A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sermon (November 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Lighting the Way"



    I am proud to say that for most of the weddings I have officiated, they have started on time. If the wedding invitation says that the wedding will begin at 4:30, it will begin at 4:30, or within a minute or two.
     What can I say? We have our act together here at First United Methodist Church. I can’t take the credit, though. I have our church’s wedding hostesses to thank for our timeliness. All I have to do is have the men ready behind this wall and bring them down front when I get the signal from the wedding hostess.
     This all works great when weddings are held here in our church, but all bets are off when weddings are held off sight. Try as I might, it’s really difficult to start on time when I’m leading the show at offsite venues.
     For example, I’ll go looking for the mothers and remind them that they need to be ready to be seated about five minutes before the service. Once they are in place, I tell them, “Just stay right here. Even if there’s a fire, I don’t want you to move from this spot. Ok? Just stay right there. Don’t move.” Two minutes later, the mothers have disappeared.

     I conducted an outdoor wedding on an island along the Pacific Coast a couple of years ago. It was a very beautiful setting. It was in the afternoon and it was beginning to get uncomfortably hot.
     I am standing next to the DJ who is supposed to begin playing the processional music. It’s time for the wedding to begin, and this DJ is still plugging in his sound equipment.
     The people who had already been seated were looking back at me wondering what was causing the delay. I politely asked the DJ when he would be ready and without a care in the world, he says, “I’m getting there. Just a few more things to plug in.”  I said, “What? The wedding was supposed to begin several minutes ago! We’re waiting on you!”
     So we stand there for another ten minutes. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back from the heat of the pounding sun. Heads are still turned toward me wondering what is going on. Finally, the DJ finished plugging in the last cord and he begins the processional music.
     After the ladies process forward, I motion for the people to be seated and I attempt to speak into the microphone. It wasn’t working. Since I really didn’t want to lead the whole service by shouting out-loud, I tried to get the DJ’s attention to let him know that he needed to do something.
     He didn’t notice me because he was too busy rolling up an extension cord for some reason. Finally, he realizes that I’m trying to get his attention and he waves me on to just go ahead with the service. And so, I scream out the opening words of the greeting and then invite one of the family members to read a poem.
     Just when she started to read the poem which nobody could hear since she didn’t have a microphone, the DJ sneaks up behind me and hands me a different microphone. I feel relieved that I won’t have to keep shouting for people to hear me.

