The Parable of the Mean Girls

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To tell you the truth, as of last evening, I still wasn’t sure where this sermon was going to go. This past week was one roller coaster of a ride, wasn’t it? Not knowing election results for four days was anxiety-producing to say the least. Watching and wondering how people – on both sides – were going to react to the final tally was  worrisome. Compulsive news checking was a thing, even when we knew it was too early to know anything. 

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By Wednesday, I was all ready to start Advent early. Advent’s theme of watching and waiting seemed to fit perfectly. I redid the bulletin. I picked out a graphic of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and edited in “Advent” in place of Christmas.  The sermon was going to be all about waiting patiently. Then yesterday morning the election was called and the waiting was over. Lighting Advent candles didn’t seem as appropriate. So I put the bulletin back to the way it was and started looking at the gospel again – in the context of where we are now.

And where we are is with yet another parable from Matthew. Now, I love the parables. But even I have had just about enough, especially since the last three parables before Advent really does begin on the 29th all talk about the second coming of Christ and a day of judgment. And there are textual problems with them and theological differences of opinion on what they mean. But – reading this one again yesterday, I did have some new insights. 

First of all, I started really thinking about that wedding that those bridesmaids were in. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know there are a lot of details involved – from the design of the invitation to the table decorations at the reception. Nobody wants to forget any of these details. You want to make the day as perfect as possible. If you’ve ever been a bridesmaid, you know that certain details fall to you. I know that’s true for groomsmen, too. Even these days, when those who stand with the wedding couple might be of any gender (I was “best man” at my brother’s wedding), there still are specific responsibilities. And one of the main ones is to take care that at no time attention is diverted from the wedding couple to you. 

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There are websites where you can read stories of weddings going awry, like the one where the bridesmaid who had refused to try on her dress before the wedding showed up late in a dress with straps that were too long and had to be fixed with safety pins. She’d also smoked a cigarette in the car on the way to the church and the dress had a small burn front and center from ash blowing back in. I mean friendships and family relationships are irrevocably broken over stuff like this. 

But our customs would sound very strange to people in Jesus’ day, when wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the celebration. In the scene in the parable, the bridesmaids are awaiting the arrival of the groom. This was their big moment, their specific duty: to wait for the groom – either at the bride’s house where he would come to fetch her or at the home of his family where the wedding would take place. All of them have either lamps or large torches, so that when the groom arrived, they would lead the wedding party in a procession of lights.

Now, unlike our weddings, that are supposed to start at a specific time (and there are plenty of stories about when that didn’t happen), in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for there to be a delay. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s relatives over the gifts to be exchanged. The story doesn’t explain the delay, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The bridesmaids would have known that a delay could occur. Or they should have. The parable describes the debacle of five bridesmaids who missed the procession and undoubtedly incurred the wrath of the bride and groom and their families, and the distain of all the wedding guests. If this was a morality tale, the moral of the story would be: don’t mess up your best friend’s wedding. 

But we know that parables are more than that; there’s always at least one (and often more) deeper meanings to be mined from what, at first, seems like a straightforward cautionary tale. And frankly I’m relieved there’s more to this story because, on the surface, I really don’t like it. 

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For starters, I don’t like the wise bridesmaids. They sound like mean girls to me. Or just selfish ones. Instead of sharing they send the others away to try to find oil. No shops would have been open at night; they would have had to bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers begging for help. Really? I can’t think of any other place else in the Bible that such selfish behavior is called ‘wise’? They say, “We can’t share because we might not have enough for ourselves. Just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have.” It seems they’re operating out of scarcity and fear. We know what that looks like. I’m sure they would have been among those hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing wipes at the beginning of the pandemic.  And these were the wise ones?

But, you know, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the foolish ones either. They should have known better; they should have been prepared. They shouldn’t have listened to the mean girls and gone off in search of oil. Surely the knew that, with the groom approaching, it was too late. Their foolishness guaranteed that by the time they got back, they were left out in the cold and dark. The groom probably thought he’d been deserted by his so-called friends. Maybe he thought they’d simply given up and gone home. And I don’t even want to think about what happened when the bride heard about it! Did she know that when the foolish five did show up, her husband barred the door and refused to let them into the banquet? It seems there was a lot of foolishness going on.

The only distinction between the wise and the foolish ones was preparation. Five were ready when the groom arrived; five were not. They all were judged on the basis of how well-prepared they were. And we get it, right? We get that the bridegroom is Jesus and that we’d better be ready or at least appear to be, like the billboard says:

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But, like with many of the parables, we squirm a little when we really listen to it. Which is good, because parables are supposed to cause us some discomfort. If we’re honest with ourselves, our discomfort comes when we acknowledge that we can relate to both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids and sometimes even the groom.

