This last week I spent time thinking about the Gospel reading from Matthew. Our translation speaks of ten bridesmaids, five foolish and five wise. But the original Greek used the term virgin. Ten virgins, five foolish virgins and five wise virgins. Because I grew up in the eighties, all I could think about was Madonna big hit, “Like a virgin.”
I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn't know how lost I was
Until I found you
I relived my high school homecoming dance as I sang with Madonna this week. But the song returned me to the gospel as I wondered: like a virgin; like which kind of virgin?
Jesus’ parable is very odd if you pause to consider it. First, the ending doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. The foolish virgins - caught with burned out lamps - turn with contrite hearts, seeking a chance to still enter the party. No luck. The groom shuts and bolts the door. This is no father of the prodigal story; here God acts harshly.
Beyond the ending, the whole parable comes off as odd. Its a wedding with a groom and bridesmaids, but no bride. We’ve had those weddings here. But this was ancient Israel. The absence of the bride stands out. Equally odd for the time was the suggestion for the virgins to seek out olive oil for their lamps at midnight. No stores would be open. Its ridiculous. And of course there’s something tongue-in-cheek about Jesus speaking of ‘wise virgins’ when we typically think of innocence and naivete and the lack of a certain sort of knowledge.
These odd elements turned the parable into a comical farce. And while we’re meant to laugh, were also meant to see ourselves in the joke; to recognize the ways in which we can be foolish virgins too.
Understanding Jesus’ farce requires us to tell the difference between the wise and foolish virgins. Jesus often told stories of seemingly similar people who have one key difference: the men who built their houses, one on rock, the other on sand; the two servants, one faithful, the other not; the herd of goats and sheep.
Like those other groups, the virgins all appear the same. Hopeful, pretty, decked out in gowns they will never wear again. We can’t tell who's foolish and who’s wise just by looking at them. And even a casual observation of their behavior doesn’t show the truth. All the virgins fall asleep while waiting for the groom.
The important difference only became evident when the groom finally arrived. Some virgins had enough oil for their lamps, and some did not. Within Judaism, oil served as a symbol of good deeds. Metaphorically, the foolish virgins had only done a few good deeds. But the wise virgins had saved up enough ‘good deeds’ to last through a long night of waiting.
The key difference between the virgins comes down to a single issue: discipleship. But expressed in a particular way. One scholar explained it this way: the foolish virgins were peacemakers for a day - they stopped one fight - but the wise virgins were peacemakers day after day, year after year - they stopped violence. That is: the foolish virgins did not make lasting changes while the wise ones did.
I find it a helpful way to understand this parable. The foolish virgins didn’t create much change in their lives; they waited until the last minute and then it was too late. The stores were closed. The opportunity for change lost. The wise virgins planned ahead; they worked to create sustained change in their lives. No matter how late the groom ran, they were prepared.
This difference between the foolish and wise virgins can be seen in the life of Arthur Simon. Simon founded the organization Bread for the World, a movement of people across the country who work to change the policies of our government that affect the poor and the hungry here in America and around the world. He wrote about his commitment to changing lives, saying:
“When I was a boy my father used to say, ‘It’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than to have an ambulance at the bottom.’ I thought of that often as a pastor on New York’s lower east side, because I found myself constantly dealing with emergencies - driving the ambulance. So I attempted to build a fence by helping start Bread for the World as a citizen’s lobby.”
Simon’s distinction between driving ambulances and building fences helps explain the virgins. The foolish virgins waited below the cliff for a moment of crisis; the wise ones thought ahead.
We talk of changing lives in our congregation; but are we more concerned about driving ambulances or building fences?
Over the last year the church council spent considerable time discussing and debating different ideas for a strategic plan. All of our ideas involved various options for change. Along the way we learned to make a distinction between technical fixes and adaptive challenges. This distinction gets to the heart of ambulance driving versus fence building.
We all face change in our lives, families, work. Some of the changes we’re called to make involve a technical fix and others an adaptive challenge. A technical fix doesn’t mean a call to the Geek Squad. Rather, a technical fix is something we know how to solve. It might require special knowledge, but if so then we know who to call. It might require a lot of work, but if so then we know how to do it. Technical fixes are changes we have the ability to implement.
In the life of the church a technical problem might be picking a new Sunday School curriculum - it requires work and reflection but the Board of Christian Education knows how to do this.
A technical question in life might be a diagnosis - identity the disease and treat it. Technical fixes involve change within our capacity to manage.
But some questions can not be solved by marshalling ever more technical knowledge. Some questions, some changes, involve an adaptive challenge. Adaptive work requires that we learn something new, which we don’t know how to do, and takes us to a future we can’t quite imagine. Adaptive challenges require us to increase our capacity.
