11/12/17 – Worth the Wait (Stewardship Sunday)


November 12, 2017
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Ps.78:1-7; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13

Years ago, when my daughter, Jenna, was first on her own after graduating from college, she put in a blog things she had learned from her mother that had turned out to be true and helpful. Needless to say, this was a mother’s dream come true. Vindication is sweet! She posted a list of “Momisms,” one of which was: “Always have something to read with you, you never know when you are going to have to wait.” These words are very telling about her mother. But, one of the messages I had sent was: ‘Waiting is a waste of time. Be prepared by having something useful to do.”  Our texts for today hit home. As someone who is not very good at waiting, the theme of waiting grabbed my attention.

The Israelites were not very good at waiting, always so impatient they forgot their purpose and became consumed with their immediate needs, desires and fears. In our reading for today, the Israelites were at the place in their history where they had enjoyed the land of milk and honey so many years they had forgotten what it was like to be without bountiful harvests and comfortable homes. Many had taken God’s blessings for granted and had begun worshipping pagan gods in the hopes of having even more. You know – hedging their bets or looking for the win-win. Joshua preached a tough sermon to this group of backsliders. He criticized, he accused, he threatened. Joshua was a prophetic preacher who didn’t give a second thought to telling his congregation the truth they didn’t want to hear.

The fearless leader of that fickle group of God’s Chosen People chastised the people for their failure to keep their covenant with God. He accused them of ingratitude. It is no coincidence that Joshua assembled the 12 tribes of Israel at Shechem. Abraham demonstrated his faith in God by leaving his homeland and traveling to the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. It was there that God promised to give him all of the beautiful lands Abraham could see and beyond. He was promised descendants as numerous as the stars, though he would not live to see them for himself, of course. The Israelites very being attested to God’s continued faithfulness to that promise. Abraham built an altar at Shechem to commemorate that auspicious day. At Shechem, Jacob, returning from Haran, set up camp, bought land, and built an altar to worship God. At Shechem, Joseph was buried. He did not live to see his people in their own land, a budding nation, but he played a critical role in the realization of that dream.

Joshua took a firm stand, condemning the Israelites for worshiping pagan gods. Some of the Chosen People of the One True God were now worshipping gods of fertility and prosperity. Perhaps we could substitute more modern gods – gods of retail, gods of physical improvement and beauty, gods of power, gods of Wall Street, gods of sensual pleasures, gods of mood elevation and pain relief. There are so many from which to choose. Their evangelists on Madison Avenue work tirelessly to convince us we are entitled to them all – immediately!  Through the media of television, internet, neon signs, and glossy magazines the message is spread: “You need my product now. You deserve it. There is no time but the present. Go for the gusto now.”

Over and over in the Exodus saga, we have heard in the past month, impatience fueled the Israelites’ fall from grace. It seemed like with every obstacle they faced, their faith in and obedience to God waned. They were fast with their curses and slow with their praise and thanksgiving. When their gratification was not immediate, they quickly switched their allegiance to false gods. Jesus and Paul had to deal with the same issues.

Paul was speaking to the church in Thessalonia. The congregation was concerned because Paul had assured them Christ was returning any day now. They were concerned that some of their congregation had died while waiting. Would they miss Christ’s return? Would they not have the eternal life Paul had told them Christ had promised?  With all his talk of the urgency of being prepared for Christ’s imminent return, Paul had not prepared them for a long wait, one in which they may never see the end.

What the Thessalonians needed to hear was what to do in the meantime – the time of waiting. Paul’s response was for the congregation to stay prepared. He kept up the sense of urgency, warning them Christ’s second coming would be like “a thief in the night.” But, he also wrote: “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Faith, hope, and love. These should mark what they did during their time of waiting. Paul urged the congregation to serve as Christ’s witnesses by strengthening and nurturing their faith, demonstrating Christ’s love, and busying themselves with doing Christ’s work in the firm hope that what they were doing would prepare them for Christ’s return. Not a bad use of time while waiting for Christ or for living a life.

Matthew tells a rather disturbing parable. Chronicling Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, the time Jesus spent with his disciples immediately before his crucifixion, Matthew tells us four parables concerning the day of judgment when Christ returns. The warning of judgment at the end seems merciless to our ears. Doesn’t God want all of us to enter the kingdom of God? Couldn’t those five wise, prepared bridesmaids have been compassionate and given the foolish, unprepared ones some of their oil. All of the bridesmaids were waiting. And, all fell asleep, which had been a metaphor Jesus used in other parables. There are many inconsistencies between this parable and the over-arching themes of the gospels. Even the details of the wedding ritual do not make sense with what we know of weddings at the time. It is one of the most challenging and perplexing parables in the gospels.

After reading many commentaries on this parable with each leaving a question, I came to the conclusion that the inexplicable – at least for me – aspects of the parable should not be my focus. There is something for us in every parable, even if we cannot fathom the full depth of Jesus’ thought process. After all, Jesus told his disciples he spoke in parables to get them to challenge and to explore their worldly assumptions.

I think the main issue of this parable is found in the “delay.” What do we do in the between times between Christ’s first and second coming? It could be that, ultimately, the oil, which the wise bridesmaids had obtained in preparation for the bridegroom, could be the “faith, hope and love” in which Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to engage themselves while they waited for Christ’s return. These are experiential choices we make that we cannot make or follow through with for others. You can’t live someone’s faith for them. Love and hope cannot be bestowed by proxy. As a pastor friend of mine once said, ruefully, about his congregation: “I can’t be Christian for them like they hire someone to do their yard work.”

We are living in that paradoxical in-between time of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth with the birth of Christ and the full realization of God’s kingdom on earth with Christ’s second coming. We have waited so long, more than two millennia, we no longer think much about the second coming. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians speaks to us as much as it did to those who had only waited two decades or so. In Christ, we see ourselves in the eternal realm of God’s kingdom. As Paul said: ‘Now we see through a mirror dimly, but one-day face to face.’ What we do now has both present and future significance.

Westminster is here today because of the past contributions of its members. Many of the people that worked tirelessly and contributed financially to the start of the Infant Care Center for teenage mothers and the WestMark Food Pantry are dead or no longer able to serve in that capacity – but the ministries continue to serve the disadvantaged and witness to Christian love.

In the past few years, Westminster has had the ability to take some risks in reaching out to serve our community because one man left the church nearly all he had. Today we are making preparations to extend the use of the Parish House for service to the community and begin new ministries. Even though the sign on the building will continue to say William O’Neill Parish House, one day it may be known for the function it serves to people outside the membership of Westminster – and that would be good! Christ didn’t build monuments to the past, he built up disciples to continue God’s work in the world. From what I have heard of Bill O’Neill, he would far rather the Parish House continue to be used in Christ’s service than to stand empty. The Bible tells us our legacies are not carved in stone but etched on the hearts of people we have served.

On this day when we dedicate our pledges to the work and witness of Christ’s church let’s do what Wall Street has long advised: “Invest in oil.” Our faithfulness and service is the oil that fuels the lamp that lights our path to the kingdom of God. We should be alert — not let all the choices we have confuse us into forgetting our covenant with God. All the things in the world won’t pay the price of admittance to God’s kingdom; but what we do while we wait for sparks the light that allows us to see glimpses of its coming.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois