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Sermon Archives

November Fools

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Nov 09

The world is made up of those who plan ahead and those who take life as it comes, one step at a time.  You know the types: those who make careful choices and those who act more impulsively, those who like things settled and those who prefer to keep their options open, those who are punctual and those who are always running a little late, those who schedule their lives and those who are more spontaneous, those who write their sermons early in the week, and those who write on Friday or Saturday. As Matthew puts it, the wise and the foolish. But it is such an easy distinction? Is it so clear-cut? Are those who plan ahead always the wise ones?

The parable certainly seems to come down on the side of the planners.  Five of the women planned ahead, filled their lamps, obtained extra oil, and then went to wait.  (Notice that the bridegroom never gets blamed for being late!) The other five went, too, but when it got late, their oil ran short.  Those who had the oil wouldn’t share with those who didn’t have any.  It was when the five went away to get more oil that the bridegroom came. Those who had the oil got into the banquet and those who didn’t missed out.  Is this so easy?  Is the moral of the story, “Be prepared,” “Plan ahead,” “Be organized,” “Be on time”?

If everyone planned ahead, would the world be a better place? Can you imagine a world where everyone was always on time and never rushed? Where the only things that happened were the ones you planned and scheduled? Where everything was in its place and there was a place for everything? It would be a world without surprises, a world where nothing was left to chance. I read something recently that geniuses tend to live in clutter, precisely because having things out of their place provides the right kind of atmosphere for creative thinking. I’m not so sure that a world without spontaneity is a world that leaves much room for God. 

The distinction between the wise and the foolish is not as clear-cut as Matthew makes it seem.  Remember when Paul called us to be “fools for Christ”? He wrote, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) The problem comes when we believe God is in one place and not the other, when we think there’s one right way to do something and no other. The problem that I have with the parable is that it leads us to believe that God is on the side of those who have the oil and not on the side of those who don’t. 

It’s pretty easy to fall into that trap of dividing the world into two supposedly opposite camps. Long ago, the ancient Greeks gave us a dualistic understanding of the universe – separating our bodies and our souls, right and wrong, good and evil.  We’ve been living with this dualism ever since. Back in the 16th century, John Calvin did quite a bit with this concept. He called some people “the elect” and the rest the “non-elect.” His doctrine of predestination said that before you were born, God determined whether you were one of the chosen ones -- the elect -- or not. It was your life’s work to figure out which group you were in. In order to join the church, you had to convince the church members that you were one of the chosen. You were either in the church or not. We have good guys or bad guys. Old or young. Rich or poor. Black or white. If our world is divided with clarity into two separate camps, it might be easier to organize things, but I’m not sure it makes it easier to understand the world.

I listened to a fascinating lecture yesterday by John Shelby Spong – the fifth of five days he spent at the Chautauqua Institute last June. He was talking about the gospel of John, and ultimately about how Christianity must change if it’s going to survive to the end of this 21st century. He takes on what is called “atonement theology” – which is the idea that “Jesus died for our sins,” and traces it back to this dualistic thinking that produced such ideas: spirit and flesh, God’s original creation and the concept of “Original Sin.” What if, Spong asks, Jesus came not to be the antithesis of a sinful humanity, but in the words that Jesus speaks in the gospel of John, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10b) What if abundance is not just the absence of scarcity, but the fundamental essence of what God offers? 

We, of course, are in the gospel of Matthew today, not John, and will switch into the gospel of Mark for the year beginning in a few weeks, in Advent. But remember that these stories from the gospel of John are interspersed throughout all three years of our lectionary.  And what Spong says is that the concept of abundant life is at the heart of it. He asks what would happen if we were to gather our church around that concept of abundant life. Each gospel has a very different approach to the story, to the theology, to what it means to follow Jesus.  And that focus on God’s abundance may just make all the difference in the years and decades to come.

I don’t think that God takes sides the way we do. God does not divide the world into the good and the bad the way we do. God doesn’t divide us into the strong and the weak, and then praise the strong (think Beatitudes). Or the pious and the ungodly and praise the pious (Think Pharisees). Or the first and the last and reward the first (think “Last shall be first”).  Or rich and poor and praise the rich (think Widow’s mite … or actually read all of the gospels.)

