We begin this morning with something a little bit different. We’re actually going to begin this morning with a short video. That’s unusual in itself. But it’s going to be particularly unusual, because the short video clip I want to show is actually from a workout video, a kind of exercise video, produced by the New York City Ballet. The clip I’ll show is one selection from a series of short videos intended for dancers or non-dancers who want to use the techniques and movements of ballet for exercise and muscle strengthening. What’s interesting about this video, for our purposes, is the insight the video gives into the discipline, the training and the preparations of professional dancers.
Now I should say this morning that I’ve only been to the ballet a few times in my life. I have some vague childhood memory of seeing the nutcracker. And then in our twelve years here in Montreal, Becky and I have been to see a couple of performances of Les Grand Ballet Canadiens. I should also say that this somewhat limited experience with ballet, isn’t because I’m not interested in ballet, or because I find it boring. I guess you have to chalk it up to a lack of time to do all the things I might enjoy. In any case, this morning we are all going to have something of an encounter with ballet, perhaps a peculiar encounter, as we begin with this short video.
That short video serves as a pretty good reminder, I think, that anyone who is serious about the development of some artistic ability must put in a great deal of time and effort to hone his or her skills. A person may be introduced to an art form from childhood – introduced to the particular skills and disciplines of that art early in life – but in order to become anything close to a professional artist means putting in days and months and years of preparation and training.
And not only that, but once the person has attained some degree of proficiency or success in dance, or in some instrument, or in acting – it’s not as if you can stop working – it’s not as if you can put it on cruise control. Professional dancers will spend hours in a week practicing, doing muscle strengthening. Professional musicians will spend hours in a week getting those difficult few bars of music down pat. Actors will spend hours a week memorizing lines and imagining their movements on stage. Once you achieved a certain level of success, it doesn’t mean you can stop working.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published a book entitled Outliers: The Secret of Success. In that book he argued that great success in business or sports or the arts has little to do with natural ability. Rather, to become very successful there are two key variables. The first variable is luck – finding yourself at the right place at the right time. The second variable is time – putting in the time. Gladwell argues that putting in 10,000 hours of training or practice gives you a pretty good chance of success. 10,000 hours. That’s 4 hours a day, every day, for seven years. In that pithy statement we all know pretty well – practice makes perfect.
But let’s go back for a moment to the image of those dancers doing their warm-up exercises – of those dancers practicing their art. And what I’d especially like us to think about is the continuity between what is done during warm-ups and rehearsals on the one hand, and what is done in the actual performance on the other hand.
There is a profound level of continuity between what is done in warm-ups and in practicing, and what is done in the performance itself.
In the warm-up the dancer’s posture is important – as it is in the performance.
In warm-up the dancer pays attention to breathing – as she must in the performance.
In warm-up the bodies is strong yet relaxed – as it must be in performance.
In warm-up there certain movements (plies, eleves) – which will be repeated in the performance.
What is done in the warm-up and the rehearsal is in continuity with what happens in the dance itself. Indeed, all of the warming up and rehearsing is what makes the performance itself possible. Without all of that work done ahead of time, there would be no performance.
Well, we are a good way into this sermon and haven’t made any mention of our scripture passage for today – the parable we heard read from Matthew chapter 25. As we think about this parable, we first of all want to say that parables in general are not supposed to be complicated. A parable generally has one clear lesson we are to take from it. And in fact the meaning of the parable we heard from Matthew 25, the parable of the bridesmaids, is pretty obvious. Jesus’ meaning in the parable is pretty clear. It’s this: You should be prepared. The kingdom of heaven is coming and you have got to watch for it. The kingdom of Jesus is coming and you better make preparation for its coming.
More specifically, given the way that Matthew sets the parable within the wider narrative, the parable is a also reminder that our waiting cannot be passive. Our waiting for the kingdom of heaven does not involve sitting around doing nothing. No, for Jesus who first tells the parable, and for Matthew who transmits the parable to us, our waiting must be active.
But then we have to ask whether there is anything more we can say about this active waiting. Well, as we continue reading in Matthew’ s gospel, we get a pretty good idea of what Matthew has in mind. Our active waiting is to correspond with the coming kingdom of heaven. In our waiting we are to use the gifts and resources that God has given us. In our waiting we must pursue the ways of justice and goodness – we must clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those who are in prison.
