Proper 27a, November 9, 2014

November 11, 2014

God Talk
Matthew 25:1-13

25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

When I sit down to prepare a sermon I usually take a look at what I’ve had to say in the past about whatever passage of scripture I’m intending to use for my sermon text. I always find something in those previous sermons that makes me cringe, but there’s often something worth salvaging and somehow repackaging. I’m what you might call old-school or hopelessly stubborn in my preaching routine, but I like to use the lectionary (the standardized readings for each Sunday) for my preaching texts, and as I’ve pointed out before, I generally use the gospel lesson. The lectionary cycle repeats every three years, and I think it’s accurate to say that I’ve worked through that cycle at least five times, but I couldn’t find a single sermon on today’s text.

Now part of that has to do with not wanting to dig through the hand-written sermons of my first few years of preaching – which I suspect would be particularly cringe-worthy, and there are some lost years in my computer files, but I have relatively accurate files for the last twenty years, and I don’t have a single sermon on this text. And it’s not because I read this text and decided to preach from one of Paul’s epistles or the Psalm for the day. I like this text – it’s odd in a good way. And it lends itself to saying whatever you want to say.

It’s a story that portrays one group of people as being wise and another group as foolish. Five of these bridesmaids were conscientious and got in to the party while the other five were dullards who got shut out. This is a story that emphasizes the value of wisdom, but it doesn’t really define the nature of wisdom, so I get to be the one to do that. What a great preaching text – I can’t believe I’ve missed out on it for all those years!

What this text does is to raise the question of what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t answer that question, but it makes you ponder that question. Jesus told this story in order to kindle desire to abide in God’s kingdom – to be one of those wise people who pays attention to essential matters and who gets ushered in to the grand banquet. Who wants to be one of those people who thought they were ready, but were shown to be deficient at the critical moment and failed to get in. This is a story that illustrates the reality of divine judgment and the consequences of spiritual failure.

Of course whenever you start talking about the possibility of spiritual failure our minds often go to the concept of hell. And I want to talk about that for a moment. I don’t know about the young people in the room, but people of my generation and older have been handed a pretty clear portrayal of hell, and you don’t want to go there!. For many of us, hell has been defined as the place you go when you die if you haven’t made the right arrangements with God. Many people continue to carry around that understanding, and I’m not in a position to say there’s nothing to that. I haven’t been provided with an indisputable memo from God on this matter, but my sense is that the frightening possibility of spending eternity in hell no longer has the credibility that it once did. I don’t think people fear the eternal flames of hell the way they once did.

I don’t have any research to back up my supposition, but I’m in touch with a few people, and I don’t sense that there’s as much fear of eternal damnation as there once was. And frankly, I’m not unhappy about that. I’m not saying I don’t believe there are consequences to living a spiritually ignorant life, but I don’t find that traditional portrayal of hell to be particularly believable or helpful. I think we need a new way of thinking about the consequences of spiritual failure because I think we’re living in a time where we’ve just done away with the old package without an adequate replacement.

And losing the fear of hell has been hard on the church. I suspect there’s a powerful connection between the erosion of fear of spending eternity in hell with the decline of attendance in church. I don’t know of any academic studies on this, but I’m inclined to believe there’s some truth to it. Fear of hell is powerfully motivating.

I dare say some fear of hell helped construct this very building. As many of you know, this church was originally named Winfield Methodist Church and it was named after Augustus R. Winfield. Dr. Winfield was the pastor of the second Methodist Church in Little Rock from 1880 until 1884, and that was the church that eventually became Winfield Methodist Church. And here’s an excerpt from one of his sermon’s:

Hell is a lake of fire and brimstone, prepared for the devil and his angels, and all that disobey God shall be cast into this lake, and burned forever. After you have been in hell one thousand years, the great clock shall strike one; but eternity has just begun, you shall burn forever.

I found this colorful excerpt from a book called Two Centuries of Methodism in Arkansas by Nancy Britton. It was noted that Dr. Winfield was known as an effective fundraiser. I’m guessing he could get pretty clear about what might happen if you weren’t as generous as he and God expected.

