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The Waiting Game

Reverend Matt Gaventa

November 12, 2017
Matthew 25:1-13

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A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

“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 with him into 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 tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

What a brutally ironic text for this moment in our cultural lives, ten women staying up through the night waiting for one man to show up. I’d rather start with a joke, but things being as they are, I want to name this up front: over the past few weeks my phone has lit up with news alert after news alert after news alert about powerful men who have used their power to abuse, scar, and silence women, and so for us to sit this morning with this text feels at first glance deeply uncomfortable. Ten bridesmaids. One bridegroom. And some unlit hour of the night. In less reliable early manuscripts of this text, some editors have tried to clean it up bit: in their hands, it is ten bridesmaids who go to meet the bridegroom and his bride — they’ve added her into the equation — which somewhat dampens the feel of a man on the prowl. And of course the only reason they would add her into the story is that folks had begun to question the propriety of what this bridegroom was up to in the first place.

But to the fullest extent possible I want to set that reading aside. The best interpreters of this text observe here not some scoundrel looking for conquest but rather a parable set within the basic first-century traditions of the wedding feast. There has been a wedding, and now there is going to be a wedding feast, and it will be lavish and festive and it will take place at the bride’s parent’s home, and so the bridesmaids have a specific job, which is to say that by tradition they light the entrance to the house for the bridegroom and his bride as they make their way up the driveway. They might do this with oil lamps; they might do it with torches; they might wait inside; they might wait on the driveway — this is a tricky story to try to choreograph exactly — but the point is: when the bridegroom shows up at the foot of the driveway, per custom, these bridesmaids will have laid out this red carpet, except it’s not a red carpet, it’s a series of lights. It’s an act of hospitality, and welcome, and festivity, because inside, the feast is ready to begin.

The only problem is that the newlyweds in this story are not punctual. Of course our text only mentions the bridegroom so if you want to blame the husband, that’s fine, but the point is, they’re late. Nobody knows when they’re going to show up for their own party. Some of the bridesmaids, anticipating this, have brought extra oil with them, because their torches might not last long enough on their own. And when the bridegroom finally shows up on the horizon, the unprepared bridesmaids run out to Home Depot to get extra oil, but by time they get back, it’s too late, the party’s started, and they’re locked out. The point being: stay awake. And of course for centuries the church has interpreted this story in just such a manner: Jesus is, of course, the bridegroom, and the church is endeavoring to be one of the wise bridesmaids, keeping its lamps trimmed, staying faithful, staying patient, because you never know, because Jesus could come back tonight, or tomorrow, or anytime. Because that literal Biblical apocalypse could happen, God re-invading the world, the heavens split, the seals opened. Because the end could be nigh. Stay awake. The world could be over at any moment.

Which is of course why I have the news alerts in the first place.

It started simply enough. I just wanted to get score updates on Atlanta Braves baseball. Which means this is a few years back, because it’s been a while since I really wanted score updates on Atlanta Braves baseball, but that’s not the point. One day, I opened up the ESPN app on my phone and it asked me to make an account, and it asked me in my account to pick my favorite sports and my favorite teams, and so I did, I picked the Braves, and I picked baseball, and it asked me if I wanted to get score updates, and I thought that sounded amazing, so I said yes. And then it asked me if I wanted to get general baseball news and I thought that sounded fine because I like baseball and I like news and so I said yes and then the troubles began. Because it turns out that the threshold for what ESPN considers newsworthy and what I consider newsworthy are really different, and all of a sudden I would wake up in the morning and there would be a dozen headlines on my phone and they would not be significant. I do not need to know who won the sausage race at the Brewers game last night, or whether the Diamondbacks have activated somebody from the DL that I’ve never heard of.  I’d like to keep up on the game in general and I don’t have time to watch SportsCenter every night so this seemed like a good compromise but the reality is that it wasn’t working. It was too much. And it was all the time.

And that was when it was just baseball. Now, it’s everything. Now, the fine editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post have figured out that we read news stories more if they push them directly to our phones, and so every time I set it down and come back, there’s another alert. Last Sunday afternoon of course it was the news alert that ended my regularly blissful after-church nap and then I woke up and looked at my phone and a gunman had entered a church just outside San Antonio and I know you all remember exactly how it felt when you read that news alert and still it feels like a lifetime ago, a week measured in headlines, a week measured in news alerts, another powerful man accused of predatory behavior, another flare-up of violence in any number of the world’s hotspots. Another public scandal, another bit of Twitter outrage, another bit of national disgrace. Which is not even to count the personal ones. The text messages with bad news from home. The Facebook statuses with awful diagnoses. The emails too full of sadness and loss. This week especially brings to mind the old chestnut about the merchant who loses money on every sale but somehow plans to make it up in volume. It’s not just the bad quality of the news but the sheer quantity of it that makes me dread every morning to see what the night hath wrought.

