Well, I have some good news for you this morning. The Sunday after All Saints’ is the Sunday when I give my annual stewardship sermon. But, no matter how many ways I spin it, I just can’t make the lesson about the bridesmaids who were ready when the Lord called be about stewardship. So, I think we all dodged it this year. I’ll make it especially uncomfortable next year to make up for it.
I said that I couldn’t make this Gospel lesson about stewardship, but that’s not true. I probably could. When you are newly ordained, right out of seminary, there are lessons that come up that make you think, “Now what in the world am I going to say about that lesson.” But after a few years you begin to realize that if you think about it, you can wind your way around to get to just about any topic you want to.
That is probably not a good thing. All priests have favorite topics – things that they’d rather preach about than anything else. A parishioner said to me once – this was years ago, before I was here – the only thing you ever preach about is telling people about the love of God. I was so offended I could barely see straight. I was all of 27 years old and was pretty sure I was the best preacher since Phillips Brooks or Billy Graham and I could not imagine what had given him that idea.
But now that I look back on it I realize several things I didn’t realize back then. 1) I am not the greatest preacher since Phillips Brooks or Billy Graham. 2) He was right. I do preach about spreading the love of Jesus more than anything else. 3) There ain’t nothing wrong with preaching about the love of Jesus – or the privilege of spreading it everywhere we go. He was actually paying me a great compliment. And who am I to say? He might have meant it that way.
Now, last week was the Feast of All Saints. That is a milestone Sunday in the church year, because from that Sunday on, we are winding down. We are pointing to the end of the church year, which doesn’t end with the calendar year. It ends at the end of November. Advent begins the year all over again. So we are pointing to the last big hoorah three weeks from today. But, strangely enough, this lesson isn’t pointing us to the hoorah, but pointing us back to the beginning by telling us to be ready. But I read this lesson differently than I used to read it. Let me tell you how I used to read it.
At some time in your school career, you had the mean teacher, right? The teacher that wouldn’t give an inch no matter what. For me it was Mrs. Hall. I still feel a little cold sweat on my forehead when I think about her. Third grade. And she wore out two ping pong paddles on my backside trying to get me to shut up. It didn’t work. Mrs. Hall was the queen of the pop quiz. Everyone had a Mrs. Hall. But then, there was that other teacher. The teacher that loved you so much, it was obvious that her greatest pleasure was your success. That is what makes a good teacher. Not the one who frightened you into learning with the threat of the pop quiz, but the one who had you so prepared, that pop quizzes would’ve made no difference at all.
And guess what. Now we’ve come to the Gospel lesson – and I think those are the two ways you can hear this lesson. And surprise, surprise…I happen to think it is all about the love of God. Five foolish bridesmaids and five wise bridesmaids. The five wise ones were ready for the bridegroom when he came. The five foolish…not so much. Now, there are preachers in this world who would feel compelled to preach about the great pop quiz. How the five foolish bridesmaids were left out in the cold. But, the point of the lesson is not about being left out in the cold. I guess that is one of the fundamental differences between what we believe and what a lot of others believe. Because the point of the cross was not to leave anybody out in the cold. It was to offer salvation to every soul in creation.
Jesus, the God who wrapped his arms around the adulterous woman to shield her from the stones of the crowd, did not tell stories to the ones who would reject him. He told stories to his disciples – to us; about us; for us. This lesson is not told by the teacher about the scary pop quiz at the end of time. It is told by the Good Shepherd who says, “Little children, be ready! Have your lamps trimmed and burning because I am coming wrap my arms around you and this is how you can be ready.”
For a lot of my life, I was the kind of man, worshipping in the kind of church that lived in fear of the great pop quiz. But one day, the Loving Teacher (not the scary teacher) called out to me and showed me a glimpse of his immeasurable and incomprehensible love and mercy. And since that time, there is nothing you can say or do to make this lesson scary for me. In fact, for the rest of my days I will read the whole Bible through the lens of this love and compassion.
We serve a God who loves us and he wants us to love him and serve him and choose him. He will not make us do it. Love doesn’t work that way. To choose him means that we will be ready when he comes to call us home. And because he loves us, he tells us very clearly what we need to do. You remember what the bridegroom said when the foolish bridesmaids came a knocking? He didn’t say I don’t want you here. He didn’t say, I don’t like you. He didn’t say, I warned you about that pop quiz. He simply did not recognize them. And the reason he didn’t recognize them was because they had never chosen to spend any time with him. We will be ready when he comes, because we will spend the rest of our lives making sure that we know him and he knows us!
My friends, I am far from perfect. I am not a perfect husband or father. I am not a perfect priest and I am not a perfect Christian. There are a million things I do wrong and there are a million things I don’t know. But I do know this: Jesus calls out to us in our sin and our imperfection because he loved us before we ever even asked him to. And he leaves it up to us, because that is how love works. And the God who loves us so much that he gave himself for us told us to be ready, not because he is hoping to shut the door in our face, but because the door stands wide open and all he wants us to do is to walk through it.