|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
For about the past three years, Minnesota Public Radio has been following Bruce Kramer, an Edina resident who has been battling ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Every few weeks MPR broadcasts a new interview with this incredibly insightful man. Maybe some of you have heard these stories on the radio yourself. Early on he talked about what it was like to break the news of his diagnosis to family and friends, and to work against having his life defined by this incurable disease. He shared how his love of music helped him cope with his illness, how his wife had learned to become his caregiver, how his hopes were dashed when a study showed that a promising new drug treatment was unsuccessful, how his Christian faith has shaped how he thinks about life and death.
Four years after being diagnosed with the disease, Bruce Kramer’s life is winding down. In an interview that aired a couple weeks ago, he talked about how his impending death has changed how he lives his life in the present. “Death focuses you,” he said. “It brings what’s important right to the front, and it cuts through the things that just really don’t need to take priority anymore. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all live our lives that way?”
Many of us live our lives as though we’ll have all the time in the world to tend to important matters: to repair a broken relationship or seek forgiveness, to learn a new skill or make a change in our career, to kick a bad habit or develop a good one, to spend more time with family or give something back to society. We assume we’ll always have more time or get a second chance. Not many of us are so keenly aware of our finitude that we are able to strip away the petty nonsense and focus on the things that really matter with the time we’ve got left.
One of the many lessons Bruce Kramer teaches us is that, one day, the end will come. And his story makes each of us wonder: Will we be ready?
Today’s gospel reading is unsettling, one of Matthew’s parables of judgment. A group of ten bridesmaids are waiting for the groom’s arrival. Let’s pause there for a second because I think it’s hard to make sense of this parable without understanding ancient wedding customs. Most likely, the groom had gone off to finalize dowry arrangements with his soon-to-be father-in-law. After those arrangements were made, the groom would return home and the wedding festivities would begin. So the bridesmaids, it seems, are keeping watch, waiting for the moment when the groom would come back from the meeting with his father-in-law to begin the wedding celebration. Since it’s starting to get late, the bridesmaids bring lamps along with them.
The bridesmaids wait. And they wait. And they wait. They wait so long, and it gets so late, that they all fall asleep. Who knows why the groom is delayed. Such a long wait was really unusual, certainly not what any of the bridesmaids would have expected. Maybe the father-in-law was a tough negotiator. Maybe, after working out the dowry, the groom and the father-in-law decided to have a few beers together. Or maybe the groom’s mother-in-law just needed help resetting the clocks on their VCR and other electronics after daylight saving time. Whatever the case, the groom was seriously late.
All of a sudden there’s a shout: “The groom is coming! Let’s go meet him!” Quickly, the bridesmaids rouse from their sleep and prepare their lamps. But there’s a problem. Half of the bridesmaids’ lamps are out of oil—they hadn’t brought enough to last through such a long wait. They turn to the other five who had carried along extra bottles of lamp oil, who had planned ahead and prepared for the worst. “Share some of your oil with us!” The bridesmaids with the extra supply assess the situation. “We don’t have enough for all of us. If we share with you, all of our lamps will run dry. Go and buy some more for yourselves.”
The bridesmaids with no oil hurry off, scrambling to find a 24-hour convenience store that sells what they need. But while they’re gone, the groom arrives, and the bridesmaids who were prepared go off with the newlyweds to begin the celebration. Once they’re inside the doors are closed and locked. Later, when the other bridesmaids return with lamps replenished, they’re stuck outside. They pound on the door. “Let us in!” But it’s too late. “Do I know you?” the groom asks. “Sorry, I don’t know who you are.” And outside the bridesmaids remain.
The gospel of the Lord? Really?
This parable points to finality. When the groom arrived, some of the bridesmaids were prepared, and others were not. And in that decisive moment, there was no time left to get things together. No second chances. By the time the groom arrived, it was already too late. Those who hadn’t made the necessary preparations were out of luck. It’s a tough story, but it reveals an important truth. We don’t know what the future holds. So we should be vigilant. None of us wants to regret being unprepared when the time comes.
As Christians we believe that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. The earliest Christians believed that Christ’s second coming was imminent. But by the time Matthew was writing his gospel, about 50 years after Jesus’ ministry on earth, the Christian community had been forced to grapple with the reality that Christ’s return was delayed beyond their expectations. Over 2,000 years later, we are still waiting. We don’t know when that time will come, but we do believe “that human history has a purpose and a goal and that it is moving toward eventual fulfillment and completion” (Buchanon). Christ will come. Will we be ready?
The point of this parable is not to scare people into belief. Too often these end-times passages have been abused in that way. The point of this parable is to help us understand how to live in this in-between time. The point is to remind us that who we are and what we do here and now matters. Like Bruce Kramer who knows the end is approaching and wants to make the most of every living moment, we too should live as people who know our days are numbered, that the end of time could arrive at any moment. We should live as people who want to be prepared.
Maybe that’s one way to think of the church’s mission. The church helps us prepare for the end, helps us to live purposefully. To counter the apathy and meaninglessness that grows out of a false perception that time is just an infinite cycle of sunrises and sunsets, that there will always be more tomorrows, that nothing is ever really urgent.
That’s why we in the church don’t look out on a hurting world and simply shut down, saying, “The world is broken. Come, Lord Jesus.” The church helps us live out an active faith, where, as a community, we keep our lamps filled with oil and shining bright, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness, and working for justice and peace, so that, at the end of time, we might find ourselves living with no regrets, prepared to enter the Kingdom of God.
Today we bring forward our pledges, our financial commitments to the mission and ministry of Gloria Dei. We give to the church not because we think it will make us good Christians, not because paying the bills is a necessary evil, not even because we think our pastors are so wonderful—though maybe for some of you that’s part of it. The reason I hope we give to the mission and ministry of Gloria Dei is because of the ways the church focuses us on the things that matter, because of how the church helps us live out our faith in ways that make a difference in the world, so that, when the end comes, we will know we are ready, that our lives were lived well. That is why we need the church, and why the church needs our support. We hope that you give not out of guilt, but out of gratitude. And we hope that you give generously, maybe even stretching your giving beyond what’s comfortable, so that our mission and ministry can grow.
“What about the effect on your family?” the reporter asked Bruce Kramer near the end of the interview. “The family is doing very well,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not sad. We are sad beyond belief. But, in the end, when this is all said and done, you will be able to look at this family and say, ‘There was love. There was great love.’ So I think we’re doing OK.” When we reach the end, may we, too, look back and say, “We loved. We sought peace and reconciliation in the world. We worked for justice. So I think we did OK. We are ready.”
Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Matthew 25:1-13: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible series, vol. 8., eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
John M. Buchanon, “Matthew 25:1-13: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
Thomas D. Stegman, SJ, “Matthew 25:1-13: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Cathy Wurzer, Minnesota Public Radio, As ALS makes him wind down, Bruce Kramer reaches out, accessed November 7, 2014, http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/10/14/bruce-kramer