(a sermon for November 12, 2017, the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 25:1-13)
I would suspect that most, if not all of us in this room can vouch for this particular undeniable truth of life: that there are consequences for being unprepared!
I learned this truth back in school; although admittedly it took me quite a while! After all, you can’t not read the assigned chapters in “Moby Dick” and expect to come even close to correctly answering the teacher’s questions about Captain Ahab the next day in class; and they’re called “pop quizzes” for a reason, and so not doing your homework is almost certainly a recipe for academic disaster!
And then there were the great many “all-nighters” I pulled in college, at least until eventually I discovered that I could not wait to study for exams or write my term papers at the last minute and expect to do well. I remember one paper in particular; it was one of the very first I ever wrote for a seminary class, in fact. All these years later, I’m still not sure it was because of the work load from all my other courses or if it were just pure procrastination on my part, but I do remember that as I cranked out the final pages of that paper – due the very next day – that new day was actually dawning (!); and also that I was convinced that what I had written was brilliant, cutting edge theology!
But a few days later, when the professor invited me to his office and graciously allowed me the chance for a rewrite (!), I realized that what I’d passed in what was basically a 20 page-long run-on sentence, pretty much lacking any of the insights that should have come from a semester’s worth of study (the professor was kind, however: “Well, Michael,” he said, “this paper does have a great deal of vitality!” Probably more like the effects of a great deal of caffeine, but I was grateful nonetheless).
In retrospect, I could never have hoped to have been ready with that paper at the last minute, any more than I could ever do well on a final exam without first having studied for that exam! And therein lies the undeniable truth: that in whatever opportunity, or challenge, or crisis comes our way, most often we cannot hope to have the tools, or the skills, or, for that matter, the character to face what’s coming unless that skill or that part of our character has been previously and sufficiently nurtured over time and with concerted effort. In the end, you see, preparedness is not about what is done at the last minute, but everything else that’s been done in anticipation of that last minute.
Our gospel reading for this morning tells us that this is especially true for that which is the most important thing of all: the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world. Jesus actually speaks a fair amount about this in Matthew’s gospel; the gist of the message being, “you… must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (24:44) But in order to illustrate the consequences for not being ready, Jesus goes on to tell the story of ten bridesmaids waiting with lamps burning for the arrival of the bridegroom and the beginning of a wedding feast.
It would have been a familiar scenario for those of Jesus’ time: it was customary in those days for a groom to escort his bride from her father’s house to his own home, followed by a grand procession of attendants, guests, musicians and townspeople. Once they arrived – and sometimes this arrival would happen well into the evening, especially if the groom was bringing his bride from a neighboring village – they’d be met there by the bridesmaids waiting outside his door, the light of their lamps glowing in the night. And then together the whole group would then go inside, so that the wedding celebration could start in earnest. It was also a custom – and this is important – that once everyone had entered and the festivities had begun, the doors would be locked and no one admitted late.
So here, according to Jesus, according to proper wedding tradition and etiquette are these ten bridesmaids; except that Jesus also makes a point of telling us that “five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” It’s an interesting distinction, because just like members of a wedding party today, they were probably identical in appearance and all dressed to the nines; they were certainly all friends and family of the bride; and each one of them had been invited to be there and equally desirous of celebrating this marriage! And if we’re looking for a lack of etiquette, it wasn’t the fact that they fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom, who we’re told was delayed in his arrival; because all ten of them did that!
No, the only difference, the only thing that sets apart the foolish from the wise, turns out to be a lack of preparedness; specifically, five of the ten who did not bring along an extra flask of oil, and thus did not have enough fuel to keep their lamps burning through the night. Asking the other bridesmaids to share their oil was no solution, since then none of them would have had enough fuel; so the only solution, they reasoned at this last minute, was to go out and buy some extra, and so off they went… and wouldn’t you know it; while they’re gone the wedding party arrives, the party begins, the doors are locked and those five bridesmaids miss it all. And the story ends rather harshly, with the groom refusing to even recognize them, much less let them come to the reception. But, suggests Jesus, sad as it is, it was the bridesmaids’ own fault because they weren’t ready when that crucial moment came; they were unprepared for the bridegroom’s coming!
