Prepared and Anointed

Matthew 25:1-13

Nov. 6th,2011

Most people’s first reaction to the parable of the five foolish and five wise maidens is to feel sorry for the girls who got shut out of the wedding banquet. The bridegroom was late, and they all fell asleep, and the smug, wise maidens refused to share their extra oil. But in the end, all the excuses and rationalizations do not obscure the main

point of the parable. Five of them were not prepared. They let their lamps go out.

In Bible times, the bridesmaids were responsible for waiting at the groom’s house, while the groom went to the bride’s house, to get the bride and her family. The maids then held lamps to light the way to the wedding reception, which was always held at night.


In Jesus’ parable, everything here has a symbolic meaning. The bridegroom is the Messiah, and no one knows exactly when he will return to begin the Messianic banquet. The bridesmaids are the Church, faithfully (if restlessly) waiting for his return. The oil represents the spirit of God, alight within them.


Matthew’s gospel urges Christians to ask themselves: “Am I prepared? Do I have what it takes, to shine when the moment comes? Are my spiritual reserves adequate for the waiting time?


Asking these questions shifts the focus. Instead of noticing the harsh judgment and exclusion of the foolish maids, we notice the consequences of their choices.


In an essay in the Christian Century, Mark Labberton noted:

At the moment that really mattered, the foolish maids did not have their minds on the bridegroom but on the oil. This mattered. We may hate this piece of the story, but it’s true. … We may find ourselves sputtering about good intentions, about the five foolish women just being human… But the parable presses us to search and measure our intentions. Are we preparing for the kingdom? Are we choosing to invest our freedom by preparing light to shine when and where it is needed?

In the United Church of Newport, we often speak about God's mercy and loving kindness. We celebrate God's generosity, in offering second chances to those who have messed up. But it is also true that the world is set up in such a way, that each one of us has the freedom to choose how we spend our time, and what we will do with our resources. And our choices have consequences. What we do with our time, our money, our love, determine who we become. The choices we make leave us either prepared or unprepared, to meet God, to shine with divine light.


This parable is about those consequences.

So what can we do? How can we be more like the wise maidens, and less like the foolish ones? Do we need to add more items to our busy schedules? Add “Buy lamp oil” to our shopping lists? What does it mean to be spiritually prepared to shine?


Maybe instead of doing more, in this case being prepared might mean doing less. Perhaps we need to build up our spiritual reserves through quiet and silence, rather than through more activity. AA principles remind people that they are at risk when they let themselves get too tired, too hungry, or too busy. How can you shine with God's light, when you are too tired, too hungry or too busy? It’s a set-up for bad choices.


In the parable, the foolish women had to go out at midnight, and buy more oil for their lamps. Presumably the wise maidens had taken care of this errand earlier. But the Spirit of God is not the same as lamp oil. How do we get it? It comes to us as a free gift. We don’t have to earn it, we just have to take the time, and give ourselves the space, to receive it.


It’s not just about your own well-being, and whether or not you get to go to the wedding banquet. When you have enough oil in your lamp, you can offer deeds of mercy and healing to others. When you maintain your own spiritual reserves, you can fall asleep, and still rise to light the way for others.


You are here today, and this is a chance to fill your lamp with oil.


You are here today, and this is a time to replenish your spirit.


You are here today, maybe already shining, or maybe your lamp is just about out of oil.

But because you are here, in your freedom, you can choose:

to be filled with grace and peace,

to be anointed with the oil of gladness,

and to prepare yourself to share the light. Amen.


Matthew 25:1-13 Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet and the door was shut. Later, the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”



Work in Progress: God’s Construction Zone

Ephesians 2:19-22, 3:14-17

November 13th, 2011


For the past two weeks something has been happening around our church. There’s a trailer full of tools and materials parked in the back yard. A tractor has appeared in the parking lot. Ladders and staging are everywhere, with men climbing up and down on them. Bright orange tape marks areas where it is not safe to walk.


