Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Real Life and Real Life

So, last week was a crazy busy one. Not only that, but the business required a level of creativity that's difficult to sustain. I feel pretty taxed. So, because I missed last Thursday's post and I've got no time or energy to write one for today, you get my sermon from Sunday.

It was partially inspired by chapter eight of Empathy for the Devil by JR Forasteros, which came out last week (and which I reviewed in my last post). I struggled mightily with how to make sense of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the idea of psyche and zoe that he elucidated so well in the book framed what I was trying to say quite nicely.

Anyway, here's my take on Matthew 25:1-13:

There was a guy, we’ll call him Fred – an ambitious young man with lots of potential. He joined the military out of high school and stayed in long enough to pay for college and an MBA. He got the education he wanted, but when he hit the work force, he was already years behind his peers. So he worked extra hard, burning the candle at both ends – and within five years he was the youngest executive in the history of his company. A great success story.

He got there the right way, too. People genuinely liked him. He was tough, but fair. Fred was everybody’s image of a go-getter. Along the way he’d even managed to marry a wonderful woman, and after five years, they were starting a family – with his new position, they thought it best for her to take time from work and stay at home with the kids.

So Fred just kept going. He continued to work harder than everyone else and now he coached his daughter’s soccer team and made it home for family dinner at least once a week. They took the right vacations to the right places and his wife never felt like an outsider when she got away with her friends. They had anything and everything they wanted.

Fred and his family went to church, too – religiously, even – spent every Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen, serving turkey and eating with folks who just weren’t as fortunate. Will was one of the other volunteers – he and Fred knew each other from church and their families ended up sitting together one Thanksgiving. Will invited Fred to his pick-up basketball game.

“Oh man, I haven’t really played basketball since high school,” said Fred, “It was absolutely my favorite thing in the world; I’d love to come. You said 5:30 on Thursdays? I’ll be there.”

So Fred got up a little earlier, sent his secretary an email that he’d be in late and entered the middle school gym. The guys were going back and forth, maybe a dozen – running up and down the court in a way that was simply nostalgic. The smells, the echoes, the squeaks on the floor.

Fred jumped into the next game and started running. Most of it came back – his shot was a little off, but he hit one or two and no one was really young enough to play defense anyway. By the end, though, his lungs were burning and the lack of sleep couldn’t just be covered up.

As Fred heaved on the sidelines, Will came over. “We won, Fred, we have to play again.” Fred responded, “Sure thing, can I buy some of your stamina.” Will began laughing and started to play along, but then he saw something in Fred’s eyes, “You’re not serious, are you.” “Of course, I’m serious,” says Fred, “I need more stamina to play. I’ve got the money. What does it cost?”

Will’s a little taken aback, “Fred, you have to know it doesn’t work that way, right? We’ll just get somebody else.” He called to another waiting player and they started a new game. Fred was left, breathing heavy, voice sounding desperate, “C’mon guys, let me play. I just need a little energy, a little more oil for the fire. I’ll pay whatever it costs. Please, I need to play.”

I grew up going to church. I heard the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids any number of times. They’re all waiting for the groom. It’s getting late. Some run out of oil and ask those with oil to borrow some. I always wondered why they couldn’t just share the oil? If the groom is coming, that means they’re not going to need much more – surely there’s enough to give the foolish ones a little bit to tide them over, right?

The best answer I can come up with is that it’s a parable, an analogy for life and in real life, it doesn’t work that way. Like Fred, we discover there are some things we need we just can’t buy.
I can give you the best running shoes in the world, give you all the water and nutrition and maps you need – professional level marathon support – but if you didn’t train you won’t be able to run the race – it’s as simple as that. Some things in life require preparation.

You might say, like Fred in the story, I’m working so hard, doing all the right things, just trying to find happiness or fulfillment, or to appease my guilty conscience, and it just doesn’t seem like enough. We’ve all been there: desperate for just a little more oil. One more hour, one more dollar, one more prayer, one more date – just one more and I’ll have what I need to be happy.

Satisfaction is always just over the next horizon – and that’s what makes heaven such a hopeful proposition. We slog through life the best we can, then finally, someday, we have what we need.

If you come to adult studies you’ve heard this a whole bunch, but we get heaven wrong. The Kingdom of God is not about the fulfillment of all your desires; it’s about being content without them. The Kingdom of God is not some far off future event, it came with Jesus and while it’s not fully realized yet, we can begin to live into the Kingdom of God right now.

