A Stewardship Sermon Preached
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – November 9, 2014
St. Augustine’s Church – Wilmette, Illinois
It was the bride, not the bridegroom, who was late to the first wedding I ever celebrated. The bridegroom and the best man waited in a side room with me for the bride’s arrival. I left and returned at increasing intervals, checking to see if she had gotten to the church, feeling (I’ll confess) my own tension rise, and trying to contain that so I didn’t increase the groom’s anxiety, or the guests’. The organist played through all the prelude music. No bride. And then he played through it all again. Still…no bride. After that, he moved into what I recall as 20 minutes of continuous playing of “Jesu, Joy of our Desiring”…a piece which, before that occasion on that day, I really used to like.
She did arrive, finally, and we continued with a lovely wedding liturgy. I had a note from that bridegroom about a year ago, as the couple celebrated their fourth anniversary.
Weddings were no less fraught in the time when Jesus tells today’s parable of the bridesmaids and the tardy bridegroom, with similar possibilities that everything could very well go sideways. In that period, guests arrived at the bride’s home, where they would be welcomed by her parents. When the bridegroom arrived, everybody lit their torches and met him outside. Then they all joined what must have been a kind of beautiful and haphazard parade to the groom’s home. The groom’s parents would welcome all the guests, and then the wedding ceremony began. Finally, after all that, they kept the feast. Like, for days, they kept…an epic feast.
As Jesus tells this story, he says that this is what the Kingdom of God will be like. And having read the history, I love to imagine those snapshots in my mind – excited parents welcoming people into their home…everybody waiting in anticipation for the groom to arrive…the first person to spot him, crying out, and then all the guests lighting their torches to go and meet him…a procession by lamplight of these people who promise to love and support the couple in their new life…their arrival and welcome at the groom’s home…a beautiful ceremony…and finally, that chance to keep an abundant and joyous feast.
Of course, in real life, something always gets mixed up. And even in Jesus’ kingdom story, that happens as well. The bridegroom is late. Really late. Later than I can imagine any organist willing to keep playing. He’s so late that members of the party have given up on him, and gone to sleep.
As much as it would make this celebrant crazy, the crux of this passage is not in that groom’s late arrival. And it’s also not in the fact that the folks who wait have gotten drowsy (yes…he was really, really late…) – but no. The message at the heart of this parable is the fact that some of the bridesmaids are prepared for the wait, with extra oil so they’re ready when the time finally comes; and other bridesmaids…are not prepared, not at all.
We’re nearing the end of our liturgical calendar. Just three weeks from now, we’ll celebrate the first Sunday of our church year, the first Sunday of Advent, when the altar and the clergy will be draped in beautiful blue and the Advent wreath will hang again, right over there. We’ll gather after church in Puhlman Hall that day to make Advent wreaths of our own to take home, marking the time between then and Jesus’ arrival at Christmas, by lighting candles and praying prayers.
But right now, Jesus prepares us for final things. He is getting us ready for the end. And he uses a wedding banquet as his illustration.
Today is also the Sunday when your rector’s role is to talk about our annual giving campaign, about how we at St. Augustine’s steward the life and the gifts that you entrust to this community of faith.
In many ways, we’ve been preparing for this for a long time. I talked with the wardens and our assistant rector about this season of giving back in July, enlisted Mary Ellen Davis’ help as Invitation Mastermind in August. Thanks to facilitators and hosts recruited in September, we kept the feast at meals in each other’s homes throughout the month of October.
And we heard you…all nearly-200 of you who joined those feasts. We heard about your hunger to know and be known, to listen to each other’s stories, to find chances to wrestle with and name what you believe. We heard you give thanks for the opportunities we share to grow in friendship across generations. We heard your yearning to do justice in the world.
At the same time, we have worked together this fall to shape a mission statement that fits who we are and challenges us to grow in faith, one that frames our dreams and goals, and offers us a way to reflect on our shared ministry. It continues to be refined, but right now that statement sounds something like this: At St. Augustine’s we invite people into the Church which is the Body of Christ, we connect with God and one another, we equip ourselves as disciples, and we ask God to send us out to do the work God gives us to do.
All of this is preparation. And all of it has been marked by the truth of who I believe this church is, at its core: practical; unsentimental; fiercely honest; willing “to risk something big for something good;” deeply, deeply committed to each other and to St. Augustine’s.
The thing about the kingdom, though, is that it never arrives in the time or the way we expect. The bridegroom is late. The organist plays through the whole prelude repertoire, and now everybody has heard their fill of Jesu, Joy of our Desiring. And still, we wait. And after a while, like that wedding party, we get tired of the waiting.
Our second reading, from the Letter to the Thessalonians, reflects this anticipation fatigue. People of the Church of Thessalonica believed that Jesus’ second coming would take place in their own lifetimes. So as their friends in that community, other followers of Jesus, began to die, those who lived began to worry. They didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t know if the people who had died would be able to share in Christ’s resurrection. They were scared. They wanted that bridegroom to get to his bride’s house already. So the passage we heard from that letter is all about promise and trust, in the midst of waiting…and finally, concluding with these words: “therefore, encourage one another.”
I view our work as church, and my work as your pastor, is for us to encourage each other as we wait with expectation for the Kingdom. And also, to live our lives, in the meantime – lives shaped, not by vigilance or fear, but by patterns of faith in preparation and trust of the promise, as we seek to keep the feast to which we are bidden.
Part of that preparation, both practical and spiritual, is the offering of our gifts – those first fruits we set aside and return in thanksgiving for all that God has given us.
Yours are the gifts that make this feast possible. Yours are the gifts that afford us the chance to gather, day by day and week by week, marking our joys and mourning our losses, as we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. Yours are the gifts that allow us to worship in the beauty of holiness. Yours are the gifts that create space for kinship across generation and class and ethnicity, and anything else that would divide us. Yours are the gifts that challenge us to do justice, to love mercy.
Our circumstances are varied. I will not tell you that there is one standard in giving, because I don’t believe there is. I do believe God calls us to give from the first fruits of what we have received. I do believe God calls us to generosity. And I will tell you that John and I give 10% of what we earn to St. Augustine’s. I bid your prayers about all you have been entrusted with, about what this community of faith means to you. And I ask that you make what is, for you, a meaningful gift in offering.
He arrives, in the end, that bridegroom. Everybody’s asleep. Some are wise, some are foolish. Some are prepared, and others are not.
Whenever it happens, and however long it takes, and however many times Tom has to play the prelude in anticipation, I’m grateful that we gather here, together. I’m grateful for all the gifts you bring, for all the gifts we are blessed to inherit from those who came before us. I’m grateful to belong to and with one another as the Body of Christ that is St. Augustine’s Church. I’m grateful to prepare and encourage each other, as we watch in expectation for the Kingdom of God’s promise.
I am grateful, grateful indeed, to keep the feast.
 Thomas G. Long. Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997. 284-288.
 William Sloane Coffin