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Preparing for the Best

November 10, 2014

“Preparing for the Best” Matthew 25:1-13 © 11.9.14 Ordinary 32A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Fear of missing out or FOMO is a malady that particularly afflicts teens and young adults, even children. It’s a social anxiety disorder that drives them constantly to check the status of their friends on Facebook and follow the latest tweet from those same people or maybe a celebrity. And then the young person assesses how cool he or she is, measured by his or her attendance at a party or a concert and knowledge of the latest gossip or trend. FOMO also keeps young adults from long-term commitment, since right around the bend might be a better life partner, a more satisfying job, a more desirable place to live. It’s an obsession with a possible future that prevents satisfaction with the present. A sufferer from this disorder might ask: What if I miss an urgent text message because I turned off my phone? What if I make the wrong choice? What if there are so many choices I’m overwhelmed? As a psychiatrist says: “We have so many different ways to communicate through our phones and through Twitter and Facebook. I have access to hear everything you’re doing on a daily basis…and it can heighten my insecurities and jealous emotions because I feel like I’m not out doing as many cool things as you are” (quoted in Kristin Luna, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/04/psychology-of-fomo_n_5079621.html).

Apparently five of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable did not suffer in the least from FOMO, though in their case it may have actually been healthy if they had. They were focused on the moment, having fun with and helping their friend the bride and the other young women. They expected everything would go as planned. The bridegroom would show up at the appointed time that evening and thus their lamps would have plenty of oil to fuel the flame as they went out to meet him and escort him to the banquet hall. And even if they should run out, there was always some over-prepared girl who brought her own personal vat of the stuff to share. They needn’t think of the pesky details; just live for right now and don’t look ahead. Things would always work out as planned, and if something did go wrong, someone would rescue them.

We’ve all known those sorts of people, haven’t we? Or maybe we ourselves approach life that way. Now is what matters. “Live for today, and don’t worry ‘bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey, hey,” said the classic rock song. What reason is there to be ready for all sorts of possibilities, scenarios that will never come to pass? Why be distracted from enjoyment of the moment by a deadline or an appointment, the bother of putting together a household disaster kit or planning for retirement? It’s too painful and morbid to think about the inevitability of death and tell your loved ones your wishes about your final illness and a funeral. We become Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about it tomorrow, for tomorrow is another day.”

Unlike their friends, the five maids Matthew labels “wise” were prepared for things to go not quite as expected. They brought extra batteries, as we would say. Yes, the groom was supposed to arrive between 6 and 8, but what if some last-minute crisis at home detained him or there was an accident on the road or maybe got cold feet and he just needed more time to think about what he was doing? They were going to be ready even if he came in the middle of the night. Knowing they were prepared gave them the freedom to focus on the bride. Being super-organized ironically meant they could now be spontaneous.

Again, we know folks like that or arrange our lives the same way. But how quickly and easily can being organized become an obsession? “A place for everything and everything in its place,” goes the slogan. And we can be so consumed with preparing for tomorrow that we miss out on today, engaged with future possibilities and problems when someone is right in front of us longing for a hug or loving word. It’s like going on a trip and saying things like “I just want to be there” and “I wish we could get off this road,” focusing solely on the destination rather than enjoying the sights and sounds as we travel. When the end result is all that matters, we may miss the joys of the process, the learning and opportunities that come when we let ourselves pull off the road when we come upon an unexpected beautiful vista.

It’s not that one way is right and the other, wrong. The biblical wisdom tradition, of which this parable is a part, could hold contradictory ideas in tension. A famous example is Proverbs 26:4,5, which some of you have heard me quote before. Verse 4 says: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” But the very next line gives the opposite advice: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” How would anyone know what to do? It depended on the situation. The sages insisted that through prudent assessment of the circumstances, we discern the right course of action. What was correct for me at this time might be improper for you at another. The wise called on their readers to look ahead to consequences of actions for themselves and their neighbors. And what the sages were always interested in was building community, promoting understanding, and maintaining harmony. Every action and word should add to the wholeness of one’s community and indeed, the universe.

For Matthew, Jesus is the sage par excellence. So in the Sermon on the Mount, he could say “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” Then: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

But, as also reported by Matthew, our Lord later advised some attention to preparation, not only in the text for the morning, but in this saying: “Keep awake…for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus could tell us to do both because he was a sage, and he expected his disciples then and now to discern what was required. The bridesmaids in the parable for today were all alike in their dress, their relation to the bride and groom, their excitement, and their having accepted the invitation to the banquet. They all had lamps. When the groom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. No one could tell by looking at them which was wise and which was foolish. And those who were wise were not so because they were the first-century equivalent of rocket scientists and their girlfriends were airheads. They were wise because they thought ahead, and their preparation was right for these circumstances.

