This coming Friday afternoon, nine of our seventh and eighth grade students, four of our college students, four of our adult leaders and a pastor will be getting ready to leave home and to go on a retreat called Lost and Found.
Five days from now, each of us will have packed a bag with warm clothes, sturdy shoes, a Bible and a pen, a flashlight, a sleeping bag, snacks, candy, money for food and anything else we think we might we need for three days away from home, and we will all meet up in the Target parking lot of Short Pump to ride to Lynchburg together.
There are lots of places in Short Pump that we could meet up, but we meet at Target because someone will inevitably forget something, and Target sells everything. Let me be clear, more than half the time I’m the one who has run into Target. But that’s okay. That’s why we meet there.
So, after we’ve made any purchases that we need to make, we will gather in a circle and we will ask our youth, “Are you ready?”
Of course, we will be asking if everyone has their money and their pillow and all their stuff, but we’re also asking: Are you ready to have an experience with God?
We will say to these 7th and 8th grade students: God is calling you to this experience and it doesn’t matter if you forgot your toothpaste (because you can borrow some), and it doesn’t matter if you forgot to bring candy (because there will be enough to share), and it doesn’t matter if you forgot your flashlight (because someone will walk in the dark next to you). But be ready to meet God, because God is ready for you and ready to show himself to you this weekend.
God is always ready to meet us…always calling us to prayer…calling us to forgiveness…calling to us through Word and Sacrament…calling us through intentional Christian community… through acts of service for the sake of the world.
All of our texts today – Amos, Matthew, and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians – are about how it is we are to be ready for God to show up, and how we are to be ready to meet God in the world.
The Prophet Amos, who is writing to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 800-years before Christ, tells about the Day of the Lord’s coming. The prophet envisions a day of darkness and lists the Israelites many sins – particularly their worship of Canaanite deities and their oppression of the poor. This is the evidence, the prophet says, of why they deserve punishment.
Amos criticizes the people for empty religion that overlooks the needs of the neighbors and oppresses those who are already helpless. Amos has fire in his belly as he preaches with language that is meant to wake the people from their apathy – and is meant to wake us from ours.
The parable Jesus tells today is also meant to get us in gear. To wake us up! The story he tells invites us to prepare ourselves for the ways God shows up in our life.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like ten bridesmaids who are waiting for a bridegroom to come and get them and bring them into a wedding. But the groom is delayed. Maybe he’s paying the photographer or talking to a caterer – we don’t know exactly – but he is more than a long time in coming.
When he arrives, we discover all the bridesmaids have lamps to light their way as they travel out in the darkness towards the wedding celebration, and five of them have brought more oil to fill their lamps back up since most of the oil burned away while everyone was waiting on the groom to show up, but the other five bridesmaids foolishly did not bring a reserve of oil.
They ask the bridesmaids with oil if they can borrow some, but they are refused and sent to Target to buy more oil.
In the meantime, of course, the groom finishes up with the vendor in question, arrives to pick up the wise bridesmaids, and they’re off to the venue, into the party, and onto the dancefloor…leaving the foolish bridesmaids far behind, all dressed up with nowhere to go, locked out of the party.
It feels terrible to be left out. Its miserable to be excluded. It hurts to have the door closed in our face.
And this is true for all of us any time in our lives. But particularly for teens, it seems the stakes are higher, when you see some of your friends posting pictures of themselves on snapchat having the time of their life and you’re not there, or posting selfies at the big weekend party that you weren’t invited to.
Jesus tells this story because he doesn’t want us to miss out on the big party of God’s love.
On the cross, Jesus literally opens his arms to all, pleading with us to accept his Father’s forgiveness and mercy. But Jesus tells to help us see how urgent it is to be ready to see God in our lives NOW. Today.
There are many things we can procrastinate about, but our relationship with God is not one.
We are implored to keep our lamps burning: To read the Word, to share in the supper, to encourage one another in our faith, and to continue above all things to live for the return of our Lord.
He is delayed, but he promises to come to renew this world. And he promises the world as we now see it is not all there is:
The Lord promises us that the suffering we endure is not the end of the story…radiation treatments, and the harassment of women and children and the powerless, and shootings at concerts and during church services is not the ultimate destiny of humankind.
The Day of the Lord will come, Christ will return, and then this world will be renewed.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians includes a beautiful image of the Lord calling us to meet him in the air. If this seems strange or otherworldly, we might remember Paul is imagining the Lord’s reappearing through the lens of life in the Roman Empire in 50 AD.
At that time, when a mighty general would rout an enemy, news would travel home faster than the army could. In the village that had been spared, the people, hearing the news that their city was safe, and that the enemy had been defeated, would greatly anticipate a chance to celebrate.
So when their victorious general and his army could be seen on the horizon coming home with heads held high, the whole city – anyone who could run, walk, or be carried, would go out to meet them. They would run to greet the victorious general and his army and then accompany them as they all marched into town celebrating all the way.
Paul imagines that when Christ appears on the clouds we will go out to meet the one who has brought us victory over sin, death, and darkness, and – crucially — Christ will not carry us away to some other world, or some heaven faraway, but we will accompany him as he victoriously descends to this world that God created and sustains and loves, celebrating all the way.
God loves this world and promises to redeem and restore it.
And because God loves this world and is intent on redeeming it, we are called to work for the life and health of this world as well.
In the same way that our adult leaders will ask our middle school students if they are ready for this coming weekend at Lost and Found, it is good to ask ourselves if we are ready to see God in our everyday life in this world… not only in Word and Sacrament and in this gathered community, but our and about among our friends and colleagues, our work and in the small and large tasks that make up our days.
Martin Luther was shocked when other reformers of his day asked if they should continue to teach that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Christ is truly present in my potato soup, how could he not be truly present in Holy Communion where he has promised to be?”
God calls us to be ready to see his presence in the potato soup of our life… In the people that rub us the wrong way… In the committee meeting that drags on… In the inconveniences that may be God asking us to take a second look.
God calls us to be ready for him like the wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ story.
So are we like the wise bridesmaids — Do we have enough oil to last?
Listen to this: When you were baptized, and washed in God’s love, the pastor marked your forehead with oil. As you heard the words, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” oil was placed upon your head.
And that oil never runs out. That’s what counts.
So when you forget something, and have to run back into Target…Don’t sweat it.