But how else to stay awake? Doesn’t staying awake mean knowing about the world and engaging with the community and learning and reading and being informed? I mean, if Jesus did come back today, not, like, subtly, but, you know with the clouds and the light show and then whole apocalyptic stagecraft of it, if Jesus did that, I would know immediately, because I would get a news alert on my phone. And then I’d check the source, just to be sure, and then I’d run outside, you know, like an eager bridesmaid, I’ve heard the news, look, Jesus, I’ve been ready, I’ve been watching, I’ve been refreshing Twitter over and over, you know, looking for you, not just because I’m addicted to the news and whipped into this anxious frenzy and jonesing for the latest fix. Really this is a story about how good a disciple I am. I mean, Matthew’s first-century audience has nothing on me, what could they do except kind of go around philosophically hoping that you might show up but I’m plugged in. I’ve got it sorted. I’ve got a Google news alert for “Jesus Christ Second Coming” and yeah it gets a few false hits but the point is I’m ready. I’m the best bridesmaid in the bunch. I’m up all night. Whenever you get here. I’ll be waiting.

Except here’s the problem. The bridesmaids fall asleep. Every last one of them. Every last time. “As the bridegroom became delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.” Elsewhere in the Gospels we have parables about keeping awake — for you know not when the master of the house will return, in Mark — and some of that language shows up here, too, but it’s hard to seriously consider the command to stay awake in a parable where everybody falls asleep, foolish bridesmaid and wise bridesmaid both. The difference between the two here in Matthew isn’t that one is caffeinated and one isn’t; the difference is a difference of preparation. The wise bridesmaid is well-stocked. The wise bridesmaid has played a long game. The wise bridesmaid has led a life in expectation of the groom’s eventual arrival. The wise bridesmaid doesn’t need to stay up keeping watch because the torch is ready to go at the drop of a hat. New Testament Scholar Ulrich Luz suggests that “for Matthew, ‘watching’ does not mean that one lives in constant fear of missing the time. ‘Watching’ means following the command of Christ in such constant, complete, and undivided obedience that — as the parable creatively formulates — it is all right to sleep until the time of [Christ’s coming], because one is always ready.”

Welcome to the paradox at the heart of this text. We have to keep watch. But we also have to keep ourselves healthy, and sane, and ready. In the summer of 2016, the Washington Post reported on an emerging trend among medical professionals in our increasingly wired age. Because so much of our medical information is now digitized, and because so many of our treatments themselves run through electronic schedulers, doctors and nurses and even pharmacists are over-exposed to their own particular deluge of information alerts, about medication conflicts or pharmaceutical side-effects or key data points from a patient’s medical history. Some of these will be relevant and some won’t. But the sum total of these alerts creates something of a whitewash, a noise called Alert Fatigue, where doctors are so bombarded with bite-sized bits of seemingly critical data that they lose the capacity to weed out the important ones and they start disregarding the system altogether. One Harvard professor estimates that this results in caregivers ignoring safety notifications “between 49 and 96 percent of the time.” Which means, of course, that they’re less equipped to do the jobs that those alerts are designed to help them to do in the first place. Welcome to the paradox. We have to keep watch. But we also have to play a long game.

Yes, the world is a diseased place. Yes, the world is a broken place. If you need confirmation, there are a million news outlets with a million perspectives and very few of them abounding in good news. But Jesus doesn’t want subscribers. Jesus wants disciples. And discipleship isn’t just reading the news with righteous anger. Discipleship isn’t checking the Post first thing in the morning just to see what has gone bump in the night. Discipleship isn’t refreshing the feed over and over and waiting to fall asleep. Discipleship is “following the command of Christ in such constant, complete, and undivided obedience.” Discipleship is taking care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Discipleship playing the long game, the long work, the slow work, the everyday work, the constant, complete, undivided work of bending the long arc of the universe towards justice. We have been in this work for a long time. We will be in it for a long time yet to come. At some point we will all need some sleep.

So this is what I want you to do. There are sermons that end with vague invitations to the Christian life or vague blessings on your journey but this is not one of those. This is very concrete. If you have a smartphone in your pocket I want you to take it out. It’s probably on silent already, or it’s off — if it’s off, turn it on. And once it’s on, I want you to turn on your “Do Not Disturb.” On my iPhone, I go to Settings, and then click “Do Not Disturb,” and then I toggle the on switch. On Android phones, I am told that you go to Settings, and then to Sounds and Volume, and then, voila, “Do Not Disturb.” I’ll give you a few seconds, and if you can’t figure it out, find a neighbor who can help you either right now or right after worship. I want you to set your phone to Do Not Disturb, and I want you to leave it there until you wake up tomorrow morning. This will not prevent you from making calls or sending emails or checking the score. This will not prevent you from texting but it will prevent your phone from telling you that you have received a text message. In other words, you can still use the phone however you need to, but the phone cannot use you. It can’t interrupt you. It can’t overwhelm you. It can’t occupy you, for one day, something like Sabbath, something like sleep, something like pacing ourselves for the long work still left to be done.

Tomorrow will come on its own. And I cannot predict, nor would I want to, what new unspeakable brokenness will await us in the morning. But it will wait, for a day, while we refill the oil in our lamps. And then tomorrow we will start again. Tomorrow we will work again. Tomorrow we will set ourselves again to the keeping of this watch. Tomorrow we will set ourselves again the proclamation of this light. Tomorrow we will set ourselves again to the anticipation of this joyful feast, the joyful feast of all the people of God, which has come, and is coming, and will come into the world. When it happens, you will be the first to know — not by breaking news alert, and not by push notification, and not by status update, but rather more simply, like as to shepherds tending their flocks by night bathed in song, or like as to wise men following the star fixed upon the horizon, the light that will come and is coming and has already come into the world, and the darkness can never overcome it, thanks be to God.