Sermons That Work

The Story in Today’s Gospel…, Proper 27 (A) – 2002

November 10, 2002

The story in today’s Gospel that Jesus told his earliest followers about wise and foolish virgins — is a story about vigilance and values, a story of surprise and response and the judgment of consequences. The story comes from another place, another culture, and another time.

How could this story of wise virgins and foolish virgins possibly be relevant to us — Americans, Episcopalians — in the 21st century? How could such a strange story be relevant to people of our day?

Of course, we know, as perhaps never before in our national history, of the importance of military security and vigilance. The fearful possibility of military surprise drives today’s obsessional concern for ever more sophisticated and deadly weapons systems as surely as it shapes the distorted and simplistic immorality of hit them before they hit us-of destroy them before they destroy us.

Vigilance, values, surprise, and judgment

If we do so poorly with fear and surprise and judgment as a nation, how do we do with fear and surprise and judgment as individuals?

Of course we know that each of us is shaped by our genetic heritage, our experience, and by our values. We know that we bring this “living package” of genes, memories, and values called “me” to every encounter — with another person and with God.

How is it between you and me? What’s important to me? What’s important to you?

To what extent can I tolerate the possibility of your surprises? To what extent can I trust you?

When Jesus told the story of the wise and foolish virgins, it may be as the creed puts it, he was thinking of eschatological and apocalyptic things, of when “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” It might also be, on the other hand, that he was thinking of the judgmental dimension of every human encounter.

What I say and do now with you can never be unsaid or undone. What you say and what you do now with me can never be unsaid or undone. If these sayings and doings are not what we wish them to be — as is so often the case, at least in my experience — they can be regretted, they can be reshaped, they can be rethought, they can be grieved, and they can — I am happy to know — be forgiven and forgotten — even if I forget to say, “I’m sorry.”

When Jesus told the story of the wise and foolish virgins, it may be that he was thinking of the last judgment, but maybe he was thinking of the first judgment: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” — born a baby in Bethlehem.

An old priest was busy giving out Sunday School attendance certificates and did not see little Rebecca when she left the back pew where her mother and brother were sitting and headed for the front of the church. The old priest did not hear her when she first called his name from the middle of the aisle a third of the way up, “Father John!” The old priest whom she loved and trusted did not hear or see Rebecca when she called his name from half way up the aisle, “Father John!” Finally when Rebecca was standing directly in front of the old priest, he heard her and so did everyone else in the church. The service stopped and Rebecca said, “Father John, look at this. Look what I can do. Listen to this!” In the silence of the hushed and expectant church three year old Rebecca snapped her little fingers three times: click, click, click. The whole church laughed. Father John snapped his fingers with Rebecca and a parishioner from Africa said, “In my country we praise God by snapping our fingers.” And the whole congregation snapped their fingers in praise and thanksgiving.

How do you welcome children?

How do you protect children?

How do you care for children?

These are questions that judge the culture – then and now.

These are questions that judge the church – then and now.

When the bridegroom comes, these will be his questions.

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Christopher Sikkema


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