Abingdon, Matthew 25:1-13

About those bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13)

No waiting for a belated bridegroom at this wedding.
No waiting for a belated bridegroom at this wedding.

My mother’s best friend, who was a bridesmaid more than once, collected wedding disaster stories. Remember when, she would say, the bride fell down the stairs? Remember the groomsman so inebriated he stood in the wrong place? I tell couples, “Don’t worry if something goes wrong, it will just give people a funny story to tell someday.” Weddings do not run like clockwork. In the story Jesus tells, the bridegroom is SO late that the bridesmaids, whose job it is to keep the light on for him, fall asleep. When they hear him coming they get up and trim their lamps, which is to say they trim the wicks and refill their lamps with oil, to keep them burning.

Unless of course, they have no oil left.

We are left with a troubling set of possibilities. Could they really go out to the oil dealers at midnight? Why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share? Was Jesus really warning that people would be shut out of the kingdom of heaven? He kept talking this way in the next two parables in Matthew 25. He intended to give a shake of the shoulders to the complacent and the easy-going, I have no doubt. He intended to remind the people around him that the future might be unexpected, that delays and exhaustion might well be part of it. He warned them to be ready, whatever might happen. Be ready, no matter the chaos and confusion of everyday life. Be ready, and know what you need to stay that way.

Sometimes it feels like a long, long time. Sometimes the waiting seems unbearable. When will things be set right? When will we really see the kingdom of God? And how will we keep ourselves ready?

Not long before my (first) wedding, sleeping in my childhood bed, I woke to realize the power had gone out in my parents’ home. I thought immediately of my grandmother, who had a first-floor bedroom. I didn’t know the time; my electric clock gave no help. But I knew my night owl grandmother might still be awake. In the dark, I felt my way across the upstairs hall, carefully down the stairs, took a left into our family room, right hand waving in front of me to identify the chair, the TV, the corner of the big, brick fireplace and finally, aha—the wide mantelpiece. I felt along until my hand touched the familiar textures of cardboard, brass and wax. I struck a match and lit a candle.

By the light of the candle I made my way to my grandmother’s bedroom, where I found her still sitting up in the armchair in front of a now-darkened TV screen, relieved to see me, rejoicing to see a light. Her daughter, my mother, was the one who prepared – although she slept through the storm – leaving the matches and the candle in the plain sight of my memory, ready for a dark night.

Abingdon, Philippians, Revised Common Lectionary, Salvation

Emphasis on the Trembling

How do we work out our salvation?

In the gospel lesson for this week (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus is parrying a rhetorical attack by the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Since we saw him last week, he has entered Jerusalem, and over the next eight Sundays, we’ll be hearing the stories that happened in the first Holy Week, the things he taught in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. It is still early in the week. In this chapter he turns over the tables of the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and then he curses a fig tree that fails to give him fruit, and in the midst of that display of the most human emotion we see from him in Matthew’s gospel, the leaders challenge him. Who said you can do these things? He is upsetting the status quo, and they want to hear the reason why from his own mouth.

He answers a question with a question, which they don’t dare answer, and then he tells them a story about two brothers. Both are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says no, but later thinks better of it and goes to work. The other says yes, but doesn’t go. Which one obeyed his father? This time they answer, and it’s the right answer. It’s the one who went to do the work who did the will of his father, not the one who gave the right answer without any actions to back it up.

I preached these texts on the day my youngest child was confirmed. Now, I want to be clear. It’s possible to live a life of faith without ever saying the words she said in affirming her Baptism. It’s also possible to make the promises very sweetly and never live into them. That was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders. They knew the right words to say; they just didn’t bother to work in the vineyard. But there are more choices than just those two! We can say the words and strive to live them.

It’s important to remember that whether we’re being baptized or confirmed or becoming members of a local church or simply conversing with God about where we are in our lives, we make the promises about how we will live with the understanding that doing so requires God’s help. The qualities we are urged to express in Paul’s letter to the Philippians do not come easily. He tells us clearly, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b, NRSV). I put my emphasis on the trembling. The work of faith shakes us. Even Jesus, who took on our form and lived a human life, lost his temper, and while his indignation in the Temple was surely righteous, his anger at a fig tree proves his humanity.

If it could happen to Jesus, surely we all need help to live a life that pleases God.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Matthew 14:13-21, Revised Common Lectionary

On Empty (Matthew 14:13-21)

I was just out of college when a boy I knew growing up was killed during a robbery at the Radio Shack where he worked. I had not seen him for many years. He was not a part of my daily life. I have to admit that as young teenagers, we did not get along. But Al was part of the fabric of my early years. His older sister babysat my little brother and me, and their father worked with our father, and I spent a lot of time at their house. Al’s death left a shocking hole in the tapestry of the life I knew, threatening my sense of who was safe and who was not. And so despite the distance in time and relationship I had to take more than a moment, to remember Al, to pray for his family, and to consider my own life.

Jesus withdrew to do the same thing, feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. John, who prepared the way for him, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Perhaps he felt he had nothing to give, but the people followed and somehow he found what they needed, although his own tank needed filling.

013d9ff85e0fba30965a8683f6c74082e108fde516In my usually safe neighborhood, we woke one summer morning to find someone had tried to siphon gas from our cars. The latch on a neighbor’s fuel hatch was broken, and although mine is electronic, the digital message I saw when I got in the car let me know someone had been fooling with it. I asked the neighbor how much gas they could have gotten, and he told me, “Not much, I was running on empty.”

I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, a little desperate, willing to trust a guy who was popular with crowds but had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention.

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others. I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.

(Read the text: NRSV CEB)

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.