Caught With Their Lamps Down [OR Peace As A Destination]  Matthew 25:1-13, Wisdom 6:12-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Thessalonian reading is at the end of the sermon.]

Matthew 25:1-13  ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*

Wisdom 6:12-16 
12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her. 
13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 
14 One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate. 
15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 
16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

 

[sermon begins]

Before the age of GPS and voice directions, there were TripTik maps[1].  A small, narrow flip map, spiral bound at the top, showed page for page how I was going to make the trip.  Paper TripTiks are still available although now there’s an app for that. In the paper version, you flip the pages as you drive the miles. Construction alerts, hotels, and rest stops were part of the trip plan. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandma Ruth’s house I drove. Each page flipped meant I was that many miles closer. Pit stops were strategic for food, facilities, and fuel.  Of course, knowing the destination is essential to receiving the right map.

Jesus has a destination in mind as he tells a story to his disciples about bridesmaids. The destination is the wedding banquet and the bridesmaids need enough oil for their lamps to follow the bridegroom. The oil fuels the lamps through the midnight-hour.  Five of the bridesmaids get caught with their lamps down.  They are the foolish ones.  I want to know what makes the foolish ones foolish.[2]  If we’re supposed to hear that people who aren’t ready, who miss the mark somehow, or who don’t have enough faith are the problem then that pretty much includes most of the disciples who were listening to Jesus. The same disciples who abandon him at the cross.  If that’s the definition of foolish then it also includes most of us which hardly qualifies as good news.

It may be more accurate to say that the foolish bridesmaids are accused of being passive and neglectful.[3]  All ten bridesmaids knew the bridegroom was coming. They all fell asleep in the darkness. Only five were prepared with lamp oil to make the trip. Up to this point in the gospel book of Matthew, Jesus talked at least three times about his death and resurrection.  He also repeatedly scolded the religious leaders about their priorities. Just a short time before the Matthew reading today, Jesus chews out the religious leaders for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”[4]  The religious leaders had lost sight of the destination.

In Judaism, there is a destination called the End of Days. The End of Days is a messianic era marked by world peace with no wars or famine, and enough for everyone to live on. Rabbi Dubov writes that “even in his darkest hour, [the Jew] hopes and prays for a brighter future – a world of peace and spirituality.”[5] Biblical prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, and Hosea repeatedly point to the End of Days messianic era.[6]  Christians were the ones in the 1800s who concocted doom-filled rapture theology.[7]  Because, you know, that’s so much better.

Here’s why any of this matters. It matters because our understanding of God’s vision for humanity at the End of Days affects the many days between now and then. It matters because people of faith tend to interpret God’s will for today in light of what they think will happen in God’s tomorrow.  It matters because what we say about Jesus’ return impacts the lives of people here and around the world today – the very people Jesus tells us to care about because he cares about them.

In the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[8] Jesus says this right after the Beatitudes.[9] It’s also right after he tells his disciples that they are the light of the world and that lighting a lamp gives light all around it.[10]  Disciples are the light of the world; wise bridesmaids have lamp oil to light the darkness. In a couple more passages after the bridesmaids’ tale, the plot to kill Jesus begins his trip to the cross. Dark times indeed. But the letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that we do “not grieve as others who have no hope.”[11]  There are things happening that cause grief that can lead to despair.  Whether it’s large-scale violence that sends refugees fleeing or interpersonal violence like the abuse coming to light in Hollywood and Washington, we can shut down in despair. Despair can lead to neglect and passivity. The very things for which the foolish bridesmaids stand accused.

The mapped history of humankind hangs in my kitchen. It’s four feet tall and two feet wide with vertical lines showing what was happening to world peoples at the same time. Who was impacting whom and the outcome of those impacts – whether or not a group of people ended up annihilated or subsumed into another group or whether they remained independent. Many victories are on the map.  Many dark times are on the map. Passive despair in the face of human violence is understandable. Jesus is a different destination.

