Seeking Wisdom, Finding Joy

Jeffrey Sartain November 12, 2017

Scriptures Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16; Matthew 25:1–13

Before I offer the readings this morning I would like to say just a few personal words. Many of you know that as of January 1, I am accepting a call to serve as co-pastor at Edina Community Lutheran Church. As sad as I am to leave Plymouth, I’m also excited because this is a wonderful opportunity for me—and I will carry with me so much of what I have learned here with all of you.

My time at Plymouth has been rich and joyful. I’ve been here more than 16 years and it has been fulfilling and challenging, demanding and exciting that entire time. I love this church; I have felt loved in return, and I am beyond grateful.

This next step for me is one I never thought I would be able to take—it is a homecoming after a long sojourn.

My last Sunday will be December 17. Meanwhile, we have ministry to do. We have more good work to accomplish together, and right now there is a sermon that needs to be preached. So let us turn our attention to that, and we can talk more about goodbyes another day.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

Matthew 25:1–13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Let us pray:

God of light and darkness, we turn to you in every season and ask you to open the door to us—the door of wisdom, the doors of light and love and peace. Amen.

*             *             *

Dorolese Wardwell was, at one time, Plymouth’s oldest member. She passed away in 2005 at 102 years of age. The last time I visited her she announced to me, “I’m 102 years old, and I have no idea how long I’m going to live.” I told her I was 43 and I also had no idea how long I was going to live. That was something we had in common. I found an unsettling and delightful wisdom in her introducing herself that way. Everything else you might say gets sort of yanked back into perspective if you start with such an unvarnished recognition of your own mortality.

Another centenarian I used to know years ago told me, “I am surprised every morning that I woke up one more time.” I asked her, “Are you glad you woke up one more time?” She thought for a moment, smiled and said, “I’m happy either way.” There is a wisdom there, too—and a serenity. It was good to be around someone who was so at peace with life and with death.

Then there was yet one other person I want to tell you about today as we think together about wisdom and life and how to prepare ourselves each day to live in this world—such as it is. This is someone I have talked about before, Mae Brinaldson, from my first congregation in southern Minnesota.

Mae was just turning 100 when I met her, and she actually had trouble believing she was still alive. One day when I called on her I introduced myself as I had done before, “Hello Mae, it’s Pastor Jeff.” I could tell from her expression she was not remembering me, so I added, “I’m your minister.” She looked at me with a sort of incredulous expression and asked, “You’re my minister?” I don’t know if I looked too young, or in some way unministerial to her, so I just confirmed, “Yes, I am, Mae—I am your minister.”

She seemed to accept that, paused, and then asked, “Did I know you on Earth?” I had to think about how to answer that for a minute. I said, “Mae, we are on Earth now.” She looked around the day room of the care center and said to me, incredulous, “You mean I have not passed away yet?” It is strange to break the news to someone that they are, in fact, alive. I assured her. “No, Mae, you have not passed away.”

At that moment I saw Clara walking by with her walker. Clara was also a member of the church. Before she and Mae lived in the nursing home, they were neighbors on their farms, so I had an idea. I thought maybe I could sort of gently nudge Mae back toward reality. I said, “Mae, you remember Clara. She was your neighbor on the farm.” Mae lit up. She exclaimed, “Oh Clara!” And then she asked her, “When did you pass away?”

I was honestly not sure if Mae was pulling my leg or if she really was confused. She had a sly smile that kept me wondering if maybe she was just having a good time teasing this young minister.

I’ve thought about these women this past week. I reflected on their resilience. I reflected on their capacity to take life in stride, to take the day, the moment, as it came to them.

These days have stretched my spiritual capacity. I realize I have said something to that effect every time I have preached in the last year. This could be an over-sharing of my own journey, but I’m hearing this from many of you as well.

I’ve heard you wonder, do I have the spiritual depth it takes to see life honestly, and to still find some joy? Do I have the reservoir, the spiritual capacity to metabolize the difficulties and tragedies?

