Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 9, 2014
In a few weeks, we will gather for Thanksgiving with our families. The turkey will be carved. The stuffing will be nice and warm. The pecan and pumpkin pie will be sitting in the kitchen. And we’ll all sit down for a warm reunion and pleasant conversation with our families. That is, until your crazy Uncle Phil opens his mouth. Every family has got a crazy Uncle Phil. And during that picturesque Thanksgiving dinner, he’ll probably have a few too many glasses of wine and tell that family story that should never be repeated. You know, that story.
There’s one in every family. The person who just cannot keep their trap shut. You have to invite him over for Thanksgiving because it’s the right thing to do, and then he just tells all those awkward stories. So you sit at the Thanksgiving table, staring straight down at your mashed potatoes during that story, squirming the whole time. Just praying that this too will pass. You’ve been there, right?
But you’re squirming because you identify with the story that Uncle Phil is telling. You don’t hate Uncle Phil’s story because it’s a lie. You hate the story your crazy Uncle Phil tells because it’s true. And it hits real close to home.
Did any of you squirm just like that during our gospel reading? It’s not an easy reading. But it hits real close to home. Jesus tells a story in which there are ten bridesmaids: five of them are foolish, and five are wise. And they are really the same. They all carry lamps. They all fall asleep. It’s only at the end that the foolish bridesmaids are singled out for not being prepared. And if we’re honest, we will probably see more of ourselves in the foolish bridesmaids than in the wise bridesmaids.
This is a parable where the rubber hits the road. This parable is not about some dense, theological doctrine. Jesus isn’t giving esoteric teaching on a minute Old Testament law. This is the real deal. This is where theology meets daily living. Jesus is making us feel so awkward and squirm in our seats, because he wants to know if we have gotten in touch with our spiritual side. And the great equalizer, the thing in our life that will make us answer that question, is death.
The truth of the matter is that one day we are all going to die. The bridegroom will eventually show up. I hope this isn’t news to you. But, day to day, we don’t really live like we are going to die. You and I, more often than not, live like we’ll keep on living forever. We put things off. We don’t tell our parents how much we love them, because we can do that tomorrow. We don’t take the time to pray today, because we’ll get to that some other day. That Bible sits on our night stand, but instead we turn on our iPad and play Candy Crush. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is about urgency, about preparing, right now, for what we know is eventually going to happen. Sooner or later. The bridegroom will return. Jesus is telling us to stay on our guard, to be alert, to remain committed. “Keep awake,” Jesus says, even when the groom is delayed. You don’t know the day or the hour. So get ready now. Get in touch with your spiritual side just as soon as you can.
And it’s a very practical message. Prepare your last will and testament. Make sure that you are leaving a bequest for the church and your favorite charities. Ensure that your children and your spouses know what you want when it comes to life support and hospice care. Double check that your life insurance is ready to go. Don’t put it off. Don’t say, “I’ll take care of that tomorrow.” You don’t know if you have a tomorrow. The example is clear: don’t be the foolish bridesmaids who forgot to do what was so obvious. Be the wise bridesmaids who were prudent in their preparations.
But most of all, prepare yourself spiritually. Don’t put it off. You do not know the day or the hour. In a weird way, you have to get acquainted with death before you can really have a life. In my experience, individuals who have gone through medical traumas are the ones who live the fullest lives. Cancer survivors, amputees, people who have suffered massive heart attacks and lived. These survivors have seen the other side, they have seen what their death looks like. And when they come through it, their lives are much fuller. Much greater. They are much more buoyant, much happier, much more full of life, and enthusiasm, and grace. Because they know that they were this close to losing it all. In my experience, those who have met death, know Jesus a whole lot better.
But you don’t have to have survived cancer to start living with Jesus. Now is the time to start preparing for death, so that you can have an abundant life. A better life with Jesus. Turn off the TV. Stop the endless hours you spend scrolling through Facebook. If you hate your job, quit it. Ask yourself, at every point in your day, “am I doing this for God’s glory?” And if you’re not doing it for God’s glory, why are you doing it? When you go to bed at night, say, “thank you God for another day.” If you’re squirming in your seat right now, then the Holy Spirit might just be telling you something. The fact that you’re uncomfortable talking about your own death, or about your own spiritual health, might just be a sign from God of what you need to be doing. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to prepare an extra flask of oil to carry with you; practice of prayer, a knowledge of the scriptures, a holy life, and a preparation for death.
Keep awake, therefore. For you do not know when you are going to meet Jesus. And I do not want to come across as manipulative, like I’m threatening you with eternal hellfire if you don’t behave. Or that if you don’t start praying now, then you’ll die a slow and miserable death. That’s not what Jesus is getting at. I think this gospel passage is about a God who wants to be your friend. Jesus wants to be your friend. This passage is a gut-check, an inquiry into our spiritual health, and a question about our relationship with Jesus.
So, back to crazy Uncle Phil at your Thanksgiving dinner. We all have a crazy Uncle Phil that lives right up here in our heads. The crazy Uncle Phil is that feeling that we have inside that things aren’t quite right. That we don’t quite know Jesus like we think we should. I think that the Holy Spirit is crazy Uncle Phil. Who keeps telling you the truth even though it’s uncomfortable. So we can squirm in our seats, and just wait till the feeling passes. Or we can listen to what makes us uncomfortable. We can listen to the Holy Spirit. We can lean in to the awkwardness. Instead of trying to forget that story from crazy Uncle Phil, try to live your life in such a way that crazy Uncle Phil won’t make you feel so awkward anymore. Instead of telling the Holy Spirit that you’ll get to it tomorrow, get to it today. Live your life so that you’re friends with Jesus.