In New Member class last week we talked about Christian freedom.  A great question was asked about personal responsibility when it can seem so easy to claim freedom by way of forgiveness. From that perspective there’s nothing to stop anyone from doing anything they want if they’re just going to be forgiven for it anyway. Jesus’ parable about the bridesmaids holds that tension between freedom and consequence, between self-determination and obedience.  He makes demands of the disciples through the parable and really through the whole book of Matthew. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets so, by that measure, Jesus embodies peace. Not a negative peace that is the “absence of tension.”[12] Rather, Jesus is a positive peace that is the presence of justice.[13] Jesus creates plenty of tension by naming neglect and passivity as unacceptable and calls us to a positive peace as light-bearers in the world today.

Jesus’ call to urgency challenges church people’s quietism.  Quietism that looks like passive withdrawal from the world by relying on divine action alone.[14]  Quietism that sounds like when people say, “It will all work out in the end.” Quietism that simply watches events unfold without considering that our passive withdrawal amounts to complicity in what we fail to do. Quietism that puts foolish bridesmaids in tension with the wise.

This tension between the bridesmaids gives us a glimpse into the conflict of the first century Matthean Christian community as well as holds up a mirror to our time in history.  However, we are on the other side of the cross and resurrection unlike the disciples listening to the parable.  The very disciples who abandoned Jesus at the cross, whose lamps were empty when “darkness came over the whole land” as Jesus died.[15]  The same disciples who afterwards encounter the risen Christ and are given the destination of “all nations” for teaching and baptizing as they are reassured by Christ’s presence to “the end of the age.”[16]

One reason we worship is to remind each other what we so quickly forget in dark and confusing times. Ours is a world in need of constructive tension witnessing to the destination of peace. To the End of Days, Jesus lights up our discipleship, embodying peace and a living hope for the sake of the world God so loves. Thanks be to God.

_____________________________________________

[1] Here’s a link if you’re curious about TripTik https://midatlantic.aaa.com/travel/maps-directions

[2] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Facebook post on the Parable of the Bridesmaids, November 7, 2017.  https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=matthew%20l%20skinner

[3] Ibid. Dr. Skinner’s comment to original post.

[4] Matthew 23:23-24 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

[5] Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK. “What is the ‘End of Days’?” for Chabad.org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108400/jewish/The-End-of-Days.htm

[6] Dubov, Ibid.

[7] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct, a recent biblical interpretation.

[8] Matthew 5:17

[9] Matthew 5:1-12

[10] Matthew 5:14-16

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

[12] Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Quietism: Religious Doctrine. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Quietism  “A doctrine of Christian spirituality that, in general, holds that perfection consists in passivity (quiet) of the soul, in the suppression of human effort so that divine action may have full play.”

[15] Matthew 27:45 [The Death of Jesus] From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

[16] Matthew 25:16-20

_______________________________________

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 5 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

 

Pops, Purity, and Promise [I Promise It’s Not What You Think] Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

[sermon begins]

I was 9 years old when Mom and my stepfather were married after dating long distance for about two years between Washington D.C. and Pasadena, California. While they were dating and into their marriage my four sibs and I called him Bill.  Eventually we started talking about what we could call him differently that would signify the relationship. His children called him Dad so that didn’t fit. Plus we already had a Dad.  We eventually settled on Pops.

Early on I thought Pops looked like John Wayne. He had the gruff and tough thing down anyway.  He took us on our first road trip from Pasadena to Springdale, Arkansas, to meet his folks, Grandma and Grandpa Cloer. Somewhere in New Mexico, Pops laid down the law about fewer bathroom breaks. I’m sure with five kids that pit stops had spun out of control. At one point Mom turned around and I had quiet tears running down my face. I absolutely did not want to be the one who forced the next stop and didn’t want to fess up.  Pops felt terrible. This is a tale that we told in our family for years.

Pops also had season tickets to the Dodgers. My brothers and sisters and I each had a chance to go solo with him to games. Dodger dogs, peanuts, the 7th inning stretch, and Toni Tennille’s autograph are just a few of the highlights.[1] I’m a nostalgic Dodger fan because of that time with Pops. (Truth be told, I’ve only just found the tiniest bit of compassion for Houston’s first time Championship win…you know, given the hurricane and all.)

