Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, November 9, 2014

The Discomfort of Waiting
[Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Matthew 25:1-13]

Let us pray.  Lord, you know us well: how impatient we are, how difficult it is for us to wait for anything: a meal, a phone call, or an answer to an important question. Time acts more like an enemy than a friend. Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your Word today, so we can learn to live by the unforced rhythms of your grace. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
            I’ll confess; waiting is difficult for me.  I’m a person of action, who moves fast and prefers to engage in purposeful activities. Sitting in a doctor’s office… waiting…is fine if I can find an interesting magazine article. When I sit in a doctor’s office with my father, which I have done a lot this year, I can see where I get my “impatient genes.”  My dad fidgets until he nearly goes crazy. He looks at me desperately and says:  “Let’s get the heck out of here!” 
            Ten women in Jesus’ story are waiting. They have no idea how long their wait will be. The bridesmaids are expected to “light the path” for the groom when he arrives for the wedding feast, but no one knows what time he’ll come. What is the main point? The bridesmaids were expected to be ready & prepared with enough oil for their lamps.  Five of the bridesmaids were; five weren’t.  When the bridegroom arrived, the unprepared bridesmaids had to run buy more & missed the whole event.
           When Jesus told the story, he was speaking about the kingdom of God, which seemed closer then, than it seems now. Christians have waited over 2,000 years for Jesus to return and for the Kingdom of God to be realized on earth. In the early churches folks expected Jesus to return SOON, even before they died, but that didn’t happen.  Christian leaders revised their expectations –and tried to explain why the Lord’s return was delayed. In 2 Peter 3:8-9, we read:  “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
           Theologian Dan Ott expresses the view that perhaps all of our “symbols” for the Second Coming of Christ are actually broken symbols, which don’t simply refer to a future event, but rather to a “hope” that transcends the symbols we use to describe it. The new heaven and new earth we await is described in many Scriptures. The symbol for the Kingdom of God in today’s parable is a wedding feast, which is one of the most joyful celebrations imaginable in ancient cultures.  Even today in India, wedding celebrations in villages, occupy several days, even weeks. However, in other passages the Kingdom of God is described in other ways: where the cycle of life is overturned:  the wolf and the lamb will sit down to eat together & there will be no more suffering & no more tears.  Every generation holds onto specific visions of God’s kingdom.
           The bridesmaids, like us, are living in the waiting period. We have received the promise, but it hasn’t been completely fulfilled in our life time. In theological circles we call this “Already/Not Yet” Eschatology.  “Eschatology” is a fancy word for the study of end times.   Although we believe the resurrection of Jesus Christ has sealed the deal for our forgiveness and eternal life, in actuality great suffering continues and evil prospers. So how do we live our lives in a state of “readiness” and “preparation” for Christ’s advent? 
           God showed me very concretely this week what it means FOR ME to live in the unforced rhythm of God’s grace.  Mark Scandrette, the Emerging Church Leader who challenged us on Wednesday night to embrace Jesus’ “Revolution of Love,” pointed out that in many traditional churches, people talk a lot about “believing in Jesus” – but don’t take many “risky actions” as Jesus did. If Jesus was a “doer” – what are we doing to follow him?   The final questions raised by Mark’s challenging teaching were these:  “Who is your enemy that God wants you to love?”  “Who is the person in your life God is calling you to forgive?” “Who is the wounded person on the side of the road            God is calling you to care for?”  All of these actions can feel risky.
We also talked about the “guilt factor.” If we forgive, love or care simply out of “guilt” what good is that?  If we forgive, love or care just to earn God’s approval, is that really good?  Is it even possible to love and live as Jesus lived?  According to Mark Scandrette, it’s only possible when we live in the FLOW of God’s grace: the unforced rhythm of God’s kingdom arriving, when our egos disappear and the Spirit motivates us. Living in a state of “readiness” – is living in the Spirit – and being prepared for the unexpected knock on the door or tap on the shoulder from the bridegroom, who may be disguised as a neighbor, a stranger, or even an enemy.