I think it might be easier if we could just plan ahead. Work hard. Make money. Go to church. Live a good life. Everyone would know what they needed to do and we could all do it the same way. 

Massachusetts used to be a bit more like that. Did you know that for the first 213 years, there was one official state-sponsored church? And that it was our church?  (Not First Church in Cambridge, but our congregational church.) When you paid your taxes, the money went to support the ministers and the church property. Every town had to have a congregational church before it could be established as a town. In order to be elected Governor or Senator or Representative, you had to adhere to the official state religion. 

But then more and more people came to Massachusetts, that majority began to shrink.  The final vestige was eliminated 181 years ago – on November 11, 1833 when Massachusetts voters passed a constitutional amendment – by a 90% to 10% margin -- to eliminate the government’s financial support of the established church.  After that, people could support whichever religious community they would choose to support … Baptist, Quaker, Methodist, Jewish, Anglican, Catholic … giving rise to what we know and love as the fall stewardship campaign. 

I, for one, am glad we’re not still supported by our city’s property taxes. Can you imagine those Cambridge City Council meetings? I’m glad that we don’t have to subject our church to a campaign for public support. 181 years ago this week, the financial decisions of our congregations were brought back into the church, where we are free to make choices about how we share of our personal income and wealth, and how we as a congregation allocate our income to our various ministries and missions. So, how do we make those decisions? Where do we start? 

Worship is like the oil that keeps the lamps burning, that lights up the corners of the world and calls us to action. We must work together, because we know that some of us will plan ahead and fill flasks with extra oil. (How many of you know what you’re having for dinner the next three nights?) But while they’re gone, stocking up, perhaps the rest of us could stay and watch, in case our spontaneous God shows up while they are at the store. And later, when there are some whose oil runs low, then let us share what we have, trusting fearlessly in the abundance that God has promised.

At our 10am discussion this morning, Moana Bentin of our Stewardship Committee shared a story of the Samoan church and culture.  One of the things she explained was that as a subsistence culture, they don’t have such a problem with people starving, because when you cook, you share.  The architecture is very open, so when you’re cooking, the neighborhood knows you’re cooking. You can’t set it aside and save it for the next three days. You share it, trusting that the next day, someone else will be cooking and there will be enough for all.

This is all about stewardship – not just about our money, but our faith -- the faithful investing of our Christianity in our lives, in our congregation, and in our world. Unlike the point of Matthew’s parable, it is well documented that churches that don’t have extra oil, who live from offering plate to offering plate, who pass the plate a second or a third time if necessary to get enough money to pay the bills for that week – those churches are some of the most vital and alive churches there are. They name their needs, and the resources appear to meet them.

When a budget is all about personnel and building maintenance, it can quickly feel like a burden. But when a church names its mission: to worship God, to grow spiritually, to make disciples as we share Jesus’ message with children and adults, to care for those in need in our community and around the world – the resources are there. Would you rather give $500 to pay the electricity bill, or $500 to pay for one Church School class for a month? Would you rather give $2,000 to pay a minister's salary and benefits for a week, or $1,500 to pay for a worship service and $500 for beautiful music that soars through the rafters of this sacred space? Would you rather give $5,000 for painting the church, or $5,000 for evangelism and community outreach?  When we paint the church, pay the electric bill, and pay salaries, we are doing all of these things: community outreach, worship, music, and Sunday School. It’s how we think about all that we do that makes the difference.

Every time we give, no matter how we give: through the offering plate, pledge, online, cash, check, stock, through our time and talents, through our investment in this congregation, every time we give, we risk our faith. We risk opening ourselves to God, we risk coming out from our hiding behind a sense of obligation or charity. We risk feeling what we actually feel as we open ourselves to God who after all, knows what is in our hearts before we say it. That is what we are called to do, in prayer, with each other, and in our thoughts about challenging and changing this world.

We are called to risk all that we have. We’re called to risk our whole living, living wholly and abundantly, planning ahead and being open to spontaneity. May the church support us and sustain us, leading us to grow in our faith -- by ourselves, with each other, and as a whole and holy community of people. Thanks be to God for this place, this sacred place, for the fears and hopes that teach us, and the courage to move beyond those fears to build God's world of justice, whether we plan ahead or whether we pay attention to what meets us, spontaneously on our journeys, this day and always. Amen.


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