Then I became a teenager…dunh, dunh, duuunnh. Teens are really good at naming parental faults. I was no exception. Pops and I shared many a word about each other’s faults. I was most definitely NOT seeing him as the John Wayne epic hero at that time. He was real and human and deeply flawed. Pops died just after Christmas in 2002.  His were rough last days. He’s a hero in my eyes still. Marrying a single mother of five children after raising four of his own is nothing short of heroic even if he loved her. He was also flawed and fragile, sinner and saint, imperfect and beloved. He was and is enfolded in the life of God.

In a line from the First John reading today we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”[2] It’s a word of promise. We are God’s children NOW. John goes on to talk about purifying “just as Christ was pure.”[3] The way I hear being pure in these verses is such a comfort. Called Beloved and named a child of God and then reading that in that mix there will be purity as Christ is pure?  Are you kidding me?!  Sign me up! And then, I pause…and think… Because our human minds set up purity codes pretty darn quick. The things that I hold near and dear and pure can quickly become how I assess someone else.  And before I know it, I don’t even measure up to my own purity code.

A blog writer wrote about her son’s decisions to do high school differently than his two older sisters who ended up at top universities.[4]  He sat his parents down toward the end of middle school to talk with them about his own ideas about academics, sports, and leadership that were vastly different than theirs. She wrote about learning how to “slowly and sometimes painfully put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.”  Her words call to mind the beatitudes we hear in the Matthew reading.

Jesus names the blessed as he lists the beatitudes to his disciples with the crowd listening in.[5]  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.[6]  Jesus upends the purity code of his time and also ours. He is addressing specific situations in his speech that we can hear speaking into our own.

If we re-wrote the beatitudes with what counts for blessing these days they might sound like this:

Blessed are the thriving, the joyful, the confident, and those who hunger for victory; blessed are the moral, the great, the tough, and the prosperous.

Hearing the opposite of the beatitudes can help us to hear them more clearly. The beatitudes as Jesus lists them are a word of grace in the face of our own high expectations.  It’s human to disappoint other people and to be disappointed by them; to hurt and be hurt even as we love and are loved.  And it’s human to ignore grace and make statements like, “I’m a good person.”  Or, to turn it into a question, “Am I a good enough person?”  This question begs another question. Good enough for what?  Good enough for you to love me?  Good enough for me to love you?  Or maybe the question in its ultimate forms: Good enough for God to love you?  Good enough to be received by God and enfolded in the life of God?

I’ve been to four funerals in the last two weeks. One for an Augustana member, two for colleagues both just 67 years old, and one for a friend whose cancer had recurred. I’ve heard eulogy after eulogy, and homily after homily and I ended up pretty cranky after feeling too many deep feels. These were good people and deeply flawed people. Imperfect and beloved people. Sinner-saint people. People like you and me.

A son of one my departed colleagues is also a theology professor.[7] His eulogy for his dad dabbled in homily but, man, I’m so glad he did. He talked about his dad being “enfolded in the life of God.” He also said, “Death is not the enemy. Death can never unlive the life that is lived.”  I would add that death cannot unlove a life that is already loved.  In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[8] But I think it’s what we unintentionally do. We end up unloving lives that are already loved by creating purity codes and attaching the name of God to them. No quicker than that happens do we then turn those purity codes onto ourselves. Who could possibly measure up? I’ve talked to people who’ve been Lutheran all their lives, who have heard about the unconditional grace of God their whole lives, and who still doubt the full measure of God’s love as they breathe into their last days.

Just so we’re clear, the full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year?  God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out.  As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross. Whatever defense you’re inclined to create for yourself or someone else as a good-enough-person is unnecessary.  You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own.  In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[9]

Alleluia! And Amen!

__________________________________________________________

[1] Toni Tennille of the 1970’s and 80s singing duo ‘Captain and Tenille.’ https://www.tonitennille.net/biography/

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 3:3

[4] Kristen Jones Neff. “I Wanted My Son To Be Happy But On My Terms.” Grown & Flown: Parenting Never Ends. https://grownandflown.com/wanted-son-happy-my-terms/

[5] John Petty. Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday. ProgressiveInvolvement.com on October 30, 2017. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/10/all-saints-sunday-matthew-5-1-12.html

[6] Matthew 5:3-10

[7] Eric Daryl Meyer. Assistant Professor – Theology. Carroll College, Helena, Montana. https://www.carroll.edu/faculty/meyer-eric

[8] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[9] 1 John 3:2