Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Lectionary 32 Pentecost 23 A
November 12, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Although I was a Boy Scout for a only a few years, more years ago than I care to remember, I still remember their motto: Be Prepared! The whole purpose of scouting was to get you prepared for life.
I still remember watching basketball coach, John Wooden, a Hoosier native, sitting quietly on the bench with his program neatly folded in his hand hardly saying a word as his UCLA Bruins won all those championships. He said he didn’t have scream and yell at his players because they were prepared.
Soldiers drill, students study, runners rise at 5 a.m. to jog because life is all about preparation.
But as we all soon discover, that is easier said than done. Eventually we are all caught off guard and unprepared. “Stuff happens.” A marriage ends. The company downsizes. We hear the scream of skidding tires, see a car rapidly approaching in our rear view mirror and we have nowhere to go. Our parade gets rained on. There is the market correction we never expected. Driving down the highway, we are distracted by our passenger only to be startled by a flashing light in our rear view mirror. We were not paying attention and drifted over the speed limit. Our Doctor looks us sternly in the eye and says, “We need to talk.”
Life is filled with unexpected hazards for which we will never be quite prepared. The old advice rings true: “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” If life can go wrong, eventually it will. Sooner or later, we are all caught off guard.
That is what happened in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. Ten bridesmaids were waiting for the groom to arrive and the wedding celebration to begin. However, for some reason the arrival was delayed. It was getting late. They become drowsy. Suddenly, at midnight there is shout! The groom has arrived! Let the party begin!
However, it caught them all off guard. Who would ever have thought that the wedding reception would start at midnight? If they were going to party in the middle of the night, they were going to need extra oil to keep their lamps burning. Five of the bridesmaids were prepared for such a surprise. They had brought extra oil. They were prepared to party. However, five did not have enough oil. They were not prepared for a surprise like this. They frantically tried to get themselves out of their predicament, first by trying to borrow some oil from the other bridesmaids and then by trying to buy more oil elsewhere. In the process, they miss the wedding. They would not have been good Boy Scouts.
This is a harsh story. It is the first of three parables in Matthew 25 that Jesus tells in the last days before his arrest and crucifixion. All of them sound a word of warning about the Second Coming, when Jesus returns, as we say in the Creed, “to judge the living and the dead.” Therefore, be prepared. Don’t get caught off guard. Someday God is going to come and settle the score. We know neither the day nor the hour.
Given the shoddy state of our lives and this world, that doesn’t sound like good news. The prophet Amos in today’s First Reading doesn’t think it will be either. He looks at the growing income gap between the rich and the poor in Israel, the growing violence and injustice, and is appalled. Someday God will come to set all things right. God cannot be appeased and will not be impressed with their “solemn assemblies,” their prayers, hymns, church suppers, offerings, packed parking lots and busy church buildings when there is so much suffering and injustice in the land. All will be judged. No one will be able to flee. It will be like running from a lion only to be met by a bear and then bitten by a snake!
Amos sounds like today’s Gospel when Jesus talks about five foolish bridesmaids who get caught off guard when the bridegroom unexpectedly shows up in the middle of the night. Unprepared, they are shut out of the party. When Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” our heart pounds and brow sweats. How can we ever be adequately prepared?
We all feel threatened. We are all afraid of getting caught off guard and being unable to explain ourselves to the traffic cop, the teacher, our boss, our friends and neighbors or anyone who shows up demanding that we explain ourselves. We spend our lives trying to prove how right we are, how well we have lived and how prepared we can be. We plan to leave a legacy so that even when we are dead and gone, people will know that we were prepared and lived lives that mattered.
The pressure is relentless. We never know when the bridegroom will arrive. What if the One to whom we must explain our lives and justify our actions is God? It is enough to make us run and hide.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Be prepared . . . or else!
However, there is another way to hear this parable. It can change the ominous threat into a hopeful promise.
As the bridesmaids waited, at a time they did not expect, . . . “at midnight . . . there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’” Jesus was not only talking of that unknown day in the future when he will come again to set all things right. He was also talking of another time when a shout was heard . . . and an invitation was offered to come and meet him. That coming was different. It changed everything.
Remember when Jesus came the first time. He came as a babe in Bethlehem. Angels SHOUTED to shepherds watching their flocks by night to come and meet God in a manger. A star SHOUT ED to wise men to come and meet their king in Bethlehem. A rabbi from Nazareth SHOUTED over the criticism of religious zealots that God forgives sinners. A crucified king SHOUTED from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know now what they do.” Angels at the tomb SHOUTED to the women, “He is not here. He is arisen.” His disciples SHOUTED to the world that the bridegroom has already come to save us. He suffered, died and rose again for us, for our foolishness, for our petty hatred and bigotries, for our shoddy and sloppy lives, for our lack of preparedness . . . so that door would not shut in our faces and we would not be left outside in the dark.
The shouting has not ended but continues even now in our midst. “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him” not as judge but as friend . . . as water is poured at the font, as bread and wine are offered at the table, as failures are forgiven, as shames are covered and tears are wiped away.
The bridegroom has filled our lamps with oil. The light will never burn out. When we are caught off guard and the unexpected shows up at our doorstep, we do not have to worry that we will not be prepared. We are ready. Jesus has filled our lamps with oil. Even though the five wise bridesmaids did not believe it, there will always be enough. The oil that Jesus provides will never run out. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
We do not need to be afraid. As Paul reminds the Thessalonians in today’s Second Reading, we can live every day with hope and optimism. With our lamps filled with Jesus’ mercy, we can look forward to that last day when Jesus returns in the midst of voices shouting and trumpets sounding. Jesus will welcome us to the wedding banquet that knows no end.
According to legend, Martin Luther once was asked, “Brother Martin, what you would do if you knew that the world would end tomorrow, if the bridegroom was coming tomorrow at midnight?” We expect him to act just like we would and say something like, “Oh . . . oh! I’ve GOTTA call my insurance agent, my stock broker, my undertaker, my family and friends. I’ve GOTTA make sure that everything is ready, that all my ducks are lined up and ready to go. I’ve GOTTA have enough oil in my lamp. There can’t be any loose ends. Lock the doors. Batten down the hatches. I gotta BE PREARED!”
Instead (supposedly) Luther said something totally unexpected. He said, “I will plant an apple tree!”
He meant that he was not going to worry about the End. He was ready to go and meet his maker. He was prepared. Christ had filled his lamp with plenty of oil. It would never run out. Until then he was going to keep on living life to its fullest. He will continue to let his lamp burn and carry out his daily responsibilities, caring for the world and his neighbor even planting apple trees with complete trust and confidence, certain that whenever he dies or the world ends, it will be glorious.
The month of November is our “Celebration of Giving.” The Service Network has provided several opportunities this month for us generously serve the needs of others. The “95 Acts of Service” invites us to post on the display in the narthex how we all the time are serving others. That is how people who have been blessed by Christ live. This is what we do when we do not have to worry that there will never be enough oil in our lamps. We can be generous with our time and talent as we serve a world in need.
We call it “stewardship.” Stewardship is everything we do with our lives after we say “I trust that Jesus has filled my lamp.” Therefore, we get to brighten the world. I am not just talking about what we may or may not do here at Christ Church. I am talking about what we ARE already doing with our lives every day. We ARE already making a difference at school, at work, at home and in the community because our lamps are full. When the bridegroom returns, when Jesus shows up and says “Your time is up.” We can rejoice because we are prepared. The party begins.