Try Wait

Matthew25:1-13

“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.  11Later 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.

In the middle of Hanalei town on the island of Kauai is a long grassy common area where people can sit and eat or just chill.  Along its southeast edge is a line of shops and a cafe in what used to be the old school building.  There’s also another little food place that sits apart from the old school building and intrudes into the middle of the common.  It’s Federico’s Fresh Mex Cuisine now, and the food’s pretty good.  But that little place used to be Bubba’s Burgers.  And Bubba’s in Hanalei was legendary.

There was always a line of people out the door waiting to get burgers and fries, Bubba’s t-shirts or hats.  And the people working in that place—well you never saw a crew work so hard and so fast to keep a line moving.  And all without air conditioning.  And even though anybody with eyes could see that these amazing people were working as hard and as fast as humanly possible, there was always some Haole bugging the staff to ask when their order would be ready.  When that happened, the person handling orders at the counter would just point to a sign that was 100% pure Hawaiian philosophy: 

TRY WAIT.

Try wait.  

Don’t you love it?  Try wait.

We’ve had a lot of practice this week with “try wait” as we waited for ballots to be counted and results to be reported so we could find out who is going to be president.   It’s been interesting to see how people handled the suspense as we watched states move from one color to another.  I think we could all sympathize with the little three-year old girl who asked, “Mommy, how much longer are you gonna watch the map show?”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story about waiting.  Ten bridesmaids take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom.  In a traditional wedding the bridegroom would come with his companions to meet the bride at her parents’ house.  Her bridesmaids would then escort her along with the groom and his companions to the groom’s house for the wedding and celebration.  If the wedding was to take place after sunset, the bridesmaids’ lamps would be essential to help keep people from stumbling in the dark.  

When Jesus tells this story it all sounds perfectly normal to his audience.  The bride is assumed to be in her parents’ house waiting with family.  The bridesmaids are waiting in the courtyard.  Five of them were smart enough to bring extra oil for their lamps.  Well of course they did.  Who would be foolish enough not to bring extra oil?  Everyone knows how these things can go.  What if the groom and his friends have a little pre-party party and lose track of time?  What if the groom’s uncle Mordecai is late in arriving from his village?  These things happen.  Of course they brought extra oil.

Ah, says Jesus, but five were not so smart.  They didn’t bring any extra oil.  And the bridegroom was delayed.  Uncle Mordecai was very late.  And it took a while for the best man to sober up.  And all that time the bridesmaids were sitting in the courtyard of the bride’s parents’ house with their lamps burning because any minute now the bridegroom might come. 

But he didn’t.  And they fell asleep.  All ten of them.

Finally, at midnight—Midnight!—somebody shouts that the bridegroom is coming.  The bridesmaids scramble to trim their wicks and refill and relight their lamps.  The foolish five who didn’t bring any extra oil see their lamps sputtering out and ask their sisters to share some of their extra oil.  “No!” they reply.  “There won’t be enough for you and for us.”  

It sounds harsh and stingy, but they’re right to say that.  It’s going to be bad enough that the whole wedding party has to go in procession to the groom’s house with only the dim light of five lamps instead of ten.  How awful would it be if they had ten lamps but they all burned out half way there and everyone was left to stumble blindly in the dark?  What if the bride stepped in donkey dumplings?  Or broke her ankle in a pothole?

And this, if you’re listening to Jesus tell this story in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, this next line is where you would chuckle or maybe even laugh out loud.  “You better go to the dealers and buy some more oil for yourselves,” say the wise bridesmaids to the foolish bridesmaids.  Find a dealer and buy some oil at midnight?  That’s funny, that is.  That’s nonsense! And what’s even more ridiculous?  They try to do it!  These five silly women run off into the night to try to find more oil.  Which, of course, they can’t.

While they were gone, the bridegroom came and the whole wedding party, minus the foolish bridesmaids, made their way to the wedding feast and went inside and shut the gates.  Later the other bridesmaids managed to find their way to the wedding but the gate was already shut.  They banged on the gate and cried out “Lord, lord, open up!  It’s us!”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

And how could he know them?  He couldn’t see their faces standing out there on the other side of the gate in the dark with no lamp to light them.

Hmm.  So aside from a few chuckles at the expense of the foolish bridesmaids, where is the grace in this story?  Where is the good news?

Well let’s try this.  Let’s say that we’re the bridesmaids.

If we’re the bridesmaids, then it’s both grace and good news that we’re invited to the wedding.  We are invited to the eternal celebration of God’s love.

That invitation is a gift of grace.  But that grace, like freedom, brings with it responsibilities.  That’s the oil in the lamp. A bridesmaid gets to go to the celebration.  But a bridesmaid also has responsibilities as part of the wedding party.