In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t have what they needed to enjoy the party, because they were waiting for the party, rather than preparing for it. They were looking for some far off heaven, rather than seeing the Kingdom of God all around them already.

It’s a confusing parable for us, because in our world things are reversed. The people we call prepared are the ones doing everything. Like Fred, they’re working hard, taking care of their families, and checking all the boxes of success. Jesus is saying, though, that these are the fools, the people who think they can work their way into the Kingdom by doing everything right.

In the end, though, they just end up desperately looking for more oil, because they never arrive. They never find what they’re looking for, just more pressure to do even more.

That sneaks into the Church as well. Too often we’ve made Christianity about checking off our own list of requirements. As much as we say we can’t earn our salvation, that’s what it sure looks like we’re trying to do. Church becomes a scary, unwelcome place precisely because we greet desperate, overworked, unhappy people at the door and hand them an additional list of things they need to do. Our solution to the problem is to do more of the same.

So it ends up that Christians look no different than the rest of the world. We might have a different checklist, but we’re still running ourselves ragged trying to get it done and desperate for just a little more oil to see us through the day. That’s not really a life any of us wants to live.

The good news of the gospel, however, is that the Kingdom of God is not some far off heaven. It’s not something we have to wait for or work for or discover the secret to get in. Jesus invites all people, the lost and the least along with the best and most prepared. He invites the wise and the foolish alike to enjoy the eternal benefits of true life in Christ. He even says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

However – and this is the hard part for us – the invitation is not for a destination. The Kingdom of God is not about arriving some place, or achieving some goal. The Kingdom of God is a journey. It’s a path we have to walk. You can join anywhere and at any time – and it doesn’t matter if some people are farther along than others; we’re all in. You can be prepared or you can be totally winging it, but you have to understand it’s not about where we’re going, it’s about how we get there.
You ever wonder about the Sermon of the Mount? We read those chapters from the beginning of Matthew where Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to give to anyone who asks without expecting anything in return, to not worry about what we’ll eat or wear – we read those chapters and our first response is “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world like that?” We think, “maybe someday our world can be like that,” and then we go right back to doing things the same way.

These “judgment” parables always scare people, as if Jesus were saying, “Do this, or else,” but really Jesus is saying, “Life is short, here’s how to live it well.”

The wise bridesmaids are the ones who do life differently. They’re the ones who live not for the destination, but the journey. They’re prepared for life if the goal we so desperately seek never comes to fruition. They’re happy in all circumstances and always ready to respond with love and grace. They look like Jesus and there’s no reason we can’t look like them.

Yes, the Kingdom of God requires us to give up our goals, to let go of this desire to feel safe or happy or secure. I think we know, in our heads, those pursuits won’t really bring us what we want, but our hearts still believe they will. Guess what? Jesus is in the business of changing hearts.

Living into the Kingdom of God does cost us something, because we won’t look like everyone around us. We won’t be seeking after the same things. There is tremendous peer pressure in our society to live by a certain set of ideals and values all of which are designed to bring fulfillment and yet never will. People who step out of that life or approach things differently get labeled – and those labels are never good. Why? Because we all want the same things, but most of us are too scared to try a different way.

Some of you here are old enough to remember the Apollo space missions. NASA made those first astronauts huge celebrities. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and all the rest were all over TV, with their crew cuts and their perfect American families. They didn’t look like hulking superheroes; they looked like regular guys.

It’s easy for us to watch videos of them floating around in space and think, “that looks like fun; I’d love to do that,” and forget the years and years of intense training that went into those space visits and the real, constant, inherent danger involved in every one.

What’s more, we see space as this exotic, attractive destination, where people like us can have the time of their lives. But I’ll tell you what, those Apollo astronauts did not see space as a destination; for them it was just something they had to do in order to get back home.

There’s a blessing I love, although I’m rarely brave enough to say it people: “May all your dreams come true tomorrow, so you can discover they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and you can get on living.”

We’re constantly in search of more oil to keep the lamps burning, because we desperately want to find peace, solace, comfort, greatness. The message of the gospel, though, is that you’re already home – the Kingdom of heaven is here! The key is to learn to live in the moment, to love the people around you, to give up the search for something great – and surprisingly, unbelievably, impossibly, you find what you’re looking for in the most unexpected of places.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen!

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