We are a construction zone. Our church is getting a new roof, thanks to the generosity of the Friendship circle, and the bequest of Jessie Mitchell. Isn’t it wonderful to be able to replace our 40 or 50 year old roof, before it fails, and we have to put buckets in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? It’s been something we have been worrying about for at least 15 years.


But when the roof is completed, if all goes as expected, we’ll forget about it for another 25 or 30 years. That's the way it is with basic infrastructure. You don’t tend to think about it, unless it’s not working.


Today’s scripture passage compares the church to a building project, except instead of talking about the stones, bricks, plaster and beams, it’s people who form the building materials for this project. And if we were to string up “construction zone” tape, in every place where God is at work, fitting us together, there would hardly be an inch of this building that would not be draped in bright orange!


As sacred architecture, churches anchor their communities. The new logo for Newport includes the silhouette of St. Mary’s twin towers, prominent above the lake. Church buildings are solid, large scale, community spaces meant to last for many generations.


But without the people who bring them to life, church buildings are just empty shells.


I know that many of you have experienced the satisfaction of contributing to our church with your sweat, your creativity, and your dollars. It feels good to be useful, to be building blocks in this construction zone. As we make our pledges today for next year, we take pride in contributing to the heat, lights, and salaries that keep our church vibrant. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul was trying to remind the church there how good it feels to be useful. But his letter also outlines other major benefits that come to us, when we are part of Jesus’ construction zone.


…you are no longer strangers and aliens.” Aliens were the migrant workers of Bible times, and ethnic identities divided people absolutely. But in the church, we all belong. There are no strangers here.


“…but you are citizens with the saints.” Paul himself was a Roman citizen, with special rights and privileges that were denied to most of the people in the Roman world. But in the church, Paul says, we are all citizens. We all have sacred worth, and we all will be treated with dignity and justice.


“…you are also members of the household of God” Family ties defined your destiny from birth to death in the ancient world. But Jesus gathered a new family, made up of unrelated people who pledged to take care of one another. The church family is not just a nice phrase. It describes us, at our best, bound together for life.


“…built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles.” It may feel as if we build the church from scratch in each generation, but in fact, God's construction zone is centuries old. Like an archeological dig, in which ancient layers lie underneath current habitations, our modern building projects use old foundations: the passionate truth-seeking of Old Testament prophets, and the spirited courage New Testament saints.


“…with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Week after week, and year after year, we return to Jesus. Through our reverence for the Bible, through the hymns we sing, and the Sunday school lessons we teach, we keep coming back to Jesus, as the one who most inspires our faith. Without Jesus, we would be good people trying to make it up for ourselves. With Jesus, we have a story to tell and to live by; we have forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings; we have an ideal to strive for, we have a vision of the world as it is supposed to be. Our cornerstone—Jesus-- anchors the whole building. He is the repository for our history and our hopes.


“In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Holiness, according to Paul is not a place; it’s life in community. The essential structure of church life is not walls and ceiling, plaster and roofing, but rather friendship and sharing, prayer and rejoicing, lamenting and learning.


So today we celebrate life in God's construction zone! Like the great cathedrals of Europe, which took generations to complete, we are part of a multi-generation work here in Newport. Let’s take a moment now to think about that….. to honor ourselves and one another for being building blocks.


Would anyone who has been a part of this church for 40 years or longer, please stand. … You have been a dwelling place for God.


Would anyone who has been a part of this church for 20 years or longer please stand. Each of you has been a building block for the household of God.


Would anyone who has been part of this church for 5 years or longer please stand. You have contributed stones that have becomes new layers for the spiritual life of this community.

And you who are new to our church, I won’t make you stand. But I will ask you to consider how twenty or forty years from now, we will be celebrating your faithful contributions, as yet undreamed of….


