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September 27, 2020

A sermon delivered at First Presbyterian Church (video at bottom of the page)

"Empty Religion"

PRAYER -- Before we hear God’s word for us today, let us pray:


God, you have given us scripture to teach and to admonish, to inspire hope and to inspire action. I pray that as we wrestle with this text today that we don’t just read it, but we let it read us. Guide our hearts and minds as we shine a light on our lives and in our world. Amen.


INTRO --Before we jump in, my hope is that we leave here affirmed and encouraged, but also unsettled. What Finley Peter Dunne said about the newspaper rings true for our reflection on Scripture. It is at its best when it “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  Our scripture reading for today is Matthew 25:1-13.


SCRIPTURE -- “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids[c]got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.[e]


KARATE KID -- In the 2010 remake of Karate Kid, Jackie Chan plays the wise, old Mr. Han, a Kung Fu master tasked with teaching a young, inexperienced student. With notable differences, Han’s training and advice are very similar to that of Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid. In the remake, Han’s pupil is required to repeatedly hang up his jacket, and then take it back of the hook, and then hang it back up. This is very intentionally reminiscent of young Daniel waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car with the “wax on and wax off” method in the original movie. In each movie the master gives a veiled teaching, which isn’t easily discernable until it’s been practiced over and over. Only then, does the reason for the hanging up of the jacket and the waxing on and off become apparent. Much like a Zen koan, or “teaching,” or these martial arts masters, Jesus’ parable can be difficult to grasp at first glance. It requires sitting with the text and letting the teaching marinate a little bit.  


END TIME READING -- One of the most common ways to read this text is as a spiritualized, allegorical end time prophecy. Seen that way, there are the foolish and the wise and if you’re not wise, you don’t get to go the banquet (usually interpreted as Heaven) and Jesus (the bridegroom) has a few uncharacteristically harsh words for the “unwise.” 


But many scholars and theologians would push back on that reading. Admittedly, to our modern ears, this text seems “apocalyptic” and fits between several other apocalyptic stories, but in Jesus’ time, end-time narratives didn’t always mean a literal end of the world. In fact, it was a common way of speaking about the current social reality. It’s a way of projecting present circumstances into the future and extrapolating the consequences. We see in this in Daniel, Ezekiel, Micah, Revelation and other places throughout scripture.


APOCALYPITIC -- The apparent apocalyptic judgement isn’t about the wise and the foolish at the end of time, but it is a warning to the wise and the foolish in this time, right now, wherever the parable or the story is heard. Theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther talks about this apocalypticism as a “counter-cultural critique of the dominant system.”  The writer of Matthew is using this apocalyptic section in chapters 24 and 25 not as a description of the final judgement but as judgement on first century attitudes, ideas, and happenings.


CURRENT REALITY -- So for us, 2000 years later, historically, culturally, and geographically removed from the customs and practices of the day, the text is speaking to our current reality. It’s speaking to our current work situations, our current family relationships, our current approaches to life and finances and love and happiness and social arrangements. And, if we’re courageous enough to go there, and we’re willing to look at ourselves in the mirror, this text can point us to a new reality, a new way of being in the world, a wise life.  


DUNNING-KRUGER -- One of the temptations when faced with a passage as polarized as this one, is to too-quickly identify with the wise or the righteous people in the story. Most of us tend to think we’re “the good team.” There’s actually a term for this, and you may be familiar with it. It’s called “The Dunning-Kruger effect.” Different studies give us different percentages, but Psychologists and researchers agree, on average, we tend to overestimate our competence. We identify with the protagonists in the movies, we see ourselves as good people, we like to think of ourselves as the “righteous.”


But hypothetically, WHAT IF? What if we’re not quite as competent or as righteous or as wise as we think we are. What if we aren’t, as self-declared wise people, supposed to go and preach this passage to the unwise. What if this story is for us? If we are to really get the most out of this passage, it might be best to suspend judgement and have the courage to open ourselves up to the warnings and critiques and invitations of this passage has to offer. 