I’ve been the foolish whose lamps have run out. I’ve been the wise who feared sharing and losing what they had. I’ve been the bridegroom who refused to let people in. And maybe that’s what this parable does. It allows us to really see ourselves. 

That could be why this parable is so troublesome. It creates a stark duality of either you’re wise or you’re foolish; either you’re ready or you’re not; either you’re in or you’re out. But we know we’re more complex than that. and I’m pretty sure God knows that, too. Recognizing ourselves in all of these characters can go a long way in making us better disciples. 

So, when you find yourself feeling foolish, like the foolish bridesmaids, stop and wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It can be a holy place where God will meet and transform you. When you find yourself feeling like the wise bridesmaids, tempted to hoard what you have, stop and remember to share, even if it scares you. And when you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, angrily closing the door against others or erecting barriers to keep certain ones out, stop and open the door to the banquet feast. 

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The second troubling thing about this parable is that it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. The separation between those who are in and those who are out is in stark contrast to the inclusive nature of Jesus throughout the gospels. What’s going on here?

What was going on shortly before Matthew wrote his gospel was the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. It was a time of terrible turmoil and the religious leaders were understandably trying to figure out how to maintain their community, their religious identity, even their theology that had tied the very presence of God to that temple. We can relate somewhat, right? Keeping the congregation together during the turmoil of the pandemic, wondering what the future of the church will be even after we can go back into the building. 

What the leaders back then were doing was clamping down on the strands of Judaism that didn’t fit into what they deemed to be the correct expression of the faith. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. And, among others, those Jews who were part of the Jesus movement were most definitely out.

Matthew and his community understandably didn’t take that well. In turn, Matthew tells a story about how Jesus would probably have responded to these religious leaders. The tables would be turned and they would be the ones cast out when Jesus came back to establish the kindom of God on earth. And there have been centuries of Christians ever since who have been waiting hopefully for this second coming. 

Unfortunately, this idea has created a theology that abandons the earth to the “powers and principalities” of the world, while looking heavenward for divine rescue. That kind of dualistic thinking has created a mindset – and policies – of injustice and ecological destruction. And again we’re challenged to think bigger and understand that we need to be both heavenly minded and of earthly good.

There’s much scholarly disagreement about whether Jesus himself was an apocalyptic preacher, that is concerned with end times and a judgment day, and whether he would come back to lead what John Dominic Crossan calls the “Great Cleanup” – when God would step in and clean up the earth, bringing a new creation where justice and peace would reign.

Some believe that the second coming already happened – on Pentecost. Others say that Christ is continually appearing among us and leading us, sometimes pushing us, into the kindom of God right here and right now. 

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I don’t think it ultimately matters – as long as we hold to what Jesus taught us about the kindom of God. Jesus did not promote division, but our oneness in God. Yes, there are places where we can argue about that. But again, we take those places in context and mine the message for us today. Jesus did promote loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors. The characters in the parable are useful to us in holding up a mirror to ourselves to see where we’re not as well-prepared as we could be, not as generous as we could be, not as welcoming as we might think we are. The parable can challenge us and lead us into better discipleship, knowing that Christ is always coming to us: we don’t have to wait for a great divine cleanup to experience the kindom of God.

And if that’s true, then we have our work cut out for us. Loving and welcoming our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Feeding the hungry, sharing generously from our bounty. Opening doors, taking down barriers that have been erected between those who are in and those who are out. 

In these post-election days, we’ve been hearing a lot about healing the divisions in our nation. That is now the challenge to us as followers of Jesus. How will we promote this: in ourselves, in our congregation, in our wider community?

It’s a big question, probably not one to be answered today. Thankfully, we have more apocalyptic parables to keep us at it over the next few weeks. 

For now, remember the words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel: “. . . in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And from the Gospel of Thomas: “the kingdom of God is within you.” 

So remember: Christ can come to you at any time. Be as prepared as you can be. But most of all, be open to the wonderment and surprising possibilities that Christ will bring – to you and through you.

To be continued . . .

Amen 

MATTHEW 25:1-13

“Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. Five of them were wise; five were foolish. When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. 

“At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes the bridegroom! Let’s go out to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaidsrose and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’

“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish bridesmaids returned, they pleaded to be let in. 
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’

“So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.”

