How to Wait

Lesson: Matthew 25:1-13

This morning I am deeply grateful that this is not the only parable about the Kingdom of God. I’m grateful for the mustard seed and the yeast, and for the other wedding described just a couple of chapters earlier in Matthew where the king sends his servants out into the highways and byways to invite everyone they can find to the great feast. I’m glad there are other ways to describe God’s Kingdom that don’t involve bridesmaids and oil and doors that lock half of us out, just because we’re a little late.

Often one or the other of my daughters will ask what I’m preaching on Sunday. When I told them about the parable of the ten bridesmaids they both had the same question. “Why did they have to have their own lamps?” If I had a flashlight and you didn’t, you’d just walk with me, right? We’d get along just fine by the light of one flashlight. “Good question,” was the best I could come up with. This parable raises many questions like this. If for some reason they couldn’t share the lamps, then why not share the oil? Isn’t sharing what we’re supposed to be doing? The lesson of the loaves and fishes, as you’ll recall, was not, “There were only five loaves and two fish so a few people ate and everyone else went hungry – too bad for you if you didn’t bring your own lunch.” So why isn’t sharing the point here? Why were the young women sent off to buy oil at midnight to a store that was probably closed? Can you ever really be too late – too late for the Kingdom of God? Why the closed door – where’s the hospitality and grace in that? Why is it the bridesmaids who suffer, just because this bridegroom is late? You’d think that having to buy a dress you’re never going to wear again and wearing dyed-to-match shoes is punishment enough.

We aren’t told why this bridegroom is late but we know the parable was actually put in written form fifty or so years after the Resurrection, when the early church was expecting Christ to return at any moment, but it was taking much longer than they’d hoped. It’s possible that the focus of this parable may have shifted because of the church’s concern that the bridegroom – Christ, that is – was delayed. In this time of anxious waiting, the early church uses this parable to say just that: There’s been a delay. Don’t be surprised, don’t panic, and don’t give up. It doesn’t mean our faith is pointless.

Fast forward a couple of millennia. We’re still waiting. The church still affirms that there will come a time when God’s plans for us are fulfilled, when the kingdom is not just partial but whole and real and all the biblical promises that they shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks[1] will come to fruition. Longing for and looking forward to that fulfillment is what the season of Advent is all about; it’s when we notice that we are not there yet. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.” We are not there yet. In the meantime, we respond to God’s invitation to be a part of God’s coming kingdom – but it is a slow kingdom coming.

So what do these bridesmaids and their story have to say to those of us who wait? It’s the bridesmaids who were equipped to deal with the long haul, with the marathon, that were deemed wise. And somehow, even though it’s not a perfect analogy, that oil is supposed to represent something we can’t share. Something we have to do for ourselves.

This past weekend a handful of us were at the annual presbytery retreat at Westminster Woods. One of the retreat leaders said on Friday that a weakness of our tradition is that we don’t focus on practices, even though we know that anything we want to do well takes practice. He pointed out Alice Graham, who was knitting, and said if you want to knit like Alice it will take you more than an evening. You have to practice. We live in a culture of the quick fix, but to be equipped to deal with the long haul, the marathon of the slow kingdom coming, we need to practice. We need practices.

In his book, Slow Kingdom Coming, author Kent Annan[2] sets out five faithful practices that can help sustain us for the marathon of waiting and participating in the coming kingdom.[3] These practices help us to be committed to deep instead of shallow change, to making a long-term difference instead of settling for quick fixes that don’t last. Together the five practices add up to “Keep awake!”

The first practice is “attention,” which means awakening to the situations in the world that cry out for justice. People awaken to injustice in all sorts of ways: friends, mission trips, travel to other countries, work with marginalized groups, reading books and seeing films. Here at First Presbyterian Church, many of our Sunday Seminars serve to awaken us to justice issues we might not encounter in our daily lives. The practice of attention means choosing what we read, choosing to whom we might listen, choosing to take trips or put ourselves in situations in which we might hear or see what we otherwise would not. Recently several church members participated in a local project called “Race Matters.” Choosing to participate in this kind of project is practicing attention.

Now, this kind of paying attention, this kind of waking isn’t easy. Some people find it so hard to see other people’s pain that they just deny it. I recently signed onto Nextdoor, the neighborhood online bulletin board, because a church member told me there was a huge kerfuffle about the scarecrows on San Anselmo Avenue. Some people thought the scarecrows were creepy, as in haunted house creepy, while others thought they were creepy, as in reminiscent of a lynching creepy. The back and forth continued all week – as far as I know it may still be going on. Some people said, “Look, even if they don’t bother you personally, if any person of color feels less welcome on our streets we need to rethink our Halloween decorations” – and there were statements from people of color that these scarecrows were, indeed, a problem. Others said, “If it doesn’t bother me, it shouldn’t bother anybody, and you’re too sensitive. Get over it.” And some people even got ugly about it.  The practice of attention is what’s called for here.