When life deals us some unexpected diagnosis, or catastrophe, or annoyance, can we face it? Life, I mean? Can we face it and still have humor, hope and joy?

When we have news of yet another mass shooting, we wonder, do we have breadth and depth of faith to still hold on to a sense that life is good and hopeful? To still think that there might be hope for change?

When yet another ugly allegation of sexual harassment is on the front page of the paper, do we lose something tender and trusting in our souls, or can we accommodate that reality and still feel whole?

Can we keep working for what is right? Can we keep our hearts open? Or will we become jaded and cynical?

These are spiritual questions.

We have this lesson today about the 10 bridesmaids. Tradition has interpreted this as being about the end times. But, as people who believe in the breaking in of God’s realm here and now as Jesus taught, this has an application here and now. As I see it, this is not a message about heaven and hell and Jesus coming to judge us—to welcome some and turn others away. This is about life as we know it, and what it takes to keep our little lights glowing even when we’ve waited a long time for goodness, even when it’s dark and gloomy, even when life is hard and we are wondering if any good will ever come.

Life was hard in the world of ancient Palestine. Jesus’ people lived in poverty; they lived under the oppression of occupying forces; they lived under constant threat and often in despair.

Weddings were one reliable and welcome relief from all that. Even the uptight Pharisees agreed that it was okay to suspend your religious duties long enough to join in a wedding party—a party that lasted not one night, but a week, from Sabbath to Sabbath.

Weddings were a real experience of celebration and joy that came in the midst of the harshness of life. A wedding is the image that he uses to illustrate what his followers have to look forward to—something good is coming. Laughter and wine and dancing—it’s almost time, he said, just wait. Something good is going to be opened to you any minute.

He doesn’t say it is all fun and games until then. The maidens in the story had an important job to do—to tend their lamps, to keep the light going. They needed to have a deep well, a reserve that would sustain them when the wait was long, when they were ready to give up hope, when they didn’t know if they could hold out. They needed depth of soul and strength to keep waiting and trusting that the party would start, someday. They needed to hold on and keep their lamps burning.

That image is especially apt for a congregation that claims as its logo a flame—a flame that shines out through the gloom of exclusion, that shines out in the gloom of judgment, that sends a light to pierce the gloom of oppressive orthodoxy. It is our mission to announce to the world that God’s light of love liberates, that God’s light is freeing, that God’s love is unconstrained by any dogma or creed. That is our mission, and we must tend that light.

It is essential that, even when the wait is long, we keep the light burning. Even when we have conflict among us, we must keep the light burning. Even when ministers come and go and people are unsettled or angry, we must keep the light burning. Our light, our flame, has got to shine out, lighting a way for justice, lighting a way for creativity, lighting a way for diversity, lighting a way for peace. The world needs our light.

We must, as the text says, “Keep watch,” but our own vigilance is not the whole story. Jesus teaches that ultimately it is not all up to us. We must do what we can, but hold this hope: God is also up to something good, too, something yet to be revealed.

Our first lesson read, “Those who are vigilant will soon be free from care, because wisdom goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”

We need that hopeful word.

We must never forget in all our good, faithful and sometimes arduous work that God is also up to something good—even when we can’t see it. We must never forget that.

  • Even when waiting for God’s promise seems like a distant and futile hope . . .
  • Even when we feel we have waited long enough for justice . . .
  • Even when we are tired from keeping hope alive . . .
  • Even when we feel oppressed . . .
  • Even when we feel like we alone take the burden seriously . . .
  • Even when our little light is barely flickering . . .
  • Even when we get bogged down in worry and mired in despair . . .

Even then we must never, ever forget that joy is on the way, just around the corner.

Another week begins today. Who knows what we will face? We have no idea how long we are going to live. We don’t know what struggle lies ahead. We don’t know what pain might unfold. But be a wise bridesmaid and keep your light burning. Always, always, always be ready for joy.