So what are those warnings and invitations? The obvious place to start would be the differences between the wise and the unwise. Both sets of bridesmaids waited. Both waited for the bridegroom, both had lamps, and both even fell asleep. The only thing the unwise bridesmaids lacked was oil! And I’m no expert on first century lamps, but oil seems like an important thing to remember. 


7th GRADE BASKETBALL -- When I was in seventh grade, the basketball team was school-sponsored for the first time. Until that point, everyone played in the local rec league. This meant there were going to be tryouts for the first time. I was pretty nervous about tryouts and I remember practicing all kinds of things; dribbling, defense, sliding my feet, in the weeks leading up to these tryouts. I didn’t expect to be great, but because of my excellent defensive skills I really thought I had a chance at making the team. 


Tryouts came and went, and yes, I did make the team. I was pumped. The next step was live practices and actually playing games! We had a few away games before we had our first home game and I remember how nervous I was to actually play in front of my parents and grandparents. I rode the bench most of the game but just before halftime, I got my chance. The coach put me in and I gave it my all. I tried to lock down on defense and I was hustling all over the court. Then the moment of truth came. 


We were on a fast break, and I beat everyone down the court and stood just outside the three-point line in the righthand corner of the court. My teammate saw me and passed me the ball. All of sudden I was wide open with the ball in my hands, keenly aware of how awesome I was about to look. I squatted down, brought the ball up to my shoulder, and let it rip. The moment felt surreal, and in slow motion. And then I realized I had radically overestimated the amount of force needed to make it to the hoop. The ball ended up sailing feet over the hoop and into the hands of the other team. 


I was embarrassed, ashamed, and I’m pretty sure I avoided shooting any more shots the rest of the game. Needless to say, I didn’t earn myself much more playing time with that performance. 


Much like the unwise bridesmaids had their lamps but hadn’t accounted for oil, I had defense, hustle, and the desire, but I didn’t account for some fairly important aspects of being a good basketball player, namely the ability to shoot the ball and to do so when my adrenaline was pumping. 


WITHOUT OIL -- Without oil, the bridesmaids were carrying around empty lamps, useless, burdensome, extra baggage that didn’t really help them with what they were trying to do. They were supposed to wait for the bridegroom and to lead a procession into the wedding banquet. But when they realized they had no oil and left to find it, it was too late. They missed the opportunity because they had empty lamps. Without oil in their lamps, they could not illuminate the way forward. They could not see into the darkness and into the unknown. They could not cast out the shadows but were left alone, in the night, outside the banquet.


EMPTY RELIGION -- One of the ways this parable can be read is as a way of thinking about our religious beliefs and practices. If religion is the term we give to contain all the ways we relate to God, it is our lamp, our outer shell. But what then is the oil? If the bridesmaids had empty lamps, what does “empty religion” look like? What is a key ingredient to faith and worship that if left out, renders the entire project useless? 


If we look further at Matthew 25, we come to the more well-known passage where Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick. It appears that those aren’t just add-ons in a life of faith, Matthew describes them as the very ways we know and see God, as the way we come face to face with Christ. Going back to the scripture we read earlier this morning, Amos 5 is brutal. God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals…take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen.” 


This is a passage that has troubled worship leaders for decades and centuries. If God does not want our worship what is it that God wants? After the rebuke of the Israelite’s festivals and religious practices in Amos 5, verse 24 says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” God appears to be less interested in pious devotion and more interested in who we take care of, who we look out for, and how we treat our neighbor.


SCOTT PUGH -- When I was a teenager, I was fortunate enough to have an incredible Youth Minister. Scott Pugh was one of those people whose faith moved him into action. He was a charismatic extrovert that made everyone around him feel like a million bucks. And even more, he was consistently showing up for the kids on the margins, the poor kids, the kids with broken families, the kids struggling with drugs or drinking. 


