Since I was ordained, I’ve officiated over 300 weddings. Each has been special in it’s own way. One in particular, four years ago, felt like it was a foretaste of God’s kingdom, Under one tent there were the groovy, progressive White Quakers, Unitarians, and Atheists. There were conservative, proper, Black Catholics and Baptists. Present were straight, gay, and transgendered people; the very young and the very old; friends who danced the night away on two feet and some who danced the night away from their wheelchairs. Republicans and Democrats. I have never been to a more diverse or joyful celebration. It felt like the kind of party Jesus invites all of us to attend.
I first met the couple, Connie and Pete, a year before the ceremony. They were looking for a minister to help them not only celebrate their union, but in their wisdom, to prepare them for marriage. They recognized that their religious and cultural differences needed to be addressed before they could feel confident in going forward with marriage. Along the way, from their engagement to their wedding day, they also prepared their families and their friends for what would be a ceremony unlike any they had ever attended – combining Unitarian and Catholic elements through the lens of the Feast of St. Francis (their wedding day) and, more importantly, for the life they were weaving together. A life that might feel foreign to both sides of the family.
All of Pete and Connie’s purposeful preparation showed on their extraordinary wedding night. They honored beloved relatives from both sides of the family who were present in spirit. They acknowledged the values their families shared in common. Most of all, they exuded love and respect for each other and for all who were gathered. Every person present at their wedding participated in the ceremony. It was important to the couple that all who attended felt honored, included, and treasured. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses the imagery of a wedding feast to help us understand a key element of our spiritual lives. He calls us to prepare for a celebration with him; a celebration where all are invited, but not all are prepared to attend. Remember earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a story about who is invited to God’s feast: “Go out… into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”
What might it mean for the way we live, if we oriented our lives to consciously prepare to celebrate with God and all who are invited to share in the feast? How might our thinking and our actions change if we thought about our lives as a preparation to celebrate with God and all of God’s people not just at the end of our lives, but each and every day?
Matthew’s vision of what it means to engage in the reign of God is radically different from the theology many of us grew up with – one in which the goal of our daily lives and the purpose of life was not to anticipate celebration, but to avoid God’s judgment – by not getting into trouble. (And by extension the judgment of our parents, teachers and other authority figures.) Many of us grew up with a theology that was more concerned about what we shouldn’t be doing, than with what we should be doing, so that we didn’t end up eternally damned. Too often, we were taught who to expect at God’s table – us, not them. This sort of narrow theology sees God as a judge lurking around every corner, waiting to see whether or not we will slip up; a God who includes some, and excludes others.
That is not the image presented by Jesus.
In today’s parable, Jesus has something wonderful in store for us and he’s given us an image of what we are supposed to do to prepare. We are to be like the bridesmaids who are ready to greet him; we are to be light-bearers. We are to shine our lights in such a definitive way that when we encounter God, we and God recognize each other. Our bright lights should help us see God in our everyday lives, should help others see God in us, and should help us see God even within those “others” who we don’t understand, like those who cast their votes differently from us.
To shine our lights in this way, we must be ready – which means wisely anticipating that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom may take longer and be more challenging than we expect. It’s one thing to shine our lights when things are going the way we want, as we expect, and it’s early in the journey. It’s another thing to shine our lights when things are not going as we want, are not what we expect, and are taking a long time. On this side of the veil, in our earthly lifetimes, we only get glimpses of God’s kingdom. So much of our lives will remain forever incomplete and unfinished. The reality is that our lives are rarely exactly as we want them to be for long, if ever.
How are we to keep shining our lights in a world such as this? At a time of such disunity, how can we believe that we are preparing for a celebration with all of God’s people?
First, let’s take to heart that we are being invited to a party. We have received an invitation to a life of being in God’s presence with all of God’s people, a life of joy. This means that we can look forward to our days with anticipation – to live from a sense that something wonderful is going to happen and we are part of it! Life is meant for celebration. Too many people live with a sense of dread – for the day ahead, their own future and beyond. And that sense of dread colors their actions – not for the better. This is not what God is inviting us to. Just the opposite. What would it mean for you if you started your day with an awareness that you are preparing for, are anticipating, and are ready for a life of joy? (This is not to discount that there are sad and challenging times in life; but it is to say that these sad and challenging times are not the ultimate story.)
