Archives For David King

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.  

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.