Back on the last Saturday in October your pastors and two elders attended the 93rd stated meeting of the Presbytery of New Hope. There are five presbyteries – our regional governing body – in North Carolina, covering 126 congregations in 27 counties from Efland to the Outer Banks. At this good meeting I heard two stories in particular that inspired me. The first was about an initiative to bring small churches together. The presbytery has organized a couple of gatherings – one around Rocky Mount and Wilson and one around Goldsboro, for Presbyterians in small membership churches to eat and pray, to hear stories of the great ministry they are doing, to think about ways they can better partner in service. We heard of one small church that has seven members. Seven. And while it is hard for them to see much of a future as an institution, they continue to serve. Every Tuesday all seven of their members get together, prepare a meal, and feed hungry people in their area out of their church. Every week. All seven of them. Instead of sitting around and bemoaning what seems to be their inevitable closing, even as they wait, they reach forward with hope.
Matthew’s church was getting worn out by the waiting. They had been living, from the beginning, with a clear sense of apocalyptic expectation. Not that Jesus would return in some far off season, but that he would be there any moment. He said it in the chapter before, here in the heart of holy week, filled with all of the intensity that is building. In the very next chapter Jesus is betrayed and arrested. Just before today’s text, Jesus himself has said it was about time. Truly I tell you, Jesus says, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.1
But after a while the waiting wears on you. Maybe this happens to you. I get frustrated waiting in line, for the light to turn, for someone to reply to a message I just sent. And that’s only the petty stuff, to say nothing of waiting to hear if you got into the college of your dreams. Waiting to hear about a job, waiting for your spouse to be wheeled in from recovery after surgery. I think about that any number of people worldwide, healthcare workers, many, who have cared for patients with Ebola and are waiting for that 21-day period after exposure to pass. Waiting for a teenager to get home on a late night, and you hear the hint of an ambulance siren nearby, and you wonder. Waiting for another lonely night to pass after a loved one has died. Waiting, in the in-between times, gets hard.
In the midst of the waiting and wondering, Jesus tells a strange story about ten bridesmaids preparing for a wedding. We are quickly told that five are foolish and five are wise. But the distinction Jesus makes is not the looks or the lamps or anything else that sets the wise apart from the foolish – it’s the readiness. The preparation. What distinguishes the wise from the foolish is the flasks of extra oil, in case their lamps run out.
As the evening progresses things take longer than anticipated, which happens at weddings. It gets late; everyone falls asleep. At midnight there is a shout…he’s coming! Come meet him! They rub their eyes and get their lamps set. The foolish bridesmaids who hadn’t planned ahead asked to borrow some oil but the wise – they may be wise but they don’t share well – say NO. They send them out to whoever sells oil at midnight. While they go out, the bridegroom comes, and those who were ready, who were there with their lamps burning brightly, with plenty of oil saved up, were invited in. And the door is SHUT. When the others come back – the bridegroom steps out for a moment – Truly I tell you, I do not know you, he says. Keep awake therefore, Jesus adds, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This is an allegory, exhorting a certain kind of faithfulness in the in-between times. Matthew is concerned that in the waiting in between Jesus, the bridegroom, first coming to earth and Jesus returning in glory at the wedding feast that everyone is getting worn down. The longer we wait, the more frustrated we get, the less likely we are to be our best selves, to live as Christ calls. Living in the in-between is hard. It also is feeling more and more like we are living in a permanent state of uncertainty. Too much is unstable. In between this congress the next one, the next natural disaster, the next violent flare-up in the Middle East we know will come. In between now and the next crisis, the next accident, the next person to lose their home and sleep under a bridge as the nights get cool. The next person we love who gets sick, the next child to die, the next parent or grandparent’s body to outlive their mind. It feels like too much sometimes, too much. While this is much lower level than these crises, there is also a lot of change around here, with Barbara’s retirement and the work all of us are doing to plan to follow someone so faithful who provided such stability for a long time. There are a lot of moving parts as we keep seeking ways to be faithful in a world that is changing so rapidly and doesn’t seem to be interested in doing church the way it has been done before.
But Matthew isn’t content with the way his community is waiting. Hope beyond, but live NOW. Back in chapter 5, Jesus exhorts his followers to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works."2 He tells them to be persistent in their faithfulness NOW. Soon in this same chapter Jesus says that whenever we tend to the hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison we tend to Him. Serving is how we best wait. Not waiting for problems to go away, but engaging them with that hope. Tired and frustrated waiting tends to narrow vision. We don’t wait with a relentless desire to do everything fix everything, work, work, work to earn our salvation. Ultimately creation belongs to God. But maybe we could allow Jesus’ impending return, whenever that may be, draw us into a more hopeful future. So that we might trust a little bit more that God is, even in the waiting, even when the waiting is exhausting, that God is working God’s purposes out. That faithful waiting is what leads a church with 7 members to keep feeding people every week. That is what we were doing as we passed our pledge packs from house to house – to friends we know, to friends we don’t know as well, as we build community as we share our gifts for Gods future here. That is certainly why we take time to honor our Veterans, as we’ll do again in a minute, men and women whose faithfulness inspires us still. We make sure our waiting matters.
And it is waiting that anyone can do. The second story from that presbytery meeting was about campus ministry. One of the strengths of our presbytery is our commitment to campus ministry. There are the ministries at Duke, Central, and Carolina we support – and we’ll welcome all three next Sunday for worship – but beyond them to East Carolina, and five schools in Raleigh. John Rogers from UNC told us about a 2014 graduate who is now working full-time in a modest paying job. She emailed John and said she wanted to support a student on their 2015 spring break service trip to Denver. She remembered her trip to Haiti early on while at UNC, and how formative it was for her experience there, and how it inspired her to serve. Now that she has graduated, she wanted to turn right around and give back and, while only five months out of college and not making much, she wanted to help. I emailed John this week to confirm the story and he said he had just received a check from this student, for twice what the trip costs. She had an experience that changed her, and she was committed to sharing that with others.
There is so much uncertainty, so much sorrow and pain. But each day, in ways big and small, we are given opportunities to serve, to wait with hope, to live for others in these difficult days. Let us trust in God’s great future, letting our light shine for ALL to see. For God’s glory in these days. Amen.
1. Matthew 24:34
2. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 280 – Matthew 5:16. This note come comes from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on this text at the 2008 gathering of The Well, Kansas City.