When the foolish bridesmaids are standing in the dark asking to be admitted to the wedding and the gatekeeper says, “Truly, I don’t know you,” it’s an echo of Matthew 7:22-23 where Jesus says,  “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Clearly it’s not enough just to talk the talk.  It’s not enough even to “do many deeds of power” in Jesus’ name.  God isn’t interested in our showmanship or our piety or our religiosity.  You need to be recognized.  

So what does Jesus want?

In Matthew 5:16 in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Light does not illuminate itself.  It illuminates everything it shines on.  Our job is to bring light and to be light, to shine the light on others, to help others see.  Our job is also to be the heat, the energy that gets the work done in a world that needs work so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven.   

When we bear the light of Christ, when it shines through us like living lamps of God’s love, it makes us recognizable as companions of Christ.  When we bear the light of God’s love we are known by Christ.

Another bit of grace I see in this story, and I admit it doesn’t look like grace or good news at first glance, is in the very last line at the close of the parable where Jesus says,  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The grace here is in the warning.  Jesus tells us flat out that the day will come when the door will close.  It is an article of our faith, our creed, that Christ will return.  We don’t talk about it much.  It’s not the centerpiece of our tradition as it is with some.  But it’s there.  

Jesus gives us a warning.  Someday, in your personal life or in the life of the world, the end will come.  It may catch you by surprise.  Keep awake.  Or it may seem like you’ve been waiting forever.  Try wait some more.  Either way, keep awake.  Stay ready.

The big mistake the foolish bridesmaids make in this parable is not that they didn’t bring extra oil. That’s certainly a mistake, but it’s not the mistake that leaves them standing in the dark.  The really huge mistake they make that ends up excluding them from the party is that they go running off into the night to try to find more oil instead of staying with the wedding party to do their main job which was to escort the bride.

On May 18, 1790 the sky was thick and heavy over New England.  The sun was pale and red in the early morning and at dusk, and when the moon rose it was pink.  The next day, May 19th, starting at about  9 or 10 in the morning, the sky began to darken.  By noon the sun was completely obscured, leaving almost all of New England in darkness.  Roosters began crowing.  Hens returned to roost.  Crickets began chirping.  Cows returned to their barns.   Many people, thinking it was the Day of Judgment, hurried to their churches to make confession and pray.  

The Connecticut Governor’s Council happened to be meeting and it was suggested that they adjourn so that they might prepare to meet their Maker.  Councilman Abraham Davenport, a Connecticut militia colonel, wouldn’t hear of it. “I am against adjournment,” he said. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”

Some things take a long time coming.  Our election this week has taught us that.  All votes will be counted and challenges met.  Eventually.  The pandemic will end.  Eventually.  In the meantime, let your light shine.  And when the election and the pandemic are behind us and we start to move forward again, let your light shine some more.  That’s how Jesus will recognize you when he returns.

Keep awake, let your light shine, do your duty… and when necessary, try wait.

(Note:  There is still a Bubba’s Burgers in Kapa’a.  Worth the wait.)

About Those Weeds…

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’  28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 

36  Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”  37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

In 1965, William Youngdahl, the pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska became convinced that racism was a pernicious evil, a spiritual cancer destroying the soul of America.  As he thought about how he might address this in his parish, it dawned on him that most of the people in his all-white congregation simply didn’t know any black people—that many had never had an actual conversation with a black person.  Youngdahl thought that a logical first step in confronting racism and white supremacy would be for white people and black people to simply meet and talk to each other.  To introduce the idea to his community, he invited youth from the nearly all-black Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church to join in worship with his all-white congregation.  That went reasonably well so he prepared to move to the next step in his plan which was to ask couples from his congregation to have dinner at the homes of couples from the Presbyterian congregation.  That’s when polite smiles faded and attitudes surfaced.  He quickly discovered that while the Presbyterians were willing, the members of his own congregation were resistant, passively at first, then more actively so.  At first they simply said they didn’t think people would be comfortable dining at the homes of their black hosts.  Then they said they didn’t think “our people” were quite ready for such a big step.  The more Youngdahl encouraged them to try the idea, the more his Council and other members of the congregation found reasons to object.  They began to accuse him of being divisive and revolutionary.  In the end, they forced him out of his position as pastor.  They saw him as a weed in their field.[1]

It seems that there always people eager to pull the weeds… or at least what they think are the weeds.  

