"Keep awake"-Sermon for In-Gathering Sunday, Matthew 25:1-13
So, on the screen is a picture, that I actually shared last week at our Stewardship Presentation, of our new church in its current stage of construction…well at least as of last week when I took it. Following months of work that was happening mainly underground or at ground level…work that included things like trenching for utilities, and grounding limestone to create flat, level surfaces, and pouring concrete foundations…after all of that long and good work, we have now finally gone vertical. And, it seems the pace of construction, at least visually, has quickened. Thus, as I gaze upon the new church as it emerges from its firm foundations, it is becoming in my own head space more and more real. And, friends, that sense of “realness” has brought with it lots of feelings…lots of emotions. And, I will be vulnerable with you here and say those feelings are of all types and sorts. I feel excited for walking into the future that awaits us in our new home. Excited to meet all the new people we will be able to welcome into a larger and lovely new space. I feel gratitude for the hard work and generosity that has provided the many, many resources, money and people power, required to take on such a monumental task. And, I will note, much of that gratitude is directed toward each and every one of you, whose prayers and participation in all sorts of ways, small and large, has brought us to this day…helped make what is in that picture above me possible. And, I feel joy, which I described in a sermon a few weeks ago as a deep, innate longing for connection with God, as I truly sense God’s presence, God’s hand on everything we have accomplished together…and I mean everything…from calling us into being some 14 years ago…to this very day…as over just the past few weeks we Confirmed and Received 21 beautiful souls into our beloved church, hosted a ministry fair where dozens and dozens of people committed to serve God in and through the ministries of our church, led our largest Trunk or Treat at Foundation Communities with easily over a hundred people present, and, certainly, I have sensed God as our chief architect and contractor, as our work has progressed in constructing our new church…a God-given dream over 14 years in the making. And, I could go on with all the warm and fuzzy feelings the picture on the screen and just this season in our life together fills me with.
But, perhaps in the truly vulnerable category, as I have gazed upon this picture over the past few days…mainly on the small screen of my phone while often sitting alone in my office…I have also honestly felt feelings like…what in the world have we got ourselves into. For, we may find that filling the church…which will be required to keep it running and give us any chance in moving into phase two of completing our masterplan…we may find filling, growing and caring for the new church is even more challenging than building it. We will have 9-acres of land to steward, a relationship with neighbors to continually cultivate, twice as much physical space to clean, care and pay for, larger liturgies to plan and lead, more folk to care for pastorally…and all in a world that feels and actually is, as some futurists describe it, increasingly volatile, ambiguous, complex and uncertain. Friends, I am just speaking for myself here, but, at least at times, along with the excitement, gratitude and joy I, also, feel unprepared and unclear on how to prepare for our undiscovered future. And, though I may feel such feelings a bit more acutely in my position of leadership, if you have or have had similar feelings…you are not alone…we are in it, with God, together.
Now, Jesus’ parable that sits before us today is all about preparedness. And the setting for the parable is a wedding, which is, of course, a joyous occasion…an occasion often accompanied by looking excitedly to the future…a time of gratitude for the gift of love that binds us together and makes life worth living. Perhaps, somewhat like, the positive feelings I have experienced in looking forward to our new home. Now, it is helpful to note as we unpack this parable, in a first century world without wedding planners, google calendar, time pieces, mailed invitations, and when most travel, even over great distances, was done on foot…exact start times for even important gatherings, including weddings, had to flexible…kind of like construction time-lines I’ve learned. You may, at best, know the day the bride and groom might show up…but the time the festivities might actually kick off…well that was just whenever it would be. And, in Jesus’ parable, this meant being prepared to begin the celebration even after the sun had set…so the presence of lamps…that need oil to burn within them…was an important eventuality to be prepared for. A task that had been given to ten bridesmaids. And though all ten arrived with their lamps, only half had enough oil to make them useful…not through some of the night…but all of the night. And, because Murphy’s Law is the law in every land…in Jesus’ parable the groom is delayed and indeed arrives at night…actually in the middle of the night…with five of the bridesmaids scrambling off to purchase the needed oil at some location other than where the wedding feast was set to begin. And, then when they arrived back at the wedding, the festivities had already begun, the door was shut, and they were left standing on the outside and in the dark. And, even after knocking on the door…hoping to be let in late…the groom, apparently hearing the commotion at the door, pokes his head out and responds ominously, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
And, as I, Miles, sat with this parable…my thought was how is this at all helpful. If I am, indeed, unprepared, like I can feel at times about inhabiting our new home, will I find a closed door…literally and figuratively…and be left standing alone, lost in the dark? Does this mean that our success in living into a joyful future in the home we are now building is somehow fully dependent on being fully prepared for every eventuality before move in day? And, perhaps more importantly, for this is what the parable is really about, is my place in God’s everlasting and eternal kingdom…the great, joyful wedding feast prepared before time began…again…fully dependent on being fully prepared with a pure heart, clean conscious, and mountain sized faith before the day I die or Jesus comes back? I sure hope not…and, friends, I don’t think so.