If we pay attention, we might hear the voices of people we’ve never heard before; we might begin to realize how deep and wide the problems are. This can be overwhelming; there’s so much pain and suffering in the world and we cannot address all of it. And so part of the “attention” practice is focusing our efforts – if we don’t, we’ll accomplish little. I like Annan’s simple suggestion for a focusing practice. Sit with God for five minutes, and ask yourself, “What breaks my heart?” When I think about what’s going on in the world, what is the first thing that comes to me that breaks my heart?

When we pay attention, we might recognize our own complicity with the way things are. That is why Annan’s second practice is confession. The third practice is respect. Respect means the ability to see one another across our inevitable differences. Aid worker Joelle McNamara describes being in East Africa when a shipment of shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child arrived for a cluster of local children. A young boy pried open his shoebox to find a plastic Slinky. He had no clue what to do with it. Recognizing the boy’s confusion, a local pastor swooped in and both pastor and child tinkered for a moment. Swinging it clumsily around his neck and fastening it under his chin, the pastor let out an amused chuckle at his new piece of American jewelry, courtesy of Operation Christmas Child.

“Yes, the result is a little bit comically terrible,” says McNamara, founder of a Kenya-based development organization. Since her first visit to East Africa as a teenager, McNamara says her understanding of God’s generosity has evolved. Her dreams of feeding the poor and saving people from poverty slowly fell apart as she encountered people who weren’t looking for food or toys, but rather for sustainable employment and the means to utilize their own power and gifts to support their own families. “Being generous requires us to dedicate profound thought to what the person receiving our generosity actually needs,” McNamara says. “So often, the church makes generosity synonymous with the free giving of stuff …. I’ve seen Westerners come in and drop off a whole bunch of stuff – toys, free food, tons of clothes. Typically it’s not useful, they’re paying way too much for overseas shipping and suddenly the local food or clothing vendors don’t make their living for the week, and those are important jobs for struggling communities.” Respect, on the other hand, means listening – listening to what people genuinely need and want.

The fourth practice – partnering – helps prevent misguided generosity because it means not swooping in to rescue or save but actually partnering with people in a way that assumes we all need to learn and receive and we all have something to give. It also means going upstream – not just applying Band-Aids to problems but addressing the sources and causes of poverty and injustice. That, of course, takes longer, and requires more thought, effort and patience.

Annan’s fifth practice is what he calls “truthing” – seeing the truth of what’s right in front of our noses. What are the real impacts of our ministry? For example, as much as we treasure extending hospitality at our REST shelter during the winter months, people are coming to recognize that the efforts of churches like ours allows Marin County to avoid coming up with better, more just and more lasting solutions. So “truthing” means asking the question: What ministries, what actions, actually bear fruit?

Five practices, all designed to help us to “Keep awake” while we wait. Still, we can grow weary in our work – maybe it’s more accurate to say we will grow weary in our work, frustrated by the lack of outcomes we see, or distracted by the thousand and one other obligations that fill each of our lives. I think on any given day, each of us might feel like a foolish bridesmaid. And yet, the opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us, and that is what we, the church, are good at doing. Each time we work for justice, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.[4]

That is why we gather here. Church is the place where we can find help and support in our waiting – all kinds of waiting! – and support as we try to live into God’s kingdom. This Tuesday, November 14th, is the 120th anniversary of the founding of this congregation. Paraphrasing the quotation on your bulletin covers: 120 years of being those who wait for each other – wise and foolish alike. 120 years of being those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. 120 years as those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. 120 years of giving hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. 120 years of helping each other wake up and then stay awake to the reality of Christ’s presence in our midst and Christ’s call upon our lives. For decades, our congregation’s motto has been, “Together we serve.” It started when Johnny Holm used it to sign off on correspondence, and it stuck. It stuck because it fit.

We are those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith by serving – by serving each other with our care and presence and by serving beyond the doors of the church. We serve because there is something in our DNA that knows, that just knows that serving is the best way, the Christ-like way to wait. When one of us grows weary the others pick up the tasks. Together we serve.

How do we wait? These words from our mission study 8 years ago sum it up: “Our mission is to uplift and sustain all those seeking to grow in Christian faith through worship, community, service, and mindful stewardship of all God’s creation. Together we serve.” Together. We serve. That is how we wait. May it so for you and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3-4.

[2] Annan is also and co-director of a ministry in Haiti called Haiti Partners.

[3] Kent Annan, Slow Kingdom Coming (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

[4] David Lose, “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” November 3, 2014, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/.

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