Tag Archives: Matthew Skinner

Dinner Disrupted [OR Let’s Try the Mary and Martha Thing Again, Shall We?] Genesis 18:1-10a and Luke 10:38-42

**sermon art: All Are Welcome by Sieger Koder (1925-2015) German priest, writer, and artist

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 21, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Genesis 18:1-10a The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”

Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

[sermon begins]

 

Imagine your travel being dependent on who would welcome you into their home when you arrived in a new town.  No hotels exist.  You arrive hot and dusty at a random house and hope to high heaven that whoever lives there is having a good day.  The ancient world depended on this kind of hospitality.  When the three men showed up at Abraham’s, there was not a doubt that Abraham would feed them.  Now that could be because he saw the Lord in the three men. Regardless, hospitality was the first order of the day when strangers arrived.  Abraham and Sarah pulled out all the stops too – special cakes, tender veal, soothing milk, cool shade, and a warm welcome.  Just as everyone gets comfortable.  Something happens.  An announcement disrupts dinner.  It’s not the first time this announcement happens.  Sarah and Abraham are promised that they’ll have a child in their old age.  Dinner was disrupted by God’s promise that they’d heard before, that they wondered if it would ever happen, and that they didn’t control one single bit. Revelation over a meal is as commonplace now as it was then.  People are gathered already so why not make an announcement.

Growing up, my parents hosted weekly Sunday dinners for us and my adult step siblings.  As we aged, these were a little less than weekly but they still happened regularly.  I was living at home and going to Pasadena City College at the time of one such dinner.  There was the general chatter that accompanied those meals.  Then, there came the moment when everything changed.  Mom and Pops announced that they were moving to Australia with my younger sister Izzy.  Pops had found actuarial work down under in Sydney.  The house that I’d called home since 9 years old was to be rented.  The immediate thought in my head was, what about me?  After a bit of conversation passed while I remained silent, Mom looked at me and reported that Carl and Sharon were willing to have me rent the tiny home behind the their house when it was ready and that I would bunk with my stepsister Carol in her apartment in the meantime.  Such a strange thing to wonder what was going to happen, to have people tell you what was going to happen, and to not control a single thing about any of it.  Talk about dinner disrupted by a stunning revelation. So many of our lives changed after that announcement in more ways than we could imagine.

And, finally, we come to Martha’s moment of dinner hospitality disrupted by her own distraction and worry.  She welcomed Jesus and friends into her home in the ways of her ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah.  Her moment of welcome gets it right, by the way, in contrast to earlier in Luke when Jesus was asked to leave by the Gerasene gentiles and not received by the Samaritans.[1] From Martha’s welcome and other Bible stories, we know that the movement of the early church was solely dependent on the hospitality of local people in the places visited by Jesus and the disciples.[2] Not to mention much of the Apostle Paul’s travel as evidenced in his letters that made it into the Bible.  Hospitality was key to spreading the good news of Jesus, and Martha was spot on with her welcome from the get go.[3]  Let’s give her some credit where it’s due.

It’s what happened next that has busy, welcoming hosts everywhere beat up by unhelpful interpretations that leave the value of Martha’s work in question.  For those of you in that crowd, let’s agree that the role of the people who do welcoming work is critical.  Scripture tells us that there are many gifts of the Spirit when it comes to discipleship vocations.[4] The thing in question in this story is not about Martha’s work.  The question raised in this story is about Martha’s worry and distraction stirred up by Mary’s radical behavior in the other room that disrupts getting dinner ready.  The Gospel of Luke has an ongoing concern with worry.[5] Here again the question raised is about worry and about how Martha handles her aggravation by going to Jesus – creating a classic, unhelpful triangle to try and control the situation.  Who of us here today hasn’t done that very same thing?  Overwhelmed by our many tasks, we identify our problem as someone else rather than ourselves, and then we rope a third person into the mix and create an unhelpful triangle to get someone on our side and blow off steam.  Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”

Jesus doesn’t complete the triangle with her.  He keeps the focus on Martha rather than siding with her against Mary.  I hear so much compassion for Martha in his challenge to her.  Perhaps this lens of compassion is because of the Good Samaritan story that comes just before it, in which Jesus commands neighborly compassion.[6]  Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

It’s difficult for us to fully appreciate Mary’s radical action.  First century rabbis did not teach women.[7]  Mary’s posture likely mimics that of the men around her who were also listening to Jesus teach in postures of recognition, adoration, and submission.[8] Jesus is referred to as Lord three times in these four verses, highlighting his lordship.  Similarly to Sarah and Abraham, Martha’s dinner is disrupted by the Lord’s divine revelation. In both situations, the revelation disrupts social norms and promises something more than any of them can imagine.  For Sarah and Abraham, the promise of a child in their older age is inconceivable to them, both physically and intellectually, and is not something within their control.  For Martha and Mary, the promise that the Lord’s teaching is also for them and not something controlled by other people who would prevent it for reasons of gender or anything else.