Just as building a fence is a deeper level of change than driving an ambulance, adaptive work is a deeper level of change than technical fixes.
Ron Heifetz, who coined the terms technical fixes and adaptive challenges, once used two stories from the life of President Lyndon Johnson to illustrate the differences in these two kinds of change. The two great questions of the Johnson presidency were civil rights and Vietnam.
Johnson approached civil rights as an adaptive challenge. He wanted our country to find new ways we could not quite imagine to solve it. But he stretched our imagination in moments like the Selma March for Voting Rights. The crises started long ago in the small town of Selma, Alabama. Half the residents, 15,000 people, were African-Americans but of these only 325 were registered to vote. I guess the governor of Alabama was concerned about voter fraud too.
A march from Selma to the state capitol was organized. But governor George Wallace felt threatened; he sent in the state police, who beat people on national television and killed one black teenager.
Almost immediately protests erupted, including calls on President Johnson to send in federal troops to force Alabama to allow African-Americans the right to vote. But Johnson waited. In the previous year he’d passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill but Congress had stripped out voter protection. Johnson knew too few whites supported voting rights.
Waiting caused tension to mount. Refusing to act put Governor Wallace in a bind - Wallace didn’t want to give in to the marchers but he also knew any more violence would end his presidential ambitions. The delay also gave the country time to absorb the shock of the violence they had seen - policeman beating peaceful people. Waiting to act allowed the issue to develop into a high priority for the country as a whole.
After a week, Johnson addressed the nation before both houses of Congress. The speech masterfully reminded everyone of our deepest values and named the way voter restrictions affronted our ideals. He then called on Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By waiting to act, by ensuring people faced hard questions, by not stepping in with a solution, Johnson led the nation through an adaptive challenge in which we figured out new ways to operate and act. It was as if he made the whole nation build a new fence, a fence which included African-Americans as full citizens.
Somewhat amazingly, the president who could be a generative leader on the issue of civil rights took a very different approach to Vietnam. Vietnam poses many difficult questions for our country such as the extent of our foreign power and the way we fought wars. Unlike civil rights, Johnson did not engage the country in reflection and discernment. Instead he lied about basic facts, hid the true costs and dangers of the war, and made secretive judgments. He treated the problem of Vietnam as something only he, the technician, the ambulance driver, could fix. In many ways the mistakes Johnson made in Vietnam overshadow his legacy on civil rights, folly overshadowing wisdom.
As a church, we’re often called on to help in crisis moments. We often think of these as the moments when we do our best at changing lives. But I’ve come to see the work of the church as essentially adaptive. We more about fences than ambulances; we’re more about adaptive work than technical fixes.
President Johnson created space for reflection and conversation, space to feel tension, space to imagine. Its all of what we do at our best in church. We gather people from different walks of life, across the neighborhoods of our city, with various perspectives to form a community together. And in building a community together we face the adaptive challenges all around us.
This fall Bridget was asked if Plymouth could provide a meal at the Guest House Men’s Shelter. She said yes, of course. It sounded like the classic ambulance call. But its become something more. When our families sit down with men at the Guest House, sharing a holiday meal, we’re not only meeting an immediate need, we’re saying, “you’re part of our family too.” We’re stretching our white picket fence from our houses over to the Guest House. In a city still shaken by the shooting of a homeless man this Spring, we’re saying, “these men are our brothers too.”
The great power of the church is to stretch the fences we build in America. We’ve stretched the fence to include more and more people as an Open and Affirming Congregation. But we’re also stretching it in our work with poverty programs and homelessness initiatives. We’re making it clear that homeless teens at Pathfinders, and families without shelter at Cathedral Center, and men at the Guest House are part of our family. We’re stretching that fence to include Burmese Immigrants and kids who need tutors. We live in a culture which wants to see lonely, hurt, and poor people as “those” people. But we’re working to rise to the adaptive challenge; to say, that’s my sister, that’s my brother.
Earlier I quoted Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” It was not just because of the title. She sang in the opening lines, “Didn't know how lost I was until I found you.” We all know people lost in a variety of ways - lost in addiction, crushed by poverty, but also pushed to the edge by loneliness, suffering from a lack of meaning. The community of church takes us through those wilderness moments. We can be like wise virgins building a community that says, “no matter what, you are welcome here.”
This Sunday we ask for your help addressing the adaptive challenges we face as a congregation. Your pledge of financial support provides the vast majority of our funding as a congregation. Without you, we can’t do it. Because of you, we can change lives. Alleluia and Amen.