Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 27
ELIZABETH’S OF HUNGARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN RICHMOND HILL, GA.
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Are you ready?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to strengthen and prepare us for the coming of Jesus, the bridegroom, who resides with you and the Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Are you ready?
N are you ready?
N are you ready?
Now, you may be thinking, “Ready for what?” What is the context, right? Regardless, the question may have elicited a certain visceral response. Perhaps, you felt a little anxiety; your stomach churned; you found yourself racking your brain; or you suddenly realized, “Oh, I forgot about that!”
Maybe, you thought the question, “are you ready” was about getting ready for Christmas? It is not far off now. Actually, the “are you ready” question has many possible objectives? Are you ready for retirement? Are ready to go out to dinner? Are you ready for the test? Whether we are ready can apply to just about anything in life. For a young adult the question might be are you ready for marriage? Consequently, are you ready for having children? The answer for that is obviously, “No.” Each stage of life has its own “are you ready question.”
It has been a few years ago now. I don’t remember his name. He may have been the husband of someone who no longer goes to St. Elizabeth’s. I went to visit him in the hospital. I knew his health was very poor. Moments after I arrived in his room in walked his doctor. It was a very somber moment. The doctor with a heavy, detached voice said to this man. “I have done all I can do for you.” Then the doctor motioned with his eyes toward me, saying to the terminally ill man, “You need to talk to him (the priest).” Yes, ultimately, the question to all of us is, are you ready to die.
Certainly, with two hurricanes in less than one year, we all have had a good deal for which to be ready. Being ready at all times, it would seem, is part of the human predicament and challenge—being ready for just about anything.
Some of you may have seen a certain article this past week. In the article Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, warned: “Humanity may have less than 600 years to leave Earth. If humanity doesn’t become a truly spacefaring species in the next five centuries or so, we may well go extinct, Stephen Hawking said.
During a video presentation on November 5, 2017 at the Tencent Web Summit in Beijing, the famed cosmologist warned that the ever-rising human population, and its mounting energy needs, could render Earth uninhabitable by the year 2600, according to the British newspaper, “The Sun”. Hawking therefore advised that we get our act together and ‘boldly go where no one has gone before.
During his talk, Hawking also highlighted the exploration potential of Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million project that aims to develop tiny, un-crewed, sail-equipped probes that will be accelerated to 20 percent the speed of light by powerful lasers. Such nanocraft could get to Mars in less than an hour and theoretically fly to the closest exoplanet to Earth — the possibly habitable Proximab, which lies about 4.2 light-years from us — after a space journey of just 20 years, Hawking and other Starshot team members have said.”
Well, if that kind of readiness seems a bit farfetched or far off, then what about this from an article found in “Christianity Today”, entitled “Protect Your Congregation from a Gunman;” (thank you, JayJay Hendrix) obviously addressing the shootings and multiple killings that occurred at a church in Texas just last Sunday. Here are some of the bullet points for getting ready. Work with local police. Learn their plans and capabilities. Create a survey of your facility for police. Include in your overview: Blueprints and photos (digital and hard-copy) of every room in the church, which police at a command center can use to guide officers as they secure the church building. Create a lockdown policy. If your local police department has an active shooter policy, a lockdown may be the best way to protect the segment of your congregation that is in the building during a shooting, but outside the immediate vicinity of the shooter. Prevent an incident. If a shooter plans an attack on your church, he will likely arrive after the service begins.
Are you ready? Are we ready?
In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we again hear Jesus telling us another parable of what the Kingdom of heaven is like. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” Jesus creates a situation that asks of those characters in the parable story, as well as us, are you ready? There were ten bridesmaids. Five were foolish; they brought no oil for their lamps. They were not ready. And, there were five wise bridesmaids who brought flasks of oil for their lamps. They were ready.
The five foolish bridesmaids were caught without enough oil, but what exactly was their infraction, what had they done wrong? Was it a legal wrong, a moral wrong, or a spiritual wrong? What is the deal about not having enough oil? What is this oil?
Certainly, we would agree that Jesus’ parable is about more than literal lamp oil. He is not some oil salesman. So, what is He talking about? Is it possible that we, too, might be foolish or wise? Surely, what Jesus is saying must have something to do about the way we live our lives. Are we prepared not only for emergencies, the various challenges in life, but for this something else to which Jesus refers? Indeed, what is this something else, this oil of which Jesus speaks?
Some have speculated that the oil was good deeds. These five foolish bridesmaids had failed to live out their faith by their witness, words, and good deeds. Their lamps were not literal. Rather, it was the lamps of their souls that had grown dim. Godly actions come from a godly soul. In that respect, the five bridesmaids had failed to keep their premium payments (to use an insurance term) up to date. They had let their spiritual lives expire. When our spiritual lives expire or grow weak, so do our moral lives. We are more inclined to break the law.
