Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on November 12, 2023.
What is it that sustains us in times of delay? What is it that we found our hope upon? And where do we see the bridegroom coming in glory?Read more: Prepared for Joy
The lectionary has finally let us get away from the temple in Matthew. We have gotten beyond the Pharisees and the crowds and people wanting to ask Jesus’ credentials. We are now in a series of speeches in which Jesus is giving only to the disciples.
The crowds have gone. Night has come. This is, as one commentator has put it, the second Sermon on the Mount. Rather than the unnamed mountain out in the countryside where Jesus spoke to all the crowds, here Jesus is on the Mount of Olives, preparing for the end. Speaking only to his closest friends and disciples.
Here, Jesus is explaining a bit more of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Or, as this translation puts it, those who are walking Creator’s good road from above. This parable comes immediately after one which, in which Jesus talks about the master of the house coming back earlier than expected and finding those that he had put in trust of the household, abusing their power. And things did not go well.
In this story, the one who is celebrated comes late. We see within this story the community to which Matthew was writing, grappling with the delay. What is it that we do? What are we to make of this? We heard the words that some of us wouldn’t even fall asleep before the return came. We heard the words and we believed. We put our whole hearts into this effort, into this mission, into this vision.
And where is it now? Were we wrong all along, or did we misunderstand something? What happened? What sustains us in the delay? Within our, “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” and, “now, now, now,” society, we find a number of things that sustain us in the delay. Although there are many things which also frustrate us in the delay. Hold music is one of them. Especially when every so often the hold music, which is not usually a music genre that I would have chosen in the first place, breaks off to let me know how fun and wonderful it is to use the website, for which I usually cannot accomplish the tasks that I am calling to accomplish.
We find ourselves addicted to instant coffee, instant apps, faster internet. And yes, I have every so often called the Internet service provider to see if they can up the speed on mine as well. We want things now. Supposedly it’s only kids that ask, “are we there yet?” And yet, if we look at our actions, we find an awful lot of us asking, “are we there yet?”
I was amused when I first heard of that cultural phenomenon because that never happened in my family. I’m not sure if it’s just that I was always so quiet or I knew that asking the driver any questions while they were working out their rage by a long drive was a bad idea. But I never asked that question. Or maybe it was that I understood that no, the middle of the road is obviously not the destination that we had in mind. So obviously we ain’t there yet.
But we ask that question, “are we there yet?” Or to put it more biblically, “how long, Oh Lord?” This is a question that echoes throughout our humanity. It’s not just a symptom of us not being able to wait anymore. It’s a symptom of who we are as human beings, bound in time. And yet citizens of a timeless land. We understand things in part, but we don’t see the whole.
What sustains us in our waiting. For some of us, what sustains us is snacks. There is an amazing amount of waiting that we can do if we’ve got something sweet or salty or both to pop in our mouths every so often. For some of us it is books. For some of us it is movies or entertainment, games of all kinds, whether it’s crossword puzzles or word searches or whatever new thing has come up on the phone or tablet. We have ways of sustaining ourselves, of distracting ourselves.
Let’s make a distinction on that one, because sustaining ourselves and distracting ourselves are rather two different things, aren’t they? We find ourselves distracting ourselves, finding a different focus so that we aren’t paying attention to the discomfort.
That’s one of the reasons that many people within various Christian traditions take a fast during Lent. Among those who have been described as the Marines of the Christian faith, those in the Orthodox traditions, the fast is also during Advent, and it’s almost a vegan fast. So count yourselves lucky that your priest isn’t quite that hard handed on that one.
During my spiritual disciplines course in seminary we had the opportunity to practice fasting with the caveat that if your doctor says you shouldn’t, then you shouldn’t, even though this is a graded class. What some of us found was that there is a very thin veneer of carbohydrates and fats over a deep boiling rage. We hadn’t yet heard the word hangry, but it was bubbling up.
