Not too long ago, a reporter apparently asked the 80’s pop music icon Boy George about his religious beliefs.
I don’t know anything about why this happened or why anyone would be seeking out Boy George’s perspective on faith, but I am glad that it did happen, because Boy George gave a particularly eloquent response.
He said “I am Catholic in my complications and Buddhist in my aspirations.”
And I don’t think a person needs to be a recovering Catholic or an aspiring Buddhist to recognize a fair degree of truth in what he says.
Because Catholic or Buddhist or Congregationalist with Quaker tendencies, wherever it is we get to in the life of faith, there is always some shadow of wherever it is that we have come from.
For a while I was friendly with an imam with a small mosque in Springfield, Massachusetts. We were taking a class together in my first year of seminary.
He was originally from rural North Carolina and had grown up in a one room Baptist church there, until joining the army took him away, and eventually led him to read the Qur’an and become Muslim.
He was so proud of his faith. And yet, even so, he admitted that late at night, on long car trips back and forth after yet another long day, rather than listening to tapes of the Qur’an being read in Arabic, he often found himself singing the hymns of his childhood for comfort and encouragement.
“I’ve come a long way,” he told me once, “but you just can’t shake the music.”
Whether we want to, or not, the shadow of the past is something that we can’t quite shake.
By the same token, no matter where we come from, there is always that sense that we could — and probably should — take the inspiration deeper, and let our faith evolve into something beyond a legacy to be received, however gratefully….that it should grow into something that is truly our own.
Another friend of mine went to divinity school with plans to become a pastor–and a lot of encouragement — and money — from her family and home church to do that.
And so it was a horrible shock to her, toward the end of her second year in school, to discover that she had found the deep and rich faith that was the point of all her searching and all her work…which was beautiful and moving, except that the place where she found it was in a Catholic church.
For her to become the person who God made her to be, she has had to forge a whole new path.
Boy George has it right: faith is always full of complication and aspiration.
Jesus knew that, too.
Certainly, when it came to the disciples, he seems to have known it all too well.
According to Matthew, so much of Jesus’ talk during his final weeks was stern and challenging.
All these parables about corruption in the vineyard, or the impatience of kings, or doors that close for good–they all seem to strike such a different tone from the Jesus of the Beatitudes, or the Jesus who was so kind to children, or the Jesus who was always so willing to give sinners another chance.
The Jesus who gives us something to aspire to, a little hope to hang on to, has been missing in these last few weeks.
Maybe that’s just because he sees…because he sees that once he is gone, the disciples will be pulled back toward their own complications–their old relationships, their old understandings, their old expectations.
Jesus seems to know that whatever aspirations the disciples had followed back when it all began, may prove, in the end, to be a thin reed.
Whatever it was they found in hearing him, and meeting him, and in making a sudden decision to follow him and to be part of this thing, wondrous as that all was, may prove, in the end, to be a thin reed.
And yet, as Jesus would also have known, on that thin reed hangs the future of the church, and through it, quite possibly, the future of the world.
So the way Matthew tells it, Jesus wasn’t particularly nice or particularly comforting in his final weeks.
Maybe his sense of the complications to be overcome was just too strong to leave much time for gentleness.
Life offers any number of glimpses at that truth.
So many parents undertake the responsibility of parenting, determined to do things in a particular way–and to avoid some of the unforgettable, or even unforgivable mistakes of their own parents.
And that all goes fine…until that day…that day when the toddler ambles over toward the hot stove, or the grade schooler starts barreling down the sidewalk, forgetting to stop and look in front of a driveway, or your teen does, well, the kind of things that teens do best.
And suddenly, in an instant, you are transformed from Mr. Rogers into Mr. T., or from Fraulein Maria into Leona Helmsley, and you realize that the voice your using is not your own at all, but rather the voice of your father or mother.
Maybe, in so many words, what Jesus is saying to the disciples through all of these stories is something like, “Do not make me turn this car around.”
He knew what it was to manage our complications.
With no disrespect intended, let me just say that I imagine Jesus had to manage complications of his own, if only because, as you and I know, managing complications is a lot of what human life is…and so if the idea that Jesus is the Word made flesh means anything at all, then it must mean, at least partly, that Jesus had first-hand knowledge of what that was like.