We worship today, grateful for those who came before us and those who will follow us. We worship today, proud to be a part of the sacred history of this place, and humbled, to think that Jesus needs each of us, to make his church.


Paul continues his love letter to the church at Ephesus, with words that still ring true:


For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Hard hats not required. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Judgment Day on Third St.

Matthew 25:31-46

Nov. 20th, 2011

It’s Judgment Day, and you are standing in line, waiting for your turn at the throne of God. As you are waiting in line, someone gives you a questionnaire to fill out.


*How many times, on average per month, did you attend church services?

*What percentage of your income did you give to support the work of your church?

*Did you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

(In one sentence, tell what that means for you.)

*What gifts have you brought to offer the king?

At first you write down your answers with confidence. After all, no one is expected to be perfect in the life of faith, and you have heard a great deal about the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. But then the questions get harder, and you see the people around you shifting from foot to foot, and chewing on the eraser ends of their pencils.


*How many times have you invited a homeless person into your home?

*How often have you shared your food with the hungry?

*How many of the children in your town live below the poverty level?

How many elderly have to choose between heat, medicine, and food?

*What have you done to support someone in prison , or someone recently released from prison, or their family members?

*Name ten neighbors who live within a two block radius of your church.

And you think, “I am waiting to see the king, the one who sits on the throne clothed in glory, attended by angels! What do these questions have to do with how I will be received and recognized?”


Today’s Scripture lesson makes us uncomfortable for more than one reason. It implies that there will be a single moment of judgment for each of us, when our life will be summed up-- and we will either be welcomed and rewarded, or scorned and cast out of God's gracious presence. Since all of us fall somewhere on the line between saint and sinner, it’s painful for us to imagine being judged in this way. Furthermore, Jesus’ words in Matthew suggest that the judgment will not fall along expected lines of measurement-- such as how religious we were, or how much we pledged to our church, or how clearly we can answer questions of creed and catechism…. Instead, the entire weight of judgment will balance on how well we have treated the weakest and most unlovely members of the human family.


It’s the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday we enter Advent, a time of preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus, our King. The last Sunday of the church year is traditionally celebrated as “Christ the King” Sunday, or “Reign of Christ.” Today’s text invites us to consider Jesus as supreme ruler and judge, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance, the one to whom we instinctively bow down and pay homage.

Now, we haven’t had a king in America for over 200 years. But we do have a President. And it bothers me greatly, that it has been 16 years since an American President visited Vermont. Bush visited 49 states during his two terms—every state except Vermont! And Obama has served three years now, without inhaling the fresh air of our Green Mountains. What’s wrong with us, I ask, other than the fact that we are a small state, with no impact in the presidential primaries?


But if the President did come to visit, here is what probably would happen. We would go all out to show respect and honor for him. We would repaint buildings, and repave streets along his planned route. We would gather together the town’s most prominent citizens, get fancy food from the best caterers, and in general, show our best face. Of course, security forces would surround the President at every moment, to make sure that no “undesirables” would either harass or endanger him. (On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing that no recent President has come to Vermont.)


My point is that we would go to a lot of trouble to show the President an idealized view of our city, with all the rough places and rough people airbrushed out of the picture. That's just the opposite of what Jesus is asking for in Matthew. Jesus says this king is interested in what is going on in the back alleys and convenience stores. This king wants to meet the people who are living on food stamps, who are looking for second-hand coats and hats to get them through the winter. This king wants to know how our community really functions, how we take care of one another.


If you want to prepare for the visit of this king, don’t just fix the problems that are on the surface. Fix the underlying problems that cause people to suffer, and to feel cut off from human caring and belonging.


I believe it is this impulse to fix the underlying problems that is at the heart of the rather incoherent message coming from the Occupy Wall Street protests, happening around the country. Wall Street and the corporations that control much of our economy and our laws, offer a model of kingship, which is based on domination. Those who “have” are rewarded with more, and those who “have not” are blamed for their failure to compete. In 1980, the average CEO of an American company took home 40 times the average salary of a worker in his or her company. In 2010, the average CEO of an American company made 400 times the salary of an average worker.