            There was a knock on my door Tuesday night by a family I know in St. Pauls.  My husband took a message, because I wasn’t home. They needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment in Wilmington, scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Thurs. I’ll be honest. My heart wasn’t 100% ready to respond.  I was scheduled to attend a lunch meeting and had booked a counseling appointment with someone later in the afternoon.  I was also tired and felt like I had lots to do here at church.  My gut feeling was:  “Oh no. I’m not prepared for this.” As I prayed & wrestled with their need & my own agenda, I even reached out to other people to see if there might be someone ELSE available to assist them. However, it became clear to me:  “Sue, Christ is arriving, do you have oil in your lamp?” My afternoon counseling appointment got canceled.  To seal the deal:  Mark Scandrette asked all of us on Wednesday night:  “Who is the wounded person sitting on the side of the road God wants you to care for?” I already knew.
           As I drove them to a doctor’s appointment in Wilmington, no risky action on my part, God opened my heart. I felt deeply for this mother’s need, which I couldn’t fix.  God invited me to walk about 7 hours in her shoes, instead of in my comfortable clogs. By day’s end, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She is 30 years old & has three children. One child is severely handicapped and will never be able to care for himself.  Now she has a 9-month old daughter, born deaf and diagnosed with hypotonia. She doesn’t eat well, doesn’t sit up, and lacks head control.  The mother herself had experienced the symptoms of a mild stroke that morning and had a severe headache. The home health care nurse was worried about her & thanked me profusely for showing up to assist them.
           The mother’s niece was to accompany us as a translator; however, another relative was unable to pick the child up because she wasn’t on the “pick-up” list.  I played my pastor card, and went to the high school to plead with the secretary, get permission from the principal and make a call to the child’s father, using Mr. Goins, the Spanish teacher to get permission for the mother’s niece to be released.
From then on, I was just the driver and a witness to this family’s quiet desperation. I listened as the doctor struggled to understand what was going on in the child’s life. No problems were solved. The doctor gave mom a special formula and made another appointment a month away for her to attend a specialized feeding clinic.  We picked up food for ourselves and got back on the road to St. Pauls.  The baby was fussy and cried most of the way home.  My heart ached.  When I got home, I told David that if I was living this mother’s life, I would want to run away! In the car on the way home, the mother said to me through her niece:  “Please tell Pastor Sue that when my husband found out she would be driving me, he felt God would be with us.”
           I couldn’t shake this experience loose! Their second child has been on our prayer list for four years. Without supernatural intervention, there is no healing in sight and now his sister is in jeopardy. I tossed and turned all night. Then God reminded me of the Presbyterian Women’s Thank Offering we are collecting today. The cloud hanging over me began to lift, as I remembered that women and men who CARE do make a difference.
In 1888 when this Thank Offering was started: women were asked to give $1 above and beyond their regular offering as their “thank you to the Lord.” The money was used to help mothers and children who suffer.  My sense of powerlessness began to lift. Women, who didn’t have a right to vote and didn’t work outside the home in 1888, used their collective power to create an offering which brought real hope to people on a large scale. I’ve seen the work of Presbyterian Women all over the world – I’ve lived in buildings their offerings paid for and seen maternal health care improved by the equipment they sent to remote villages. I’ve met young girls being educated by scholarships from PW. 
           When Jenny Bedenbaugh and I talked about the Thank Offering, I intended to put $10 in one of these envelopes. After spending the day with Teresa, my perspective was transformed dramatically. I decided I could give $100, especially when I looked at the groups who received grants. My daughter, Mary, studied in Kigali, Rwanda, and lived with a local family there while she was in college. The Presbyterian Church of Rwanda is one of the grant recipients in 2013.  Mothers, children and families benefit from all these worthy projects.
“The parable of the bridesmaids invites us to live our lives in celebratory anticipation [of what Christ wants to do here and now] not in sleepy apathy.”
           After upgrading our facility for people with handicaps, which we couldn’t have done without generous donors from outside our church, I realized I need to think bigger about my own small acts of kindness for others.  Members of Mark Scandrette’s Christian community decided to practice Jesus’ teaching with a campaign called: “Have Two: Give One.”  If I can give $100 to the improvement of our facility, then I can give $100 to the needs of others.  I don’t ever want to stop forgiving, loving my enemy and helping the person who is wounded on the street where I am walking.
           The bridegroom, Christ, arrives whenever and wherever we live as Christ lived and do as Christ did.  I pray we will always have enough oil in our lamps to show compassion when Christ knocks at our door or taps on our shoulder.  As we wait for Christ’s return, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Let us pray.

Dan Ott, “Theological Perspective on Matthew 25:1-13,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, Chapters 14-28, edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 258.