Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Know What to Know

A Communion Meditation

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011

Mark 13:24-37

But about that day or hour no ones knows...

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

The television interviewer, having taken a full 90 seconds to plumb the depths of some complicated issue like abortion or the Supreme Court nominating process with two people representing opposing viewpoints, turns to one and says, “We’re just about out of time. George, in the 15 seconds we have left, just what is the future of Western civilization as you see it?”

“We’re just about out of time.” If we think of it as more than a code phrase from television, meaning a commercial is coming soon, it sounds just a little ominous, doesn’t it? How does being near the end change things? How much time do we get, exactly? Is there any chance that – like the television interviewer – we will know when our time has just about expired, or will it sneak up on us, surprising us from behind, like a “thief in the night”? When we hear people talking about the “end of the world,” what do they mean? Is the world’s end the same as its conclusion, its finish? Or is the world’s end more analogous to the old catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” suggesting that the end is the goal, the purpose of time, not just its termination?

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus questions the assumption that people can know anything about the timing of the world’s finish. He declared that even he didn’t know: “...about that day or hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” I have to wonder about the authors of those Left Behind books which were rather popular a few years ago. They were forever predicting some cataclysmic termination of the world with all the assurance of a meteorologist forecasting dry weather for the Sahara. How do they know? If they claim scripture as their authority, why have they overlooked this passage? Jesus says even he won’t know the day or hour.

While Jesus doubted those who answer questions about end times saying, “Here!” he seems to confirm those who say “Near!” when he declared flatly, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

What is he saying? It has been many generations since Jesus’ time. Anyone who has waited at the station for 2,000 years for a train that has not yet arrived may be reasonably certain that it is not coming, at least not in the way we had imagined. There must be more to this truth about the nearness of the kingdom of God, the coming of the Son of Man. What is the end of time exactly? Why is he telling the church this?

I am convinced that these are not intended to be passages of imminent threat or terror – which some would make them out to be – but rather words of hope and invitation.

Like the widow with only two remaining pennies, which she gave away, Jesus spoke to people who realized that reliance on themselves and their own tiny resources for salvation was useless. They knew their utter dependence on some other Word to save them, some Word beyond the words they could fashion for themselves. Like them, as long as we cling to the myth of our own self-sufficiency, we are doomed to misunderstand Jesus’ words.

This Word from the Bible affirms a world very different from our own world, a world in which God is in command, despite all appearances to the contrary. It is a world in which the “end,” the goal of God’s creation, will become apparent in God’s own time. This is a Word which speaks to us and says the kingdom is near in spite of the powerlessness, the disillusionment we may feel with our governing authorities, with the crazy-quilt process for such things as electing presidents, and with the ascendancy of world powers at odds with our own. Even in spite of our anxieties closer to home, when a sudden blizzard or hurricane cancels our travel plans, when we stand by helplessly as our child drives into the distance on their own behind the wheel for the first time, when the oncology report arrives and informs us we have cancer, God is still Lord of the universe, still ruler of God’s own creation, still near to his people.

Jesus declares that just when things seem lost, that is especially when we may know that God is truly near to us. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is near. Not as a threat, but as a promise. Not as an added cause for anxiety, but as an assurance that the outcome of all we do is not ultimately up to us.

Think again on the phrase, “We’re out of time.” Looking at it quantitatively, we think of time as a commodity. We have a certain amount of it. Some is gone, some remains. We keep careful track of the amount gone by, we record our birth dates and after age25 or so, we celebrate them every year with less enthusiasm. The amount remaining to us is a mystery, and apparently was just as much of a mystery to Jesus as it is to us. But look at the sentence qualitatively. “We’re out of time.” We are beyond time, we are living a reality of the kingdom of God which is not earthbound, not beholden to the stopwatch, not measured by the tick of the clock or the dating of half-lives of isotopes, but by the standards of eternity.

The Greeks had two good words for time. One was chronos, as in chronological, and it refers to measured time, the counting up of one day, one year after another. The other word, though, was kairos, and it refers to those points in time which are decisive, bursting with possibility. The end of chronos, or chronological clock-ticking time is of little concern to the biblical writers who cared not so much how the world began or will wind up as they puzzled over why.

What meaning is there in time other than its amount? Marking its passage chronologically will never tell us. We must look for the meaning of time in its kairos, in its decisiveness and our response to opportunities to decide. Paul said, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...”[1] He didn’t mean that particular hour in that particular day in that particular year. He meant that God’s mysterious plan for who we are and what we may be had moved to the decisive point when “word made flesh” also made sense.

Because of the ministry of Christ, we are spiritual people, outside of time, living over and above and beyond clock-bound time, and as such, we are near the kingdom of God, eternal time. Near, but not here, because we live in two worlds at once. We’re not there yet. We are not now fully in the kingdom of heaven. We have some distance, some time to go. But we know it is real, as real as the world we inhabit on every single day of our lives. We know all too well the world of deadlines, of schedules, and time-frames. But knowing Christ, we know that this is not the only time in which we are at home. We are also at home beyond time, in kingdom time, in the eternity for which Christ has made us fit.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Romans 5:6

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Hands

All Hands

Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Exodus 17:8-16

Aaron and Hur held up [Moses’] hands, one on

one side and one on the other side; so his

hands were steady until the sun set.

As the scripture passage was being read this morning, did you find yourself wincing just a little bit? Did you think to yourself, “Gee, I wish the kids were out of the room...”?

Holy War has been a topic much in the news for about a decade now, but not usually from a Jewish or Christian point of view. If we hear about holy war these days, we are more apt to hear about Islamic “jihad” than about ancient Israel’s “Holy wars” against the enemies of God’s people. There is little wonder why a passage such as this is so seldom a subject for preaching in the churches. I have a catalogue of over 800 of my own sermons that I have preached over my career in ministry, as well as more than 4,000 sermons by other preachers. I can search the catalogue of these sermons by title, or date, or scripture passage – which I did not long ago, and I discovered that not only had I never preached on this particular passage, but among those 4,000+ sermons in books, binders and on my computer, there was not a single sermon by other pastors on the passage either. Actually I am not surprised. Are you? Additionally, this Holy War text, along with most others like it in books such as Judges, are not included in lectionaries of readings for worship. But inasmuch as this is the sort of Bible passage that many people hold up as an objection to faith in the God of the Bible, I think it demands more from us than simple avoidance.

Preaching on a passage like this reminds me of an old story that circulates among preachers. I remember an older pastor sharing it with me when I was a young pastor, just beginning to find my preacing voice. It seems a young, brilliant new assistant pastor had arrived fresh from seminary to his first call in ministry in a church where an older, veteran pastor was the head of staff. The personable young upstart was an instant hit with the congregation, which might not have annoyed the senior pastor so much, had it not been for the younger man’s arrogance. After receiving thanks for a nice sermon, the younger man would invariably declare, “I can preach on anything!”

Finally, the older pastor had had enough. Instead of letting him pick his own subject the next time he was to preach, he went to his young colleague, intent on assigning him a subject that would be well nigh impossible, even for an expert. He told the young man, “I going to assign you the subject for your sermon this week.” The young man replied, with characteristic overconfidence, “Fine, I can preach on anything!”

“Good, then,” said the older man, “your subject for this Sunday is ‘constipation.’” The younger man staggered a bit, wondering where he would even find scripture for a subject like that. But he was determined not to show his uncertainty. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll get to work on it.”

When Sunday came, the older man left the chancel when it came time for the sermon, eager to see from the pews how this self-important young fellow was going to get out of this predicament. The young man went to the pulpit, opened the Bible, and said to the congregation, “Today, the pastor has asked me to preach about constipation...” There was an audible gasp from the congregation. He continued, “...and my text for this sermon is from Exodus 24: “When Moses went up the mountain, he took two tablets...”

That story is an oldie but a goodie among preachers. The problem for me today, though, is I can’t blame anyone else for choosing this passage from Exodus, I assigned it to myself! But I did so because I think difficult passages deserve our attention if we are determined to be a people of the Book. Among the reasons we need to understand them better is that:

· Such texts provide a chief point of objection that many make to following a biblical faith, especially among those who cannot abide what they sometimes call the “vengeful God” of the Old Testament;

· Such texts cause us to wonder how we can claim to have a foundation of faith that differs from other “religions of violence,” when such passages are in the Bible between the same covers that contain lovely words about the “Prince of Peace.”

The central explanation about this passage, and others like it, requires a degree of sophistication about God’s purposes over the expanse of scripture more than in a single story or a few verses at a time, especially as expressed in the first five books of the Old Testament. The Bible begins with stories of creation, and almost immediately, the forces that would thwart God’s purposes in creating the world make their entrance: Disobedience in the Garden, Cain killing his brother Able, Noah sailing off leaving the whole rotten world behind, and eventually, the people of promise, the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, finding themselves enslaved in Egypt, which had at first been their refuge. In Egypt we discover the Pharaoh countermands the commands of God in creation. While God said “Be fruitful and multiply,” Pharaoh instructs all male children of Israel to be killed, thereby seeking to thwart the very will of God.

God’s instructions concerning the Amalekites in our present passage emerge from a similar concern. God has willed a land for his people. Unlike those who would be Israel’s peaceful neighbors, the Amalekites, living to the south of Biblical Israel, were nomads with caravan routes to protect, and they attacked Israel when it was divided and weak, picking off those who lagged behind on their way to the promised land.[1] Apparently their behavior was merciless, and enmity developed between the two peoples. It’s important to remember this, God’s instruction concerning them, came after Israel had been attacked at a point of extreme vulnerability, when their very future as a people of promise hung in the balance, it was at this time that Amalek sought to exterminate them. It would not be too out of character to associate this with the extermination of Jews sought by Hitler. It was not all that many decades ago that we believed Naziism had to be eliminated, and it’s not too great a stretch to understand this Bible passage in the same way for the survival of the vulnerable Israelites. The Amalekites had followed in the footsteps of Pharaoh, seeking the extermination of Israel.

So then, what happened? You’ll have to read through more of the Old Testament to find out what eventually happened to the Amalekites. I’ll give you a hint, though: it wasn’t a peaceful resolution.[2]

In this account, it is important to see that Moses’ “hand” and the “staff” are all mixed up, which in its own way mirrors the necessity for the action of God to be in company with human action for the accomplishment of God’s will.

Which, as we have been wrapping up our fall stewardship efforts, reminds me of an old stewardship story that circuates among preachers.

There once was a pastor, who had been praying faithfully, night and day, for a solution to his church’s financial difficulties. One day, he looked up from his prayers in astonishment. “I have heard your prayers,” said the vision of the Lord now standing before him, “and I will grant your request: all the financial problems of your church will be solved. I have but one question for you: would you prefer a natural or supernatural solution to your problem?”

The pastor, a truly humble servant, replied, “Thank you, Lord, but I could never ask for a miracle, for that might draw attention to me. Please solve our church’s problem in a natural way.”

With that, the pastor looked up, and saw that the entire room was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills, bars of gold, piles of diamonds, more wealth than he could possibly imagine. He was overwhelmed, and baffled at the same time; and so he prayed once again to God, “I’m very pleased about this, Lord, and please don’t misunderstand me, but I thought I asked for the natural solution.”

“That is the natural solution,” God replied. “The supernatural solution would have been for everyone in your church to have made a dramatic increase in their giving.”

But we know the reverse is really true, don’t we? The “supernatural” solution to Israel’s difficulties in the Exodus would have been for God to send lightning bolts against the enemies of Israel. The natural way was for God to empower the people, and for the people to respond in partnership with God’s own action, that together they might address and triumph over their difficulties. That is the natural way.

In our lives we are often struck by the difficulty of change, both institutional and personal, and how to cope with it. One guide through such changes as we know them is the experience of the people of Israel, journeying through the wilderness.

