Prepared for the Long Run – Rev. Henry Brinton (with audio)

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Prepared for the Long Run
November 9, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

 

A Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister walked into a restaurant.  They sat down to celebrate the minister’s 40th birthday.  In the course of their dinner, the priest challenged his friend to run the Marine Corps Marathon.

That sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?  A priest, a minister, and a marathon.

But the Catholic priest wasn’t kidding.  And I, the Presbyterian minister at that dinner, wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had no experience as a runner, and the prospect of 26.2 miles was daunting.  But I wanted a midlife challenge as I entered my 40s.  So I said yes, I’d give it a try.

The first time I hit the road, I ran for three minutes and had to stop, gasping for breath.  But after walking for seven minutes, I was able to run for another three, and then I walked another seven and ran three.  Over several weeks, my running increased and my walking decreased until I could run for an hour.  And then I ran two hours.

“If you can run two hours, you can run four hours,” the priest told me.  “If you can run four hours, you can do a marathon.”

He was right.  Six months after beginning my training, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in a respectable four hours and 12 minutes.  I felt as if I’d been through boot camp, but my exhausted elation at the finish line made the pain worthwhile.

Wise and prepared bridesmaids

Jesus tells the parable of the ten bridesmaids as an illustration of what the kingdom of heaven will be like.  All ten are dressed for the wedding and ready to go, like runners in expensive shoes and high-tech running duds at the start of the Marine Corps Marathon, which was held once again just two Sundays ago.  But there is a subtle division in the group:  Five are wise and five are foolish.

So what makes for this distinction?  It is not that the first five got perfect scores on their SATs and the second group did not.  Nor is it that five made smarter choices about shoes and clothing for the event.  No, the five wise bridesmaids have enough oil to handle a delay in the arrival of the bridegroom, while the five foolish ones have only enough oil for the moment.  The first five are prepared for the long run.

When the bridesmaids gather for the wedding, they all assume that the event will be like a sprint, a very short race.  But it turns into a marathon.  The bridegroom is delayed and they all become weary, feeling like runners approaching Heartbreak Hill on the Boston Marathon.

At midnight there is a shout, “Look!  Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him” (Matthew 25:6).  After hours and hours on the course, the finish line is suddenly within sight.  All of the bridesmaids trim their lamps, but the foolish ones discover quickly that they are out of oil.  They have not prepared themselves properly for this final push, and find themselves close to running out of gas.

Marathoners know that proper training is essential to the completion of a race.  Running several days a week is the foundation of any training program, and as marathon day approaches at least one of these weekly runs needs to get longer — six miles, then eight, then 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, and even 20.  The only way to have enough “oil” is to train the body to endure a long run.

The foolish bridesmaids say to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” (v. 8).  And the wise ones say, “No!”  (v. 9).  This might seem like a selfish response at first, but it is not.  Certain things cannot be shared.  A runner cannot share her training with another person; everyone has to prepare herself or himself.  The foolish bridesmaids drop out to purchase some oil from a dealer, and while they are away the bridegroom appears and the doors to the wedding are barred to any latecomers.  Jesus concludes with the advice, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).

So what is this oil that the foolish bridesmaids have not adequately prepared?  It’s not actually olive oil, nor is it a rigorous marathon training program.  Instead, in the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time, oil is a symbol for good deeds.  New Testament professor M. Eugene Boring says that oil represents “deeds of love and mercy in obedience to the Great Commandment” — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.

You know the Great Commandment, don’t you?  “Love the Lord your God … love your neighbor as yourself” (22:37, 39).  This was the topic of Yena’s sermon just two weeks ago.  In today’s Scripture reading, oil represents deeds of love and mercy, done in obedience to the Great Commandment.

Running for good

Such deeds are not a quick fix, a sprint of good works.  Instead, they require the marathon mentality.  Seven years after my first Marine Corps Marathon, I decided to run it again — but this time as part of a team of 50 runners raising money for 25:40, an organization helping to fight AIDS in South Africa.  The group gets its name from Matthew 25:40, in which Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).