One of the things that bothered me as a teenager was that Scott spent what I thought was too much time with kids that didn’t have the same privileges or talents or character that I had. I remember being so upset and jealous when I heard that he took these two other kids to a rock concert. I never got that invite. I showed up every week. I led worship. I led small groups. I taught Sunday school. And yet, I was never invited to a concert. Looking back, I think this may have been the most important lesson Scott ever taught me. He cared about us all, but he was radically committed to those who were left out and to those who life had dealt more difficult circumstances. 


One of the names for empty religion is what sociologists call “MORALISTIC THERAPUETIC DEISM.” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a way of thinking about religion that imagines God to be a distant Creator that doesn’t often intervene in the affairs of the world. This God is moralistic and wants people to be nice and fair to one another. This God is also therapeutic and wants you to be happy and to feel good about yourself. 


And none of those things are completely horrible. But, one of the problems with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that it can turn a person’s religious life into a private affair, concerning one’s personal actions and well-being, meanwhile abstracting God into a distant cosmological watch maker. God becomes this disinterested person in the sky until we face a crisis, have a need, get sick, or go through a break-up. 


PICTURE OF GOD -- This is not the picture of God we get in Matthew 25, in Amos 5, and throughout the witness of scripture. In fact, we see a God radically concerned and involved with the fate of the world. We see an incarnational God who shows up in the midst of our brokenness. The first time we get to know the name of God is in the context of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptians. As Christians, we claim to know God most fully in Christ, the first century rabbi, in Roman occupied Jerusalem, and who spent much of his ministry and attention on the sick, the broken, the poor, and the outcast.


John the Baptist once sent a messenger to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?” Jesus replied, ““Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[e] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” This is how Jesus identified himself. He identified himself with the plight of those on the underside of society. 


Theologian DOROTHEE SOELLE shows us how this empty religion can function. She asks us to imagine proclaiming the phrase “God loves you,” to a man who has been without a home or a job for fifteen years and is living in the slums. This man has learned the hard way that our world is not filled with hope and beauty and goodness, but it is a hard place, where everyone looks out for themselves. What kind of God would make a world like this? How does the man make sense of this phrase, “God loves you?” Soelle says that the three words, “God loves you,” can only have meaning when it intends the transformation of the man’s status quo. When we actively seek a change in the man’s circumstances, we don’t just proclaim God’s love, but we bring it into existence, into human form, the Word made flesh. 


A.C.T. -- “There’s a type of therapy that counselors use that’s called ‘ACT’, or “Acceptance and Commitment’ therapy. The goal of this type of therapy is simple: accept what is, and work with what we’ve got. We might wish something were different, but if we wait until it is, we might never get anywhere. So, we work with the people and the situations we have right now. Therapists who work in this way talk about something they call De-Fusion, not diffusion, like the spreading out but – DE-fusion, like, de-fusing the little things that make up one big thing.


LEMONADE -- Take for example, lemonade. Lemonade is a simple substance made of three ingredients; lemon juice, water, and sugar. And it takes all three of these parts to make lemonade. If you remove, or de-fuse the water, you’re left with straight lemon juice and sugar, not a delicious refreshing summer drink. 


Our faith is like that. Yes, we need worship, and hope, and metaphysical beliefs, but when our ideas and practices around God, faith, and religion become separated or de-fused from concern for justice and righteousness, we are left with lemon juice and sugar. We find ourselves carrying lamps without oil and our religion is empty. 


NOT TO SCARE/INVITE -- In this passage, God is not trying to scare us into submission, but the parable does alert us to the very real consequences of not pursuing a more just, more beautiful world. Earlier this year, we lost a billion animals due to wildfires in Australia. Our West Coast is still on fire. Over 200,000 people have died of COVID in this country. Wealth inequality leaves the richest getting richer and the poorest struggling to put food on the table. We’re seeing violence and hate in our politics and in our news as police violence and riots dominate the headlines and social media timelines.