In one of the most intense crises of change we can possibly imagine – a military battle – Israel was attacked at a point of weakness by the Amalekites. Though at the time they may not have fully appreciated it, the Israelites had a secret weapon: the staff of Moses. The staff is a powerful reminder of God’s presence with them, but they can only receive the assurance of the promise as long as Moses can keep it in view, raised in the air for them to see.

Moses did become tired, he was only human, after all, and when his aides, Aaron and Hur, realized this, they rushed over to their leader and propped up his tired arms with their own. They stood on either side of him until the sun set, helping him hold his position, and by doing so, they assured their army of victory. Moses learned of the strength to be gained from other people in community, holding up the sign of the promise of God before the people.

For us, the ultimate staff held before us, strengthening us in our daily anxiety and struggle, is the cross of Christ, a special staff of God. Power has different, even contrasting, faces – today is a day called “Christ the King Sunday” on church calendars, a day to think on the rule of Christ over the world. God’s people claim that victory comes with God, not only through our beckoning, but through God’s act with our participation.

When we strive together to be the community of Christ that God has in mind for us in this place, we are deciding whether to hold up the Savior’s arms or let them fall. I say we hold them up, all hands, every one.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Deuteronomy 20:10-18; 25:19.

[2] Here are a couple of hints: See I Chronicles 4:43 and compare I Samuel 15:1 ff.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Talented and Gifted

Talented and Gifted

Matthew 25:14-30

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For it is as if a man, going on a journey,

summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one,

to each according to his ability…

Among the many things that pastors are apt to hear in day-to-day conversations are phrases such as these:

· “Pastor, I’ve spent some time thinking about what I believe, but I don’t want to impose my beliefs on anyone else. So I don’t think much about evangelism because, to me, religion is a private matter.”

· “Uncle Albert may not have gone to church or said much to other people about religion and things like that, but I know he believed in God.”

· “Pastor, I have these friends who keep asking me difficult questions about my faith. I hope I have given them good answers. What? No, I haven’t invited them to come to church, I don’t want them to think I’m too pushy about religion.”

I know the feeling. So often, I get on an airplane (well, not that often) or find myself out in public someplace, and I am reluctant just to tell people about my vocation. Why? For the same reasons that many of us don’t want to tell others about our faith. It’s not so much because we think our faith is wrong or bad, but we’re just a little embarrassed perhaps, or we don’t want to come off as some kind of religious nut. We don’t want others to think we aren’t just “one of the boys or girls” like everyone else, we don’t want them to begin avoiding us, or failing to include us in the fun because they think we’re from some kind of strict religious cult. Or we don’t want to spend an entire flight to Denver or L.A. strapped next to someone who has an entire speech about things that are wrong – or right – about religious faith. For me, when I fail to own up to my faith, it is almost invariably because I am more worried about what people will think of me than about what they will think of my faith. I may say Christ is all important in my life, but my actions may often give lie to that claim.

So, when confronted with the opportunity to say something, we often say nothing, just keep our faith under our hats, so to speak, bury it and keep it safe, waiting until the next time we are at church, or with church friends, safe in the community that already knows what we are talking about, rather than risking it with people on the outside.

It is because this is as true for me as I suspect it is for many of you that the parable of the talents makes me more than a little uneasy. On the surface of things it appears to be a story of overly harsh judgment on someone who was anxious about investing in the stock market. Instead of risking his master’s money on Wall Street or in real estate deals, he got a tin can (a sizable one, since one “talent” was the monetary equivalent of about 30 years of wages for a working person) and hid the money in the back yard. He had nearly forgotten it by the time his master returned and asked about it.

Now, there’s always a danger of taking this sort of story too literally. Remember, this is not some sort of first century enthusiasm about capitalism. As is invariably the case with Jesus’ parables, it is a story about one thing that is meant to be applied to something else. And, of course, what Jesus had been talking about since the disciples first caught sight of him was that he had plans for them beyond his own ministry among them. He was going to cede to them each a portion of faith, and then he was going to be taken from them at the crucifixion. What they could accomplish with the faith he had left them would become a matter of a partnership between their effort and the continuing inspiration of his spirit.

