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Sermon: Be Ready!

Sermon preached at St. James’ Episcopal Church at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, VA on November 12, 2017

23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27) Year A, RCL: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78: 1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

Truth be told, I do love me a good wedding!  I love to attend weddings, and since being ordained, I really enjoy the opportunity to officiate at weddings.  As a long-time layperson who served on an Altar Guild, helping on many weddings, and now as a priest, I may not have seen it all, but I’ve experienced a lot: Brides who were late; groomsmen who got lost coming to the church; clothing malfunctions -- before, during, and after the wedding; jewelry being dropped in the exchange between the best man, or the maid of honor, and the priest; and members of the bridal party, and/or the parents, falling out in the aisle.  I’ve seen brides who cried, and more frequently, grooms who cried. 

Weddings bring out both the worst and the best of who we are as humans.

Which brings us to our gospel today from Matthew when Jesus tells a parable that compares the Kingdom of heaven to a wedding.  It speaks of ten bridesmaids with their lamps waiting for the bridegroom.  Which sounds a bit odd when we try to put customs in biblical times into context with our present-day practices.  So perhaps a little set-up would be good before we go on.

Here, the wedding ritual is moving towards its climax with the coming of the bridegroom, a scene that regularly happened in Palestinian villages and was well understood by Jesus’ hearers.  Jewish marriage had three stages: the engagement, the betrothal, and the marriage.  This occasion speaks of the third stage, when the bridegroom goes to the home of the bride to bring her into his own home in marriage.  It is this event that takes place in the parable, and the ten bridesmaids are family and friends who join the celebration.  It was customary for women to keep the bride company as they waited for the bridegroom, and then to dance along the road with their lamps as they accompany the couple to the celebration.  Here, the bridesmaids are described as of two kinds: five are wise, bringing additional oil for their lamps. The five others are foolish for bringing their lamps only, with no supply of oil.  These five obviously expected the bridegroom to be on time. 

Yes, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it is the GROOM who is late in this instance.  Okay.  Apparently, really late.

During the long vigil, the bridesmaids all slept, but at midnight the joyous cry rang out, “Look!  Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him.”  The fact that all the bridesmaids slept as they waited is not truly relevant here; the text says the groom is delayed.  But that delay tests the bridesmaids’ readiness over their watchfulness.  Five of them were prepared with additional oil to keep their lamps burning.  The others’ lamps burned out. The unprepared could not borrow from the prepared, and so the wise went with the bride and groom to his home for the wedding celebration while the foolish maids went to secure more oil.  After they return, they found the door shut, and in response to their plea, they were rejected by the bridegroom, who said, “I do not know you.”

This wedding feast is not open to everyone, just like the other wedding story in Matthew, where the guest without the proper robe is thrown into outer darkness.  I am thinking that maybe Matthew doesn’t really like weddings!  But Jesus uses them as examples because they are, as I said earlier, events that show the best and the worst of our behaviors.

Truly, three of the saddest sayings in the parables of Jesus are found right here: 1) “Our lamps are going out,” 2) “the door was shut,” and 3) “I do not know you.”  These three statements illustrate just how unprepared we all can be, and what consequences might come. 

But this story has its conclusion in verse 13, where there is the command for vigilance.  “Keep awake,” Jesus says, “Watch.”  Since all the bridesmaids fell asleep, but only five were unprepared, the real message might be, “Be ready.”   

“Be ready!”  I wonder if you have ever considered that your Sunday worship requires lots of people every week to help get ready.  For example, parish office staff prepares the weekly service bulletin in consultation with Fr. Charles, Altar guild members or sacristans prepare the worship space, vestry help open the building, greeters and ushers meet parishioners and visitors before church, lectors ready to read the lessons or lead the psalm, intercessors prepare to pray, acolytes come to serve God and you while supporting the clergy, chalicists to tend the cup at communion, and, of course, for services with music, we MUST mention the music director and the choir …  Liturgy is “the work of the people,” and it takes a host of people to accomplish the work of liturgy each week.  Furthermore, here at St. James’, I know some of you also offer a forum at 9:15 while others ready to teach Sunday school at 10 based on lessons they have prepared. 

If you cannot remember all that, you have several reminders in both your monthly parish newsletter and your Sunday bulletin. [hold up Schedule of Ministry]  That’s how I learned about all your Sunday ministries.  I can see just how many of you know what it means to “be ready” every Sunday. 

Jesus told this parable to warn God’s people to be ready, not just for Sunday, but for all time!  This entire section of Matthew’s gospel addresses the eschaton, Jesus’s second coming or return.  Jesus used memorable stories, like the foolish and wise bridesmaids, or a master who leaves his home in the care of servants for a long time—that’s the parable just before this one—because Jesus wants his followers (and US!) to have an idea of what we should do.  The people who heard Jesus did not know what was about to happen in Jerusalem.  But Matthew wrote for people who did know about the crucifixion and the resurrection, just as we know.   Matthew’s audience expected Jesus to return imminently, even though Matthew reminds them, and us, in chapter 24:36 that “no one knows the day or hour!”

So, the stories have to give Matthew’s audience AND US concrete examples of how to be ready, how to prepare.  This story reminds us not to forget our purpose, the calling we share as baptized Christians, to be the light of Jesus in our world today.  We are no different than early Christians in this regard.  Our Christian assurance is that the Spirit is with us.  That Spirit is our lamp.  We wait with faith, love, and hope as our oil.  

Our job, in this day and time, is to do what we can to make sure that our oil—that faith, hope, and love—does not run out while we await the full realization of God’s glory on this earth.  We cannot succeed on borrowed faith.  We cannot borrow another’s beliefs or love.  We have to keep our own faith, hope, and love flowing.

Our ministries feed ourselves WHILE they also feed others.  We keep our lamps trimmed with worship, fellowship, study, and prayer—all those things we do to get ready just for Sundays.  But it’s not “just Sundays,” is it?  It’s being ready for our whole lives, our own, and each other’s.  God is continuing the act of creation through us in this preparedness, our very faithfulness.

St. James, you are faithful in much, and you have been given more.  I encourage you to be ready, to be alert and watchful, and that you prepare your hearts, minds, bodies, and souls for the coming of the Lord.  I hope you think of this at the next wedding you attend. 

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.”