New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 12, 2017 – Stewardship Sunday
I gotta say it. I don’t like these bridesmaids, the foolish or the wise. This story has always gotten on my nerves. It flies in the face of “if you’ve got two coats, give one away”, “to those whom much is given, more will be required”, and “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also”. It smacks of entitlement and the fear of enabling, of selfish care rather than self-care: “Hey I earned this, I bought what was necessary and you didn’t; don’t expect me to carry you, be responsible for once, will you?” This is supposed to be about the kingdom of heaven, where someone finds treasure buried in a field and sells all they have so they can buy the field, or a merchant who sells all they have for that pearl of great price. And that ending is harsh: “I don’t know you”? What about the One who sent Jesus, who said, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name; you are mine”?
This is a passage more about being ready, being prepared, and it’s difficult to inspire people to readiness without some sort of fear. You’ve probably heard this aphorism before; Olivia learned it from Newark High’s former band director, Mr. Wittman: To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is not to be. To be ready is to wait for this bridegroom, to wait is to have plenty of lamp oil, and to have only what is in your lamp is not enough.
I know what it is to wait for a bridegroom. I waited for David to come into my life. I waited, we both waited, you waited with us for three years, while he searched for work closer to Delaware. None of us would’ve made it far if we didn’t have oil to spare for that lamp of light that burns within us.
But what is it we the Church are supposed to be prepared for? The warning comes through loud and clear, so loud that it almost drowns out the hope that is in this passage: hope for the future. The bridegroom is delayed, for about 2,000 years now. Three years is kid’s stuff. Back when this story was written, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, everything was in flux, and so Matthew has the disciples asking Jesus just days before he dies, what is going to happen next, give us some clues, something we can pin our hopes on so we can be ready when it happens. The disciples are looking for some reassurance, and frankly, so are we.
This section of Matthew is called “The Little Apocalypse”, which, when you think about it, is kind of like saying “a little pregnant”. Those who follow Jesus are living through an upheaval, the changes are unstoppable, and there won’t be any rescue coming for them. There are no guarantees as to when Jesus will return, when the bridegroom will arrive. They need to be ready for whatever the future might be. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning—the time is drawing nigh.
In our own tumultuous times it’s all too easy to be cynical, to take the short view, play it safe, keep things as close to the status quo as we can, to not bet too much on the unknown future, buy low, sell high. But Jesus would say that would make us foolish bridesmaids, to take only the oil that is in our lamps and nothing more for the delayed, hoped-for party.
However, science says there are reasons to be hopeful. We have very real problems—like climate change, racism, and war—but there are also brilliant hearts and minds who are going to work on these problems. We’re generating more renewable energy than ever before. Solar energy usage is at an all-time high and its costs are going down. We’re learning how to use the advantages of and diminish the downside of screen time in our lives. We’re realizing how listening, dialogue, and the inclusion of all stakeholders can lead to strategies that not only solve but prevent conflict. Though we can take a pretty dim view of social media, there are some web users who work to make the internet and the world a better place, like Brandon Stanton and his “Humans of New York” photos and videos.
Where science and religion or imagination or hope run close together is in science fiction, which has given us incredible leaps forward. Thanks to genres like Star Trek, we have the flip phone, the laptop computer, the smart phone, the tablet, 3D printers, holograms, and natural language queries like Siri and Alexa. Good science fiction helps us imagine a hopeful future that is as yet unseen.
On my Star Trek calendar yesterday, I read this quote from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard informs a citizen from the 21st century, “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” Rather than fear, it is dreams like this that can inspire us and give us hope for the future.
But science and science fiction can take us only so far. Gus Speth, an environmental lawyer and advocate, wrote, “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
This is where the Church, and other faith traditions as well as humanism, help us dream God’s dream and keep hope alive. The opposite of selfishness is selflessness. The opposite of greed is generosity. The opposite of apathy is empathy. And despite the dim view that many take of religion, selflessness, generosity, and empathy are core values of most world religions.
We do not know what form church or community or faith will take in the future. We do not know when the bridegroom will arrive. Both Church and society have changed since Martin Luther’s reformation and both are changing again. Something new is emerging out of our current upheaval, the diaspora of the spiritual but not religious. Religion editor and author Phyllis Tickle, nicknamed the Evangelist of the Future, notes that this something new is “post-modern, post-Christian, post-Protestant, post-denominational. What do all these posts mean? That we know where we have been but that we have no idea where we are going!” Church does not exist to preserve itself, its familiar forms but rather its core values and mission: a spiritual and cultural transformation that moves us toward more selflessness, more generosity of spirit, more empathetic hearts and minds.
This is the oil in our lamps of which we must be good stewards. This is the future toward which we give: a future forward Church, one that is not only ready but eager for the new thing being done in our midst.
As we read in our call to worship, words taken from the back cover of the bulletin:
If the Gospel is about nothing else, it is about hope.
Hope in a better world.
Hope in the compassion of human beings.
Hope is a gift from us to the future.
What do we need to do,
What do we need to give
So the future will receive its gift from us?
Who will benefit from the gift or pledge we will make?
It’s not what we give up,
It’s what we give to.
What will this church mean to the future?
What do we imagine that future to be?
The future is asking.