November 9, 2014
If you've been coming to church for many years, you've heard this story of the ten bridesmaids before—you probably know it as the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins. As I considered this story, I thought about a time when we ran out of oil here at church. It was the first Sunday of Advent, either 1 or 2 years ago. Arlyce had volunteered to read and light the candles but no matter how she tried that candle wouldn't light. And sure enough, it was out of oil. An oil lamp or an oil candle will not burn without oil. We must be prepared, whether for an Advent candle lighting or for the arrival of the bridegroom.
I'd like to take a little time this morning to explain the customs of the wedding feast in the Palestinian world—both then and now; there remain similarities. The concept seems very foreign to us, but the wedding there involved the whole village. The bride and groom didn't leave on a honeymoon but stayed and celebrated what was basically an open house. They were treated as royalty and not only for a day but for a whole week.
The immediate meaning of this parable was directed at the Jewish leaders. They were the foolish ones who weren't prepared. Here was the bridegroom, the Messiah, the Christ in their midst and they weren't ready. They were so unprepared that they didn't even recognize him in their midst. That is a danger for all of us. As the church, we believe that Jesus is in our midst. But it is possible to miss him just as it was for the Pharisees. What causes us to miss the presence of Jesus as the body of Christ? Obviously, he has never walked into our congregation; at least not undisguised. But we proclaim every time we have communion that we meet our risen Savior at table and in fellowship with one another. Jesus tells us that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he is present. When we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and repent he promises to send the Holy Spirit to be with us. We share the peace of Jesus with each other at the start of every service. That's a lot of presence—but if you are like me, it is possible to miss that presence.
Last Sunday we went out to Pizza Ranch for Supper and met Mike and Pam Finch. You may remember he was the pastor at the Assembly of God Church just north of town. He didn't preach last Sunday and we shared how hard it is as preachers to listen to a sermon without critiquing its presentation and quality. It is important to listen attentively to the sermon; but not to critique the pastor but to hear the word of God spoken and interpreted. A couple weeks ago I spoke about how we misunderstand the worship service if we think we are here as observers, critiquing the leaders. No, we all are participants in the worship of God, in the prayers to God, in the hymns of praise and the prayer of confession. I acknowledge that I fail to always participate fully even as I preach and pray.
I want to make the point here that it is our participation that allows us to be filled with the power and presence of God—to spiritually have our lamps full and ready as per the parable. We do gather to receive as well as to give. And there are some weeks when our lamps are so nearly empty that all we can do is take. And that's alright too. The church is here to serve her members. Our Book of Order lists the mission of the church: to proclaim and hear the word of God; to administer and receive the sacraments; to nurture a covenant community of disciples of Christ. We continue our history at First Presbyterian of these missions as well as our mission to reach beyond these doors to help those in need. But as I consider the wise and the foolish bridesmaids this morning—how are was doing at being prepared for, not only the coming again of the bridesmaid Jesus, but being prepared to continue to serve and give and lead into the future that at times looks so dark?
First, we need light for the darkness. Jesus is the light of the world. We are lost without him. The lamps were important for accompanying the bridegroom. It was always a part of the ceremony but when the bridegroom showed up at midnight—the lights were critical. As we go through this life, as we live as children of God, Jesus is our light. His word, his presence, his Spirit lights our path. We live in a world that spends much time in darkness. We need the light and we need to be light. Martin Luther King Jr pointed out “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Jesus told us in John's gospel, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8: 12) Jesus is the way out of the darkness of sin, the darkness of our own doubts and fears. His Word is a amp unto our feet and a light unto our path. He comes to us to give us strength and hope and grace. But it doesn't stop there, we then are called to be lights to our world. Matthew quotes Jesus, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.”(Matthew 5: 14-15) That is one task of the church.
