Ready or Not – a sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13

Hide and Seek was a favorite pastime in the neighborhood growing up.  When we first moved to Shore View Circle in Indialantic, Florida there were easily ten children between the ages of about seven and twelve in small cluster of homes whose side and back yards all met up together forming the greatest field of play in existence.  Large shrubs, a few fat squatty palms, tool sheds, some fenced yards, and back patios all provided stellar hiding spots.  In fact, sometimes the problem wasn’t finding a place to hide, but simply choosing which spot would be the right one this time.

3662330204_54e1404d62_qAt the start of each round we would gather pretty much at the center, the spot where the corners of three or four properties all met.  The counter would start counting – 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… – and the hiders would start hiding.  There was always a mad dash for some of the favorite spots and no end to strategizing.  Did you want a great spot far away from base or something that might be a little more exposed, but with a shorter run?  If you were indecisive, as I was, you might still be looking when the counter announced, “48… 49… 50!  Ready or not, here I come!”

“Ready or not!”  Those are the words that could strike terror in the hearts of the unprepared, those with no place to hide, no cover chosenfor this round of the game. 

I can still feel the panic of not being ready, and apparently I’m not the only one who has this sort of anxiety.  That need to feel ready, to feel prepared can be a highly motivating emotion.  Marketers have realized this for years.   Much of advertising, if not designed to make us feel like we are incomplete, is designed to make us feel like we need to be prepared, Much of marketing seems to be based on making consumers feel like they need to be prepared, ultra-prepared, maybe even over-prepared.

Are you prepared for summer?  Try this diet to get prepared.

Are you ready for the big game?  Better stock up on snacks so you don’t run out.

Will your loved ones have everything they need when you are gone?  If you not it’s time to buy insurance

All so that you are ready.  So that you are prepared when that important day comes.

On the whole being prepared isn’t a bad thing.  In fact it can be downright crucial!  Look what happened when a city, a whole region wasn’t prepared for Hurricane Katrina.  Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes.  More than $100 billion of damage was done across 90,000 square miles.  Nearly 2,000 people died all because of gross under-preparation. No, being wisely prepared is more than a good thing, it can be life-saving.

And maybe that’s why our first glance at this parable most likely leads us to hear it as a call to preparedness.  The wise bridesmaids brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning and then they brought even more.  The foolish bridesmaids, who really did just what was expected, had enough oil with them but not more than enough.  It was the bridegroom who was late to his own event!  They may have been prepared, but they certainly weren’t prePARED.  This parable is exactly the story every parent, Scout leader, and spare tire salesperson needs in order to get his or her point across.  You better be ready!  You never know when disaster will strike!  You’d better be prepared!

But here’s the thing – – when we interpret this parable in a way that it all about being prepared, it just doesn’t line up with our understanding of God’s grace.  If this parable is a warning that we need to spend all our time amassing enough, more than enough, goods on earth or treasures in heaven – – whether that means we pray more or work more or shine our lamps before others more – – all in order to earn our way into heaven, then we are espousing works righteousness; we are saying we can earn God’s love, even that we must earn God’s love or we won’t be included in God’s kingdom.  And that’s just not right.  That’s not what we heard when God’s grace was declared to us this morning.  We heard that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  Not when we were good enough.  Not when we had worked hard enough.  Not when we had performed enough charity.  While we were still sinners, when we were still messing up, at the exact same time we were forgetting everything we had been taught to bring along in the bag of tricks for our lives, Christ was reconciling us to God.  Christ was ushering us into the party.

So while being prepared is a good thing, both before a storm of a century and in our spiritual lives before God, being prepared doesn’t earn us the favor of the bridegroom.  So, being prepared may just not be what this parable is all about.

What if, upon waking up and realizing their oil had been completely consumed, the so-called foolish bridesmaids had just stayed put? What if they had not run out to try to cover up their mistake? What if they had not scrambled around with an effort made too late to make up for not being prepared? What if they had just recognized that they were fallible human beings and acknowledged their shortcomings before the bridegroom when he came?

The bridegroom in the story doesn’t ever even mention the oil or preparedness or lack thereof.  He doesn’t praise the wise bridesmaids for thinking ahead.  He doesn’t even thank them for being ready even when he wasn’t there on time.  When the foolish bridesmaids arrive at the banquet with plenty of oil if not in plenty of time, he does chastise them for not having enough oil the first time; he leaves them out because they weren’t at the house when he arrived.  For the bridegroom it doesn’t seem to be about the oil at all.  He simply takes the wise young girls along with him to the wedding banquet because, ready or not, they are the ones who are there.

Both sets of bridesmaids fell asleep, which is really the only thing that seems to be a problem; it’s really the only direction given to those hearing this parable, “Keep awake!” – the same direction given to the disciples in the Garden at Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest when he goes to pray, deeply grieved, “Stay awake.”  Both sets of bridesmaids failed at this one task, to stay awake and attentive to the one who will be coming to them at any minute in any hour. If only those who had run out of oil had just stayed behind when they woke, they, too, would at least have been there. They could have joined the procession and entered the festive banquet. If only they had been there he would have seen them; he could have included them.

I recognize that even if this parable isn’t about having enough oil it still has a harsh sound to it. The door is shut in the face of those who didn’t show up and even that doesn’t sit well with what we know about Jesus, with the abundant grace that is promised, the call to forgive seventy times seven times, the promise that even when we owe a gazillion dollars our debt will be forgotten.  But this parable isn’t the end of the gospel.  (Thank God!)  This parable is one in a string of parables with increasing and increasing urgency.  It’s told, like the parable we heard last week about the other wedding banquet where a guest is thrown out for not having the right clothes, in the final days, even final hours of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Time is short for him to make his point, to preach his good news.  Even the telling of these parables becomes like a parable because all of these harsh possibilities, throwing people out and shutting doors, later separating sheep and goats for eternal punishment, all of these difficult words are choices for Jesus who is God, Jesus who is Lord, Jesus who is sovereign over all life and death.  These are choices Jesus could make when it comes to addressing human beings who resist transformation, who can’t be bothered to show up, who don’t see the need of others in our midst.  The piling of difficult parable on top of difficult parable increases the anxiety in the narrative as it rushes toward the crisis of the cross the epitome of all human failure, the execution of one who is innocent, the execution of God out of fear.

Until finally comes the triumph of the resurrection when God says, “I could toss you out.  It’s is possible for me to shut the door.  It would be ‘fair’ for me to let you suffer for the suffering you inflicted on others, the suffering you inflict on me.  But I won’t.”  The parables don’t end when the verse comes to an end; the parables end when we get to Easter.

Ready or not, Jesus invites us.  Ready or not, Jesus comes to us.  Ready or not, Jesus wants to bring us to the banquet.  Preparation, yeah, it’s a good thing. When we are prepared, we may be more apt to see him coming in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned.  Preparation allows us to be a part of God’s kingdom builders, using the talents we have to nurture God’s grace in the lives of other people and the church.  Preparation gives us time to find our spirits strengthened our wisdom sharpened our faith deepened, but the reality is even the best preparation isn’t what saves us.  Even the most prepared among us will fall asleep sometimes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of preparation – – whether it looks like buying paper towels by the case at Sam’s “just in case” or grabbing three gallons of milk at the grocery store before an impending blizzard.   We even hear the worry about being prepared in the church when we make excuses when there are opportunities through which we could explore our faith further or deeper, reach out in compassion to neighbors in need – – Oh, I don’t know enough to join an adult education class.  I’m not prepared to be a part of a Bible study.  I don’t think I really have the expertise to interact with people at the food shelf or Grace Place.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.  I’m not ready.

And the reality is that we might not be ready.  Some of us are, some of us aren’t, but the being ready isn’t the point.  Showing up is – – ready or not, showing up, trying to keep awake, looking for the bridegroom as he comes to us in what seems like a dark night void of the presence of God, this is point.  Showing up, with authenticity and honest, with humility and awareness, this is the posture that is desired by God. This week marks just about the halfway point of Lent.  Now Lent can seem like a preparers dream! Giving things up, taking things on, it can seem like this is a whole season dedicated to stockpiling spiritual gold stars if we just do all the right spiritual things.  If that is what Lent has become for you, or if that’s what it looks like from the outside if you’ve been skeptical all along, what about thinking of it this new way.

What about making Lent about nothing more than showing up?  Nothing more and nothing less, really.  What if we spent the rest of Lent doing nothing more than being open to the idea that Christ is moving towards us each and every second?  Nothing more than keeping awake and looking for where he is moving in the darkness we see all around us, in places of poverty, in places of sadness, in places where people are hungry and naked and imprisoned?  What if we spent the rest of simply being attentive to the call and presence of Christ whose walk to the cross is what brings us into the heavenly banquet?

Because ready or not he will come to take us with him.

photo credit: Counting to 20 via photopin (license)

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