Conflict Management According to Jesus

Sermon for September 6, 2020

Working Our Way through Matthew
In this season of Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew. We started back in June, and Matthew will take us all the way up to Advent at the end of November – with one side trip into the gospel of John for Reformation Sunday. It’s hard to tell from reading one passage each week, but Matthew has a very distinct structure, more so than any of the other three gospels. He has a prologue (the birth story) and an epilogue (the passion story). In between he has five discourses or blocks of teachings. Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels, writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community. He likes to link Old Testament passages to the life of Jesus, portraying him as the new Moses. And he structures his gospel this way because he’s  alluding back to the first section in the Bible, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. 

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Yes, Conflict Happens – Even in the Church
Anyway, this is all prologue to my discourse today. Because this week and next we’ll be reading the fourth discourse in Matthew 18. This block of teaching has been called the ‘discourse on the church’ because of its instructions on how to live – in community – as followers of Jesus.  

Contrary to the beliefs of many that the early church was a harmonious group of people, always loving, forgiving, and in agreement with one another, arguments and discord did arise among them. After all, they were human beings, and whenever two or more are gathered, there will be, not only Jesus among them, but opportunity for miscommunication, misunderstanding, bad behavior, conflicts, and divisions.  

In a way, it should give us some comfort to know that even those early Christians needed to be reminded how we’re supposed to be with one another. It takes a bit of the sting out of reading this teaching and applying it to ourselves. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus can come across as pretty harsh at times. For example, part of Chapter 18 we didn’t read today says: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it’s better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” Yikes! 

I, for one, want to run from passages like that to Romans 3.23: “everyone has sinned; everyone falls short of the glory of God. Yet everyone has also been undeservedly justified by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus.” 

While that good news is a great relief, it doesn’t take away the necessity of going back to these teachings to learn and relearn time and again how we grow even more into our identities as followers of Jesus. And there’s some tough stuff here in Matthew 18. 
Let’s take just verses 15-17, which is a 4-step process for conflict management: 

Jesus’ 4-step Process for Conflict Management

Step 1. If someone commits a wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen, you’ve won them back; but if not, go to . . .

Step 2: Try again, taking one or two others with you. If they still don’t listen, go to . . .

Step 3: Refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then go to . . .

Step 4: Treat that person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Jesus is clear that the goal is reconciliation. And here’s how to make that happen: 1, 2, 3, 4. 

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But he’s also clear that it doesn’t always turn out that way. One thing I’ve learned is the distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. Some disputes can’t be resolved, but hopefully they can be managed. Think of some of the conflicts going on today. On a micro level, you might be involved in a disagreement within your own family, workplace, or neighborhood. On a macro level, it’s fair to say that our entire country is embroiled in unresolved contention – or contentions. Reconciliation is always the goal, but sometimes the best we can do is mitigate the damage. 

As we know, the church isn’t immune to conflict. Even before the pandemic, many congregations were being strained by political differences. And frankly many were also already stressed by declining membership and financial resources.  Since the pandemic, anxiety has gone up among both pastors and congregational members. And when anxiety goes up, conflict usually arises. So this 4-step plan that Jesus lays out might seem simplistic, but there’s a lot of wisdom in those 3 little verses, and we should take some time to unpack them. 

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Step 1: If someone commits a wrong against you, point out the error just between the two of you. Well, how simple is that? But how often do we do it? Our usual methodology goes something like: if someone commits a wrong against you, go and complain about them to all your friends, or make a plan to retaliate, or decide just to freeze them out and not associate with them anymore. In church disagreements, you get the parking lot meeting after the meeting, or the complaint phone tree, or the “helpful” member who informs the pastor that “people are saying . . .” 

We’ve probably all fallen into that hole once or twice. Remember: “everyone falls short of the glory of God.” But if we take this advice from Jesus seriously and make a commitment to be good communicators with one another, we will contribute to the health and stability of the community. 

Now we also have to consider when the situation is reversed – when you’re the one committing some wrong. Again, who has not ever done something to offend someone else? And again, Jesus is clear: you listen. Before you disagree, or try to justify yourself, or get defensive – you listen, not with your mind jumping ahead to plan your defense, but real, deep listening.  

Every author, book, program, consultant on conflict mediation says the same thing: listening is key. Paula Green from Hands Across the Hills and other peacemaking projects has said, “When we took the time to listen closely, we recognized each other as friends and neighbors.” And: “We will not avoid the difficult topics, but we expect to listen and be listened to.”

