This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Be Prepared.

Matthew 25:1-13.

Sometimes in Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God you have to wonder if it’s a place you really want to go to.  Matthew 25 has these three incredibly powerful parables that he delivers just before he is betrayed and arrested and killed, and they are very disturbing.  I mean this one, about the prudent and foolish girls waiting for the bridegroom to come to his wedding, it sounds pretty tame until you start thinking about it.           
The lesson in verse 13 is, “Keep awake.”  But they all fell asleep.  So why isn’t the lesson, “Be prepared”?  Why are the foolish girls treated so harshly for their mistake?  Shouldn’t the prudent girls be encouraged to share their oil, instead of being so selfish and sending their friends off to the store in the middle of the night to buy some?  Why doesn’t the Bridegroom at least apologize for being late?
It seems like the closer he gets to the end of his earthly ministry, the darker and less compromising are Jesus’ parables.  And the Kingdom of God sounds less like the wonderful treasure found in an empty lot, and less like the home of an endlessly patient Father, and more like an obstacle course where only the strong survive.
The Lord tolerates no slackers, no forgetfulness, no absent-minded distractions, no cowardice or weakness.  Jesus is looking over into the abyss, he approaches death, his words smoke with apocalyptic imagery.  He has just finished a couple of chapters fulled with invective against the religious establishment, thus sealing his own death warrant.  And from this perspective the Kingdom of God starts to look more like the forbidding, moated fortress that Christian comes to at the end of Pilgrim’s Progress, with a door that can only be opened from within to those who have proven themselves worthy. 
In these last three parables Jesus emphasizes the awesome weight of responsibility, and the magnitude of the stakes involved.  This particular parable reminds me of the even more uncomfortable one where he says “to those who have will more be given, but to those who have not even what they have will be taken away.”  In this case, he means that you have to make sure you have enough oil in your lamp to last the whole night.  The flame must be fed continually, and you can’t assume the bridegroom will come early at your convenience.
Not only that, but you cannot expect even your friends to share their oil with you because they should not be asked to jeopardize their own attendance at the wedding banquet.  It is your responsibility to have enough fuel to last.  Because in this case how well you prepare for this bridegroom and this wedding banquet will show conclusively what is really inside of you and that is all that matters.  And you will have to face it and there’s no second chances.

My father once told me about a funeral he did.  It was for a young person who died suddenly.  The family were technically members of the church, but they were not active.  If they came twice a year that was pretty good.
When the person died, the family members were disconsolate.  My father went to visit them.  And they exhibited some characteristics of the stages of grief: bargaining, anger, denial, and so forth.  But at some point someone asks him where God is and why isn’t God being of more assistance to them in their hour of need.  Why is God so absent?
Later, reflecting with me on this situation, he expressed more frustration about people who think that coming to church twice a year is going to give them the inner resources they need to deal with an emergent crisis like a premature death in the family.
You can’t expect to play well in a golf tournament if you only play twice a year.  You can’t expect to be a soloist in a concert if you only take out the instrument twice a year.  You can’t expect a marriage to survive if you only express love to each other twice a year.  You can’t expect to understand current events if you only read the newspaper twice a year.  Why do we think we will be able to handle a spiritual crisis just fine if we only have even minimal contact with the Spirit twice a year?  Attending church twice a year is just not enough to feed the flame of your own faith.  
Some things you can do infrequently because all you need is a periodical tune-up.  Go to the dentist; have your eyes checked; get the car inspected; clean out the gutters; that sort of thing.
But other things need constant care and maintenance.  Faith is just one of those things that is like a burning lamp: if you don’t keep adding more oil to replace the oil that has been burned, it will eventually fizzle out.
These folks were totally unable to deal with their sorrow, and they wondered why it was so hard.  But they hadn’t given themselves enough oil.  Their flame was allowed to sputter out. 
You have to make sure you have enough oil, which is to say that you have to keep the flame of faith alive in your heart all the time.  You just can’t wait for disaster to strike and think that your faith can all of a sudden be rekindled into a flame strong enough for you to get through it.  It doesn’t happen that way.
You can’t wait until the blackout strikes before you decide to go and buy batteries for your flashlight.  The stores will be sold out of batteries, as I can testify from bitter recent experience.  The batteries have to be in place and tested before the power goes out.  The power source needs to be always available.
And if it’s not, it’s not God’s fault.  God is not merciless and cruel because God doesn’t automatically suspend the laws of time and space in order to accommodate your shortsightedness or your denial about what will necessarily happen.