We found it for ourselves. We experienced it for ourselves. Those of us who did even a single day. And so some of us decided maybe a little more practice would be a good idea. That’s part of what is behind the fast, not only just to give us more time to spend in prayer and thinking about God and looking at God’s wonderful creation. That was the original meaning because it took more time to find and fix something that you had to slaughter and bleed out other than vegetables. Now, of course, it’s different because it takes more effort and more resources to find vegetables only, than it does to find a meat dish from McDonald’s. We see within this fasting tradition also not a, “well, if it makes someone happy, then we shouldn’t do it as people of faith.” That was not the point either. It was to give us time and practice on re-fixing our focus.
We find other ways, and perhaps a way of understanding this particular piece is also found in the first Sermon on the Mount. We remember when Jesus was talking about the ways that we live out our life as people of faith and likening it to lights set on a hill or lights set on a lampstand within a household so that it will shine throughout and give light to everyone. Then Jesus finishes up that by saying, “in the same way, let your light shine by doing what is good and right when others see, they will give honor to your father, the one above us all.” Maybe that’s why within our parable today, the wise didn’t share.
Within the Scripture we see so many times where wisdom and compassion, wisdom and generosity are linked inextricably. And so it’s a little odd to see wisdom linked with, “no, you go get your own.” Perhaps within this story, which we only find in Matthew, Matthew is thinking of those very things, those very habits and patterns that we have set for ourselves over a lifetime that cannot be shared as much as we would like.
When I have seen friends and family in the faith struggling with something that I also struggled with, quite often I yearn to just give them the answer that I came to after years of blood, sweat, tears and seminary time. But I recognize that without that time of grinding on the problem, of sitting with the problem, my answer probably won’t work for them. If it even would anyway, because we are different people seeing the different facets of God and living out different aspects of God’s good creation. Just as I cannot eat for someone else, just as someone else cannot catch up on sleep for me, neither can we share our believing, our understanding, in such that deep way. We share seeds and we share fruit, but that growing plant is not easily transplanted.
We see also within this parable a piece that has been troublesome for me. There at the end, when the foolish ones come in. They have finally gotten their oil. Who knows where they got it at midnight. Even Wal-Mart isn’t open at midnight around here anymore. They got their oil and they come to the door and they say, “we’re ready. Let us in.” And the bridegroom says, “I don’t believe I know you. You’re not getting in.” And for me, who sees God as one with open arms? That’s troublesome.
I find a bit more light by returning to the other end of that first sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about, “not all who say, Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father.” This is not works righteousness. This is not, “if I do enough good stuff, then I’ll get in. If I pray the right words, if I pray enough times or enough hours, then I’ll get what I want.” This is instead forming ourselves, recognizing that our hope is built on a good God who started things out by saying, “it is good, it is good, it is very good.” And continuing to find goodness and grace within us, continuing to yearn for seeing grace and hope in each and every one of us.
We also recognize that even though we are citizens of a timeless land, because we live within time there are things which are very, very urgent. There are people who need food today because they are hungry today. Yes, the systems which made them hungry need dismantling and that will take a long time. But in the meantime they are still hungry. The people who are unhomed need shelter today. The people who are thirsty for clean water and thirsty for justice and mercy, thirsty today. And so there is a timeliness, an urgency built into our responses to God.
We see that our hope is built on a God who loves us beyond time, and we see that our hope is also built on the ability of us to respond to form our own spirits, with God’s help, to be people who have hope, who live out grace and justice day by day. It is difficult to stay awake regardless of what verse 13 in our scripture says, to stay completely awake and aware of everything that is going on. Of all the opportunities for ministry and of all the things that God is doing, I’m so glad I don’t have to keep track of everything that God is doing. I’m ADD enough as it is. Talk about sensory overload, my goodness! Everything that God is doing in your life, in my life, in all creation, out beyond this little blue speck to the ends of the universe.
Staying awake is not exactly possible. But preparing ourselves so that we can become awake, so that when someone says, “would you look at this?” We can wipe the sleep from our eyes and say, “yes, this is good.” Or alternatively, “no, this must not be.” As people of faith responding where God is calling us to speak, where God is calling us to act, where God is calling us to breathe grace over the chaos and to find a little light. This is possible. This is holy and this is our calling with grace.