This is a tale addressed to the baptized, those who call Jesus “Lord.” The groom is Jesus. The bridesmaids are the church, a mixture of wise and foolish. The story reminds us that faithful discipleship is not about believing the right doctrine or saying the proper words. It’s definitely not about how we look or how spectacular our efforts are. Instead, it’s about good deeds, which were symbolized in the ancient world by lamps and oil. The right words are of little value without righteous action. As someone has said: “Don’t tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.” And commenting on that, an atheist blogger notes: “Why should you care if a person believes in God, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or one’s own conscience, so long as that belief leads one to do the right thing?

“And why should you care if a person claims the same religious belief as you, if that person acts out of selfish interest with no regard for the lives of others?

“For me, it’s simple:

“Does your faith in God impel you to show compassion and give comfort to your fellow human beings in need? Then you are my brother, you are my sister, you are my friend.

“Or do you believe in a God that coincidentally hates the same people you do…? Then begone; you are part of the problem.

“And the same thing’s true for atheists: Atheism can form the basis of a moral framework that leads you to strive to leave this world better than you found it, or it can be a cheap excuse to self-aggrandize at others’ expense” (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/10/06/1334806/-Why-do-you-care-what-someone-else-believes-in?detail=email ).

We’re called to the practice of compassionate faith in these days in-between the first coming of our Lord and his return. We minister in the meantime, which in our case turns out to be a mean time, we are called to a “long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s classic phrase. The lamp of good works is to stay lit, fueled by the oil of the Spirit.

That’s easy when I have to be a peacemaker in a momentary conflict or you decide to show mercy to a friend who’s contrite about a mistake, when you can slough off a couple of hurtful comments or the purity of my heart is in no danger of being sullied by momentary temptation. But what about ongoing acrimony that wears us down, with no resolution in sight? Or how about the person who repeatedly takes advantage of our graciousness, never truly changing, until we begin to feel naïve and used? Or the bully who takes every opportunity to make our lives difficult, who threatens and hurts us? Or there’s that neighbor, that family member, whose need is constant, who either doesn’t want to do or can’t do anything for themselves, and we feel stuck, with no respite? How about the willfully ignorant person who keeps spouting opinions with no basis in fact and maliciously spreads them as truth, maybe harming others in the process? Those are the times when the lamp burns low, and the oil is about to run out. Our patience is tested; our capacity for grace stretched to the limit.

But it’s precisely such difficult and consistent obedience, keeping our lamps lit, that shows we’re ready to welcome with joy Christ, the Bridegroom, whenever he comes. And when will that be?

In the next few minutes. Or over lunch or this afternoon.

I don’t mean the grand Second Coming. No, Jesus comes to us moment by moment in anyone who is in need. That’s what he said, isn’t it? “Inasmuch as you do it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” So Jesus could show up in the guise of your child who’s crying or acting out or your elderly friend who’s confused or lonely or your spouse who’s bored or hungry for attention. Might be he comes looking like the harried clerk at the store or the troubled kid in your class or the commentator on TV who makes your blood boil with her absurd viewpoints. How can he come in all these ways? Because he’s putting before us an opportunity to love, and in so doing, to love God, and in all that to open ourselves to new possibilities and depths within ourselves. Who knows what surprises may come to us when we look for the presence of Christ everywhere and all the time? What joy, what peace, what understanding of the will of God? We know how to prepare for the worst. But how often do we anticipate that God will unexpectedly bless us, how much do we prepare for the best?

Let’s put it another way. This parable invites us to expect Jesus to come to us any moment and be ready to love. This isn’t some lesson about caring for people in general. We are asked to consider the day-to-day opportunities of our lives. Maybe we learn or keep current a practical skill or a language just in case a neighbor needs help with anything from a plumbing problem to communicating to dealing with a medical emergency. Or suppose there’s an issue facing the community. How about educating ourselves about it as much as we can, so we can speak our conscience and help others to understand what’s at stake? And here’s a really long-term, big one from our Book of Confessions. In its discussion of the commandment “You shall not steal,” the Heidelberg Catechism says that God requires us “to do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good,… treat others as I would like them to treat me, and…work faithfully so that I may share with those in need” (Q/A 111). That last clause struck me. We are to work and make enough not just for ourselves, but so we may have extra to share! We never know what the need may be, do we? The point is to be ready to give help and thus show the love of Christ.

We are in this thing for the long haul. We live even more in an age of the delay of the start of the wedding banquet than did those in the first century, Matthew’s readers. We have work to do in this day of not yet, stretching out into tomorrow. As Martin Luther King observed: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” A pastor last week qualified that statement: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it does not bend gently. It bends behind sweat of the brow, creativity of the mind, and love from the souls of those who believe that every living being not only desires justice and equality, but also has a right to it.

“Justice is not a passive pursuit. The moral arc will not bend without encouragement” (Mark Sandlin, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegodarticle/2014/11/a-minister-from-tom-tillis-state-tells-us-what-to-expect-after-the-election-results/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive%2011%206%2014%20(1)&utm_content=&spMailingID=47355075&spUserID=NTU5NDgwODA4NTAS1&spJobID=560787051&spReportId=NTYwNzg3MDUxS0 )

And that’s why as we fulfill our call to love, we pray in the words of the old gospel song: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, keep me burning till the break of day.”

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