Sermon: Getting Real

11.09.2014       Preaching Text: “As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.” (Matthew 25:5

The timing of Jesus’ wedding-themed parable in Matthew couldn’t be timelier, at least for me. As many of you know, Linda and I attended my niece’s wedding last weekend in Connecticut, in my hometown.

Weddings, of course, are rich in imagery, full of nervous excitement and weighty emotion. As such, the angst experienced by many a bride and groom before and during the ceremony has become legendary.

Moments before my oldest brother, Chris, tied the knot some 30 years ago, I remember him saying, rather uneasily, “The relationship I can handle. The circus I’m not so sure!”

So it was during the car ride to the church last Saturday. Anna, the anxious bride, expressed similar concerns to her father, my other brother. Seeking to assure, Bob said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be just fine. In fact, it’ll be great.”

At which point Anna’s young niece, the flower girl, offered a countervailing view. “It won’t be that great,” she declared. “It’s raining!”

Well, in spite of the rain, the ceremony did go on and garnered rave reviews from all those in attendance.

It took place in a strikingly beautiful stone church with elegant and imposing stained glass windows. The organ was magnificent, played by a young English friend of Anna’s who serves a large New York church that purportedly has one of the finest instruments in the world. As a young teen, in fact, he had played for the queen. And for the occasion, he composed an a cappella motet sung flawlessly by eight highly-trained voices, all in Latin of course.

The bride and groom were fashionably appointed, and stood at the altar with poise and dedicated self-possession. The bridesmaids and groomsmen stood like statues in thrall of the proceedings. Or at least the bridesmaids did. (I might have suggested the one groomsman take his gum out.)

The priest came out with a knowing, benevolent smile, decked out in his shimmering white robe and ornate gold and white stole. His words were stately and mellifluous, with a lot of talk about love. And the cantor (the groom is Jewish) sang with splendor and grace.

Afterwards, everybody remarked on how beautiful the service was, how beautiful bride was, how beautiful the church was, how beautiful the music was, and how wonderfully good-looking everyone in attendance was! (To give you an idea of how swept up everybody was, I even heard one such comment directed to me!!!)

Some years ago I came across a website run by a retired Methodist pastor in Connecticut. Since I hadn’t seen it in years I looked it up – and he’s still at it.

The website is called The Critical Christian, and for good reason. On it, this retired pastor and his wife visit churches which he then reviews online! He even assigns one to five halos (with accompanying graphics) in assessing how much he either liked or disliked the service. Pity the church that garners just one halo!

In any event, after the wedding, I felt a bit like the Critical Christian. It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose, sitting in worship and experiencing everything from the perspective of those in the pews.

Then again, my brother-in-law, Bill, himself a retired pastor, argues the opposite. “I have more empathy for the preacher,” he recently said, “because I know what goes into it.” He is, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule. Just ask any pastor who has a number of retired pastors in his or her congregation!

To be honest, though I too found the wedding ceremony to be quite beautiful (it was my niece after all!), I couldn’t help questioning what seemed to be so important to everyone around me, the things they seemed mostly focused on.

Yes, the aesthetics were indeed superb. It could have been filmed as a Hollywood production, I suppose – it was that perfect. But I found myself wondering, was it real? Spiritually real, I mean. It checked all the boxes in terms of worldly beauty. Yet I felt oddly out of step with the other attendees.

In our Study Group this past week, we discussed the chapter in Tony Robinson’s book, Transforming Congregational Culture, entitled, “From Fellowship to Hospitality.”

Without going into detail, Robinson proposes this simple prescription: that all relationships within the church should be real, not superficial or surface-y. These relationships should involve more than image accompanied by small talk. They should reach far deeper than the studied persona we routinely present to our world.

Indeed, such relationships necessarily involve sharing our pain and suffering, our joy as well as our sorrow. For we are, after all, a family, a family that requires shared intimacy wherein we struggle with our imperfections even while we celebrate our victories – together.

Our society, whether it be high or low, exacts certain expectations on us. We are trained daily and over a lifetime to adopt its habits and ideals. Yet the Christian is drawn to different habits and ideals. They’re rarely flashy, or perfect, but they’re real.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, we encounter a group of women who not only tire of, but forget, their true purpose, which is to wait and prepare for the arrival of the bridegroom (Christ); to live their lives in a way that reflects Christ’s values and mores. In their forgetfulness they deny this future and the time they will be required to stand before God to account for what they valued most in this life.

I don’t mean to pick on Anna, in part because the focus on the outward is so terribly common with most contemporary weddings. (I’ve even argued, tongue-in-cheek, that the church service always risks becoming the fashion show before the party.)

But what people are really looking for, as Robinson describes in his book, is authenticity. We are called to be real, not perfect, aesthetically or otherwise.

In considering the strengths and weaknesses of First Church, I take great comfort in knowing that it is place where people are real, unpretentious, accessible. This a place where Christ’s quiet, gentle Spirit is can be found.

The lure of the world is demonstrably great, with its false ideals and culturally approved distractions. The church is that place where we can be who we are, knowing we are loved – just as we are.

Looking toward our future, this is the one thing for which I give God the greatest thanks. We are one people, united in the Spirit, a countervailing force to the worldliness around us yet at the same time a beacon of light shining into it. Amen.