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November 8, 2020

Watchful and Alert: It's a Choice!

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Watchful and Alert: It's a Choice!

About a month ago, Pastor Dave sent an e-mail to John Wright and me with the worship planning grid updated through November.  I stared at the grid wide eyed and open mouthed, stood up, marched to Dave’s office, and said in a wobbly voice, “Thanks  for the opportunity to tackle something I’ve never done before: preaching  the Sunday after a presidential election.” We laughed …

So here we are, my friends, on this Sunday after the election – an election that has felt endless.  Many, if not all, of us are completely exhausted – physically and mentally, emotionally and spiritually. What we’ve learned this week – if we didn’t know it already – is that the country we love is deeply divided. This post-election season feels different from any I’ve ever experienced – and I first voted in 1968. Many are relieved and joyful. Others are sad and grieving and probably angry.  And I believe there is uncertainty as all of us, no matter how we voted, wonder how the months of transition will unfold and what the future will look like beyond January 20 – especially what that future holds for our children, our grandchildren, and those yet unborn.

This week was decision time for the United States of America.  Now it’s decision time for us as Christians: as individuals, as the Church of Jesus Christ, as this particular community of faith, Northminster. Regardless of our voting preferences, it’s time … today … right now – to make a decision – to follow God and God’s ways.

That’s what Joshua demanded from the people of Israel as he gathered them together towards the end of his ministry. The first section of Joshua, chapter 24, reviews the history of the people’s relationship to God which began with the initial call to Abraham and Sarah. Joshua then challenges the gathered community to commit to the God who called them and who made covenant with them -- “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  “Choose this day whom you will serve,” demands Joshua.  Choose right now … today! 

The Israelites were offered by Joshua the decision of a lifetime.  This post-election season offers us that same choice. Choose this day whom you will serve, says Joshua to the people of Israel.  We are citizens of God’s realm and also citizens of this nation. We’re moving into what feel like uncertain days ahead. Following this contentious presidential election, we must make a conscious choice.  We must declare to whom it is we owe our ultimate loyalty.  And we must declare to whom we will give that loyalty.  This very day … we must decide whom we will serve and how our service will mark who and how we are in the world. 

Once we make a clear decision to serve the God who has created each and every one of us … another decision awaits … how will we prepare for that service? Our Gospel lesson suggests we prepare by keeping watch and remaining alert for every opportunity to welcome the inbreaking of God’s love and grace into our weary world.

The role of bridesmaids in Jesus’ time was to wait with the bride for the bridegroom to arrive so the wedding festivities could begin.  The time for the bridegroom’s arrival was never known … so it was important to have lamps and plenty of oil because he could arrive at any hour.  So … if the bridegroom in Matthew’s parable represents the Messiah, the role of the bridesmaids is to watch … to stay alert … for the inbreaking of the Lord.

It appears that both the wise and the foolish failed the “be watchful … be alert” part of their job description.  Oh sure – they’re enthusiastic about their role in the upcoming nuptials … yet all 10 fall asleep as all 10 lamps burn. All 10 awake at the shout that the bridegroom is on the way, and all 10 are eager to get the party started. 

But … only 5 planned ahead to have enough oil to keep their lamps lighted – and only the light from the lamps will help the bridegroom find his way to the waiting bride. What if all 10, in watchful alertness, had planned ahead?

Running on empty, the foolish 5 run to the nearest convenience store, while the other 5 go into the party … the door is shut and the 5 late-comers – now well-supplied with oil – are denied entrance to the wedding feast.  What if the wise had chosen to share their oil with the foolish?  After all, don’t 10 lamps at ½ power provide the same amount of light as 5 at full power? And wouldn’t the bridegroom’s arrival have been much more joyful with 5 additional celebrants?  Again … if the bridegroom in the parable represents the Messiah, perhaps all 10 missed the inbreaking of the Lord – the so-called foolish by not planning ahead … and the so-called wise by hoarding their oil and refusing to share. What a different party it could have been – what a different ending to the story had all 10 bridesmaids chosen to watch … to stay alert … for the inbreaking of the Messiah.

The last 8 months have taught us much about watchfulness. These pandemic months have increased our alertness … we watch for any sign of illness that might suggest COVID-19; we’re alert to every person not willing to wear a mask for the benefit of others; we watch our physical distancing from one another. And throughout these months of isolation and confusion and fear, in the midst of our watchful alertness, God has broken in again and again:

*  As we’ve learned new ways to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays;

*  As we’ve wept with dying friends and relatives and witnessed to their resurrection in ways we never thought possible;

*  As we’ve scheduled Zoom Coffee Hours and Happy Hours, and chats with friends and relatives;

*  As the Session has discussed how most safely to worship, re-open our building, and continue in mission in this community and beyond;

*  As we’ve welcomed Pastor Dave to guide us through our congregation’s time of transition;

God has broken in again and again:

*  In drive by visits to shut-ins on Day of Caring;

*  In the weekly blessing of Children’s Time offered by church members of all ages;

*  In the presentation of Bibles to our 3rd graders;

*  In our patience with, and continuing learning to resolve, our live-stream issues;

*  In our Re-Imagining of our Gifts for the year to come.

This post-election season, like none other, demands a decision to be watchful … demands that we choose to be alert. For even in on-going uncertainty, God will break in … and if we’re not watching … if we’re not alert … we will miss moments of amazing grace.

As we digest the election and contemplate what’s next, as we pray about the state of our world and country, we are called always to be watchful and alert,  to expect, and reflect, our Savior Jesus Christ.  If our “lamps” reveal that we are the light of the world, keeping oil in those lamps will reveal to the world our service to the one to whom we choose to give our ultimate loyalty.

In the days to come, may our service demonstrate our unity in Christ, no matter our differences. May our service reflect our commitment to wholeness for all of God’s creation – as we work for repair and reconciliation in our wounded and hurting world. May our service exhibit devotion as we pray and praise and study God’s Word.  May our service reach out with healing to those battered and beaten by loss and grief and fear. May our service open our ears to hear where God needs us to be in this city. May our service open our eyes to see that we walk each and every day on holy ground. May our service open our hearts that all we do and say will reveal the lamp of God’s unlimited and unrestricted love to all we meet.

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”  This very day … choose to serve the God who created you - no matter how much oil is required to keep your lamp burning.  And keep watch … stay alert … for the guest of honor, the One you have chosen to serve, is even now en route to the feast.

And I don’t know about you … but, I certainly don’t want an empty lamp … and I definitely don’t want to be asleep when  the guest of honor arrives and the party begins!   

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – One God.  Amen.


The Presbyterian Outlook -- Looking into the Lectionary for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost by the Rev. Jill Duffield.

The Christian Century – Lectionary Column for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – commentary by Audrey West, Moravian Theological Seminary, Bethlehem, PA.