Sermon for 9Nov14 Matt25:1-13; 1Thes4:13-18; Amos5:18-24
Don’t grieve so hopelessly, you morons.
I do mean that in the kindest way, but I should explain the harsh word. In describing these bridesmaids, the word for “foolish” gives us our word moron. So this parable from Jesus says that there were ten maidens waiting for a bridegroom to come and celebrate the wedding. Five were wise, and five…not so much. Now, if it were simply that five girls were dumber than a bag of hammers, that wouldn’t really matter much to us. But Jesus says that this is about helping us know what the kingdom of God is like, which gives it extra oomph. It makes us ask if we’d also be labeled so foolishly worthless.
In the parable, we’re told several things about the whole group of ten young women: All ten arrive with lamps, expecting it may get late when the groom comes. All ten end up falling asleep. All ten wake up when the alarm sounds that the bridegroom is arriving.
What first distinguishes the morons is that they didn’t bring along a back-up jug of oil for the lamps. Now, if we’re trying to allegorize and reinterpret these details, we take it that the groom is Jesus. We presume this is a story about expecting he’s coming to be with us, leading to a big, eternal party. But we also recognize that so far Jesus hasn’t shown up. We keep waiting. And so, if we’re the virgins in the story, the next question might be what “oil” represents, what we need to have plenty of. Some have said that oil means faith. Or it’s patience. Or good works. Or the Holy Spirit.
But along with the ridiculous question of how you’d get an extra jug of the Holy Spirit is another detail: when the alarm sounds, the morons get convinced they should run to the store for a refill. First, if they’re trying to go purchase patience, they’re going to be out of luck. But even more is the story’s strange detail that they decide to run a quick errand…at midnight? It’s 1st Century Palestine; 24-hour convenience stores didn’t exist. There was no place to buy oil at that hour.
Still more ridiculous, already the bridegroom is arriving, and they leave then? What wedding party wouldn’t be able to go on because there weren’t enough lamps at the gate? In the story, he arrived just fine without them and the festivities commenced, regardless of their lamps. So these moronic maidens had run off, only to end up missing out on the party. When you go to weddings, you know that the festivities honestly don’t depend on how nicely you’re dressed or what gift you bring or really anything you would do. Instead, the point is that you’re invited to celebrate. The main object is just being there.
So I’m not sure that it’s because they ran out of oil or were short on some other intangible quality. It’s certainly not because they behaved any worse than the others. After all, all of them fell asleep. Even the admonition to “keep awake” isn’t a warning against the morons. I think they were just fools. Though called to serve as bridesmaids, they failed in welcoming the groom. So they were worthless.
With that, I want to turn to two other biblical references to morons, with their opposite side being what’s worthwhile. First, back to the Sermon on the Mount, just after the beatitudes we heard last week, Jesus says salt which has lost its saltiness is worthless. Literally he says it’s moronic salt. You can’t add new flavoring to old salt. Really it has just stopped being salt. Like bridesmaids who don’t celebrate at the wedding and aren’t fulfilling their role.
Second, the place where the words wise and foolish are most used is at the start of 1st Corinthians. In a shocking reversal there, Paul actually says we want to be fools, but of a certain kind. We are morons for Christ. Though foolish, he says, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and the center of this is that we proclaim Jesus Christ, and him crucified. That center can’t be improved upon with the self-help section of the store. Rather than trying to make ourselves worthy and so well-prepared and add to our saltiness, we take it as an already accomplished gift. We put our hope in Jesus.
That brings us back to my harsh greeting, telling you morons not to grieve as those who have no hope. That is the absolute center of who we are, because that is who Jesus is. We fulfill our role as people who hope, even in the face of life’s worst circumstances. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.
Our starting point is that Jesus gave up his life for you, that he was willing to die for love. In spite of shortcomings and imperfections, the very regular ways you are a fool, running off in the wrong direction, for how much you feel unlovely or even have been told you’re worthless, still Jesus claims you as worthy of eternal love. And if that’s our starting point, it shapes the rest of our lives, too. We live as morons, because we believe that a dead guy loved us and lived for us and died for us.
We foolishly believe that makes a difference for us now, and for our world, and for the fate of all existence to come. And we invest ourselves in it further, claiming that we live in a different kind of kingdom. We assert that blessing and honor and power and glory and might aren’t the kind claimed by our world, aren’t revealed in profit margins or in beauty pageants or in corporate boardrooms or war rooms or in athletic clubs or country clubs or election results or popularity contests.
“Do not grieve as others do, who have no hope.” Of course it’s a foolish word, since our catalog of worries and griefs and frustrations and despairs these days is long. My list starts with the impending global catastrophe of mass extinction, of flooding coastal areas, the end of Glacier National Park and coral reefs, of weather patterns and agricultural reliability that have made our way of life. We also name racial tensions that continue in official killings of black teenagers and of people termed as illegal and deported from their families. We cite the disregard for other whole categories of life, discounting the value of women or of youth or those trapped in poverty. We name debts and a rampaging consumerism that tries constantly to convince us we don’t have enough, that tells us we’re in the holiday shopping seasons and must keep the economy humming or else, that our phone should be newer and do more, and without it we are worth less.
But we don’t buy into that, and that is what makes us fools, at least in our better moments. There’s more we don’t believe. We’ve been told that might makes right. We’ve been told winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing. We’ve been told that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. And our language assesses the ultimate and final worthlessness in the term, “As good as dead.” And yet, we claim that even in death is still actual good. Even that is merely a sleep, waiting for the resurrection to life everlasting.
Obviously to stay so foolish takes help and reinforcement. In 1st Thessalonians Paul tells us to encourage one another with these words. It takes constant reminders, against what happens in our world and against the evidence of flat-lining EKGs and embalming fluids and crematory fires and worms and decay that seem so triumphant and so final. Here again is your encouraging word: Jesus lives. Death has lost its sting. You have hope.
And not only for that final day when the bridegroom comes, rousing you from the slumbers of death. We continue to live in this community of encouragement. We grieve, but we do not grieve like the hopeless. Instead, we follow a Lord who loved us to the end, to the utmost, to eternity. Facing fears and overwhelmed by apathy, we unleash not a trickle of hope or a frugal faucet of good news, but a flood of mercy and grace and love that’s unstoppable. “Let justice roll down like mighty waters,” the prophet calls to us. This phrase from Amos was a favorite of Martin Luther King—who suffered jail and beatings and fire hoses and police dogs and his house being bombed, and not just him, but thousands who were threatened with him—for living toward a dream. Through it, he held hope in the brother- and sisterhood of this broad family. And even death couldn’t stop it, and still can’t.
This is who we are. We’re not here in worship to offer trifles and to mumble utterances of praise. We’re here to be shaped into a community sharing hope, a people who continue refusing to give in to despair, as beloved ones who keep living past grief. Stomachs keep getting hungry, but our Food Pantry volunteers keep feeding. This week at Confirmation Extravaganza, students joined in the too-often fruitless work of peace for the Middle East. I keep pedaling my bike, though that can’t hardly stop climate change. People keep dying, but we’re still gathering here. We expect more. It’s foolish, but we believe it’s right.
See, we are people of hope, Jesus people. Even death cannot stop us, much less the obstacles of other comparatively piddly injustices or the daily grind of bad news. There’s a party coming, and we’re ready and eager to share the celebration.
Hymn: Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers (ELW #244)