Scripture – Matthew 25:1-13 – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost/Stewardship Week 2 – Nov. 12, 2017
Right near the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 13 in Craig, Colorado sits a restaurant which serves breakfast all day long. It is frequented by locals, truckers, hunters during that season and was visited by yours truly two weeks ago when we were out there visiting my husband Doug’s parents. This restaurant is a large establishment, lots of booths and tables, big windows; imagine a spacious 1960s structure akin to a pancake house. We were there about 10:30 in the morning to catch up with a relative over breakfast. I tell you that it was 10:30 because it was not rush hour – right about that time, about half the booths and tables were occupied with retirees, young moms with their babes and visitors maybe on vacation like us.
We were waited on almost as soon as we sat down. Our orders were taken, the waters and coffees came right away and we began to engage in conversation. After some time we remarked to each other that it had been awhile since we had ordered and from our booth we could see the window to the kitchen and the waitresses waiting there. Figuring it wouldn’t be that much longer, we got back into our visit but then after several more minutes, we checked our watches and saw that it had been an hour since we had arrived. Doug tried the usual strategy to make the food arrive and headed off to the rest room. He came back to our still bare table. I looked around the dining room and noticed that very few, like maybe only one table were actually eating and they had been there when we arrived. We began craning our necks to check on the activity at the kitchen window and, of course, no matter how many times our waitress walked by our booth, there was no chance at eye contact. We considered leaving the restaurant altogether as it began to approach lunch time, but we had already invested enough of ourselves and our time that we knew going somewhere else would now take that much longer.
So I decided to visit the rest room to make the food arrive. The rest room was clear across the entire restaurant and as I returned I couldn’t help but notice that none of the tables had any food on them. All the patrons were engaged in conversation and didn’t seem to notice at all. By that time, I was rather agitated and came back to the table and announced incredulously and loud enough for all to hear, “No one has their food!” Shortly afterwards, our orders arrived with nary a nod to their tardiness nor an apology. We ate our fill; it was good enough but hardly worth the wait. What was noticeable to me was that no one else in the place seemed to mind at all!
Later when we recounted our adventure to Doug’s parents, whom we knew to be very frequent patrons (because there just aren’t very many restaurants in Craig, CO), they said, “Oh, we don’t go there anymore. They’re too slow!” And Doug’s Dad commented, “They’ve got slow down to a science.”
There are a lot of Christians in the world, from today all the way back to Matthew’s community some 1900-2000 years ago, who think Jesus has “slow down to a science”. Our reading this morning, which is unique to the Gospel of Matthew, falls a little past midway in Jesus’ two-chapter discourse on the end times. He is speaking to his disciples privately atop the Mount of Olives because they have sought him out to get the inside scoop on when all this sudden coming in glory is going to go down. In Chapter 24 they ask, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Rev. Kate Matthews writes that “we assume they want to be prepared, but maybe (like us) they just don’t want to have to prepare any sooner than absolutely necessary.”
Scholars agree that Jesus’ parable is a pretty straightforward allegory, with the bridegroom representing Jesus and the bridesmaids the faith community, consisting “of both faithful authentic disciples and ‘pseudodisciples’” as one author describes; the bridegroom’s delay and then midnight appearance speaking to the unexpected time of Christ’s return, the wedding banquet the joy of the kingdom of heaven and the shut door the finality of the final judgment. The final judgment is final.
What we’re left with then, as Professor Mark Douglas writes, is the question about the authority of this text today. He queries: “Does the text gain authority or lose it as we enter a third millennium of waiting?” I see three things we need to lift up and notice and focus upon:
1) Rather than get caught up in a hyper-vigilance around the “when” of Christ’s second coming, as evidenced in novels and movies and predictions, we should focus on his delay – that’s where we are and that’s all we can address.
2) We need to notice that all ten bridesmaids fell asleep – not just the foolish ones. They all fell asleep as the bridegroom was significantly delayed. So falling asleep as we wait is not the issue.
3) What made the wise ones different was their anticipating the possibility of a delay and their readiness for it – bringing enough oil. What is our “oil” as we find ourselves smack-dab in this multiple-millennia delay? How do we equip ourselves so that when the hour does come, even if we are asleep, we’ll be ready to follow Christ into the banquet? So that we will not find ourselves outside the door, out of time, out of oil, out of good intentions, eternally punished by our procrastination?
Perhaps the best general guidance on our predicament is summed up in this statement by Father Thomas Stegman of Boston College. As we witness the foolish bridesmaids calling upon God to open the door, “Lord, lord, open to us,” Father Stegman observes: “The negative example of the foolish maidens makes poignantly clear that being a Christian in name only is insufficient.” This is consistent with Jesus’ exhortation to us last week as he criticized the hypocrisy of the fancy Pharisees, telling us to sincerely and humbly practice what we’ve been taught and not just give it lip service. To get real.
Father Stegman is the same professor who tells us that because they were prepared, the wise bridesmaids were able to go to sleep. We all know that peace of mind and the resultant easier sleep that comes at night when we’ve made preparations for the next day. Maybe the lunches are made, the shirt is ironed, the coffee timer is set – we’re ready for the next day. Those are the preparations which enable us to respond to the 6:30 am seemingly out-of-nowhere request for cupcakes for the classroom that day. We’re already ready. We got this.
So what of the “oil”? I love how Tom Long puts it: “Five of the young women had sense enough, then, not to be ready for the groom, but …for the groom’s delay.” Our oil signifies our resources to sustain us throughout the delay. I saw that oil in those patrons in the slow restaurant on Colorado Highway 13. They knew it would take a long time. While I was in full anxiety mode focused on when breakfast would arrive, they were all prepared for the delay, sipping their coffee, engaging in casual conversation, knowing those eggs would show up eventually.
The oil signifies our keeping faith,” living in hope… living confidently and expectantly, trusting that the Lord of history continues to come into life with compassion and redemption and hope.” Rev. Kate Matthews cites the Greatest Commandment as our oil: actively loving God and actively loving neighbor. She says, “This kind of living isn’t sitting around and waiting; it’s active and fully engaged in the present moment, as we trust in a future that is in God’s hands, even if the timing of that future is unknown to us.”
Several weeks ago now, actually months ago, when I first saw that this text would be read on the second Sunday of our stewardship campaign, I thought – easy, breezy, perfect! We have a church to maintain; we don’t want to get caught without enough resources; we literally don’t want to run out of oil, heating oil, cash, reserves – we need to be ready for the church of the future by having the sense enough to pledge from our first fruits, not just for this coming year’s budget but some extra for that unexpected day or hour when a computer dies or a kitchen appliance fails. But my forced concentration on the Greatest Commandment this season tells me more. Yes, we need to pay the bills, but we need to remember, too, not just whose we are or where we are, but “when” we are: living in the midst of the delay of the bridegroom – during a time when we look out at the world and see the condition of it and long for Christ’s return AND then being faced with having to rely on our faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other AND our trying to live out that faith by being the only place where the Greatest Commandment is our core mission and, we pray, an example of hope to those floundering in our troubled world. We don’t just need this church, my friends, the world needs this church.
We need faith, common sense, and endurance but not to get us through the present time to the end, but from the present time to “the doorway to the new – the new age, the new creation”, the wedding banquet through the other side of that door. Professor Douglas reminds us all of the good news as we endure in faith. Take this in: “…this is not as good as it gets…the bridegroom’s delay does not mean he will not come and…the party will not really start until he arrives.” Keep awake, my friends, and keep the faith. Amen.