When the time comes close for a baby to be born, the prospective parents keep an overnight bag packed and ready at all times.  They know the baby is coming, they just don’t know exactly when.  If the mother goes into labor and the bag is not packed, and due to this unreadiness she has to deliver in a taxi-cab... the baby, when she gets to be about 14, will be justified in asking, “What were you thinking?”
But most parents are prepared because they eagerly await the baby, they want to welcome the baby, they are called to be parents, this arrival will be the joyful focus of their whole lives.  The baby can’t come soon enough, at least for the mother, in most cases.
You read the baby-care books, you take the Lamaze classes, you join the new parents’ support group, you paint the nursery and buy furniture, you have a baby-shower, you finally buy some life insurance... you do all these things so that when the baby finally comes you are ready!  Or at least as ready as you can be.
And you enjoy getting ready because you are looking forward to this blessed event.  You make sure you have more oil than you’re ever going to need for this particular lamp.  You don’t want to have to go door to door in your neighborhood at three o’clock some morning, carrying a screaming infant, asking your neighbors if you might borrow some baby formula.
The prudent girls had enough oil because they were anticipating a happy event and they didn’t want to miss it.  They were thinking ahead because they wanted to go to this banquet and nothing was more important to them. 
The foolish girls, on the other hand... well, maybe they really didn’t want to be there in the first place.  Maybe they harbored some resentment or jealousy towards the Bridegroom and had no reason to be as careful.  Maybe they were too busy that day to get to the store.  Maybe they put it off or just forgot to get oil.  Or maybe they didn’t think he was really going to show up, and perhaps that would have been okay with them. 
Maybe they were betting he was going to come much earlier, before they ran out of oil.  But that is a risk you don’t take when you really care about something.  If you want World Series tickets, you don’t put it off and assume something will be available at game time.  No, you get to the box office 20 hours early and camp out in your sleeping bag.
But you see, all of these excuses mean, in effect, that they didn’t care.  At least they didn’t care enough.  It wasn’t the most important thing in their lives that they get into this wedding banquet, because if it were they would not have neglected to have enough oil.  Indeed, they would have had gallons of oil and even spare wicks, matches, and a spare lamp, just in case.

The point is perpetual readiness.  You have to be able to function in the darkness.  You need enough of the oil of spiritual practice to feed the flame of your faith.  You just can’t start praying, reading the Bible, and going to church when things get difficult, and expect it to be immediately effective.
But you know what the whole thing is predicated upon?  You have to know that the Bridegroom is coming.  Not only that, but you have to know that the Bridegroom is coming and it will be great!  It will be worth the sacrifice.  It will be worth sleeping on the pavement outside the box office.  It will be worth lugging extra oil around, or spare batteries.
That’s what we sophisticated, modern folks have so much trouble with.  We lack this conviction that the Day is coming, the end of the world, the completion of creation, the goal of history.  We think it’s going to be like this forever... or at least for our lifetime.
But listen: not only is it not going to be like this forever; it’s not even like this now.  The world is not what we think and perceive it is.  We see a tiny corner of reality, and even that we see unclearly.  The end of the world, the Kingdom of God, is right next to you, within you, all around you.  It is, as Jesus says, “At hand.”
In the meantime, while we wait for the fullness of the dawn, we carry these lamps to remind us of the light and to give us a piece of that light in advance.  The lamp we have is our faith, and it is fed by the things God has given us to do which anticipate Christ’s coming.  When we hear the Word we are listening to some of that light.  When we celebrate the Sacraments we are envisioning the coming daybreak.  When we offer prayers to God we are opening our eyes all the wider to absorb the sunrise to come.
These are the oil we need to keep the flame of faith, and hope, and love, alive in our hearts.  They constitute the fuel of our spiritual life.  Without them, we descend into darkness so deep that even the Bridegroom’s dawn can take forever to find us.             
But with them we are ready to awaken to the call, “Here is the Bridegroom!  Come out to meet him!”

1 comment:

Rev. Dr. Tom Blair said...

I'll keep this one around for my 2014 file....