What kind of society do we want to be? How can we work together to spread the wealth, to take care of one another, to offer dignity, work, basic health care and housing to all? These are the questions posed by today’s judgment narrative, and they remain hard questions to answer, even though we sense they are the right questions to ask.


In God’s economy, according to Matthew, we will be judged by individual acts of charity: how often we fed the hungry, bathed the sick, visited the prisoner, clothed the naked, and housed the homeless. It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that in additional to individual acts of charity, we will also be judged on our whole economic and social system.

The incarnation of Jesus has always been a paradox. As we worship Jesus, as we attempt to follow him, we hold two opposing images. On the one hand, we see him as majestic, existing before the world began, full of the fullness of God, kingly. On the other hand we see him as vulnerable, lowly, dying on the cross, identifying himself with the poor and the persecuted.


Both images are present in today’s scripture reading. The power and majesty of the kingly Son of Man inspire awe. And yet, as John Buchanan comments:

The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children…

Why do we serve one another? Is it because we are afraid of God’s final judgment? Or is it because we have glimpsed, from time to time, the face of Jesus, in an elderly person near death in a hospital bed, or in a hungry person filling their plate at our community meal? Is it because we have discovered that the way to save ourselves is to lose ourselves, as Jesus did? Is it because we have discovered, (again in Buchanan’s words, that): “God’s favorite project is to teach us the fundamental lesson, the secret, that to love is to live.”


It’s not easy to step out of our comfort zone to connect with people whose lives are very different from ours. Many people face complex problems that cannot be solved by a meal or a visit or a coat. And there is no way to measure how much is enough, when we start serving others. We all must find a sustainable rhythm that balances our own resources and the pressing needs of the people around us. We also must admit that we are all both givers and receivers in the divine economy of sharing and caring.


If we focus on judgment, we act out of fear, which is never a good starting place for sharing and generosity. But if we realize that we don’t need to wait until Judgment Day to find out what God wants us to do and be, then we can read this passage instead as an invitation. We can start looking for the face of Jesus, the King who wears the disguise of a child, a senior, a disabled person. We can start offering the grace we ourselves have known-- one meal at a time, one conversation at a time, one warm coat against the cold of winter. Amen.



(More great quotes on this passage—From Feasting on the Word)

Mark Douglas : Other texts …remind us that Christians are always both recipients of the gospel and witnesses to it. Each of us is both unbeliever and believer, both commanded to care and in need of care, both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness, both under judgment for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace, both a goat and a sheep.


John Buchanan: [This is] the only description of the last judgment in the New Testament. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections of religious practices. There is not a word in the passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criteria here, and that it whether or not you saw Jesus in the face of the needy, and whether on not you gave yourself away in love in his name.


God wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life—true deep authentic human life. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love… by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others. This is God's favorite project: to teach you and me

the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth, that to love is to live.


Lindsay Armstrong: It is easy to read this passage and miss the gospel. As we watch the sheep and goats being separated for eternity, we may see and preach little more than a humanitarian call for work on behalf of society’s undervalued members. Subsequently salvation is understood as that which we achieve. Instead, this scripture testifies that salvation is something we discover, often when we least expect it.





Watching at the Door

Mark 13:28-37, Psalm 84:1-4, 10-12

Nov. 27th, 2011 (1987 rev.)

Help Wanted: Doorkeepers for the house of the Lord, to begin immediately. Several positions to be filled, (for there are many doors between God's world and this one.) The job involves 24 hour duty shifts, for we never know when the Christ will come. A relaxed, alert attitude is preferred over anxious fidgeting. You may perform small tasks around the house as you wait, but you must be flexible enough to drop them, if there is a knock at the door. Someone must be ready to open the door and welcome him when he comes, no matter the hour.


