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Sermon for Proper 27, Year A, Nov. 8, 2020: Waiting is the hardest part (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

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It’s hard to relate to the particulars of the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. Like all of Jesus’s stories, the context would have been familiar to the people he told it to but, like many things in the world, weddings have changed in two thousand years. No longer do the bridesmaids wait for the bridegroom to bring the bride home before the wedding can proceed. Many brides and grooms already live together – and only rich people can afford ten bridesmaids. Even so, we can identify with this story, because the twin demons of tedium and anxiety that attack us when we are waiting for something should feel very familiar to all of us right now.

Waiting is hard. Waiting requires patience. Waiting requires faith. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, so they were devastated when Christ-followers began to die without seeing Jesus return. The Christians in Thessalonica, like other early communities founded by Paul, had to adjust to the idea that they were going to have to live an earthly existence much longer than they had expected – and they weren’t happy about it.

I have mentioned before that most of Paul’s letters were written in response to problems in the churches that he founded. Despite his instruction and encouragement, people like the Thessalonians continued to wrestle with trying to follow Jesus’s teachings and example while remaining firmly planted in the world they lived in – a hard world filled with economic hardship, harsh laws, and social injustice. When Paul had recruited them for this new community they thought that believing in the resurrected Christ would be an escape from all of the deprivations of their lives – and now they realized that they would probably never live to see the promised glorious return of the savior. They also worried that the believers who had already died would be permanently denied the vision of the promised glorious return – that they were going to get cheated. And since the Thessalonians were no different than us, they began to wonder if trying to live according to Jesus’s countercultural directives was worth it. It is easy to forsake what we believe in when we are numb from waiting. It’s easy to become confused by the ways of the world and forget what we are waiting for. Our collective memory is not very good when we are overwhelmed and frightened.

Joshua knew this. That’s why he asked the people of Israel if they were completely sure that they were ready to serve God. They were eager to express their loyalty to the one who saved them from slavery and did great signs in their sight because they had just witnessed the tremendous power of God. But Joshua appreciated their history. He remembered that, despite God’s faithfulness, the people had been known to turn to false gods the minute the going got tough. He was trying to tell them that just because God had saved them so spectacularly this time did not mean they would never endure hardship again.

The foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’s parable received the same lesson. They were following an age-old tradition to go and meet the bridegroom, whose return signaled a great celebration. The bridesmaid’s job was to show him the way by lighting his path. The foolish and wise bridesmaids weren’t very different from one another. They were all excited to be there. They all brought light with them, doing their part to ease the way of the bridegroom. They all knew and loved the bridegroom, and each was known to him. Ultimately, however, the foolish bridesmaids simply did not have the oil to produce enough light. They were able to wait for a little while but were stymied by the bridegroom’s delay. Their limited vision and reliance on others deprived them of the joy of meeting the bridegroom face to face. As Lindsay Armstrong says, “The foolish assume a bright future but do little to prepare for it.”[1]

The wise women, on the other hand, understand that the bridegroom will return, and are prepared to wait – and work – for as long as it takes. As Christians we believe that Christ will come again to usher in God’s beloved community, but we don’t know when. Our job is to be wise bridesmaids, to prepare for and deal with the worst while expecting the best, remembering that God’s time is not the same as ours. “In the midst of life’s joy and pain [wise Christians]…keep their light shining… continuing in community, study and prayer, doing deeds of mercy, offering forgiveness, and spreading justice and peace.”[2] We are directed keep the light of Christ burning in a darkened world – to spend our lives trying to follow Jesus’s command to let our light shine forth so that others may see good works in the world and glorify God in response. It is our job to carry the light of hope.

All of us have had to wait for something some time. What Jesus wants us to know is that it matters how we wait. It matters if we wait with cowardice or confidence, fear or faith. It matters if we retain hope. Hope is what sustains us when the beloved community of God seems completely unachievable. Hope is what enables us to wait. Hope gives us the strength to endure our struggles, bear our pain, and continue with faith to wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’s promises. “Christian hope rests on trust that the God who created the world will continue to love the world with gentle providence, will continue the process of creation until the project is complete, and will continue to redeem and save the world by coming into it with love and grace.”[3]

Faith and hope walk hand in hand. When we have faith, we know that all things work to the glory of God and the good of God’s people. When we have faith, we believe that days of peace, compassion and love will come even if we don’t know the day or the hour. When we have faith, we remember that all times are God’s time and to God, all times are soon.

Following Jesus is never easy, but it is particularly difficult when we are anxious and afraid, as many of us have been feeling. In a year such as this one, it is hard to see the light of hope, much less carry it for others- but we need to keep in mind that living in hope does not mean that we will never be disappointed. “Living in hope does not mean immunity to the harsh realities of history…It means living confidently and expectantly, trusting that the Lord of history continues to come into life with compassion and redemption”[4] – again and again and again, until we truly accept it.

Hope is an act of remembering. It is the ability to stop ourselves from dwelling on an uncertain future and recall the faithfulness of God throughout the history of time. Oceans rise, empires fall, and God has seen us through it all. We need to remember to trust in the God who was and always is with us. Tom Petty got it right: “The waiting is the hardest part… You take it on faith; you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”[5] Hang on. Keep awake. Wait in hope. When the wait is over, we will find that God has been with us all the time. AMEN.

[1]Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 289.

[2]Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 287.

2John M. Buchanan, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 286.

[4]John M. Buchanan, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 288

[5]Tom Petty (1991) The Waiting.

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