You see, it is also important to note that this parable is shared by Jesus in the very last week of his life. Narratively speaking, we are somewhere between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday…somewhere between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his painful death on the cross. Friend, these are dark days for Jesus. He is likely pondering the moment that is coming too soon when he will feel like God shuts the door on him, as he hangs dying on the hard wood of the cross. You recall Jesus himself, on the cross, quotes Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But, friends, we get to read on past chapter 25, past this parable, to see glory…the glory that still awaits at the very end of the story. Friends, it may, at times, feel like we are locked in night-time, Good Friday like moments, but Easter is coming. Thus, this parable can only fully be understood in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps you remember my Easter sermon earlier this year…God is about to break wide open all the locked doors that keep us from the everlasting, joy-filled, light filled futures that stand before us…both in the present and in the glorious future that is still to be revealed. Thus, the preparation that Jesus is pointing us to in this parable is not about hustling for perfection…not about having all the solutions in advance for every possible future challenge…but a sort of preparation that looks like living with expectation…living with expectation.
Yes, we should prepare well for the future that lies before us both spiritually and practically speaking. Jesus surely applauds our efforts to be good stewards of the gifts God has placed into our hands, including our new church, through careful planning and wise discernment. And, Jesus surely encourages us to intentionally grow our hearts strong and big through fostering a rich prayer life, and reading the bible, and participating in the sacraments, and serving those who so desperately need us. All such preparation will surely benefit us now and in the future. But, I think most of all, in this parable, Jesus is inviting us to be prepared for…to expect…God’s love and transformative power to show up and break in at the very moment we need it the very most…when we take on big challenges like building a church…when we experience personal loss and crisis…when the world feels volatile and uncertain…when we feel like we are hanging on our own crosses. We are prepared for all such things, if we expect God to show up and transform chaos to order, hate to love, violence to peace, death to life.
As this parable about preparedness comes to its conclusion, Jesus adds some commentary to his own story…two words to help interpret his meaning…and they are “Keep awake”. Scheming and dreaming, planning and preparing are all to the good, but what I believe Jesus is saying to us is even as we plan and prepare, even as we form and shape our new life in our new church, even as we take on new challenges and celebrate new accomplishments, and even when we feel confused, shut out, and lost in the dark…Jesus is saying to us, in all such circumstances, keep awake, be prepared, expect…expect God to break open our present experience to usher in new life, new opportunities, new revelation. For, as our Purpose Statement at St. Julian’s reminds us, God’s salvation…God’s shalom, peace, healing, life, love and joy…will be experienced and known among us…now and in the glory that is yet to be revealed. For, Jesus is, in every new present moment, Jesus is risen.
Thus, I see the gifts and commitments we are making today of prayer, time, talent and financial resources, on this In-Gathering Sunday…I see these loved filled, self-offerings as profound expressions of expectation. We are preparing together for our future…for we entirely expect that God will use us, all of us, all we have to offer to not just build buildings but create a human family that God will continually break into…to transform not ourselves alone but the world around us…bringing light into dark places…breaking open doors that shut us out…making the unrecognizable, those we do not know, dear friends…that all might find their place at God’s joy filled wedding feast…in God’s own glory…that is now and that still awaits us…together…in our undiscovered future. Amen.