This week's scriptures are Matthew 25: 1-13 and 14-30.
This title: "Don't Give Up Before the Miracle Happens" may seem sort of a strange one for a blog on two of Jesus' judgement parables. It will sound even stranger if you happen to know that one of the Lectionary passages that we're not reading (though it will probably show up in the sermon) is Zephaniah 1: 7, 12-18.
Now Zephaniah is a prophet whose first words to Judah are "I shall utterly destroy everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord." Zephaniah is focused on "The Day of the Lord" which he describes as "a day of wrath, a day of anguish and torment, a day of destruction and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and dense fog..." Add this to the first parable in which the Bridegroom says to the bridesmaids who had gone to buy oil, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you" and the master who says, "as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".....and it's hard to imagine a miracle at all.
Many of us grew up in churches that stopped the story right there. It's a comfortable place to stop the story-as long as you see yourself as one of those bridesmaids who got in the door, or one of the servants who handled the money he was given well. It becomes a platform for all kinds of sanctimonious snobbery and religious bigotry....as long as I can be one of the "good guys" in the story.
The truth is, though, that none of us is one of the "good guys"...."all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." It's only when we've encountered our own "Day of the Lord"....in whatever way it comes to us....that we realize that. The problem is that if we, like the servant who buried his money in the ground, have a view of God that stops at the passages above from Zephaniah, then there is no hope. There's no hope because (if this is our view) we serve a God who is going to judge us harshly no matter what; who puts us in double binds that would make a therapist cringe (the lecture he gives the fearful servant about 'why didn't you at least loan my money out?' violated Jewish laws against usury-so the servant was clearly in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation); if this is what God is truly like, we might as well roll over and quit. We throw ourselves into the "outer darkness."
But this isn't the end of the story; not even in Zephaniah. On Sunday I'm going to tell you the story of Saralee Perel. She's a remarkable woman who Carole and I think is a real hero; her name is Saralee Perel, and I want to share her story with you.
But for right now, I want to tell you where I first saw the words that are the title of this blog. I was sitting in a room full of people who had encountered their "Day of the Lord." For many of the folks in that room, marriages had been lost, jobs had been sacrificed, and legal problems abounded. Many of them felt like they were at the end....that they lived, and would continue to live, in the 'outer darkness.' But in that room, right next to a poster that said "The 12 Steps" was one that read "Don't Quit Before the Miracle Happens."
I don't think we are judged for our behaviors...I believe our behaviors judge us. That judgement can make us paralyzed, fearful, despairing. Our "Day of the Lord" can rip through our lives like a tornado, taking out everything in its path....except....except.....except the promise that God's love will have the final say. Remember Zephaniah? That dark, horror prophesying word he spoke? Listen to his final words:
I shall take away your cries of woe
and you will no longer endure reproach.
When that time comes;
I shall deal with all who oppress you;
I shall rescue the lost and gather the dispersed.
I shall win fo rmy people praise and renown throught the whole world.
When that thiime comes I shalll gather you and bring yo uhome.
I shall win you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.
It is the Lord who speaks. (Zephaniah 3:18-20)
I don't know what your "Day of the Lord" looks like. It may be an illness you can't find healing for; it may be an addiction you struggle with...you may be hitting bottom in it; it may be a tragedy in your life that feels as though you're drowning in your sorrow and pain. Jesus doesn't promise us that these things don't happen; in fact, as Zehaniah shows us scripture is graphic in its descriptions of what they are like when they come. BUT Jesus promises that the final word is different than anything we could imagine.
Jesus' judgement stories don't pull any punches. But, and this is the most important thing about them, they don't write us off either. Jesus always holds out hope, and forgiveness, and healing, and an invitation to the Great Party of God's Love.
So whatever it is in your life that these stories remind you of.....Don't Give Up Before the Miracle Happens.
I hope to see you Sunday.