None of us knows when our time here on earth will come to an end. Certainly, we would not expect our time to come during a church service at the hands of a crazed shooter. In today’s gospel Jesus is warning us to be prepared less we get caught. Even more, He is warning us that a day of judgment is coming. Those are hard words to hear. “And the door was shut.” Yet, why not? Weddings can’t be held up just because a few guests ran out of gas. Things get started, and, if we’re not ready, they are over and done without us. Just as Noah didn’t wait until the day of the flood to build his ark, so we can’t wait until a crisis to build our faith. No one really knows when the end will come, whether it is the end of our lives, or something of deep personal value to us like a marriage, a job, or the life of a loved one. What if the end is near, now? What if Jesus were to return today? Are we ready?
In the parable the bridegroom, who is Jesus, was delayed. During His time on earth in the Middle East, when someone told you that a wedding would take place Friday night at eight, that meant the wedding could take place sometime between Friday, Saturday, Sunday or even Monday nights at eight.
In Jesus’ day, there were just as many procrastinators as there are now, but at a wedding back then, the unprepared bridesmaids would probably not have been shut out of the party. They’d have been able to buy oil even at that last minute because there would have been vendors near a wedding party, ready to meet whatever need might arise, whenever it might arise. Also, the bridesmaids would have been known to the bridegroom, so it is highly unlikely that he would have said to them, “I never knew you.”
This was not an attempt by Jesus to describe the precise workings of a wedding. It is a parable, meant to teach spiritual truths. The “punch line” of this parable comes at the very last verse: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Apparently and understandably, the bridesmaids became overcome with fatigue. The preparation had been draining, the watching had been boring, and the bridegroom had not come yet. (We all know how draining waiting can be.) Things aren’t going along as smoothly and as quickly as they’d planned. So they all begin to doze and nod. We’ve been there.
In other words, the challenges of waiting were greater than they expected. Exercising faith can be like that. How many of us here this morning can confess that there have been times, maybe even now, when our faith in Jesus has grown weak because some need, some expectation of ours has not yet been met? That probably has happened to all of us. Faith is not always easy. It can be work. Our lamps do burn low. What are we to do? We go to the source. We go to Jesus, to God, to the Holy Spirit and appeal to them to fill our lamps.
Let’s be clear. In all likelihood, what we believe will fill our lamps is probably not what Jesus has in mind. The oil we want is typically more money, a vacation, more sleep, more food, more stuff, or more time with children or grandchildren. By comparison, how often do we say we want more God, more Jesus, or more Holy Spirit? This is the oil of which Jesus is speaking. This is what keeps our lamps burning and giving light.
So, when we have lost faith or it has weakened, might judgment really by our own hands? We fail to show up at the train station and miss the bus to mix metaphors. The fact is that we can’t wait until a crisis, whatever its nature, to have oil in our lamps, to have faith in our lamps. When the moment of reckoning comes, either we’ve got it or we don’t. There is no borrowing. Sadly, even as badly as some might want to help us, there is no loaning. Faith is not an instantaneous injection.
Will Jesus find faith on earth at his return? Will His followers, you and I, despair of His return, give up hope, or become flaccid in our exercise of faith? We have to be prepared to wait less we get caught. The moral of the lamps is perseverance in faith. The real error of the foolish virgins was to expect the bridegroom to come when they were ready.
Do you hear this? How impatient have we been? Have we been tempted to lose faith because God doesn’t seem to be showing up? We have heard the expression the patience of Job. Sometimes waiting on the Lord seems very much like what Job experienced. All seems to be going wrong and for a long time. Where is God? The foolish virgins did not recognize that the bridegroom might delay and come at an unexpected hour. Such suggest that they, that we, might be expecting a bridegroom who, in fact, is not Jesus, but a saviour of our own imagining.
Preparing, keeping enough oil on hand, involves calling upon the Lord, coming to God in relationship, praying, seeking the Lord with all our heart. Our faith is not a one more item on a “to do” list. Faith is lived, not done. We cannot rely on our spirituality from years back. That oil is gone and depleted, as it was for the five foolish bridesmaids. This means that regularly going to church does matter. Prayer, reading the Bible and ministry to others do matter. Whether we realize it or not they are the vessels through which that precious oil of faith is poured into us, through which God is poured into us, through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us.
How about it? Are we prepared? I would imagine that there are a number of us who could tell stories about waiting on the Lord, calling upon Him. Where are you, we have asked. In pain, we have asked. Then suddenly when we least expected Him, He shows up and it is beautiful. The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind. “Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 40:31).
Yes, an altar call seems appropriate here. Could there be any better criteria for being ready for Jesus? If there are any of us who don’t know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, who have not received the bridegroom, perhaps now is the time to ask Him into your life. If there are any of us here who have grown weak in our faith (run low or out of oil), now is the time to rededicate to Jesus. The day of reckoning draws near. Are we ready? Will there be enough oil in our lamps? Will we be caught? Because Jesus loves us so much, He has warned us; no less than a parent would a child.
You see, in the end the five foolish bridesmaids had lost their spiritual ID’s. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” In other words, they did not look like Christians. Do we look like Christians? If we do, then we won’t get caught. We will be prepared for whatever the eventuality – a sick child, a personal loss, a struggling relationship, a bad day at work, the time of our death, and ultimately, ultimately we will be prepared for the return of the bridegroom Jesus, whenever that return might be.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.