Ready and waiting

Good morning, Friends!

This fall we’ve been looking at stories Jesus told in the gospel. All of Jesus’ stories begin with some ordinary, everyday event, something we see all the time, and Jesus uses it to illustrate something important about God, and about how we’re all supposed to live.

For example, Jesus takes a story about a boy running away from home, and turns it into the story of the Prodigal Son. Or he takes the story of a robbery and a mugging – something on the evening news – and turns it into the story of the Good Samaritan.

Or Jesus takes something as ordinary as planting a field, and calls it the parable of the sower, and uses it to talk about how God plants the Word in all different kinds of ground. Sometimes it grows and bears fruit, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Jesus said that if you understand ordinary events like these, you can understand a lot more about God. God just isn’t that far off, said Jesus. God just isn’t that hard to understand. Everything can teach us about God, if we just try to see things from God’s viewpoint.

If God really is everywhere, and if God really works among us and through us, then there are new lessons every place we turn. We can learn something new about God every day. God’s teaching us all the time. We just need to figure out what the lesson is.

Today, Jesus tells a story about a wedding —  story with a twist. We all know about weddings. We’ve been to them. We’ve helped get ready for them.

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch,” Jesus said, “because you do not know the day or the hour.”

– Matthew 25:1-11

I love weddings. I officiate at a lot of them. They almost never go off exactly as planned. I think when you put all that hope, and all that love, and all that excitement together in one place, something interesting is bound to happen.

One of my favorite wedding stories took place a long time ago. The couple wanted to be married at the home of the bride’s family. That’s nice. A Quaker wedding can be held almost anywhere, and there’s a wonderful symbolism about bringing the presence of God into the very place where people eat and sleep and work together every day. Home weddings are fun!

The first thing that happened was that the groom literally got cold feet. The way he explained it later, he loved his bride and he wanted to get married to her, but the whole wedding thing just had him scared. So he took a long, hot shower. It felt so good that he completely forgot what time it was getting to be. He stayed in the shower till all the hot water ran out. By that time, the wedding should have started half an hour before.

Nobody could reach him, of course, because he was in the shower and couldn’t hear the phone. Somebody finally went over to his apartment and pounded on the door. He dragged the poor groom out of the shower – which completely spoiled the relaxing effect – crammed him into his clothes, and laid rubber all the way across town to get to his in-law’s house.

Meanwhile, everybody at the house was all upset. Not me, of course – I always try to be the calmest person in any crisis. Sometimes it works.

But in all the confusion, the little boy who was the ring-bearer got upset and had to go to the bathroom. He was only 3 or 4 years old, and somebody told him that he mustn’t set down the pillow with the rings on it unless he put it in a safe place.

They probably said it with that special Voice of Doom that grownups use – BE SURE YOU PUT IT IN A SAFE PLACE!

Well, he put the rings in a safe place, all right. He put the rings in the safest place he could find. Trouble was, the kid was so little that he couldn’t tell anyone where it was. So they tore the whole house apart, looking for the rings, and after half an hour they finally found them, safe and sound – in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator in the kitchen.

The third thing I remember about this wedding was that it was outside. The family had a beautiful flower garden, and that’s where they wanted the ceremony. They had a lovely arch in the garden, all covered with flowering vines, and the bride and the groom stood under the arch to say their vows.

Problem was, the bride was carrying a basket of flowers instead of a bouquet, with lots of long pretty ribbons trailing down to the ground. She and the groom walked out into the garden through the wedding guests, and took their places under the arch.

Just as we were getting started on the wedding promises, and the bride and groom were about to say “I do”, out of the hydrangeas came the big family tom cat. He was one of these stomper cats that’ll fight anyone, anytime, with a notch in his ear and a kink in his tail. Weighed about 18 pounds. One of those real sumo kitties.

The cat sees the bride’s wedding basket full of flowers, with all the pretty ribbons trailing down to the ground, and goes into attack mode. The cat thought this whole business was just for him.

The bride was a very petite woman, and the cat almost pulled her over. She yanked the basket away from him, but she wasn’t very tall, and the cat just leaped up to try to get the ribbons again.

She tried to hold the basket up over her head – this wasn’t a move we had practiced at the wedding rehearsal the day before. I thought the cat was going to climb right up her dress to get at all the ribbons.

All the wedding decorum went completely to pieces by this point. Some of the guests were horrified. Some of the guests were laughing.

I finally got things calmed down and back on the rails again, but all through the rest of the wedding, the bride kept tugging on her basket, and the cat lay there on his back in the dirt, with all four paws up in the air, growling and trying to get to grips with all those ribbons.

Today’s wedding story may seem a little strange at first. But it makes sense when you understand the situation.

Back in Jesus’ time, weddings took place in the evening, when the heat of the day had cooled off. Part of the wedding was to greet the bridegroom when he arrived with lighted lamps, sort of like a torchlight welcome. It was just like our weddings, where we put up white flowers, and people beep their horns when they see the wedding party go by. Jesus was talking about something everybody knew about and saw frequently.

So they’ve got ten bridesmaids all waiting by the door for the wedding to begin. Some of them, Jesus said, were smart, and some of them were foolish. See, the bridegroom always arrived after sunset, but it was never announced exactly when he would come. I guess weddings in Jesus’ day ran on Carolina time. So, they waited and waited and waited, and the bridesmaids all fell asleep waiting for the party to start.

Now the smart bridesmaids brought along cans of kerosene, or Coleman lantern fuel, or lamp oil, so they could refill their lamps if they had to. The not-so-smart ones didn’t think ahead, and when the groom finally showed up, there was a rush and a scramble to get the wedding procession ready.

And there was just the same kind of fight that we’ve all seen dozens of times before when the pressure’s on.

“Hey, Susan, lend me some of that!”

“Not on your life! I’ve got to fill my lamp first! You should have thought of that ahead of time!”

“If you don’t lend me some of that oil right now, I’m never going to ask you to my slumber party ever again!”

Like I said, we’ve seen this scene before.

Now it’s interesting, the points Jesus didn’t make about this story. He didn’t say they should all have been awake instead of asleep. He didn’t say that the bridesmaids who wouldn’t share were stingy and should have been more generous. They couldn’t share, without giving up their places.

So, what’s this story about, anyway?Somehow, this all has to do with God.

The easiest way to understand it is that Jesus himself is the groom, and that when he comes back, we should all be ready and waiting. There’s going to be one whale of a party at the Second Coming, and we’d all better have our lamps lit and ready.

But there’s more to it than that.

There’s the part of the story where the foolish bridesmaids come back from town where they went to buy their kerosene or lantern fuel or whatever it was, and they found themselves locked out of the party.

That seems pretty harsh. You’d think Jesus would have said, “Better late than never,” and let them in. But that’s not how the story goes.

According to Jesus, there’s a moment and a time and a season for everything. And if that moment or time or season is past, it’s too late. Some opportunities only come once, and then they’re gone.

What was the groom going to do? Hold the wedding all over again, just for them? No way. They missed the big moment.

It seems hard, because the bridesmaids who were left standing outside weren’t bad people. They weren’t trying to upset anyone. They just couldn’t see that they needed to be ready, no matter what, for when the party started.

Jesus could have made the same point with a different story. Jesus could have told a story about a man who packed his bags and bought his ticket and sun glasses, but overslept and missed the cruise ship. Same point.

Or he could have told a story about someone who followed the whole World Series, but missed the winning run because he stepped out for a beer. (Some of you guys are laughing nervously!)

In a way, the part of the story where they all fall asleep says that we’re all human. Nobody can stay on their toes 100% of the time. None of us wears our Sunday face and thinks Sunday thoughts throughout the entire week. None of us acts like a perfect saint at every moment. It shouldn’t be surprising, because even the saints weren’t saints every minute of every day.

But one part of what makes people saints, and this is the point of the whole story, is being ready when the right moment comes. That’s more than just some kind of a Boy Scout message to keep your pocket knife sharp and your matches dry and Be Prepared.

Jesus says that we all need to be ready to greet Christ. We can’t get so busy that we forget who we are.

This story is about the Second Coming. Jesus said he would return to be with us. But the Second Coming may happen in a way and at a time we don’t expect. Jesus himself said, “No one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven. Only God knows when that will be.” (Matthew 24:36)

In the gospel, Jesus appears to people many times, in all sorts of places. At the beach. In a garden. Along the road side. Over a meal. In a room where his friends were hiding, because they were afraid, and suddenly, Jesus was there among them.

Jesus himself said that when he came back, it would be unmistakeable – like lightning flashing from horizon to horizon. But he also said it would be like the first leaf showing up in the spring. He said there would be all kinds of signs and upheavals, but he also said he would show up quietly, like a thief in the night, and that no one would know he was there.

We need to be ready. We need to be ready for a wedding. We need to be ready to bear witness. We need to be ready to say the right word and celebrate at the right time. A lot of chances only come once.

We need to be ready to forgive at any time, to share the word of God’s love and mercy, not just with our words but with what we do. Even if we don’t go around looking and acting like saints every minute of the day – that would be pretty pretentious if we did! – we need to be ready, even out of a sound sleep, to do whatever needs to be done for God.

Per usual, Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what to be ready for, or how to get ready, or when our big moment will come. That’s one of the tough things about being a Christian – we have this awesome responsibility to figure these things out for ourselves. But we have to be ready.

We need to be ready to love. We need to be ready to be the light of the world. We need to be ready to speak up when injustice and wrong are in front of us. We need to be ready to help and to heal.

It’s easier because God gives us lots of opportunities to practice – little everyday opportunities for love, so that when the big test comes, we’ll be ready. Or little opportunities every day to forgive each other, so that forgiving our enemies won’t be so hard.

Jesus said at the beginning of the story that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like; it’s being foresighted and ready. Christ comes into our midst in lots of moments, and we need to be ready to welcome him. When the knock on the door comes, we need to be ready to open it.

Many of these moments are fleeting. If we miss them, they’re lost. While we’re busy trying to catch up, Christ goes on to knock on somebody else’s door.

That business of the oil in this morning’s story is really important. We all have times when we run dry. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. It’s just part of living. We all have times when the oil of our joy, the oil of our happiness, the oil of light, the oil of celebration – that oil runs down. It happens to us all.

You don’t feel like trying. You don’t feel like praying. You don’t feel like coming to worship. You don’t feel like reading the Bible. You don’t feel like talking to anyone. It happens.

But Jesus says, “Don’t forget that I’m coming. It’s going to happen, whether you’re awake or asleep. Always be ready. Carry some extra oil with you. Be ready for the dry times. Be ready for the burned-out times. Be ready to light your lamp again, because the Bridegroom is coming. Be ready to lift up your light, be ready to raise your lamp high!”

The kingdom of heaven means being ready – no matter what, no matter when.

Fill your lamp with thanksgiving. Fill your lamp with praise. Fill yourself now with the word of God. Refill yourself now with memories of when God has done great things for you. And fill yourself, a little at a time, with good things that God is doing all around you, every day. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be sorry for the times you lost it. We’re all human.

Just remember that every day, you’re invited to the wedding. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be joyful. It’s the best party you can imagine.

And remember — we’re not just guests. We’re the wedding party! We’re the ones who light it all up for everyone else! Shine up your lamps! Have the red carpet all ready to roll out! You don’t know when Jesus is coming. Sometimes it seems like a long wait, sometimes it seems like God is on Carolina time, but he’s coming.

Let’s be ready.

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