Choosing Up!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Twenty Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • November 8, 2020

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25Matthew 25:1-13

Choices: we make them every day, from small things to large ones. Much of this week has been consumed by the election of a new President, Senators, Representatives, and a host of others. I’d like this morning to turn, if we can, from that choice to others. This morning you chose to come to church; some of you chose to watch online. I’ve spent much of my career helping churches develop and I used to spend a lot of time and energy getting people to make that choice. Eventually, I realized people choose what they want and my job was simply to make sure every Sunday had something important, something valuable. How do you make choices? 

The story in Joshua is a crucial moment that calls for a choice. Last week we read the story of the last vision of Moses, how the promise of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah was on the edge of fulfillment, with Joshua taking over leadership. Now we’re at the end of Joshua’s life. There have been some great days; God’s people have indeed settled into the promised land, they have begun new lives and the wilderness is a rapidly fading time. But living among other people who worship other Gods, they’ve begun to lose their devotion to the Lord. Some of the other gods are more fun; some of them married into families and converted.

Now Joshua calls the tribes together; he reminds them of the long history in which God has been their providence and savior. He says,

…it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;

Joshua 24:17

Then he summons them to a covenant, a renewal of the ancient covenant. When the people say they will serve the God, he says,  

He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Joshua 34:22-23

Worship the Lord is not a given, it’s not automatic. It’s a choice and the whole story of the Torah is the story of how God chose this people and they chose God. The whole story of the New Testament is how Jesus taught God was choosing everyone else as well, including us, and how some, sometimes including us, chose God as well, just like the people at Shechem. 

just as the Joshua story is about a covenant, we make covenants. A covenant is a public, formal profession of a choice. One kind is marriage. A wedding is a formalization of a choice in a sacred covenant, The parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew has a wedding at its center, just off stage. 

One of the great joys of my life has been the ability to be with couples as they make this important choice. Sometimes a couple will come to church to check me out first; sometimes they grew up there and I know them already. Sometimes they call or drop by my office. There’s always a kind of special energy to these couples. We make an appointment, sit down, talk. I ask them to tell me how they met. Almost all say the same thing: “It was really funny…” and then tell a story about an unexpected meeting that grew into love. I ask them what they have in mind. Brides often have a plan; grooms almost never do. They ask about my requirements; I always smile and say, you have to have a license, you have to show up. Then I offer them a few meetings for pre-marital preparation. We used to call it counseling but it isn’t really counseling, it’s a time to talk about marriage because at that moment, most have spent a lot of time thinking about being in love, quite a bit about getting married and almost none about being married.

It’s as if we think that having made the one choice of who to marry, said yes and formalized this at a wedding the choices are over. All of us who have been married a while know they are just beginning. For example, what to do with dirty clothes after you take them off at night. There are two sorts of people: one that immediately puts these in the wash or hangs them up and the other kind, my kind, which drops them next to the bed. So now you have another choice in the morning: pick these up and deal with them? When I was single, I had a simple laundry system. I wore clothes; I dropped them on the floor next to the bed. The next morning I got clothes out of closet; same thing, over and over. Eventually the floor was covered and it was time to do laundry. I never tried this system out on Jacquelyn because I was pretty sure that a peaceful home depended on my learning to choose to pick up after myself.

In the parable, some choices have been made. Think about the context: a couple have chosen to get married. Parents, friends, teachers all watched them grow up and probably knew they had a mutual crush before they did. Nothing escapes notice in a small village. They seem to be well to do folks; ten bridesmaids is a lot. What I think is that this happened: she couldn’t decide who to choose. There’s her two sisters, they have to be bridesmaids, and his sister, and then there’s her best friend from sixth grade and the two girls she got to be friends with when she took that class in the city. You know how this goes: leave someone out and there will be hard feelings, so she includes them all.

Weddings are among the most rigidly tradition governed things we do and it’s no different here. When Jacquelyn and I were married, she was coming off exams, I was coming off Lent and Easter, her best friend had just died, we were really looking forward to the honeymoon, to time together alone. So we planned a simple morning service with a short reception. Our friends had other ideas; I remember when it was time for the cake, someone said, “We have to sing the song!” And they sang along I’d never heard but everyone seemed to know. Now in this story, in ancient Palestine, apparently the custom is for the groom to bring the bride to his family home, be met by the bridesmaids and then have an afterparty.

So the bridesmaids wait. Batteries haven’t been invented yet; they’re waiting with oil lamps, little bowls with a wick into which you pour olive oil as fuel to light the way. Now I can tell you as someone who has been to a lot of weddings—they almost never run on time. Things happen; a dress has to be unexpectedly refitted, someone in the wedding party is late, the clergy person has to put batteries in the microphone. Once a junior bridesmaid who hadn’t eaten all day collapsed and hit her head on the communion table and had to go to the hospital. The list is endless. Something happened here and the bridegroom is delayed. So the bridesmaids wait. And they wait. And they wait. 

When I thought about this sermon, I intended to have an illustration here to remind us about waiting but after this week, waiting for election results, I think we’ve all had more than enough recent experience waiting so I’m just going to move on. What I want to move on to is: the first audience for this parable, the Christians late in the first century. They had expected Jesus to return long before; we know there was a spiritual crisis over the waiting. So we have this parable to  guide us and what it compares isn’t always clear. The bridesmaids wait and some get worried about not having enough oil; it’s like forgetting your cellphone charger and realizing you don’t have a battery to help. They ask for help but don’t get it; in the moment they make a decision; they leave, they go into town.They get the oil but when they get back—POW!—they’ve missed the moment. The bridegroom came; the others went in, the door was closed. They’re left out. Wanting to do their job, they failed at their mission, welcoming the bridegroom

What makes them foolish? Preachers have been talking about that for centuries. Some think they should have brought more oil, some things they shouldn’t have fallen asleep; but the other bridesmaids fall asleep too. I think the problem here is that they made a bad choice. They’re so concerned about their performance, they forget their mission. They’re so concerned about what they’re doing that they forget why they’re doing it The moment when the bridegroom comes is a unique instance: it happens, it’s over. They missed it. The story reminds us that the choice to act out of our Christian faith is a matter of moments, moments that ask for a decision. How often do are we foolishly concerned about details that we forget our mission: love God, love our neighbor, heal, share God’s Word, be God’s light.

There is a wonderful song I’ve always loved that contains the verse, “Lord, I want to be more Christian in my heart, in my heart, Lord I want to be more Christian in my heart.” I like the song, I like the feeling. But Christian life is not only a matter of the heart, it is a matter of behavior and behavior is a series of choices. So if we are making our lives a joyful journey along the way with Jesus, if we are following the Lord, it means choosing him every day, every place. Every day offers a choices. We can choose ourselves, choose down in the world, or we can, as Paul says, press on toward the upward call of Jesus Christ. That is indeed choosing, choosing up.