09 November 2008

Sermon for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost - "More Useless Cramming"

In December 1992, I was a freshman music education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My friend Mike and I were in the same section of Music Theory 101, and our final exam was Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. All semester, we had laughed at the choir people who were getting their first real work in music theory: being instrumentalists, we’d been dealing with notation and chord structures since we first started playing. But by the time the final rolled around, we’d moved into stuff that was advanced enough to require studying, which we didn’t do, of course. So, on Thursday night we decided we needed to do a bit of studying. We started by heading over to my dorm room for coffee, and spent an hour or so listening to the marching band CD I’d just bought the day before. From there we were drawn into a discussion of the finer points of Monty Python, complete with a listen to the Monty Python tape I’d just purchased at a local record story. Around 3:00 A.M. we finally actually started studying, and at 6:30 we decided we’d had enough and breakfast was in order. So, off to Denny’s we went, and at 8:00 we walked into the music building, arm in arm, singing Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” at the top of our lungs to celebrate the end of the semester.

The question I want to ask you this morning is, “How much of the information on that exam do you think is still with me today?” You know how this works: the classes you attend diligently, in which you read the assigned work and complete the assigned homework, are the classes that give you knowledge that remains with you. The classes you skip, the reading you don’t do, the homework you don’t complete, until you cram for the final so you can pass the test? Those are the classes that don’t stay with you. That’s the information you have to learn again. My brother Brian is an elementary school teacher, and one of his primary complaints about the “No Child Left Behind” education standards is this: he spends more time “teaching to the test” than he does educating young minds and teaching children how to think, study and grow. Nothing you’ve ever learned in a cramming session will change your life – you’ll pass the test, maybe, and move on, nothing more, and that, friends, is the tragedy of the Parable of the Bridesmaids this morning.

The word our New Revised Standard Edition translates “Keep awake” is gregoreo. Eugene Boring is a Matthew scholar who says that the translation isn’t quite right.

Matthew opposes the frantic quest for [information about the end of time], and
he pictures faithful disciples as those who do their duty at appropriate times
and are thus prepared for the [coming of Jesus] whenever it comes. Such
disciples can lay down to sleep in confidence, rather than being kept awake by
panicky last-minute anxiety. Thus the Matthean meaning for gregoreo is "be
prepared," not "keep awake"/"watch," and it might be so translated in this

How many of you guys were Boy Scouts at one time or another? I was. Remember the Boy Scout motto? “Be Prepared.” I was a lousy Boy Scout, mostly because I was never prepared for anything. Why prepare when there’s always someone who’ll help you get things done when the time comes? But what does it mean to “Be Prepared?” As I recall, there was a Boy Scout handbook that came in pretty handy when it came to being prepared. Likewise a compass, pocketknife and other basic equipment when we went camping, not to mention sleeping bags and tents, since you’d be wet and cold at night without them. The Boy Scouts weren’t just talking about a mindset when they said, “Be Prepared:” you are actually supposed to see to it that you’ve got the things you might need with you. You pack the equipment you’ll need for the journey, and you know the skills that will come in handy should you need to improvise. You certainly want to make sure your lamp has enough kerosene to last the night if you go out in the dark, right?

Boy Scout mottos and three-fingered salutes are useless when you’re in the middle of the woods: what you need is a compass and orienteering skills. Last-minute cramming fueled by Denny’s coffee and a healthy dose of Monty Python is useless when you’re a college student who’s supposed to be learning professional skills that will last a lifetime: what you need is knowledge embedded in your mind through practice, repetition and application. In the same way, we cannot find our way into the reign of God with empty lamps and the appearance of good behavior. The foolish bridesmaids are doing more useless cramming, and because they were not ready, they suffer the consequences of their lack of preparation.

So, what are we to do? How are we to “keep awake” or “be prepared?” There are three parts to what Jesus asks of us in this parable. The first part is simple: show up. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” He’s right. You won’t truly learn anything here at Iowa State if you don’t show up for your classes. Likewise, you won’t be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ if you don’t have a regular encounter with it. Read your Bible, with others when you can. Pray, again, with others when you can. Make time to contemplate what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

The next part is more complex: give up. Understand this and things are going to change for you, instantly. You live in an environment where your worth is determined by what you produce, by the tests you pass, by the honors and awards you earn through hard work. For the arena of college education, that’s fine – it’s as it should be. But that is not how life in the reign of God is structured. The kingdom of God is not marked by our accomplishments or our glory – it is marked by the cross of Jesus Christ alone, and all of creation, everything in this world, falls under its shadow. There is no test for you to pass: you were brought into the reign of God when you were brought to the baptismal font, washed clean in the name of Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit through water and word. The life of following Jesus isn’t even pass/fail: you’ve been marked for God forever and no accomplishment of your own can ever make you more worthy of God’s love or more beloved by Christ Jesus. Give up, folks: there’s no extra credit in heaven, and the only being in heaven that gets a summa cum laude is the one with the scars in his hands, feet and side. He earned those scars in love, and that same love is his gift to you – receive it gladly and offer it to others with joy.

Finally, wake up! Did you notice the funny thing about Jesus’ parable? All ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep! You are not being called to a life of endless all-nighters and constant worry about missing the moment. Let’s go back to the academic arena for a moment: why are you pursuing a degree from this university? Once you get that degree, once all the classes are done, what are you going to do? You’ll be contributing something to the world, whether it’s science or accounting or music or teaching or whatever. Your education here teaches you how to interpret the world in which you live and how to help others live in that world – is it so hard to believe that Jesus asks the same of all of us who come to him in faith? The church does not exist simply to help people pass some sort of exam: we’re here to be transformed by the Holy Spirit for life in the world God has made. This life has times of great celebration and times of great sorrow. This life has times of struggle and strife and times of peace and contemplation. This life has times of intense hard work, and times of sweet, blessed rest. When you give up your idolatrous quest for self-justification and show up to be transformed by the reign of God, you will know when the time has come to wake up. When the bridegroom came in the parable, there was a loud cry of welcome, and the bridesmaids all woke up and prepared their lamps. It’s a matter of trust, to know that, yes, the end of time is coming, that God will one day make all things new. But that time is not yet here, and while we wait for it to come, we do not wait in anxiety or apathy. We wait with joy, knowing that because Christ has invited us to be prepared, we are to be part of what is to come, and the feast with which this new creation will be inaugurated will be great indeed.

Be prepared, beloved of Christ! Don't wait for the end and think that more useless cramming is the answer: the reign of God is near! Show up and be transformed, give up and be made holy, wake up and welcome your Savior. Christ be with you all. Amen.

[1] Boring, M. Eugene. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. © 1994, Abingdon Press, Nashville. P. 451 [my interpretations in brackets]

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