And so, in the passage we’ve heard today, which is set a day or two before the Last Supper, he tells the disciples this parable that is like so many of the others he’s been telling them lately.
He pretends he doesn’t see the women rolling their eyes, or the sons of Zebedee staring off blankly toward the horizon, or Peter closing his notebook and putting the cap back on his pen because he thinks he knows this already and it’s really just a review session.
The details don’t take long to tell. There were ten bridesmaids, waiting on the arrival of a delayed bridegroom. Some of them — half, actually — come ready for a long evening, and bring oil with them so that their lamps will burn brightly with celebration and welcome at the big moment.
But the other half come only with their lamps, which is a little bit like loading up the car and setting out for Vermont or Cape Cod, figuring that you’ve probably got enough gas to get there.
And that’s fine, of course–there can be something rigid about people who doggedly wash and gas up their car before going on vacation–except what happens when you hit traffic?
And what happens when you see the needle dropping, and the little light comes on, and the Mobil station on 95 that used to be right there turns out to be closed so they can add some sort of elaborate gym to the McDonalds, and the next station isn’t for another 14 miles?
I’ll tell you what happens then: complications.
Now, gasser-uppers, don’t get smug. If you are honest, you know that you are merely one iPad or cell phone left on the roof of your car away from having complications of your own to manage.
Maybe the reason that in this morning’s parable, half the bridesmaids are wise and the other half are foolish is to remind us that we are, each of us, split right down the middle, half wise and half foolish by nature, and always deciding which bridesmaid within us to leave in charge in any given situation.
And maybe the reason Jesus seems so intent on these kinds of stories in his final weeks is just because he knows that, soon enough, he’s leaving the bridesmaids in charge, and so it really matters which kind of bridesmaid each one of us decides to be.
But what he needs us to understand is something his own disciples find hard to get their heads around.
Because they seem to think that it’s their aspirations that are the only things that matter–that the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus talked about and brought about are simply irresistible, and that all you need to do is “get it” and the rest will just fall into place.
They seem to think that the life of faith is about waking up, once and for all–waking up to the love of God, and the teachings of Jesus, and the ministry of his healing Word–and that once you’ve awakened, then there is no such thing as falling back asleep.
Except that there is.
In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, as they are literally on their final walk with Jesus, on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter says to Jesus, “Even if everyone else trips and falls, I’m never going to do that!” …and then “Even if I have to die with you, I won’t ever deny you!” (Matthew 26:33, 35, N.T. Wright translation).
But he will do just that. And not just once. That same night, he’ll do it three times.
Dutiful note-taker and model student though he is, Peter is the disciple who learns everything the hard way.
And so it will be a while before he truly learns that complication and aspiration continue to work in us and on us, even when the light of God shines brightly in our lives.
What Jesus has been trying to say through all these weeks and all these strange, unsettling parables is nothing more and nothing less than this:
That the redemption God offers us in Jesus is not only some sort of bright light in the distance that we are invited to rise and follow, putting the past behind us.
That’s part of it, but only part.
Because redemption is also a light that God shines into the very darkest corners of our lives, into all of our complexities, be they religious, or emotional, or societal, or just a quirk of our devising.
Whatever the baggage we carry, and whatever our complications may be, God’s light shines there, too.
And to give our lives to God is not pretend that we can just drop all that baggage like the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus. That kind of faith, all by itself, does not endure.
To give our lives to God also challenges us to find a way to offer our complications to God for healing, and for new purposes, and as part of new scripts in new stories, rather than just more of the same old, same old–those old patterns and reactions that we just can’t seem to shake.
To give our lives to God is to decide to be a wise bridesmaid, who remembers that the night is long, and the flesh is weak, and who seeks to be ready — to be awake — with all she’s got, with complications and aspirations both in plain sight.
As my friend the imam said, “I’ve come a long way, but I just can’t shake the music.”
Whatever our journeys may be, may we always listen for the music of God, and hear something new in old songs, and also something ancient and familiar, complicated and aspirational, even in the new.
Great sermon Max. I wondered how you might tackle the divided bridesmaids. I loved the contemporary imagery you brought to the lesson.