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  • Mark Singleton

We're Already at the Banquet

Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our creator, redeemer and life-giving spirit.

Good morning. People who know me know I have a bit of a problem with being on time. Yeah. It’s a problem. I don’t know the how or the why of it but it’s almost as if when I have an appointment and look at a clock…the tiny sequence of my DNA which contains the small portion of my genetic makeup that is German…lights up like a Christmas tree and kicks into high gear. And just to be clear…I don’t have a problem being on time myself…I just have a problem with YOU not being on time. I could blame it on the fact that have a job that is “appointment-based” but it’s WAY deeper than that. You see, I’m not just on time for things…the reality is that my anxiety about being late makes me perpetually early. If I need to be somewhere at 3, you can rest assured I’ll be lurking around outside at 2:45…latest. Which would be fine if it was just me. The problem is that I expect everyone else to have the same psychotic attitude about time. So when you arrive for our appointment and you are 5 minutes late…in my head you had the gall to keep me waiting for 20. I know…I know. I’m working on it.

I only bring this up because whenever I read the Gospel from Matthew today, about the 10 Bridesmaids waiting for the groom and the debate swirls about the relative virtue of the 5 who were prepared vs the judgment of those who weren’t… in MY mind…there is only one bad actor in this story and it aint the bridesmaids! I mean what sort of groom shows up late to his own wedding…and after midnight!? But I’m pretty sure that’s not the point of the story. I know…like I said…I’m working on it. We read:

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

10 Bridesmaids. Bridesmaids had a special role in the wedding ceremony. They were to wait and accompany the groom into the home of his soon to be wife to collect her. In this story, we are told up front that there are 5 wise and 5 foolish ones. The wise ones bring extra oil, the foolish ones do not. The Bridegroom is late (don’t get me started) and ALL the bridesmaids fall asleep. All of them. When the groom arrives, they go into a panic. The 5 whose oil has been used up, beg the prepared ones for some of theirs. After this last-minute negotiation fails, the foolish 5 run off to the store and while they’re gone, they miss the return of the groom…and apparently…the whole wedding.

This story comes in a section of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus, in an attempt to answer the BIG questions: who he is, who God is and what is our role in the Kingdom…tells a bunch of stories that start: The Kingdom of God is like…or could be compared to… And remember, when he’s telling these stories, Jesus had already alienated himself from the religious and political establishments in some pretty serious ways. Things were already getting hot and about to get hotter. Jesus took this time to remind his people, and us, of what’s important…what the true reality is…and when he was done, he then told them about what was about to happen to him…and the slow walk to the cross began.

It’s also important to remember that Matthew was writing to a community that was beginning to fracture. Those early Christians had also been told to wait and to expect Jesus to come again SOON! They waited for decade after decade. They waited through the destruction of the temple…AGAIN. They waited through broken promise after broken promise and their world was falling apart. Like many of us today, they must have begun to doubt…and the waiting must have been interminable. Matthew was trying to encourage them in their waiting. To remind them that waiting is, in fact, holy. And begging them to stay alert. But as we know, waiting is hard. So what does this parable say to us today?

One of the difficult things about this story is the judgement that appears to run throughout. Remember, half of the bridesmaids were called foolish in the first sentence. What does this mean for us? Then there’s the end of the story where the Lord not only refuses entry to the foolish ones…he denies even knowing them. Is that our fate if we are foolish? Will God deny knowing us if we fall asleep?

Dear friends, in normal times, it would be SO easy to make this lesson primarily about spiritual preparedness, constant vigilance and waiting in joyful hope. These messages certainly abound in scripture. But today. In this time. I really don’t want to preach…or for that matter listen…to a sermon about patience, waiting and being prepared. OMG, we’ve all been LIVING that sermon for so long now… Dear Jesus. Our patience is running thin. How Long oh Lord? Will you forget us forever?

8 months of lockdown. 8 months of being separated from our loved ones. 8 months of living in fear. 8 months of death. A thousand deaths a day and we hardly blink anymore. Our Oil has already run dry…and there’s no more in stock at Home Depot BTW.