Notice that Martha ends up receiving direct teaching from Jesus, too, differently than Mary, to be sure, but receives Jesus teaching nonetheless.  Jesus meets Martha where she is in her worry and distraction and offers her the “better part” too.  Both of these disciples are worth our reflection but NOT as a zero sum game where one wins and one loses.[9]  Both disciples receive the teaching they need to hear in the time and way they need to hear it.  Both receive the “better part” as they submit to Jesus’ lordship in word and deed. Martha welcomes him into her home and calls him Lord.  Mary sits at his feet, listens and learns. Both experience his direct teaching. Not only do they experience his teaching as a challenge to social norms of the day.  They experience a word from him that is directly for them – drawing them more deeply into discipleship, transforming their lives into ones that are ever more Christ-shaped.

Jesus also disrupts our shared dinner at the communion table with his word today – challenging the limited, critical view that we have of ourselves and others, transforming our hearts with compassion and for compassion, and focusing us on the better part.  For this and for all that God is doing, we can say, amen, and thanks be to God!

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Hymn of the Day following the Sermon.

ELW #770 Give Me Jesus (African American Spiritual)

1 In the morning when I rise,
in the morning when I rise,
in the morning when I rise,
give me Jesus.

Refrain:
Give me Jesus,
give me Jesus.
You may have all the rest,
give me Jesus.

2 Dark midnight was my cry,
dark midnight was my cry,
dark midnight was my cry,
give me Jesus. [Refrain]

3 Just about the break of day,
just about the break of day,
just about the break of day,
give me Jesus. [Refrain]

4 Oh, when I come to die,
oh, when I come to die,
oh, when I come to die,
give me Jesus. [Refrain]

5 And when I want to sing,
and when I want to sing,
and when I want to sing,
give me Jesus. [Refrain]

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Luke 8:37 and 9:53 as noted in ProgressiveInvolvement.org “Luke 10:38-42” for July 21, 2019. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/lectionary/

[2] Luke 8:1-3

[3] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Lutheran Seminary. Luke 10:38-42. Sermon Brainwave podcast for July 21, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1165

[4] Ephesians 4:11-16 and 1 Corinthians 12 (the whole chapter but especially vv27-31)

[5] Luke 12:22-34

[6] Luke 10:25-37

[7] Progressive Involvement Lectionary Study on Luke 10:38-42 for July 21, 2019. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/lectionary/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matthew Skinner, ibid.

 

Entering the Easter Mystery [OR Life, Joy and Suffering] Luke 24:1-12

**sermon art: Resurrection by He Qi

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

[sermon begins]

Oh, these women – “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James and the others.” The things they’ve witnessed as part of Jesus’ ministry, especially in the last few days. They watched Jesus hang on a cross.  They watched Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus off the cross and put him in the tomb. They made a mental list of the spices and ointments with which they’d return after resting on the Sabbath “according to the commandment.”[1]  The women were faithful, courageous, and diligent through the previous days of tragedy, confusion, and grief.  When so many disciples fled, or otherwise fell apart, these women remained.  Here, Easter Sunday, at the tomb they face more confusion.  They had seen Jesus’ body laid in the tomb so they were ready for the dismal task of using those spices and ointments. Instead, they encounter a couple of razzle dazzle dudes of the divine kind. Luke uses the word dazzle to convey their divinity.  The women’s reaction signifies the same thing.  Rather than looking at the “two men in dazzling clothes,” the women bow their faces to the ground.

What the two dazzling men do next is fairly ordinary. They remind the women about what Jesus told them when he was alive.  Their reminder connects the women’s experience to and from the cross.  And, ohhhhh, now the confusion begins to clear a bit. The women witnessed ungodly violence and sift their experiences through what Jesus said before he died and through what the two dazzling dudes in the tomb are saying now which starts to help make some sense of things.  Which is the way that life generally works.  We hear something that gives our experience a new or different meaning– not explaining the grief away or making heinous suffering magically better, but reframing suffering and grief in a way that feels like a gift.

