“Where Gladness and Hunger Meet”
Matthew 25:1-13; Isaiah 40:25-26; Frederick Buehner Quote
It’s always about Jesus?
There’s a story that pastors like to tell. I think I first heard it when I was in seminary. It’s the story about a preacher who was leading a children’s sermon. This preacher told the children all about how squirrels gather nuts and hide them away for the winter. He explained to the children how important it was for the squirrels to store up nuts while they were available so that they’d have something to eat when the cold weather arrived. When he was finished, the preacher asked the children if they knew what his lesson about the squirrels was. One small child raised her hand, and she said, “I know, I know, it’s all about Jesus.” The preacher was a little surprised because he wasn’t talking about Jesus at all, so he asked the little girl why she thought the lesson was about Jesus, and she said, “because you’re the pastor and it’s always about Jesus.”
Matthew 25:1-13 — The Parable of the Ten Virgins
So is our gospel story for today all about Jesus once again? Here is an extra peculiar story. The wise virgins aren’t very nice and refuse to lend any of their oil to the foolish virgins, so the fools have to go off to the store to get some more oil. Long before the bridegroom arrived all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Turns out the bridegroom doesn’t know five of the bridesmaids so he shuts the door and says: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Ouch! Harsh! So why are we progressives reading such a text like this anyway?
Many of us have been hanging around the church for so long, that we’ve heard this story explained as the bridegroom who is actually Jesus and that we, the people of the church are the bridesmaids or virgins who must keep awake because we don’t know when Christ is coming back. The end is near!!! Doomsday awaits! But, let’s get real. The best biblical scholarship that I could find on the subject of this so-called parable, insists that Jesus didn’t tell this story. This story does not make any sense when stacked up alongside the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This story only makes sense when you consider the plight of the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew. Matthew wrote this story to the people of his community who were longing for someone, anyone to come along and save them from the persecution of the Roman Empire. This story makes sense when you consider the context.
We should all prepare to change the world that is around us to conform to God’s kingdom on earth. We should prepare ourselves to see Christ’s return over and over in the people around us—to see the faces of Christ before us. As a progressive Christian, I am convinced that Jesus will not lead us to heaven. Instead, following Jesus will take you right smack dab into the middle of the world: right into all the mess of living, right into the ugliness of all the politics, right into the fears that haunt us, the disasters that threaten us, and the needs of all those who cry out for love. That is where Jesus leads us. It won’t always be pretty. It certainly won’t be easy. It definitely won’t always be where we would choose to go. But it will certainly awaken us to all that we are created to be. Are your eyes open? Are you prepared to be a Christian in the real world?
Vincent Van Gogh—Starry Night
I am convinced that this story is really about us and God—not Jesus—it is about God’s promises and our responsibility amidst the chaos of tragedy and despair. On one of my visits this week, I was able to see Larry and Chris Porter in Wilsonville. One of the things they said captured my imagination. They love the fact they can go out on their back porch on any clear night and just look at the stars. Very often, those of us living in the Portland metro don’t get that opportunity with all of the city haze. Sometimes, we just become too busy to notice. I remembered my days of living in Northern Idaho and looking at the stars and all the stories they tell. I immediately thought about one of my favorite paintings—Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night —his image of the night sky swirls across the canvas full of vitality and power that speaks of God’s presence.
Not many people know it, but Van Gogh was a preacher before becoming an artist. He could not abide by the church’s intolerance and strict teachings so he abandoned the ministry. Go figure. In a letter to his beloved brother Theo, Vincent explained, “To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward more loving.”
Some of you remember that Van Gogh ended up in a mental health institution due to a debilitating disease. Today, he would have been diagnosed with manic depression or bipolar disorder. It was in the grip of this disease that Van Gogh painted his Starry Night masterpiece. In it the church stands—tall and dark—the cypress tree is twisted and agonized—meant to symbolize our suffering. The sky, however, has the last word. vast and magnificent, it fills three-quarters of the canvas. Van Gogh is saying to us: this is God, the mystical nature of the divine, the breadth of the spirit. This is the mystery we call God who is not somewhere but everywhere. It is as if Van Gogh is quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? God who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of God’s great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
Faith is about Trusting, Loving and Living
For both Van Gogh and Jesus, spiritual union with the Almighty was the meaning of life. Faith is not about believing this thing or that thing. Faith is about trusting, about loving, about living. Faith is not about believing this thing or that thing—faith is putting one foot in front of the other trusting that the ground will be there. Faith is not about believing this thing or that thing—faith is about looking into the darkness and trusting that there is love and having courage enough to give love in return. Faith is not about believing, faith is about living—living knowing that the darkness awaits us all but trusting that the darkness will not overcome us.
So, enjoy the starry nights this summer, my friends. Be prepared yes—not for doomsday to happen, not for the bridegroom to return—but for the possibilities to begin. Despite the metaphors that have been handed down to us in Matthew 25, Jesus is not the bridegroom and we are not all the virgins—some of which are pure and others tossed aside. In the same way, Jesus is not the shepherd and we are not the sheep as we see later on in the chapter. These are metaphors designed to put our fears to rest and focus on living life with vitality today. Not tomorrow. Today. Faith is about trusting, loving, and living.
Matthew 25 calls us to live with vitality. And this applies to the church too—making sure that our ministries inward and our missions outward and our calling to the world remains vital to who we are as a community. As Frederick Buechner once said: “The place God calls us to is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”