Remember that old children's hymn—I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together? It takes all of us following the leadership of Jesus and providing leadership for the church to continue to function. We are about to host one of our big events, the Veterans' Day Chili Supper. I know that again as always we will be up to the task. We are a small and aging population. That's a hard fact. Sue and I were at a workshop on the future of the church a couple weeks ago. The facts for the whole church state that the future isn't bright. Our leader, Ann Philbick explain that a church, any church, has a life cycle. It starts out full of vision and energy; just a few people usually but that have a plan and feel led by God. More people are drawn, relationships grow and pretty soon we have an organization, an administration, a church building. But time passes, years and years and the vision and the energy start to fade. What used to work doesn't work quite as well anymore. And decline takes place. We are in that decline as are the majority of Protestant churches here and throughout the country.
Her point is that to get back to that early energy and vision, a new vision of the church may be needed. And that is a difficult balance. As the leadership of this church looks at the congregation and how God is calling us to serve we see that there are many needs within the congregation. Needs to nurture the faith of members who have been long time Christians worshiping in an environment that they can know God's presence. An environment that is familiar, one that fills their spiritual lamps to go out into the world. We purposefully use mostly familiar, worshipful, scriptural hymns. We have a liturgy that involves responses and participation. We offer intercessory prayers for one another and the world. And I pray our lamps are filled by God's grace. But, and there's always a but, we need to wonder if we can sustain the church this way in this day and age. We know about the mega churches with praise bands and cappuccino machines. Is that the answer? That is not the direction we are headed, but the leadership of the church does have some big decisions to make in the years ahead. We can't put our heads in the sand and pretend things aren't changing. We are to be prepared, to be wise.
We are in the process of nominating our leaders for the next three years. The nominating committee has been hard at work, I commend them for their efforts. But it has been a discouraging and frustrating effort. As they seek to discern future leadership- both as elders and deacons, they've been receiving far more refusals to serve than willingness to serve. And we are not questioning the fact that there are good reasons that people can't serve at this time. But as we look to the future of the church,what does it say if we can't get 2 members to agree to serve as ruling elders? This is not a pleasant message to bring this morning. But as we consider the wise and the foolish bridesmaids, those who were prepared and those who were not we need to seek to prepare ourselves; individually and as a church community.
There are many ways the church is needed to fill our spiritual lamps. We brought home communions to our shut-ins Wednesday. Tuesday was a bible study where we learn more of God's word and fill our cups with the power of the word. The adult study, Women's circle study, Sunday school.... We serve others at the Chili Supper, missions, local gifts, hat and mitten tree. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, “it takes a community to be a church.” We need our lamps filled, but we need to do our part to fill the lamps of others. The wise bridesmaids needed the lamp oil; they couldn't share. We are called to share “as we are able.” That’s material gifts but also our time and talents. If you are approached by the nominating committee, prayerfully consider God's calling. We have all received our pledge forms, look within yourself and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and give what you are led to give; do what you are able—Kay gave the Children's sermon today because she signed the pledge sheet a year ago. What can you do to fill the lamps of others? I don't expect us to be a perfect church with perfect members. If that were the case I wouldn't be asked to be a member let alone the pastor. But we can do better.
Like so many sermons before, this wasn't the message I sat down to write. But as I study and pray, I trust that God leads my thoughts. I don't like bringing bad news, but the news isn't bright for many, many churches. But, and here's another but—none of us knows what God has in mind for First Presbyterian Church of Litchfield. I like to point out that if one big family would join and bring a couple friends, the outlook could change in a hurry. We need to pray. Pray for the church, pray for leadership positions, pray for what you can do—what God would have you do; for the future of our church which as always, is in God's hands. And all things are possible for God.
As I said, this sermon took a different direction than planned—and our next hymn was planned for my other sermon. But as we consider what it takes from each of us to keep our lamps full and ready with oil, as we consider what the future of the church is, as we consider the obstacles and troubles and failures that we have experienced and still are ahead, remember that Jesus has walked this road before. His church started with 11 untrained men with little to commend their abilities. Nothing confronts us that is out of Jesus' understanding and power. Jesus prayed, not my will but yours in the garden of Gethsemane. It is not our plan but God's. So take comfort that Jesus walked his lonesome valley, faced his trials just like we do. The hymn says by himself and ourselves, but we are never alone. Jesus does walk this valley with us. We never stand alone, we are a family of faith and Jesus walks with us. Praise be to God.
Hymn #80 Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley