Now is the time to live the life God intends for you. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. Right now. “The door was shut.” These are the words that should really get our attention in our Gospel reading. The foolish bridesmaids go out at midnight to try to find an open store where they can buy some oil. Somehow, they find a place selling oil at that hour, but by the time they arrive at the wedding reception, their lamps burning brightly, the door is shut. They cry out, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But the bridegroom answers from behind the closed door: “I don’t know you.”
Wow, where’s the good news here?
I’m sure many of you have had the experience of just missing a flight. A while back, I was flying from New York to Tallahassee, with a stop in Atlanta. My flight from New York was delayed. I knew that my connection in Atlanta was going to be tight, and so as soon as I got off the first plane, I ran like the wind. I was one of those crazy people you see sprinting through the terminal.
I was so happy to arrive in the next concourse with what I thought would be a few minutes to spare, but I was wrong. As I screeched to a halt, huffing and puffing at the gate, the agent pulled the door shut. We all know that once they close that door, you’re done. There’s no hope.
I cried out: “Lord, lord! The plane is right there. I can see people still boarding.” And she replied: “I don’t know you.” Actually, she said: “Sir, I’m really sorry, maybe we can get you on the next flight, but I can’t open the door. It’s against the rules.”
It’s no fun to have doors shut in our faces. It hurts to knock on the door, only to be turned away from the party.
Jesus is trying to get our attention today with this parable. He’s saying that we don’t have forever to follow him as a disciple and live the life that God intends for us.
This makes me think of a blessing that we use here at St. John’s from time to time at the end of the service: “Life is short, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us, so be swift to love, make haste to be kind . . .”
That’s the same urgency that we find in our readings today from Joshua, First Thessalonians and Matthew.
God’s Word is clear: now is the time to respond to Jesus’ invitation to the wedding banquet and wait for the coming of God’s kingdom. Today is the day to fill up our lamps with the oil of trust, encouragement and hope.
In the reading from Joshua, we witness how the oil of trust can help God’s people burn brightly from generation to generation.
Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers God’s people who are now, at long last, in the Promised Land. It took them hundreds of years, but they’ve finally made it.
Joshua reminds them of their ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and how God promised the patriarch and matriarch of Israel that they would be parents of a great nation, their children more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and that one day, their children would inhabit a good land where they could be free, a land flowing with milk and honey.
But the dream is deferred. [Note: this phrase comes from the poem Harlem, by Langston Hughes. The poem influenced Dr. Martin Luther King and his I Have a Dream speech.] God’s promise isn’t fulfilled in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. God’s promise still isn’t fulfilled in the lives of Joseph or Moses. But all the while, through thick and thin, God’s people lean on God and trust in God’s faithfulness.
They learn on the good days when all is going well, and they also learn on the difficult days when the true measure of God’s love is taken. Over and over, on more occasions than they can count, God is faithful to God’s people and they come to trust God with their lives.
When Joshua addresses the people in our reading today, they’ve arrived in the Promised Land. God has made good on God’s promise, but even then, God’s people are beginning to drift, and Joshua senses that even though they are running down the concourse, they are not going to make it to the gate on time. At some point, the door will shut, and God’s people will be shut out.
Joshua warns: “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” But the people just squeeze through the door: “No, we will serve the Lord . . . and him we will obey.”
We witness urgency here. God’s people need to make a decision: either to take their relationship with God seriously or not. This is good for us to keep in mind, particularly those of us, such as priests like me, who have grown comfortable with God and the church.
We can recall the words of Annie Dilliard, writing in a time when it was still common for women to wear hats to church: “On the whole,” she cautions, “I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk, “Expedition to the Pole”)
I think this is what Joshua and Jesus are getting at today. Stay awake. We’re not kidding around here. Today is the day to live the life God intends for you. Remember the faithfulness of God from generation to generation.