So the story he told them here is not a story of an exceptionally strict and unreasonable master, but of a servant who should have known better than to let his entrusted responsibilities lie fallow. If we can make the connection even more obvious, we could say that almost the entire point of the Christian faith is that it is not a possession to which we may cling in the privacy of our prayer closets and the safety of our church sanctuary, but faith is Christ’s investment of his precious Word in us. What will the faith Christ has given to us yield? That is the question so much more to the point than whether we, in the privacy of our hearts, believe it or not.

Zephaniah the Old Testament prophet lived in a Godless time. He wrote ominous words in his prophecy, that God would one day make something resembling a house-to-house search:

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The LORD will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”[1]

They were those who said, “God will not bother to do anything.” We live in a time of such Godlessness, when the nicest thing most people can say about prayer is that it is something people can do when all else has failed, rather than as something we must do before we have any hope of anything whatsoever succeeding.

See why this parable of Jesus makes me a little squeamish? Opportunities to invest the word that Christ has entrusted to us emerge all the time, but the more we become accustomed to burying that word out of fear of ridicule, the less we will be able to see those daily opportunities as they arise.

I remember once spending the day with a group of fellow citizens learning about the criminal justice system in Oregon. During lunch, I sat with some of these new friends, as we all exchanged the sorts of pleasantries that we are likely to exchange with folks we don’t know all that well. Innocently, one of the fellows across the table from me asked what I had done over the weekend. Preachers aren’t as accustomed to this question as other people might be, since we are more accustomed to encountering the impression most people carry, that our weekends are filled with religious duties. So, almost without thinking, I began to tell him about my weekend, in which I had spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a group of folks from another church in our Presbytery, helping them to recall and share the stories of their lives and of their faith. It was a great weekend, so as I began to describe it, I suppose that in my enthusiasm I became a little more animated than I had intended, until after a few moments of describing the virtues of telling our stories to others so that the story of Jesus – interwoven into our lives – can begin to come through more readily and more visibly, I suddenly noticed that six or seven people were now listening to what had started out as a bit of friendly chit chat with one person across a lunch table.

And it struck me what had captured their now full attention from their casual gabbing about the menu or the events of the day. It was that name that I had named, the word “Jesus” that had arrested several people in their conversational tracks. I felt myself pulling back almost involuntarily from this unexpected audience until one women asked what was the purpose of sharing stories like that. I answered that I believe Jesus didn’t call us to a ministry of swallowing the right doctrine so much as faithfulness in pursuing his best interests. And Jesus is incomparably interested in the communication of his gospel to others. And further, I believe that the best way to communicate that gospel is to tell others about our encounters with it in our own common lives.

I realized, as I prepared this sermon, how strongly this parable speaks a similar word to us today. As Thanksgiving approaches, we need especially to be reminded that God’s gift can never be passively possessed. The gospel of Christ is not so much like a nerve as it is like a muscle. Once one of the neurons in our brains has learned something, it can hold on to it for years before ever being recalled again, as when an ancient memory comes back at some unusual and distant time. But the gospel is not like a vague memory that exercises little influence on our lives. It is more like a muscle, which if not exercised regularly, will atrophy.

This parable is one more story that declares that the ones who are ready to extend themselves for the sake of the Gospel will find their lives; those who wish to secure their lives by holding the gospel in their hearts rather than living and telling it in their lives, will in fact lose the very life they hope to grasp. Finding comes through losing ourselves and our self interest for the sake of Christ.

Jesus, like the master in the story, has very high opinions of our abilities in service to the Gospel. He entrusted his followers with his word not only two thousand years ago, but this very day. It is a word we must tell others or it will not get told. I hope that challenges you as deeply as it challenges me. We always want to be a fellowship that is open to visitors and new people. But opening our doors and hearts to visitors is only a fraction of the witness which Christ has entrusted to us. We meet the heart of human need every day, no matter who we are with. It has been said that preachers should preach to human pain because a broken heart sits in every pew. That is no less true of the places where you spend your days than where I spend mine. We all meet people every day who, if we take the trouble to know them, are touched by the sort of human hunger which only the ministry of Christ can fill. How can we justify withholding it from them out of fear for our own image?