The successful applicant must be able to put aside any preconceived notions about the Christ. If you are expecting a king in purple robes, you might be surprised. The first time, he came as a tiny baby, crying and red in the face. His helplessness was completely unexpected.


Lately, each time he returns, he seems to wear a different disguise. Sometimes he knocks at the door as an old lady, wearing a stained coat with a broken zipper. I have seen him stepping out of a car, delivering bags of groceries from the food shelf. Another time, he wore the blue-jeans and a baggy t-shirt of a teenager. Part of your job, then, is to look deeply into the faces of all who knock at the door.


He is as likely to come at midnight, as at 5 am. It’s ok if you doze off. He doesn’t expect you to be awake in the middle of the night. But light sleepers are preferred for the job. You should be able at least to get up and open the door—to offer him a sleepy smile and a warm hug when he comes in the night.


Of course, you may have to contend with some boredom during the day, as well. It’s not easy to sit by a door and wait. Sometimes the hours will go by very slowly. You will wonder if the job is really necessary. Couldn’t you just leave the door open a crack, and let him come in by himself? I can't explain it to you, but he likes to be welcomed. He likes someone to be there, to say, “Enter, Lord Jesus, and welcome to this house.” He likes someone to shout the news into the hallway, through to the kitchen,, up the stairs, “He’s here! Jesus is home again!”


So you should never feel that the hours of waiting are wasted time. You can always watch out the window and notice the changing light and shadows of early winter. Watch for the cloud of dust far down the road that signals a visitor. Watch for the figure, turning in at the driveway, Watch for the quivering of a branch, the change in the wind,; listen for the click of the gate, the sudden chattering of the birds. These are all signs that he is near.


And do not feel you must be idle while you wait. Go ahead and work at some small, useful task. You can peel vegetables for the supper stew. You can fold laundry, read a story to the children, mend a broken tool, or clean out a drawer. There are many things you can do, as long as you do not forget your primary duty: Stay near the door, cast an eye out the window, from time to time, and when he comes, be ready to put down your work in an instant and go to meet him.


This job requires a certain amount of stubbornness or, as we like to call it, steadfastness. Many people will come to the door and try to tell you that he’s not coming, and that your job is ridiculous—useless! They’ll say, “Jesus is just an idea—wishful thinking. He never existed. You’re waiting your whole life for a dream.”


Or, another will say, “Sure, Christ came once, but that was 2000 years ago. And they didn’t exactly welcome him that time. So what makes you think he’s going to visit us again? And why would he come here?”


You must be steadfast! Tell them he is real and in the world today. He has come many times, wearing many different faces. You have felt his touch on your shoulder when you were weighed down and worried. You have known the warmth of his smile. And his promise hangs in the air around the door. “I will come again. Be ready. Watch!”

If you are serious about this job, you must possess above average patience, faith and discernment. You must not get discouraged, if you have not seen him in a long while. He is entering the world by other doors. He is always among us.


It is your constant presence by this door, and your faith in his returning, that help others to believe. Just as he is a source of hope for you, you become a source of hope for others.


When will he come next? I cannot say. But often he comes when the world is darkest. Often he comes in the dead of winter, when we most crave divine light and joy.

When he comes at night, he carries enough light to illuminate the whole house. He comes often, when our hopes are lowest and we need him the most.


So watch for the signs: ice on the windows, darkness at four o’clock, bare trees, except for the fragrant evergreens. He’ll be here soon.


Applicants for the position of doorkeeper may present themselves in person at the house of the Lord. No one who truly desires to serve in this job will be turned away. One recently-hired employee had this to say about the job:


How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, yea faints for the courts of the Lord,

My hearts and flash sing for joy to the living God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house.

For a day in your courts in better than a thousand elsewhere.

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord,

than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

No good thing does the Lord withhold

O lord of hosts, blessed are those who trust in you. Amen.