My friend Judy Gussman, former co-facilitator of a Jewish-Palestinian dialog group and my co-conspirator in Hearts Across the Divide has designed and facilitated intra-Jewish Deep Listening sessions on Israeli-Palestinian relations. 

You see it again and again: deep listening, close listening – which also involves keen self-awareness of what pushes our buttons. For instance, I know that as a white woman I need to own my defensiveness when listening to people of color talk about their experiences. The temptation to object with, “But I’m not like that” or “We’re not all racists” must be resisted. My soapbox as a long-time feminist must be set aside when hearing a transwoman speak of her experiences of discrimination. I have to listen to the Jesus voice in my ear saying, “Shut up and listen!” 

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This applies to so many areas of our lives right now. If we could learn – or relearn how to listen to one another, we’d go a long way towards reconciliation. Jesus, of course, understands that even this might not bring a resolution. There was a woman in a former congregation who finally left because, as she complained, “Yes, I know you always listen, but then you don’t do what I want.” 

In times like these or when you hit the wall in a difficult situation, you try steps 2 and 3, bring other trusted people into the conversation and, if necessary, the community. And yes, it can be a very difficult thing to do. But the alternative is to let conflict fester until the entire body is affected. And when we truly live by this process and practice it, it gets easier because it is holy work. 

Now, a warning about Step 4, actually a warning and a piece of advice. The warning is: don’t jump ahead too quickly from verse 17 to verse 21 (which we’ll get to next week). In verse 21, Peter asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says, ‘Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations say ‘seventy times seven,’ but it doesn’t matter; in the Bible seven is a perfect number signifying completeness, or in this case, an infinite number of times. Again ‘yikes!’ 

But here’s the warning: don’t jump prematurely from confronting and listening and working the process before taking on the often-difficult work of forgiveness. I’ll tackle that subject next week. 

For now, I’ll go on to the piece of advice, which is: be sure you know what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. As you probably know, there are churches who practice shunning, that is cutting off all contact and relationship with one deemed to be an apostate, a threat, or a source of conflict. The Amish are most often associated with this practice, but other Christian groups and some other religions do it as well. 

But if we follow the example of Jesus, this kind of ostracization is not an option. After all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors, Gentiles, and other ‘outsiders’? He always maintained relationship with them. He was secure enough in his identity and could maintain his own boundaries, while staying connected to those who would have been seen as a threat to his – and Matthew’s – community. 

I believe that is what our synod attempted to do back in 1995 when they expelled St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches for going against ELCA policy at that time, which prohibited the ordination of openly gay clergy. It was stated at the time that the synod would continue to maintain relationship with the two congregations, even though no longer part of the ELCA. That agreement worked better on paper than in practice, but it was the right idea. It also showed how challenging it is to faithfully work the conflict management process. 

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I’ve been reading over and over again in news reports, articles, and blog posts: people are sick and tired of the divisions that plague us these days. But we don’t seem to know how to get ourselves out of the quagmire. 

Yes, it would be wonderful if direction and modeling would come from our leaders. But we don’t have to wait for that. we already have a leader who shows us the way, who models it and even gives us a plan to implement. It really couldn’t be any simpler. Simple, but not easy. If we’ve learned anything about the way of Jesus it’s that self-sacrifice is the way to transformation; the way of the cross is the way to resurrection – of ourselves, of our church, and as a grassroots movement of Jesus people, even our nation. 

I have seen many interpretations of Matthew 18 with which I disagree. One such article is entitled Matthew 18: The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict. Most of these interpretations try to codify what gets defined as sin and in what situations the process doesn’t apply. But I believe that Jesus does give us here a way forward in any situation. Attempting reconciliation by deeply listening to one another. Being willing to go further by expanding the circle of listening, and, if necessary, setting a boundary in the community, for the health of the community – yet with no one never being outside of love, compassion, and connection. 

It’s not a codified process; it’s organic and depends on the good will, faithfulness, and prayerfulness of participants. And the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not that things will always get resolved as we would like. But even then, that Spirit will be with us as we continue to move forward into healing and wholeness.

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You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said of Christianity: Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life. In other words, Christians are wimps. He was wrong. It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus, the kind of courage demanded of us in these trying times. This ‘discourse on the church’ hands us our mission – difficult, but not impossible, if we decide to accept it. 

Amen

MATTHEW 18:15-20
Jesus said, “If someone commits some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won a loved one back; if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then treat that one as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

“The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. 

“Again I tell you, if two of you on earth join in agreement to pray for anything whatsoever, it will be granted you by my Abba God in heaven. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”