Our challenge in this disturbing parable from Matthew is to touch this world of hopelessness with the life-giving and hope-filled word of Christ as we have come to know it. That way, as we give thanks at Thanksgiving for all that God has provided, we may respond to the challenge to us in having been provided with the ministry of Jesus Christ, the most precious gift of all.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Zephaniah 1:12 NRSV.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

That’s Snooze to Me

That’s Snooze to Me

copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 6, 2011

I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25:1-13

These are two scripture passages that probably do not come up very often in devotional books and bedside Bible reading. I think you’ll agree that they are troubling passages, especially the parable about the ten bridesmaids. What is the deal with this story? The 25th chapter of Matthew starts out with the 5 wise and winning bridesmaids who do not share with the others, and they are held up as models of faith, and then the chapter ends with Jesus’ famous sheep-and-goats speech in which those who fail to share are sent off packing. People seeking easy consistency are never at home in Matthew 25!

Both passages make some passing reference to sleeping, and all references to sleeping in the Bible are fraught with mystery, wonder, and the invasion of the holy into our otherwise plodding lives, as when Jacob slept and in sleeping wrestled with an angel,[1] or when Peter dreamed a disturbing dream which sent him off with good news for the previously despised Gentiles,[2] or when Daniel interpreted the dream of the king.[3]

Our translation of the words from I Thessalonians uses the direct language of our modern everyday conversation: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brother and sisters, about those who have died...” But the Greek words for “those who have died,” literally translated, actually mean, “Those who have fallen asleep.” It strikes us as a sort of gentle, funeral parlor euphemism for death, which puts just a bit of space between us and our unavoidable end. But death is an ultimate sort of thing, from which there is no turning back, no waking up back in Kansas with Auntie Em. And the sleep-visions of the Bible are likewise ultimate sorts of experiences from which there is never any going back. Peter, once committed to bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, found he could not go back. Ananias, informed in a dream to minister to Paul, who up to then had been violently persecuting the church, did as he was told, and the church was never ever the same. Joseph, informed in a dream about the true nature of Mary’s son, married her, and there was no turning back. In each case, things which transpired during sleep suggested the coming of something of tremendous and world-changing significance.

So, it pays to be attentive when we encounter sleeping in the Bible – if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. Stories involving sleep suggest something mysterious, that something to do with the presence of God is going on. So the maidens of Jesus’ parable: When they became drowsy due to the delay of the wedding party, as readers who know our Bibles, we know that when sleep time comes in stories in scripture, the presence of God is very near… so when those maidens are sleepy we should understand their drowsiness as a lively signal that something significant is in the offing! In this case, the very last time anyone expects a party to break out is at midnight. Midnight is when everyone is more likely to be going home, if they are not at home already. Midnight is the unlikeliest of times for the shout of celebration to begin the party.

Similarly, the congregation at Thessalonica, among the first of the new assemblies of faithful people ever to gather around the good news of the resurrection of Christ, could not fathom how some of their friends could already be dead when Jesus had not yet returned. What was to become of them? Paul, in his own wise way, referred to them as sleeping, not in order to deny their deaths, but to heighten the awareness that in sleeping the sleep of death, they were not at the end of the line, but rather, on the cusp of something incredible beyond their – or our – imagining.

Now, many people read the parable of the wise and foolish maidens in Matthew and assume it is about being prepared, a sort of Boy Scout Bible reading. The illustrations of that sort of sermon on the text are legion:

Bill Keene’s Family Circus cartoon a decade or so ago[4] has the little girl walking out the door and saying to her brother, “I’m gonna make a lot of friends right now – before I need them.”