A number of FPC members joined me as part of the 25:40 team.  As I prepared for the marathon, I found himself thinking of Lithemba, a five-year-old South African boy with AIDS.  My fundraising would support a clinic that treated Lithemba and paid the salary of AIDS monitors — native South Africans trained in HIV/AIDS care and prevention.

When I felt exhausted at the halfway mark, I thought of the weariness brought on by a life-threatening disease.  When I struggled to make it to my next water stop, I wondered what it would be like to face real thirst:  In rural South Africa, millions of people lack clean drinking water.

I was certainly glad that I had taken on the discipline of marathon running, with all of its pain and suffering.  But I was also glad that my running was doing something to ease the anguish of others.  And that is what Jesus is teaching us in the parable of the ten bridesmaids:  We prepare for the kingdom of heaven by performing deeds of love and mercy again and again and again.  We need to be prepared for the long run.

Many of us contribute canned food to help the hungry through annual drives, set aside a day a year to work on the homes of needy neighbors, or devote a week of vacation to short-term overseas mission projects — as the Midlife Men on a Mission have done this past week in Honduras.  This is kingdom work, for sure, with benefits to givers and recipients.  But doing a single overseas mission project is not as demanding as being a volunteer year after year, when partners in Honduras or Guatemala make slow progress due to poverty or health problems.  “Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant,” says professor Eugene Boring; “being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.”

This year, the Midlife Men on a Mission celebrated their 10th anniversary of mission work in Honduras.  We are beginning to see the benefits of long-term investment in the people of the country, such as our support for a young woman named Yahaira Torres, whom we sent to a bilingual school in La Entrada.  She is now in a university, studying to be a doctor, and her future looks very bright.

Jesus challenges us to prepare for the kingdom through a regular discipline of loving and merciful actions.  We need to train for the kingdom of heaven as a runner prepares for a marathon, running 10, 12, and even 20 miles.  When the kingdom arrives we want to be ready, well prepared by the good efforts we have made in the world.

Corporal works of mercy

Such good works are often called “the corporal works of mercy,” which are focused on the material needs of others:  feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.  The word “corporal” comes from the Latin corpus, meaning body.  When we do these works of mercy, we are providing for the bodily needs of others.  But equally important is the fact that these deeds require our bodies — hands to feed, arms to clothe, and legs to visit.  Unless we train our bodies to do these things, we will never succeed in the work that Jesus challenges us to do.

The good news is that this disciplined effort is not as exhausting as it sounds.  Marathon training is a kind of meditation — an opportunity to think, dream, pray, and solve problems.  Exercise cuts through the clutter of life and gives runners the gift of simplicity for a few hours each week.  In a world full of phone calls, e-mails, meetings, and paperwork, marathon training calms the spirit by offering a sharp focus on the path that lies ahead.

Acts of love and mercy can cut through the clutter of life as well.  They remind us of the elegant simplicity of the words of Jesus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).  They illustrate the truth of the letter of James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).  Exercising our Christian muscles again and again can make us more loving, caring, and faithful, with a sharper focus on the path to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus invites us to join him in a marathon, not a sprint.  He tells us to keep our lamps full of the oil of love and mercy, so that we’ll be burning brightly when the kingdom appears.

So what deeds of love and mercy will you perform in response to the Great Commandment?  How will you adopt the marathon mentality in your training for the kingdom of heaven?  What corporal works of mercy will you make a part of your routine — works of mercy such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned?  If there are any men who want to go to Honduras next year, I’d love to hear from you.

The finish line is out there, and we can cross it.  But only if we are prepared for the long run.  Amen.

 

Sources:

Henry G. Brinton, “Running for Good,” Washingtonian, November 2007, http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/first-person-running-for-good/.

 

M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 450.

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