This gift is no small thing.  An old friend of mine recently gave me The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, in which they reflect on joy and suffering from their respective traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Anglican Christianity.[2]  Neither they nor any of us here has to go very far personally or culturally to find tragedy, confusion, and grief. From arson destroyed black churches in Louisiana, to the immigrant crisis, to the 20th anniversary of Columbine, to whatever you’d like to add to the list, we totally get tragedy, confusion and grief.  We get it deep in our guts. The point of the book, besides the sheer delight of listening to these two wizened elders, is to help the reader see the possibility of living in deep joy even though we experience suffering. Sounds nice.  Actually a little better than nice.  And lots better than how we often handle suffering.  Suffering makes it easier to indulge in the sizzle-and-fizzle cycle of dopamine by way of food, alcohol, nicotine, or online zines.  The problem with the sizzle-and-fizzle cycle is that, by definition, it becomes repetitive.  We wrap ourselves up in them and entomb ourselves in the very things we think bring comfort.  Tombs of our own making that isolate us from each other and steal our joy.

Take Jesus’ apostles who weren’t at the tomb with the women.  Having been through the confusion and grief of the last three days and thinking Jesus was still in the tomb, the apostles were hiding out, wondering if they were next up for the death penalty.  When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the others shared what they had heard, the apostles called it an “idle tale” (the G-rated translation of that Greek word, by the way). Except…except…there’s the apostle Peter.  The very same Peter who denied that he knew Jesus three times during Jesus’ crucifixion trial.  It doesn’t add up that Peter would run to the tomb if he thought the women were telling an idle tale.  Or perhaps he was more concerned that the women were telling the truth.  Peter would likely wonder what his friend Jesus would have to say about Peter falling apart during that time of trial.  It could be hope or fear or maybe a little of both that sent Peter running.

Regardless, Peter’s room to tomb dash was dependent on the women’s story.  That can be a frustrating thing about resurrection faith.  We have no access to it outside of the witness of other people, the witness of the wider church.[3]  Like Peter, we’re dependent on other people for resurrection faith.  Like Peter looking into the tomb himself, ultimately the witness of the church is not enough and people have their own encounters with Jesus and the empty tomb. The point where our individual experiences connect with the resurrection faith of the church is part of what the empty tomb is about. Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Peter, we do not solve the mystery, we enter the mystery of resurrection faith – God bringing us through cross and tomb into new life because we are God’s children, broken and beloved.

New life literally abounds as Easter and Spring happen simultaneously this year.  Perennials pop up green and budding while birds fly back to our latitude for nesting.  Perhaps your suffering, confusion, and grief make it difficult to see life at all.  Sometimes our lives don’t align with the season of the earth or the season of the church. The prayers, practices, and people of the church’s resurrection faith cocoon us while we grieve or heal. Siblings in Christ pray for us when we can’t pray at all – as the risen body of Christ for each other and for the world. The good news of Easter reminds us that God does not leave us alone – the dazzling men in the tomb reminded the women that Jesus had told them this good news already; the apostles heard the good news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the others; and today, Easter Sunday, we share the good news with each other.  Our suffering is joined by the risen Christ who knows suffering, who rolls open the tombs we make for ourselves, and draws us into new life given to us by the risen Christ.  God brings us through cross and tomb into the joy of new life solely because we are beloved children of God.  Unconditionally beloved.  There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us anymore or any less. This is how it works. Thanks be to God for new life!  Alleluia!

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 23:50-56

[2] Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. (New York: Avery, 2016).

[3] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Podcast on Bible readings for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1129

When Beauty Sustains [Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 50:1-6, and Romans 12:1-2]

**sermon image celebrates nature’s beauty through the photography of Jim Doty

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Psalm 50:1-6 The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. 3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. 4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. (Selah)

Romans 12:2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[sermon begins]

The Transfiguration readings from Mark and Psalm 50 have me thinking about beauty. Specifically the beauty of God that breaks through whatever normal thing is happening. The moments just before the transfiguration are normal enough. In Colorado, we might call it a hike among friends.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. They barely bag the peak when the light show begins.  Dazzling them and even terrifying them.[1]  Psalm 50 brings up the perfection of beauty and God shining through. The word perfection in this Hebrew usage means all-in-all or complete which has parallels to telos in Biblical Greek.[2]  The Psalmist refers to Zion as the conduit of beauty through which “God shines forth.”[3]

Beauty is thorny.  We often suspect that beauty is contrived or exploited for gain. I’ve met many people who are suspicious of the aesthetics of beauty because they’re troubled about who sets the definitions and principles of what is beautiful. Here’s what I suggest for today. Let’s let the Transfiguration guide us. The Transfiguration is a dazzling, terrifying moment that surprises the disciples. Peter, James, and John are thrown off-balance to the point that Peter wings out an absurd building plan to sustain the moment. But it seems that it’s not about sustaining the dazzling moment of beauty. It seems that the dazzling moment of beauty is about sustaining them.