2 years of political pundits screaming at us from television sets and hateful Facebook postings as we waited for the election and now almost a week later and it’s just finally over…sort of. And while it was nice to see the celebrations and dream about new beginnings last night, we still have a long way to go and we are all tired Dear Lord, we’re tired of the waiting and the negativity. And many nights, we can’t even fall sleep if we try.

And too many decades waiting for justice. George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and a seemingly never-ending list of martyrs in black and brown communities all over this country who will never know the promise made by Amos in 750 BC that someday… maybe Justice will flow down like a river for them too. Someday.

And there are still children in cages at the border. Orphans. Ripped from their mother’s bosom never to see their parents again. And that was the intention of the policy, not a side effect. Do not let anyone tell you any different. I will mention this fact in every sermon I ever give until they are free. Sorry. I am just haunted by it.

So I promise that I won’t tell you to be patient for the sake of being patient…or to be prepared so that you’ll be allowed into some heavenly banquet. But I do need to tell you something…and I have to admit, it’s been a tough week to figure out just what to say. We need to find some good news in the Gospel because as Christians, we are called to be light to the world! That I know. Salt and light and hope. But they feel like rare commodities some days.

Here’s what I can tell you. For me, this story is NOT about figuring out if you are wise or foolish. It’s NOT about figuring out if you’re prepared or not. And it is DEFINITELY not about figuring out if you’ve been invited into the banquet. If we doubt everything else…if everything else seems uncertain…the good news today and every day is that we’re already in the banquet. That’s been settled. Remember last week when Pastor Gary told us we’re already elected? Well today I’m here to tell you that not only are you invited to the banquet…you’re are already in. Our presence was guaranteed by the blood of Jesus and our faith in Him. We’re in. The party is now!

And that’s a big relief. But here’s the thing about being in. The fact that we have a seat at the table DOES NOT give us the right to decide who else gets in…and this is where we inevitably get into trouble. Rather than enjoy the bounty set before us at the table, we sometimes choose to become some weird combination of wedding planner and bouncer. And that’s where the trouble starts because as David Lose, one of my favorite Lutheran pastors, constantly says, whenever we draw a line between who is in and who is out, we can be pretty sure that Jesus is on the other side of that line.

The other thing I know for sure is that just because we’re in does not mean the waiting is over. A joyful afternoon of cars honking on Washington Street yesterday or a beautiful moment together online or in church this morning really helps…but we are all still waiting. And how we behave while we wait means everything. We live in an extremely divided country. Never mind 5 or 10 bridesmaids…we have 140 million bridesmaids, 70 million of which voted for their respective candidate on Tuesday and many on both sides want to claim that they’re the wise ones…or at the very least claim the other side is foolish. How we act…what we do…who we stand with has never been more important than now.

The waiting is not over. The challenge for Christians everywhere is to figure out how to act IN the party…how to remind and reassure each other that we already have everything we need. That there is oil enough for all and food enough for all…and grace sufficient for the day and that all of that is available to everyone: wise and foolish alike…but that DOES NOT MEAN that what we do doesn’t matter. It does. It doesn’t mean that we don’t call out evil and injustice when we see it…or than we work for justice. It matters. Now more than ever.

The simple fact remains, that there are far too many people in this world who don’t even know there’s a party going on. They don’t feel invited because they haven’t been. Not by God but by us. To tell them about the party…to sing about it…to preach about it is important…but showing them is way better. We are called to be light to the world with our actions. Please own that. YOU are called to be light to the world and that’s why we try and bring extra oil. I know this is really hard in this often-dark world especially when really shining means sacrifice: personal, financial, social. But please remember…it’s a party! You’re invited. There is food that truly satisfies your hunger and water that really satisfies your thirst and rest without anxiety and peace that surpasses understanding. There is. There is. Come to the party. You will be recognized and welcomed. Better still…invite others.

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