     After the poem I speak into the microphone and it has that echo effect, kind of like when baseball great Lou Gehrig gave his “I’m the luckiest man” speech at Yankee Stadium.
     As I was trying to say the next sentence, I was hearing my previous sentence because of the echo. This was turning out to be a very memorable wedding.
     As I was reading the scripture lesson and sounding like Lou Gerhig, a big gust of wind came out of nowhere, knocking the microphone stand to the ground and making a very unpleasant sound. I stopped reading the scripture and picked up the stand and continued.
     “OK, nothing else can go wrong, can it?” I thought to myself.  When it came time in the service for the couple to share their vows, I realized that because of all of the commotion, I had forgotten to have the father give away the bride which was so important at the beginning of the service.
     That poor father of the bride was forced to stand with his daughter for at least fifteen minutes longer than he should have. In football language, we call it, “icing the kicker.”
     But that’s not the most interesting part of this memorable wedding. The most interesting thing was that I was conducting this wedding for my nephew and my whole family got to watch me in action. I assured them that things go much smoother back in Lancaster.
     Our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells a story about a wedding that didn’t go so smoothly.  Jesus tells us that half of the wedding party missed out on the long awaited wedding celebration because they didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps.
     In Jesus’ day, it wasn’t uncommon for the wedding reception to be held in the middle of the night. There was a custom for the bridesmaids to carry lamps that would provide a beautiful torchlight processional for the wedding couple. The problem was that you never knew when the groom might arrive for the wedding to begin.
     In the case of this wedding, half of the wedding party didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps. While they were at the nearest Wal Mart to buy some more oil, the bridegroom arrived to begin the wedding. When they made it back, it was too late. The wedding had already begun and the door was closed to them.
     This story is actually a parable that Jesus told to help his followers think about a future heavenly wedding when Jesus, the bridegroom will return to take his bride, the church and set up God’s kingdom here on earth.
     This is a story that is meant for us. We are the wedding party waiting for that great day of celebration when Christ will come again and will make all things new. We are the ones who are patiently holding our burning lamps in our darkened world. And since we do not know the exact time this heavenly wedding will begin, we will need to always have enough oil so that are lights will be shining throughout the night.
     This is a parable about lighting the way. In what ways can we offer the light of Christ in a world that is often in darkness?
     Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story, Treasure Island was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. "Child, come away from there. You'll catch your death of cold," she fussed.
     But young Robert wouldn't budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, "See; look there; there's a man poking holes in the darkness."
     This is who we are called to be, people who poke holes in the darkness. We are to keep our lamps burning until Christ comes again. Like the red eternal flame hanging  behind me, we are to keep on lighting the way.
     Many of us have stories to share of when God helped to light our way along our faith journey.
     One of our members tells of a time when his wife was at OSU Medical Center and was facing  surgery. It was during the week of her birthday.
     During the day of her birthday, she told her husband that the pastor from church had stopped by to visit her. She said that this young lady came with a portable organ and played happy birthday for her along with some other spiritual songs. She said that it was so wonderful that the music calmed her down and renewed her spirit.
    After she shared this with her husband, he went to the nurse who was assigned to her and asked if anybody had visited his wife that day. The nurse said that as far as she knew, nobody had been by to visit his wife that day.
     To this day, he still doesn’t know who stopped by to visit her that day in the hospital on her birthday. What is the Lord? Was it an angel? He will never know for sure.
     He still thinks about that time in the hospital when God sent someone to sing happy birthday to his wife. God’s light poked a hole in the darkness that day. It was a day he will never forget.
     Someone else has shared with me about a time of spiritual darkness that he was going through in his life. He had always viewed God as someone you could never please and so he always felt distant from God.
     He attended a spiritual retreat and a kind nun offered him words he will never forget. She told him, “Be gentle with yourself.” She invited him to look in his bible and write down all of the verses where it referred to God being gentle and loving.
     After he found several of these verses, he slowly came to a new understanding of who God is. God is a God of gentleness and compassion.
     Whenever he has the opportunity, he likes to share his new understanding of God with others. He offers the words from a Charles Wesley hymn which is based on Matthew 5:15. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
     Here are the words from this Charles Wesley hymn:
     Not for ourselves the light of grace
     Didst Thou on us bestow,
     But for the whole benighted race
     Thy darken’d house below:
     The candlesticks Thy churches are,
     The Spirit in them design’d
     Thy truth and goodness to declare,
     To lighten all mankind.
     And then this person goes on to share that all churches are God’s candlesticks designed by the Spirit to declare God’s goodness and to lighten all humankind.
    Someone helped to light the way for this man’s darkness and now he is seeking to light the way for others.
     Weddings are too important to miss. That’s why Jesus offers us this wedding parable from our Gospel reading this morning. We are to be ready for when Jesus, the bridegroom arrives so that we will be able to greet him and share in the great celebration of God’s kingdom.
     So let’s plan ahead for this future heavenly wedding. Let’s keep our lamps burning brightly so that we can light the way for the coming of Jesus, the King. Let’s bring plenty of oil for our lamps so that we will always be ready.
     We need to keep our lamps burning, not only because we want to be ready for the wedding. We keep our lamps burning because we are called to light the way for people who are facing darkness in our community and world.
     We are called to be an eternal flame for others until Christ comes again. Our burning lamp might be the only opportunity for someone to find their way out of a dark time in their life.
     This past spring, I got to talking with someone who had just started attending our church. I asked him what he liked about our church. In my mind I was hoping he would say something about the carefully crafted and inspiring sermons that are delivered with amazing eloquence week after week after week.
     I was taken off guard by his answer. He said, “Do you know what I like most about worship here? I love watching how the acolytes come forward at the end of the service and take the light from the candles on the altar out with them. That always reminds me, that like them, I am to take the light of Christ with me and share it with the world.”
     Wow. That’s an interesting perspective from one of our recent worship guests.
     I think this is what Jesus is saying to us in this wedding parable. Don’t ever leave this place without taking the light of Christ with you. We are called to light the way.

     You just never know when the bridegroom might return.

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