From Matthew’s perspective, there is a great performance coming – the greatest show on earth is about to unfold – and no, it’s not the Ringling Brothers circus. The greatest show on earth, the grand performance that is about to unfold before our eyes, is arrival or establishment of the kingdom of heaven. And the point of this parable of Jesus, shared by Matthew, is that we should live our lives in a way that corresponds with that coming kingdom.
Let’s go back for a moment to the video with which we started. Between their live performances on various stages, ballet dancers warm-up and rehearse and practice – and what they do in their warm-ups and rehearsals and practices – all of that corresponds with what they will do in the live performances.
In the same way, we are waiting for the coming kingdom of heaven, and we must live in a way that are consistent with that kingdom – we must live in a way that anticipates the kingdom of heaven.
What does this faithful and active waiting look like?
our waiting involves joy – because Jesus’ kingdom is one of joy.
our waiting involves celebration – because Jesus’ kingdom will be a grand celebration.
our waiting involves reconciliation – because reconciliation will finally
be accomplished in the kingdom of heaven.
our waiting involves forgetfulness of self – because in the kingdom of heaven the first will be last and the last first.
our waiting involves working for the healing of broken lives and bodies – because in the coming kingdom of Jesus, broken bodies and lives will be healed.
This parable of Jesus, from Matthew 25, is a very simple reminder, that here and now we must live in a way that corresponds with what will one day be the reality of our lives and our world in Christ.
With this understanding of the parable in mind, we cannot neglect to look at a difficult element within it. We notice that the five unwise bridesmaids, the ones who were not well prepared for the coming of the bridegroom – in the parable they are left out in the darkness. They stand at the door and cry out: “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replies to them: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Matthew concludes: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Certainly we cannot ignore this or take this lightly, as much as we might like to. But how are we to understand it. In the first instance we might interpret it as follows: “If you don’t live a good life – if you don’t live in a way that anticipates the ways of Jesus’ kingdom – then you won’t get into heaven. If you don’t live well, you’re locked out of heaven.” The problem with this interpretation is that in terms of the broad message of the New Testament, it misses the mark. This way of understanding the parable makes it seem like being a good person is what gets you into heaven – which certainly isn’t the case. That way of reading the narrative also puts the idea of getting to heaven just a little too close to the centre of our imaginations. The New Testament isn’t about how you get to heaven.
But then how do we understand this difficult part of the parable. Perhaps we can understand it this way. If the dancer doesn’t make preparations – if the dancer doesn’t do her warm-ups, if the dancer doesn’t go to rehearsals – what will happen on the day of the performance as she steps out before an expectant audience? Well, we know what will happen – it will be a flop, or at least a big disappointment. If the dancer doesn’t live and work in anticipation of the performance – then the dancer is in a sense excluding herself from the full and beautiful performance that might have been possible. By her failure to anticipate the performance, to prepare for it, she in effect refuses all of its beautiful possibilities.
In a similar sense, if we do not live now in the way of Jesus – if we do not live in ways that anticipate his kingdom – if we do not live in the grace and strength of the Spirit he sends to us – then we are in a sense excluding ourselves from his coming kingdom – refusing it. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom that comes to us every day – as the Spirit works among us. And the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom that will come in all its fullness when Christ appears. But if we do not live today in ways that anticipate that kingdom, then in an important and even fundamental sense, we are cutting ourselves from the kingdom. We are excluding ourselves from joy of the Jesus’ kingdom,
excluding ourselves from the justice of his kingdom
excluding ourselves from the love and service of his kingdom
excluding ourselves from the forgiveness of his kingdom.
excluding ourselves from the gracious reign of Christ over all things.
It’s not a question of whether we get into heaven (which isn’t a particularly interesting question or a particularly helpful question from the perspective of the gospels). It is, rather, a question of living today in joyful and faithful anticipation of the coming kingdom of God. What matters is being ready, in the best sense possible, ready for that joyful day that is almost upon us.
We began this morning with a video of the New York City Ballet in warm-up – and we end this morning with a video of the New York City Ballet in performance. For the New York City Ballet, being well prepared translates into a wonderful performance, a beautiful conclusion. It is the same for us.