“As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.” Matthew 25: 5
You’ve probably had the dream. You show up for a class and realize that everyone else knew there was going to be a test but you didn’t. The other students are scribbling down their answers all around you, but you’re paralyzed because you did not study. At all. It’s the worst kind of stress dream. Mine has changed over the years. I still occasionally have the teacher version of the dream, where it’s the first day of school but I haven’t been given any books or materials or told what classes I’m teaching, and so I have to wing it all day long. It’s terrifying. There’s even a pastor version of the dream now – I’ve had it twice – in which I show up just to attend a funeral, but when I arrive, I’m told that I have to preach and preside at the service – and I don’t know the person who has died – or anyone else there.
You have your own version of the stress dream. The details vary, but the fear at the heart of these nightmares is the same. It’s the fear of not being prepared.
When I hear the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel, I have the same kind of gasping-for-air reaction that I have when one of those stress dreams wakes me up in the middle of the night. I’m normally a big fan of the stories Jesus tells. I especially like the ones that remind us of God’s expansive grace – the stories where lost sons are welcomed home and Good Samaritans come along to help the wounded, and the people who were hired at the end of the day get paid the same generous amount as the people who have been working since before the sun came up.
But what we have this morning is a good, old-fashioned parable of judgment. Some people get into the banquet; others don’t. The ones who are left out in the cold bang on the door and beg to be let in, but their cries are met with this chilling response: “I do not know you.” And it’s all because they were caught unprepared. They didn’t bring oil for the lamps, and when they went away to buy some oil, the party started without them. That seems pretty harsh.
It doesn’t help that no one comes off as particularly admirable in this parable. It’s easy to judge the foolish bridesmaids. For heaven’s sake, the Greek root of the word used to describe them is morai, from which we get our word “moron.” These women have not come prepared at all. They brought their lamps, but they did not anticipate the long wait for the bridegroom, so they didn’t bring any extra oil. Who doesn’t bring extra oil for an oil lamp?
Except we’ve all been the person who isn’t prepared. We find ourselves not knowing what to say or do in a difficult situation. We are thrown for a loop by unexpected news, and it paralyzes us. We are rendered mute, and it’s only later that we think of what we wish we had said or wish we had done.
Maybe the foolish bridesmaids should have anticipated that the bridegroom would be late. But maybe not. We can’t plan for everything.
And it’s not like the wise bridesmaids were all that admirable. Oh, sure, they brought some extra oil, so they were more prepared for the delay. But these bridesmaids also seem selfish and petty. Would it have killed them to share a little oil with the others? Once the bridegroom arrived, how long did those lamps need to burn anyway? I’m willing to bet that banquet hall was already pretty well-lit.
Sometimes we cling a little too tightly to what we have. Sometimes we hold so fast to our idea of being prepared for anything that we miss opportunities to be generous with everything.
And let’s not forget that all ten bridesmaids fell asleep. They weren’t faithfully awaiting the bridegroom’s arrival. They weren’t frantically searching for him. They weren’t doing anything to make sure the festivities would be ready. They were having a nice long nap, the snores of the wise just as loud as the snores of the foolish.
And while we’re casting blame, what took the bridegroom so long to arrive in the first place? It seems awfully rude to leave your guests waiting for hours.
It may help to realize that the early church struggled mightily with the question of when Jesus (the bridegroom) would return as he had promised. They believed that it would happen soon – before those who were alive at the time of Jesus had passed away. That’s one of the concerns in Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, a piece of which we heard in today’s second reading. It’s a letter that was recorded in the early 50’s, about thirty years before Matthew’s gospel was written down, but we can already hear that people were worried that their departed loved ones would somehow be left out of the heavenly banquet when Jesus came again. Paul reassures them with the promise that all of them, living and dead, will be joined together in a blessed community of resurrection.
If they were worried about these questions in the early 50’s, can you imagine how it felt after another twenty years went by, and the temple had been destroyed by the Romans, and people were scattered and scared of being persecuted? When was Jesus going to return? What about after a hundred years? Two hundred? Two thousand? A constant vigilance eventually turned into complacency.
These days I’d guess that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when Jesus will return. When your alarm goes off in the morning, you probably don’t sit up and say to yourself, “What if today is the day that Jesus comes back?!?” If you’re like me, you hit the snooze alarm, roll over, and try to squeeze in nine more minutes of sleep. Sometimes eighteen. Perhaps we’re more like the bridesmaids than we like to think.
But what if Jesus did show up in the flesh? Right now. Today. What would he find us doing or not doing? Would we even notice his arrival? I don’t ask this question to guilt us or to scare us. I’m genuinely curious.
Because in many ways I think Jesus would be perplexed. I think he’d wonder why we aren’t doing more to be peacemakers, why we continue to allow people to die by the thousands from gun violence, why we’ve let sexual harassment and sexual assault pervade our culture, why we have so many hungry people in the world when we have plenty of food. We sometimes look at the awful challenges of the world and then look away because it’s all too awful to bear. Looking away is a version of falling asleep, and Jesus is imploring us: Keep awake.
I don’t know why Jesus tells this story. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale about attending to the healing of the world before it’s too late. Perhaps he wants to shake loose our complacency and awaken us to attention and action. None of us wants a door slammed in our face.
I trust in God’s grace, and I trust that Jesus wants to know each of us, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done. Earlier in Matthew Jesus says that for everyone who knocks, the door will be open (7:8). I believe that to be true.