“In Matthew’s day and in every generation,” wrote Robert Smith, “it takes little talent to finger members of the community who look like bad seed.  Where do they come from?  It is easy to lose confidence in the way God runs the universe.”[2]  

The weed Jesus refers to in this parable is almost certainly darnel, lolium temulentum, a poisonous grain that looks so much like wheat that it’s also called “false wheat.”  It’s easy to mistake it for wheat and vice versa if you’re not trained to spot the differences, especially when the plants are just beginning to grow.

Jesus says to let the weeds grow.  The reapers will take care of them when the time comes.  But almost from the beginning the church seems to have not been listening to that particular instruction.

The word “heresy” has cropped up rather frequently in the history of the church.  It comes from the Latin haresis which means “a school of thought or philosophical sect.”  The Latin comes from the Greek heiresis which means “to take or choose for oneself.” In Greek debate it was used to describe “a differing opinion.”  In church use, the conventional meaning of heresy is “a belief or opinion that is contrary to orthodox doctrine.”  Historically in the church, however, heresy”seems to have meant, “Look!  Here’s a weed!  Quick, let’s pull it!”

In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the teachings of the British Monk and theologian, Pelagius, were condemned as heresy.  Fortunately for Pelagius, he had died in 418 or he might have been in for a rough time, not that he hadn’t been roughed up a bit while alive.  After all, you don’t go toe-to-toe with powerful bishops like Augustine and Jerome without getting a few bruises to your reputation…or your body.  Theologians fought dirty in those days.  And what was the great sin of Pelagianism?  Pelagius had dared to question St. Augustine’s idea of Original Sin, the idea that all of humanity was perpetually wounded by Adam’s sin.  Augustine said that from birth we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. No, said Pelagius, we are born innocent.  True, we are born into a world where sin is nearly inescapable, but we have the gift of free will which is one of the gifts of grace!  We can choose to move toward the love of Christ and Christ’s grace brings us the rest of the way in.  No, said Augustine, our human will is entirely degraded.  The human will is not free.  Pelagius is a heretic.

On the 6th of July in 1415, Jan Hus, a Czech academic theologian,  philosopher and priest was burned at the stake as a heretic for condemning indulgences and crusades.  He had also advocated, like Wycliffe before him, that the scriptures should be translated into the languages of the common people so that everyone could read them for themselves. 

On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy and cross dressing.  The church’s case for heresy was weak and Joan answered the inquisition’s questions with pious intelligence. But they had her dead to rights on the charge of dressing like a man.  It didn’t help her cause that she was an inspiring military leader and no slouch as a military strategist.

In 1521, Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death for his widely circulated writings suggesting church reform.  Some of the reforms he advocated had been proposed by Jan Hus a hundred years earlier.  Luther had developed a large popular following and his denunciation of indulgences hit the church right in the wallet.  Fortunately, because he was under the protection of the powerful Duke Frederick the Wise, the death sentence was never implemented.

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was declared a heretic and forced to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun and not the other way around.  He died under house arrest 9 years later.  He was vindicated 359 years later in 1992 when Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo was right, the earth does move around the sun.  A mere 8 years after that the Church issued a formal apology.  Galileo was unable to attend.

In his book Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Farrrar Capon reminds us that the enemy doesn’t have any real power over goodness. The wheat is already sown.  The reign of God is already in the world and there’s nothing the enemy can do about it.  But, “he can sucker the forces of goodness into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work for him. That is why he goes away after sowing the weeds. He has no need to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway–having no real power to muck up the operation–he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him.”

All these heretics, all these persons with differing views, were seen in their time as weeds in the field.  Some were pulled and burned, ignoring the advice of Jesus: Let both of them grow together until the harvest.  He tells those who are eager to yank up the weeds that they’re likely to pull up the wheat, too.  Jesus also leaves a cautionary question hanging in the air, a question that echoes through this parable and our history: What makes you so sure you know the difference between darnel and wheat? 

Today, Pelagius is being reevaluated. A fair number of theologians are thinking that maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong and maybe Augustine wasn’t entirely right.  Jan Hus is regarded as a martyr whose ideas planted seeds that flourished in the Reformation.  Joan of Arc has been canonized as a saint and nobody much cares that she wore pants.  Martin Luther is acknowledge as a titanic figure who not only ignited the Reformation but set the stage for the Enlightenment.  Galileo opened our minds to the notion that religious dogma should not stand in opposition to empirical observations.  

Persons and ideas that were thought to be weeds in the field turned out to be wheat.

Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

Do not judge and you will not be judged.  Don’t be in such a hurry to yank those ideas or persons you think are weeds out of God’s field.  Grow and let grow.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] For a thought-provoking look at this story see the documentary A Time For Burning by William Jersey.  Available on YouTube

[2] Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew; Robert H. Smith, 1998, p.178