Fear of eternal hell was an effective preaching tool for a long time, but preachers like me in churches like this don’t have access to that ominous possibility any more. And like I say, I don’t regret that, but I’m also thinking we need to reclaim some urgency to exercise spiritual wisdom. This parable makes it pretty clear that Jesus wanted us to have some fear of missing out on something essential. His message was that people who live like those foolish bridesmaids will miss out on life in the kingdom of heaven.

A very notable American passed away last week. His name was Tom Magliozzi. I don’t know if he was Click or Clack, but he was one of the so-called Tappet Brothers of that groundbreaking radio show: “Car Talk”. Tom was the brother with the really big laugh. If you’ve never heard that show you need to tune in to our local public radio station, KUAR FM 89.1 on a Saturday morning at 9am and listen to one of the reruns. They stopped producing new shows in 2012 when Tom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but they haven’t stopped airing old shows.

In spite of the way Tom portrayed himself, he was no dummy – technically, emotionally or spiritually. He earned an undergraduate degree in economics, politics, and engineering from MIT, an MBA from Northeastern University, and a PhD in marketing from Boston University. He wrote a short online biography of himself, which is really entertaining to read, and he said the thing that drove him to pursue all of those degrees was the thought that he really wouldn’t have to work if he could become a college professor.

Tom’s theory about that didn’t turn out to be correct, but he was a person who tried very hard to live life to it’s fullest, and he wasn’t afraid to quit a job that didn’t feel right. One of his early jobs after he finished MIT was at a company that was about an hour away from his beloved fair city of Cambridge, MA. Tom was driving a little MGA at the time, and he was nearly smashed by a tractor-trailer rig. He said that as he sat in his car shaking and recovering from what felt like a near-death experience he asked himself this simple question, If I had bought the farm out there on Rt. 128 today, wouldn’t I be bent at all the LIFE that I had missed?

He drove to work, walked in to his boss’s office and quit. He said his boss was convinced that he had taken a job with a competitor. He said his boss couldn’t understand the actual truth. And the truth was that life was the issue. He didn’t like what that commute was doing to his life.

Things didn’t automatically fall in to place for Tom. He spent a good amount of time unemployed and underemployed, but he didn’t want to waste his life. He was in search of something more and a lot of people benefited from his unwillingness to live an unintentional life. He and his brother Ray eventually put together this radio show that did as much to soothe people’s souls as it did to help them repair their cars.

I don’t know that it’s possible to create urgency for ourselves. Sometimes it takes a brush with death or disaster to get our attention and to get us focused on the pursuit of life. Maybe we need to retain some fear of hell to keep us in search of the kingdom of God. I don’t think we need to worry so much about where we will abide after we die, but I’m inclined to think that we’re existing in hell when we don’t pay attention to the essentials of life.

I think what Jesus is wanting us to know is that it’s entirely possible to be unprepared for life in the kingdom of God. It’s possible to be very thoughtless about what it takes to be ready for life.

Earlier I said I was happy to get to define what it means to be wise, but I don’t know what wisdom may require of you. What I do know is that it’s not the same for all of us, and it’s not so easy for any of us to chart a wise course. Finding the course of true life requires us all to exercise courage, persistence, sensitivity, and attention to all the ways in which God’s truth is made known to us.

Sometimes it’s very clear. But there’s not a single answer for everyone. Tom Magliozzi knew that he didn’t need to be spending two hours a day driving to and from a place that didn’t feel like home. For someone else it might be essential to continue to make an arduous daily journey to a difficult place. The fact that the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t borrow oil from the wise ones says to me that we can’t count on the solutions of others to provide answers for ourselves.

The journey in to the kingdom of God is a difficult trek. It can also be long and boring and annoying. But to avoid the discipline of seeking God’s kingdom – to settle for some kind of life that may not be great, but is predictable and safe and full of nice distractions is to settle for some kind of hell. To settle for anything less than the true life that Jesus came to offer is to decline an invitation to the banquet.

I don’t believe Augustus was right about the geography of hell, but I know it feels like hell when you get left out of a party, and I don’t want that to happen to any of us. Pay attention, be prepared, love God, serve your neighbors, and you will enjoy the banquet!

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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