Two old school Quaker elders were traveling once under a religious concern to a small rural meeting. On the way back it began to snow heavily and their carriage became stuck in a snowbank. The two elders finally made it to a farmhouse just as it became dark, and were welcomed for the night. But the house was cold, and their attic room was like an icebox. The older of the elders stripped to his underwear and jumped into a feather bed, pulling the blankets over him. The younger elder, feeling a bit embarrassed said, “Excuse me, Friend, but does not thou think we ought to say our prayers before retiring?” The other elder stuck one eye out from under the covers. “Son,” he said, “I keep prayed up ahead for just such situations as this, and so should thee.”

The well-prepared maidens remind us all of the sort of people who falling in the lake and beginning to drown, cry for help. You throw them a rope, they seize it, and then thank themselves for having been smart enough to have grabbed hold of it. That is like people who are self-congratulatory about their wisdom at having thought to follow Jesus.

The logic of such “Be Prepared” interpretations of that parable usually concludes by saying that we need to ready ourselves for the return of Jesus. But I have to ask, how does one prepare for such a thing? More than that, though, really, it is a bigger question, more like, “How does one adequately prepare for such a thing?” How would we know we were now prepared enough for the return of Jesus? This “Be Prepared” interpretation seems to conclude that the wise maidens, by bringing an extra quart of kerosene to the wedding, had been adequately prepared. But that’s a long leap of logic from saying that we can find some similar measure by which to determine that we are satisfactorily prepared for our airborne meeting with Jesus, to use Paul’s imagery.

In the parable, “notice how Jesus deliberately stands things on their heads. The five supposedly foolish girls, knowing they have been invited to a daytime wedding that will only last until the early evening, reasonably assess their needs … But the other five insist upon dragging along … bottles full of kerosene, just in case. Nothing could be more idiotic: they have complicated their lives by preparing for an utterly unlikely contingency.”[5]

As analogies to dragging extra kerosene to an afternoon wedding, I imagine a child wanting to take 300 pencils to school, in case everybody in school breaks theirs; or a friend invited for dinner who drags along his sleeping bag and a space heater just in case of a freak storm and a power outage; or an overanxious new driver stopping to fill her car up with gas every fifteen or twenty miles, in case there is a leak in the gas tank. It is an image of people who are hell bent on self sufficiency.[6] And the point of the gospel is that self-sufficiency breaks down, along with our need for it, in the presence of the Lord who has come to save us from having to try to save ourselves.

All of these things, the deaths of the saints in Thessalonica, the preparedness or unpreparedness of the maidens going to the party, all these stories make absolutely no sense unless we realize that they involve first the disciples’, and then the church’s recognition that the physical presence of Jesus was no longer going to be available to them, and, more than that, was going to be taken from them for a very long time: And it has been a long time, as we now stand at 2011 years and counting.

These stories remind us that if we were listing the ten worst problems in our church, every one of them is related to the delay of Jesus’ coming again. If people knew for certain that Jesus was coming tomorrow morning, we wouldn’t argue over the color of the church carpet or the size of the parking lot, would we?

A grace which spares us from a judgment which wouldn’t have happened anyway is not grace but just a sentimental sort of divine permissiveness. Either grace or judgment becomes distorted without the other. Jesus didn’t die to save us from a distant possibility that we might not be able to save ourselves. He died because it is a dead certainty, that like a five-year-old who falls into the river, we’re done for already and our only hope is to throw ourselves on the mercy of someone quite beyond our control to snatch us out of our predicament. Today’s parable functions on one level to remind us that our salvation, joy that it is, is quite serious business. Salvation can only be real if it saves us from an alternate, certain fate that is equally real.

But the parable functions on another level as well, on the level of the wedding banquet and the bridegroom’s presence at the party. We are reminded that “what we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”[7]

[1] Genesis 32:24-32

[2] Acts 10:1-48

[3] Daniel 2:1-48

[4] 11/7/1996

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans Press, 1989, p. 161.

[6] Glenn David Macdonald Morison (United Church of Canada), Hazelton, British Columbia.

[7] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans Press, 1989, p. 166.