When we trust in that gift of grace, it makes sense to live now as if God’s kingdom were already fully here – to be alert, to be engaged, to do everything we can so that justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
So grab your lamps, people of God, and grab some oil. It’s time to shine some light in the world. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:32
A New York Times article earlier this month highlighted the alarming recent increase in the number of teenagers suffering from debilitating anxiety.[i] The article told story after story of young people who were crippled by the pressures of striving to be successful in every way – to get good grades, to be exceptional athletes or musicians or debaters, to be liked by different groups, to keep up with peers who seemed to have it all together. “Seemed” being the operative word. Images on social media might suggest that everyone else is doing great, but the statistics tell us otherwise. Many of us – not just teenagers – are held captive by our fears and anxieties.
Over 500 years ago a young monk named Martin Luther was also held captive by his fears and anxieties. He was worried about disappointing his father, who had wanted him to become a lawyer. But young Martin was worried most of all about disappointing God, whom he envisioned as an angry, punishing judge. He spent hours upon hours in confession, tallying up every terrible thing he had done and every terrible thing he had thought about doing. The person in the monastery who was assigned to hear Luther’s confessions, a man named Johannes Staupitz, must have been exceedingly patient. But even he had his limits. Staupitz once complained to Luther that Luther did not have to confess every fart.[ii]
Where did Luther find freedom from this crippling anxiety? He found it in scripture. He found it in books like Romans, from which today’s second reading comes. There he discovered that all his anxious striving was not going to get him anywhere. All have sinned, it said. All. And all have access to the grace of God as a gift. In Jesus we are given a right relationship with God, a relationship that frees us from needing to be perfect or anything close to it.
What a relief! What freedom! In the promises of God’s Holy Word, Luther discovered exactly what Jesus promises in today’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” When we are freed from the anxiety of having to work out our own salvation, we are freed for so much more – for sacrifice, for service, for sharing.
It was this freedom found in the gospel of Jesus Christ that led Luther to stand up to the Church of his time. Luther grew increasingly concerned that the Church was exploiting people’s fears and anxieties. It was a time when death was all around. The plague was wiping out whole portions of the population, and people believed that if you died without having made your confession, then you were stuck in purgatory. Church officials, pressured by the need to finance several expensive building projects, saw an opportunity. They started selling indulgences to offer people a way out of purgatory – for themselves or for their deceased relatives. Buy an indulgence; get your grandmother to the good place. People’s fear was quickly leveraged as a financial boon for the church.
Luther could not tolerate this kind of manipulation. He could not stand by while the Church sold something that Luther knew was free. And so he grabbed his pen and started writing. He churned out a list of 95 objections to the selling of indulgences. This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the day Luther sent his 95 Theses out into the world, never imagining that they would unleash a firestorm of controversy and a quest for freedom that would echo across centuries.
His words were powerful and pointed. Take Thesis #39: “Christians are to be taught that whoever gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than one who buys indulgences.” Or Thesis #44: “Christians are to be taught that whoever sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.”
You can hear in these and several other theses Luther’s concern for the poor. That’s another way the scripture had shown him the truth. He came to realize that when he wasn’t trapped in a self-loathing that turned him inward, he was freed to turn outward and care for the needs of those around him.
As you can imagine, church officials were not pleased at the pushback. But Luther was just getting started.
You will know the truth, Jesus had said, and the truth will make you free. Luther believed so much in the transforming power of God’s word that he wanted people to be able to read it for themselves. So he tackled the daunting project of translating the Bible into German. Before that time the Bible used by the church had been written and read in Latin. So people were entirely dependent on the priests to tell them what scripture said and what it meant.
Can you imagine if I had read this morning’s gospel in Latin? And if you didn’t have the translation in front of you? You would have to trust that I was telling you the truth about what it said. By translating the Word into the people’s language, Luther liberated worshipers from that dependence on priestly interpretation. People were free to make sense of scripture themselves.
Luther is credited with advancing human freedom in many ways.[iii] One of his best works is called “On the Freedom of a Christian,” and in it he writes: “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith he is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely.” Luther didn’t mean by these words that Christians should go wild and recklessly do whatever they pleased. He meant that in Christ we are given a holy freedom – freedom from anxiety about where we stand with God, freedom from self-doubt, freedom from the need to be perfect, freedom from the quest to save ourselves. Luther went on to say, “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me.”
You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. A freedom that comes as a gift of grace can only flow out of us as still more grace for those around us – especially those who are most burdened and neglected. We, too, can be a Christ to our neighbors.
As we head into the next 500 years, I pray that we will not take that freedom for granted. We have been set free from the powers of sin and death, a gift beyond our understanding. And so, as we look to the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s beginnings…and the 502nd…and the 503rd…may God keep us rooted in the same Holy Word that set Luther free. May we use that freedom for holy purposes.
On this 500th anniversary, where might God be leading us? Where are we being called to take a bold stand in our own time? In what ways do people need to be set free? As you leave today, I hope you’ll take a minute to add your voice to our Reformation door out in the narthex. The question is posted on the door: What might God be leading us to say or do in the world?
Grab a pen and a red post-it and add your answer to that question. Add more than one if you want.
Our Confirmation class has been studying some Reformation history and, working in groups, they came up with some theses of their own. Here are a few of them:
- The Church should be known for love and acceptance.
- You should not be harmed or abused for believing in a certain religion.
- Faith should never be forced.
- God is with you. God will teach you. Take what you need, not what you want.
- You can’t always be perfect. No matter what mistakes you make, God will always forgive you.
As we commemorate this momentous anniversary, I give thanks for our shared witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. May the truth continue to set us free. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] See Martin E. Marty’s October 31, 2017: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World, p. 88