And to this Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
It turns out that this parable of Jesus is all about spiritual readiness; about the faith necessary for this and every day until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. We’re told by biblical scholars that this particular parable was Jesus’ way of saying (and by extension, Matthew’s reminder to the early church) that the kingdom might not come immediately but it will come; so we’d best be attentively and actively waiting on it. Jesus is telling you and me that we need to be prepared; ready for the time that is the right time. Because it’s important to note that while those five “foolish bridesmaids” (and understand, by the way, that they could have just as easily been five foolish groomsmen; this is not gender related at all!); that this “foolish five,” shall we say, may well have had good intentions to keep their lamps well-lit, the bottom line is that they ran out of time.
There are things in life that cannot be endlessly deferred; there are opportunities that come to us that do not come again. There are moments in this life for decision, for commitment, for pronouncing the verdict of our very lives; and what the gospel tells us today is that there will be that moment, in the eloquent words of Will Willimon, “when God arrives on tiptoes, or comes rushing in, or surprises us with light, or flirts, or speaks.” We’d better be watching for it, and we’d better be ready.
I recognize, of course, that when we’re here in worship or engaged in some faith-related activity, or perhaps about now when we approach the “holy seasons” of advent and Christmas, and later on with Lent and Easter; perhaps then our senses are more attuned to this kind of spiritual readiness. However, if we’re being honest, that kind of expectant spirit is hard for us to sustain over time, when the need is for that spirit to imbue all the other experiences on all the other days of our lives! I love what M. Eugene Boring of Bright Divinity School has written about this; he says that “living the life of the kingdom” can be done relatively easily for the short term. But “when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise… being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after hostile year; being merciful for an evening can be a pleasant experience, but being merciful for a lifetime requires [true] spiritual preparedness.”
My point is that it is not easy to live the Christian life day in and day out; it is rarely a smooth road to travel when our own life’s journey is defined by our walk with Jesus Christ; when we’re imitating Christ and keeping the values of Christ as our own until Christ himself returns. But it is crucial that we stay on that journey, and always be about this work of spiritual readiness, lest the kingdom of God comes and we be found asleep and unprepared. Simply put, we need “oil in our lamps to keep them burning, burning, burning,” (!) the kind of spiritual fuel that gives light and direction to the standards of devotion and behavior we apply to our day to day lives; to the ways we nurture relationships with one another; in how we make real in our own lives the prayers we pray for peace, for justice and an end to hatred and all manner of abuse. And friends, make no mistake; ours is a lamp that needs to burn, and brightly; for in a time and place when there’s so much to be done for the sake of God’s kingdom, we would not want to be floundering in the darkness! We need to be ready… and now is the right time.
I’ve always loved the writings of Bill Bryson; as you might know he’s a mid-westerner who immigrated to England for a good many years and then returned to live with his family here in New Hampshire (up near Hanover, I believe), and from that perspective he writes these marvelous essays about American life and our history. In his book Made in America, Bryson speaks rather frankly about the Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving, saying that as much as we revere them, they were basically ill-suited for a life in the New England wilderness!
Consider how they packed for the trip: historical records tell us they found room on the Mayflower for “sundials and candle snuffers, a drum and a trumpet, even a complete history of the country of Turkey. One man named William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots. Yet the Pilgrims failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line.” With the uncertain exception of Miles Standish (who, by the way, was not a Pilgrim per se but something of a soldier of fortune who got hired on for security purpose!), probably very few of these pilgrims had ever even tried to hunt a wild animal! Bryson writes that these pilgrims “were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves.” In fact, by the time spring arrived, only about 54 of them (nearly half of them children) remained; but these were the survivors who turned Plymouth into a self-sustaining colony and the ones who hosted the first Thanksgiving.
Think of that as a parable, friends; for while we may never find ourselves in the dire straits of our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, we do know what it is to be unprepared for what life thrusts upon us. We also tend to carry unnecessary baggage through our lives and then find ourselves lacking that which we really need to survive the storms of tough times and unforeseen crises. Better in the here and now to be preparing ourselves spiritually for all that awaits us; looking to Jesus for the skills and the grace we need to embody God’s love, his forgiveness, his joy and hope in how we live and in how we relate to one another.
Better to be ready… at the right time!
For our Lord makes it clear, beloved; this… this time and place… is not all there is or will be. We are, in fact, on the verge of a moment in which this transient life we lead will be transformed into a kingdom of feasting and celebration. It’s coming; so let us keep awake – let’s pay attention and get ready – for that time soon, and very soon, when the bridegroom arrives… for what a celebration that will be!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry