Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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The Light on This Corner

Matthew 5:14-16 – February 5, 2017

matt-5-14-light-city-at-night

“The Light on This Corner”

Remember the holiday we celebrated here in this church, just a few weeks ago? The birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Foretold by prophets, welcomed by angels. I mean Christmas, the coming of God’s light into a dark world.

Just think about light, for a moment. When you walk into a dark house late at night, what is first thing you do? Turn on the lights. When the electricity shuts off during a power outage one dark and stormy night, what is the first thing you do? Find a flashlight or a candle and light it. Light is not only comforting, but useful. Light helps us in any number of ways. Helps us to see, allows us to work and read and go about our activities in what would otherwise be a dark and scary situation.

Jesus talked about light here in today’s Gospel reading, too. But before we get into His words about light, where does this reading coming from? These words are from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of His public ministry. Another way of looking at this long address is a long lecture on God’s view of a lot of things. Important things, with a lot of real-life illustrations.

Our bible study on Wednesday mornings has just started a study on the first verses of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, what comes just before these verses today. I won’t talk about the Beatitudes, since each sentence, each blessing of those deserves a whole sermon all by itself. We go on to these verses about salt and light, which the Rabbi Jesus places here, after the Beatitudes.       We could say more about salt (which is important, and tells us a lot about what Jesus thinks about the part we take in our world). However, I wanted to focus on Jesus’s words about Light. He says, You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

What did we sing right before the sermon started? “This Little Light of Mine.” When we held our lights up, do you know what that reminded me of? Remember back to Christmas Eve? For the closing hymn of that service, we sang “Silent Night.” We all held candles and sang. We held those candles as a symbol or sign of God’s light within each of us, God’s light that shines among us.

Jesus had a definite point to His words. We are light. Right now.

However, there is a definite temptation for many followers of Jesus. Some are tempted to make these words of Jesus a rigid requirement, as if Jesus were a stern, mean drill sergeant. Communicating with sarcasm, shaming. Shaking His finger at us and shouting, “You’d better be light!” Or a little less severe: “If you want to be light, do this!” Or even, “Before I call you light, I’ll need to see this from you.” [1]

Does that sound like Jesus? Truly? Would He ever use shame, guilt, and sarcasm?

That is most certainly not the way Jesus communicates here. As commentator David Lose says, “Rather, He says both simply and directly, “You are the light of the world.” It is, as with last week’s Beatitudes, sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning.” [2]

Dr. Lose reminds us of the statistics about a child’s self-esteem compared to what kind of messages they hear. When elementary-aged children hear one single negative message about themselves—like, “you’re mean!” “how stupid!” “you can’t do anything right!”—psychologists suggest that the children need to hear ten positive messages to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. [3] That is, to correct the internal emotional and psychological balance of the children, and cause them to have a positive, healthy self-image.

“Children, to put it another way, become what they are named. Call a child bad long enough, and he or she will believe you and act bad. Call a child (or teen or adult for that matter) worthless or unlovable or shameful, and eventually he or she — all of us! — will live into the name we’ve been assigned. In the same way, call us good or useful, dependable, helpful, or worthwhile, and we will grow into that identity and behavior as well.” [4]

That is exactly what Jesus is doing here! He is calling us—naming us—light. We are—all of us—light of the world. The light of a city on a hill, shedding light to the whole community. Yes, Jesus wants us to be that light. He is calling us to grow into that identity and behavior! That same light of God we held up on Christmas Eve? The light of God that came into the world as a Baby born in Bethlehem? This is the same light that Jesus is talking about here. It’s the light of a city on a hill, and the light for the nations, that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

We aren’t required to do ten impossible things before breakfast to just break even with God, and try to get in line for a chance to reach for the light. It isn’t hoping that someday, maybe, we might finally become that light. We aren’t hiding our lights under a bushel, either.

We are that light! Now! And, we are holding it high! Why? Because, Jesus says so!

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor from DeKalb, about an hour west of here in Morton Grove, has this real-life illustration about letting the light of God shine.

About two weeks ago, she met with the director of Hope Haven, the homeless shelter in DeKalb. The director told Pastor Hunt that the homeless shelter is the second largest housing facility in the county for the mentally ill (after the county jail for DeKalb County). Pastor Hunt was cut to the heart when the director told her the homeless shelter had to ration toilet paper, because of severe funding cuts. (Imagine, rationing even toilet paper.)

This is what Pastor Janet Hunt’s Lutheran congregation is going to do for the month of February. She said, “we will be collecting toilet paper and giving it to some of the most vulnerable among us. And maybe this will give us a way to begin a conversation about why it is so that the jail and the homeless shelter appear to be the only options in our neighborhood for people who are so fragile. Maybe we can start to shine light on this and them even in a time when too much of the world seems to care so little for such as these. And maybe that shining light will serve as both beacon and promise to our neighbors — both those who are so vulnerable and those who have extra toilet paper to share.” [5]

This might just be a little thing her church can do. Little to them, but huge to the people at the homeless shelter. This is surely a way to let the residents and the employees at Hope Haven know that someone cares. Someone is listening, and caring, and doing something.

Dr. Hunt’s illustration is a tremendous tie-in with Micah 6:8 from last week’s sermon! Do justice and love mercy/kindness/chesed for these homeless people in DeKalb, and shine the light of God. In the same way, we can let our lights (or, the Light of God) shine here in Morton Grove so that others will see it and rejoice. A city build on a hill shines its light for all to see. This church on this corner shines its light for all to see in this community, as well.

Where have you seen the light of God, lately? How can you let your light shine, today? How can you make a difference in someone’s life, even if it is small? I have a list of some kind, loving things you and I can do, each and every day. We can BE what Jesus calls us: light to the world. Light to our community. We can all live into God’s affirmation, trust, and love and BE God’s light to everyone we meet. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011. (Italics mine.)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=1543 “Salt and Light,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011

[5] http://dancingwiththeword.com/you-are-the-light-of-the-world/  “You Are the Light of the World,” Janet H Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)