Cry like a Baby – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 27 – November 12, 2023

Preacher:Phil Schmidt

24th Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus said, “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.”

In the year 1925 in Topeka, Kansas, the Menninger Clinic was established. From the very beginning, this clinic specialized in therapeutic treatment of children. It once faced an unusual challenge, namely, how to treat babies who did not cry. These babies had been neglected by their parents. Originally, they had cried for the reason that every child cries: in order to attract attention to a need. They had cried for hours, calling out for help, but the parents had not responded. At some point these disregarded babies had stopped crying, because they had learned that calling out for help is useless. So, the clinic tried an experiment. They invited elderly people who lived nearby, and who had plenty of time available, to come to the clinic and to hold these non-crying babies in their arms, rocking them gently back and forth. The experiment was successful. The children began to cry again. The warm, physical contact reestablished trust.  The babies regained the trust that calling out for help would not be in vain.

This experiment can serve as a parable. In the Bible people often cry out to God in a desperate situation. It is the type of crying which occurs in babies when they feel a desperate need and are full of trust that someone is there who will respond. The psalms offer endless examples:

      • In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. (18:6)
      • To you, O Lord, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy: (30:8)
      • When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles (34:17)
      • I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry (40:1)
      • I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. (57:2)
      • I cry aloud to God, and he will hear me. (77:1)
      • Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. (88:1)
      • Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! (130:1)
      • With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. (142:1)

Crying out to God can change the course of history. The Exodus of the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt was a defining moment in Biblical history. It was instigated by a cry to God:

      • The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God…Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry. (Ex. 3)

The cry of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt initiated their liberation and established a revolutionary belief, namely, that every single human being, created in the image of God, has an unconditional dignity. This is the basis for the justice which God wants to realize for all of humanity.

Along this line, Jesus confirmed that it is our vocation as people of God to cry out for justice unceasingly:  And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? (Luke 18, 7)

However, there is something ambiguous about the word “cry”. One of the worst insults is to be called a “cry baby”, which means to cry too easily when one is hurt in order to be the center of attention or to arouse pity. The German word for cry baby is “Heulsusa”. There are some Bundesliga football players who have been called “Heulsusa’s”. One of them used to play for Eintracht Frankfurt. However, a Heulsusa is not calling out to God for justice, but to a referee, because he wants to get an opponent penalized with a yellow flag.

It could be argued that it is our calling as followers of Christ to be cry babies / Heulsusas, not because we want people to feel sorry for us, but because we hunger for justice and peace to be established world-wide. It is our calling to cry like babies for justice day and night.

There is a danger that we might cease to cry out to God because he apparently does not respond. One of the challenges of prayer is that there are seldom immediate visible results. We pray for peace and justice and what happens? War and injustice seem to increase. The babies who were treated at the Menninger Clinic because they had given up crying are a warning to us. There is a danger that people will stop praying because God does not seem to respond to prayer.

In the year 2019 a research institute (Markt- und Sozialforschungsinstituts INSA-Consulere) carried out a survey to determine praying habits. Among other things this survey determined the percentage of people who never pray. According to this research 43% of people in the Bundesrepublik never pray. In East Germany it goes up to 65%.

This is a statistic which I find hard to comprehend. How is it possible to live life without a single prayer? This would mean that even in a life-threatening situation a person would never cry out

“God help me!” or “Lord have mercy on me!”

In this context, the parable of the ten bridesmaids can give us orientation. The background of this parable is a custom at the time of Jesus which apparently survived into the 20th century. A British theologian by the name of J. Alexander Findlay visited Palestine and encountered wedding customs which reflect the parable of Jesus:

“When we were approaching the gates of a Galilaean town, I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car. When I asked what they were doing, the travel guide told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying: ‘It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in a fortnight’s time; nobody ever knows for certain.’ Then he went on to explain that it was customary at a middle-class wedding in Palestine to try to catch the bridal party napping. So, the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night; it is true that he is required by public opinion to send a man along the street to shout: ‘Behold! the bridegroom is coming!’ but that may happen at any time; so, the bridal party have to be ready to go out into the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come. … No one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and once the bridegroom has arrived and the door has been shut, late-comers are not admitted to the ceremony.”

According to traditional interpretation, this waiting for the bridegroom represents waiting for the Messiah to appear in power and glory, to consummate history and renew creation. For Christian faith, Jesus is the Messiah who will establish an all-encompassing justice and peace which will unite all people in God, the living and the dead. The five so-called foolish bridesmaids, who let their lamp lights die out, could be regarded as people who have lost hope and no longer wait for God’s future. Their flames have gone out, which means they have lost the ability to cry out to God. They regard prayer as futile. They believe that life will end in nothingness.

So, how does one keep the lamp of faith burning?  The babies of the Menninger clinic came back to life through the warmth of physical contact. Along the same line, Christian faith needs warm human contact to survive. We need the fellowship of worship. We need the human warmth which a community of faith can provide. We need the physical contact with the presence of God, which the Eucharist offers in bread and wine.

Above all, we need to have a vision of the need for prayer. One person who can help us to see the vitality of prayer is a Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote 50 books, mostly to the themes of spirituality, social justice and quiet pacificism. In 1941, at a time when the Nazis were devastating Europe, he watched his fellow monks at prayer at a monastery in Kentucky, and he wrote in his journal the following:

I had wondered what was keeping the country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. It’s places like this monastery – not only this one: there must be others…. It is an axle around which the whole country blindly turns, and knows nothing about it. This community of prayer holds the country together.

It has often been said that Christianity has been praying for peace and justice for 2000 years, but has nothing to show for it. However, what would the world look like today if no one had been praying for justice and peace during the past 2,000 years? Would you want to live in a world where no one is crying out to God?  Without prayer, the world might become a black hole, in which all light has been extinguished. According to the Bible, prayer accomplishes immeasurably more than anything which we could ask or image. The effect of prayer exceeds human comprehension.

So, let us keep our lamps burning day and night as we wait for the bridegroom to appear in glory, to initiate the final celebration, which will encompass all people of all places and of all times. Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say the words “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…deliver us from evil.” This is our cry for global justice. It will not go unanswered. It will contribute to what God intends for this world. May God help us to keep our lamps lighted.