might remain faithful, be wise, and stay strong. Amen.

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