Second, to keep shining our lights in this broken world, remember that you have a job to do – but you do not have to do it alone. You are just one of a whole team of bridesmaids. In the ancient Near East, an important part of the wedding was the procession from the home of the bride’s parents to the couple’s new home. As the bridegroom escorts his bride, their pathway is lighted by bridesmaids holding up flaming torches. Making a path for God in the world is something we do together.
Third, being prepared means that we do what is necessary to keep our flames burning brightly; to be sure that we can be patient and persistent for the long haul. In the reading we heard from the Wisdom of Solomon to open our worship service, there is this beautiful image, “One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, For she will be found sitting at the gate.” As the spiritual masters of every religious tradition know, there is nothing better we can do to prepare to share in the joy of the presence of our God and all of God’s people than to start the day with God in prayer. This is how we refuel our lamps so they continue to burn. If I am thinking that some of God’s people are real jerks or worse, not worthy of my time, because of who they voted for or any other reason, it’s time to pray to see them not as others, but to see them as God sees them, with the lens of love, as members of the same family, all of us belonging to God.
Those who are preparing for marriage in a conscious and intentional way, like Connie and Pete did, discover that there are things they can do each and every day to build a relationship of enduring love. They can offer their full presence and attention to one another, listen to each other, and express their gratitude and love for one another. They learn the importance of airing out grievances in a respectful way with a desire to understand each other and grow as a team; to practice forgiveness whenever needed; to share not only the best of themselves, but to accept each other through their worst, when their shadow shows up, which it inevitably will- trusting that when they hold each other in compassion and understanding through challenging times, they can grow even stronger together.
All of these elements that are important to prepare for marriage are also important in a spirituality of preparing for life with God and all of God’s people. All of these practices can help us grow in our relationship with God and each other. They can be useful at home, at work, and even in Washington, D.C. This leads me to ask – How are you spending time daily with God? Are you offering your full presence and attention to God at some point in your day? Are you setting aside time to listen to God each day? How are you expressing your gratitude and love to God? To what extent do you bare your soul, your troubles, to God? Do you seek forgiveness when you’ve made a mistake? By growing in our relationship with God, by practicing these spiritual skills, we grow to be more capable of loving all of God’s people – even those whom we are really struggling to understand in this or any given moment.
As many of you know, I was a Hospice chaplain for 11 years. This taught me about preparing for another key part of life – the end. Here the questions are different – but they also illuminate what it means to prepare for a life with God and all of God’s people. In preparing for death, we also contemplate – what are you grateful for? Do you have any regrets? Are there people with whom you need to make peace? Is there something you need to say or do to help those you will leave behind prepare for life without you? How are you expressing your love to those who matter most?
Each of these actions that we might take to prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the end of our lives, also powerfully help us to prepare for our life with God now and beyond. Gratitude, reconciliation, blessing those we will leave, expressing love – all of these actions can help us grow in our relationship with God and all of God’s people in such a way that our inner flame can become brighter and brighter. And the brighter it is, the more it shines on and for others.
There is all the difference in the world between preparing for the best outcome – joy with God and all God’s people – and preparing for the worst, presuming that one will never be good enough, that traps lie around every corner, that God’s judgment outweighs God’s mercy, or being like the foolish bridesmaids, unprepared. Our actions and our inactions have consequences. As Debie Thomas points out: “Windows close. Chances fade. Time runs out. The opportunity to mend the friendship, forgive the debt, break the habit…heal the wound, confront the injustice… release the bitterness — closes down.” There are no guarantees of a tomorrow. Living in such a way, preparing in such a way, that we could die this day in peace is the source of inexhaustible wisdom.
Now that all the votes are tallied, our country is not celebrating under one tent in joy. What might you and I do today, how might we prepare to shine our lights, so that we can live in a country and a world where all of us can one day rejoice in the presence of God together?? Amen.