Pastor Ann asked us a question last week out of the Isaiah reading.[4]  How does faith sustain you in the weary places?  Today, the Transfiguration shifts that question ever so slightly to wonder how glimpses of God’s beauty sustain us through Lent.[5] Ash Wednesday arrives in three days.  For today, tomorrow, and the next, I’m inviting us into a transfiguration not of our own making – a beauty makeover, a transformation of a different sort.  Because I think this is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  The word for transformed is a Greek word rarely used in the New Testament – only 4 times.[6] It’s translated “transfiguration” in Mark and Matthew; it’s translated transformed in Romans and in 2 Corinthians.  Let’s play with moments of God’s beauty that might transfigure us, renewing our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Here’s one such moment. I was talking with a friend early last week about this idea of God’s beauty surprising us. He was one week into teaching a two-week technical class that includes electrical safety and the like out at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. He told me about a class moment during which a woman’s attention was drawn to a book underneath her desk rather than on the class discussion. Stopping the class, he asked the woman what she was reading. Turns out it was the Bible. She had been to a worship service the evening before and wanted to keep going. My friend’s exact words to describe that moment were, “Beauty tore into life to dominate the day.” Poor class behavior notwithstanding, this woman’s Jesus moment would not be thwarted. My friend saw a glimpse of God’s sustaining beauty in that moment.

Here’s another one.  Last Sunday, our youngest choir called the Cherub Choir sang a song called, “God has made me wonderful.” What made it beautiful was not harmonious brilliance. The beauty was their exuberance in singing the message and the fact that they were singing the message at all. I would hasten to bet that the thought bubbles that pop up over your heads during the week about yourself and other people don’t exactly echo “God has made me wonderful.” Think about what does pop up in those thought bubbles in the grocery aisle, in the hallways, and in traffic. Now is probably not the best time for the turn-to-your-neighbor and have a conversation on that topic. When those kids were singing last week, it was a glimpse of the beauty of God. So much so that the beauty of it intruded my mind several times during the week.

Surprising glimpses of God’s beauty are pure gift that transfigure us, sustaining us in dark times. This is not to be confused with putting on rose-colored glasses to avoid bad news or the pain of trauma. This is about God’s beauty that sustains us through the pain. There is a centuries old Christian practice of iconography that trains the mind’s eye to see the beauty of God revealed in the world. Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians are so named, was no iconoclast.[7] He did not support or encourage the destruction of religious images and icons the way other 16th century reformers did. Icons were simply one more way to catch glimpses of God’s beauty in the world. They are paintings that often feature Christ or the infant Jesus and his mother Mary or other ancestors of the faith. They’re painted with precious metals and have many meanings painted into them by way of color, clothes, hand positions, halos, and more. I have a couple small icons in my home. One is of Mary and the baby Jesus. This icon hangs next to a crucifix so that I can regularly reflect on the mess and the beauty of the incarnation of God from a mother’s body in tension with the suffering of God on a cross. Icons engage the senses and imagination preparing the faithful to see the image of God in the world.[8]  The in-breaking of God’s image, God’s beauty that surprises and transfigures us.

Pictures that flood social media very often include sunsets, sunrises, mountains, trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Christians believe that nature in all its glory reveals the glory of God.[9] Referring to nature as creation reveals it as another icon of sorts – revealing God’s provision of food and water as well as the beauty of God that surprises, inspires, terrifies, and ultimately sustains. I believe that the beauty of God sustains us, my friends. But I also believe that sharing our glimpses of the beauty of God sustains other people especially when we see it in them. At a time when despair nips at our own heels and overwhelms people we love, we offer by faith the glimpses of God’s beauty that we experience by grace. Whether through prison Bible reading, a song by young children, or the icon of creation, God breaks through with glimpses of beauty so compelling, so dazzling, that we cannot look away.  Not only can we not look away, but we are sustained through bad news and trauma.

God has made you wonderful. You are living icons through whom God’s beauty is revealed and sustains. Be at peace. The light of Christ shines in you.[10] Thanks be to God. And Amen.

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[1] Mark 9:3 and 6

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair in Scripture, Theology, and Ministry at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[3] Psalm 50:2

[4] Isaiah 40:31

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[6] Bible Hub. “3339. μεταμορφόω (metamorphoó).” Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18   http://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_3339.htm

[7] Anthony Ugolnik. The Illuminating Icon. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989), 59.

[8] Ugolnik, 61

[9] Romans 1:20

[10] This phrase is part of the worship liturgy called the Dismissal during this Sundays after Epiphany.

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.

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[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

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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.