CONSEQUENCES / INVITATION In the face of all these consequences, God is holding the invitation to eternal life, life to the full. The warning about empty religion and lamps without oil isn’t a threat and and it is not meant to paralyze, but to show us the way to the banquet. Real, full, rich, wonderful, harmonious life is found when every member of society and every living creature is provided for, cared for, loved, and set free to be who God created them to be. With the light of full, pure religion, the bonds of injustice are loosed, the thongs of the yoke undone, and the oppressed go free.


FALL IN LINE -- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Empty Religion ask us to fall in line, to obey, in order to feel good and get on with life. And, God becomes the all important, self-absorbed bridegroom denying us entrance and happiness unless we have the right kind of oil in our lamp. Do we believe the right things? Can we say the right things? Do we show up to church on Sunday and smile at our neighbors? But that is not the God of Jesus and that is not the fullness of the gospel.



THE GOD OF JESUS we call Father, Mother, brother, sister, friend. The good news is that Jesus came to save, to liberate, to free, to emancipate, to loose our chains, to undo the ties that bind, to free us from small living, isolated existence, and invite us to a shared life together that works for all creation. God is what calls us on. God is the invitational, the alluring, the drawing forward into a deeper love with the planet, and our brothers and sisters, of every gender, class, race, background, and ability. When Jesus shows us the way to eternal life, he is standing in the line of Hebrew prophets, like Amos, calling for an upending of the social hierarchies and new way of relating to one another. 


KEEP AWAKE -- This parable closes with one final admonition. It says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Many Christians and commentators read into this Jesus talking about some kind of second coming, when Jesus comes back in all his glory. But again, I side with those who would push back against those kinds of once-an-for-all, end-time overtones and I look to the context. In a few more verses, Jesus is about to say, “what you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” But Jesus says, no one will know when or how, keep watch. Keep your eyes open. Be on the lookout.  


KEEP WATCH -- Today, Jesus is telling us: Keep watch, for the people who don’t look like you and might have a harder time navigating this world. Keep watch, for the people who don’t fit into boxes and categories that the world loves to reward. Keep watch, for those struggling with too much on their plates. Keep watch, for those battling hidden enemies trying to destroy their mental health and their relationships. Keep watch, for the isolated and the lonely. Keep watch, for the poor and economically unstable. Keep watch, for those who don’t have a roof over their heads. Keep watch, for our planet that is groaning under the weight we’re asking it to bear. Keep watch, for the wrongfully accused. Keep watch, because in the face of the other, we see Jesus. In this way, Jesus is always “coming again.” 


But, if we get wrapped up in empty religion and worship as a side dish to the rest of our lives, we will miss out. Religion is not a decorative lamp to be carried around, but a fire burning in the night, consuming the lies that tell us that people deserve less because of the color of their skin, their cognitive ability, their ancestors access to jobs and wealth, or any fact that is not based on their inherent worth as a child of God.


PURPOSE? DO! -- One of the questions that haunts humanity is something like “What is the meaning of life? How do I find purpose? What does a good life look like?” This parable is both an invitation to that meaning and purpose, and a warning that you can numb your way through life, you can distract, and entertain, and even show up to church each Sunday yet miss the opportunity to dwell in the Kingdom of God, on Earth as in Heaven. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says “In a world where people are dying of boredom, Christianity gives us something to do.” Yes, boredom, but also distraction, of loneliness, and displacement, and lack of trust, too. In this world, Jesus calls to us in the face of oppressed, in the voices crying out for justice, in the lives of the marginalized. Keep watch friends, Jesus is always coming again.


The moral imperative for justice cannot be defused from our worship and our piety. Without justice, we are carrying empty lamps. Without justice, our worship becomes empty religion. But the table is set, the food is prepared, and you are invited. God’s banquet is for one and all if we seek a more just, a more whole, a more beautiful world. 


Thanks be to God, 



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