Trust in God, but put on a crash helmet, because this is a relationship that can take unpredictable turns. This is a covenant bond that will transform every aspect of your life. Once you accept an invitation to the wedding banquet, there’s no going back.
Given the seriousness of our faith, we all need the oil of encouragement. This is Paul’s message for us today. He’s writing a letter to the church in Thessalonika in present-day Greece. This letter is the oldest document in the New Testament, predating even the Gospels.
The early Christians expected Jesus’s Second Coming any day. That urgency impacted every aspect of their lives: how they gave their time to unceasing prayer, their talents for the building up of the church and their money to relieve the needs of the poor.
When Jesus is coming back this Tuesday, your life is charged with meaning. You wear a crash helmet. Every word and action counts.
The Thessalonians are wondering what will become of their friends and family who died in the past, long before the Second Coming of Christ. Will they be shut out of the wedding reception?
Paul reassures them and promises: “The dead in Christ will rise first.” He’s sharing with them and us the good news that we will see our loved ones at the wedding feast. Thank be to God, we will all be together.
Paul concludes his letter by telling the Thessalonians to encourage one another with these words. And so I’m wondering: what would it look like for us, in the coming week, to commit to using our words to encourage others?
We live in a time in which so many people are using words to shut doors, to exclude others from the party, to break each other down.
Powerful men harassing women in word and deed. People saying things on social media to each other that they would never say in person. Pundits clashing on the news. An endless litany of words used as weapons.
We can use words differently as followers of Christ: a prayer offered for a friend. A social media post encouraging a grandchild. A male mentoring female co-workers through words of support and commendation. The oil of encouragement can make a big difference in a world running low on this lifegiving fuel.
Which brings us now to the oil of hope. With all of this talk of foolish bridesmaids and closed doors, we might conclude that there isn’t much hope in today’s Gospel story from Matthew. After all, the door is shut and the Lord says, “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”
But don’t forget that all ten of the bridesmaids are invited to the wedding reception. The door is wide open to all who prepare themselves by filling their lamps with the oil of hope, a hope that isn’t conditioned on the circumstances of our lives, but founded on God’s goodness.
The early Christians paid attention to the economy, politics, the news, and the ups and downs of their personal lives, but they didn’t let those events rob them of hope. With the kingdom of God so close to them, they were filled with hope for what God had in store for them and patiently endured whatever trials came their way.
Christians today also live in hope. I think of the recent story of Jeni Stepien, married recently to her husband, Paul Manenner, in Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Watch video
When she was in her early 20s, Jeni’s father was killed during a robbery as he walked home from work. As her father lay dying in the hospital, the family decided to donate his organs so that others could live. It was a decision made in faith and hope for the future.
The recipient of her father’s heart is a man named Arthur Thomas, the father of four children. Suffering from advanced cardiac disease, he was near death when he received Jeni’s father’s heart.
After he recovered from the transplant, Mr. Thomas reached out to thank Jeni’s family. Through the years, he exchanged letters with the family, but never had a chance to meet them in person.
Ten years later that all changed when Jeni got engaged. After Paul proposed to her, she wondered whom would walk her down the aisle. Filled with hope, the couple talked and then came up with this idea: what if Arthur walked Jeni down the aisle? They reached out to him and invited him to be a part of the wedding.
After Arthur got permission from his own family, he agreed and told Jeni that nothing would make him happier than to stand in for her father. When the two met for the very first time, Jeni held Arthur’s hand and felt his pulse.
“I thought that would be the best way for her to feel close to her dad,” Mr. Thomas said. “That’s her father’s heart beating.” Read full article
In our readings today, Jesus invites us all to the wedding banquet. But as Jeni Stepien and Arthur Thomas know all too well, life is short, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and fill up your lamps with the oil of trust, encouragement and hope.
In Jesus’ words to us today, we can hear our Father’s heart beating in the kingdom of heaven. Now is the time to accept Jesus’ invitation and live the life that God intends for you. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Right now.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on November 12, 2017