Monday, November 10, 2014

How are you ready?

Matthew 25:1-13, Lectionary 32 A, November 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Well, here we are. November 9th, just seven weeks away from Christmas. The stores are full of Christmas gifts and decorations, Mix 96 has switched to nonstop Christmas music, and the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza is up - even if it isn’t lit. This week, even our readings are now pointing toward Christmas.

We haven’t even reached Advent yet, and our Gospel lesson is telling us to be ready. Scholars say that we start having Advent-like readings before the four weeks begin because Advent used to be 7 weeks just like Lent. Even though that change happened during the Middle Ages, the readings still reflect 7 weeks of Advent.

So, here we are on November 9th hearing Jesus tell us for the first time this season to be ready. What does he mean this time? Maybe being ready is like a college graduate looking for his first full-time job. Take Mike, for example. Mike is getting ready for his first job interview. He carefully shaves his face, being sure not to nick himself. Then he puts on his best suit, purchased just for this event. He now looks as mature as he feels. 

His girlfriend straightens his tie before giving him a quick kiss and sending him out the door. During his car ride, Mike goes over his resume in his head, rehearsing why he is qualified for this job. Then, as he waits for his potential new boss to call him in, he takes long, slow breaths to calm his nerves. Then, when the employer calls him in, Mike stands up tall, gives the employer a firm handshake, and walks in.

We certainly can imagine being ready for Christ to look like this. We expect Judgment Day to quickly follow Jesus’ second coming. Isn’t an interview with God the most nerve-wracking interview of all?

Yet Jesus shows us that he has already paid for our entrance into heaven. God isn’t keeping track of our sins and our good deeds to determine if we are worthy for heaven. We are not worthy, yet God through Christ Jesus loves us enough to welcome us into heaven anyway.

Maybe being ready for Christ is more like a young mother ready to walk out the door with her toddler. My friend Tonya recently posted on Facebook that she prepared her one year old son for an outing. First, she packed her bag. She had snacks and wipes in her purse. She had child-friendly apps on her phone. 

Then she prepared her son. She had him layered in clothes and jacket, ready to go out into the almost freezing weather. Then, right before walking out the door, she realized that he not only had a dirty diaper; he had soiled his clothes as well.

Maybe preparing for heaven is like this. Tonya carefully prepared for all of her son’s potential needs. She had food in case he got hungry. She had wipes in case he got dirty. She had games in case he got squirmy. She was on time - until she realized that her son needed a whole change of clothes. 

We see something like this in today’s parable. The wise bridesmaids have extra oil to keep their lamps lit even if the bridegroom is late. The foolish bridesmaids do not have extra oil. They are out buying more oil when the bridegroom comes, so they are late to the party. By then, the gates are closed and they are left in the cold.

Tonya with her packed bags and her newly changed son may be ready to go out shopping, but are they ready for Jesus? This example may be interpreting the passage a bit too literally. Maybe being ready for Christ is more about living a Christian life and less like packing our bags or entering an interview. Take some local farmers, for example.

Recently, Tom Olson of Calamus died at the age of 65. He was driving his farm tractor trailer over railroad tracks when the grain auger became caught on the railroad crossing arm. After such a horrible, fatal accident, the people of Calamus went out of their way to help the Olson family. 

The Olson’s family, friends, and neighbors all came out one day to finish harvesting their 200 acres of corn. Hundreds of people brought their own trucks, combines, and semis to harvest the crop. They also brought food and donated fuel to the grieving family. What would have taken days to harvest, the community finished in a few short hours. Tom’s son, daughter, and grandson were among his immediate family awed and overwhelmed by the support of their community. 

That is what being ready for Christ is like. Showing up and helping out when a grieving family is most in need is one way to be ready. Truly, this community showed God’s love to the Olson family. Carrying the love of Christ into the world is a better description of what those bridesmaids’ extra oil represents for us. 

Even so, helping the Olson family harvest their crops is a one-time event. Those people only gave a few hours of their time to help this family. If we are to always have our candles lit, we will need to be serving the Lord consistently, always, in everything we do.

Maybe this final example is the ultimate example. Arnold Abbott was arrested this week for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. This man, along with two pastors, were charged with sharing food in public. Frustrated by these laws that outlawed publicly helping the homeless, Arnold has had run-ins with the police before.

Back in 1999, Arnold fought in court to be able to feed the homeless on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale. Even now, after this most recent arrest, Arnold is planning on feeding those in need at the beach. Arnold knows that he is doing the work of the Lord, and no court or police will be able to stop him. For over 23 years, Arnold has been feeding the homeless. That takes dedication, inspiration, and preparation. 

Indeed, the church has been waiting thousands of years for Jesus to return. Many denominations and congregations have spent hundreds of years keeping their candles lit by doing God’s work in the world. As one scholar wrote, “Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.” (p. 451.)

It may not take much preparation to spend part of a day harvesting a neighbor’s field. But to feed the homeless for decades - that requires immense preparation.

So also for us. In Zion’s 162 years, we also have fed the homeless through the Salvation Army Free Kitchen. We feed local families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We do God’s work with our hands throughout the year with our many social ministries. We take care of our own through education programs and our lovely music. Every week, we gather together to worship the Lord, united in our faith for the benefit of the world.

Through your weekly offering, you are helping the church’s oil lamp stay lit. We may not have as much extra oil right now, yet we are keeping our little light shining in the darkness.

On Christmas Eve, we will gather again, still waiting for the Lord’s coming. On that evening, we will each hold a wax candle, letting them shine brightly as we sing Silent Night. Then, we will show God that we are ready for Christ to come. Then, our literal candles will show how our figurative lamps are burning bright. Amen.

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