I Thess. 4:13-18
I would like to invite you to think of an experience you’ve had in which you were simply too late. It could be a time, perhaps, when you made your decision to attend something too late to get tickets or to RSVP, or signed up for something past the date to enroll or showed up late to meet someone and the person you were meeting had given up on you and left. Maybe you forgot to pay a bill and then found it after the due date. It’s part of the human experience that we are sometimes late for things. We miss deadlines or fail to meet deadlines. There just simply are times when we’ve put something off, forgotten about something that needed to be done, or took longer to complete something, assuming it would not take as much time as it did, and as a result we are too late.
Most of the time these aren’t big important things and so it may have been hard for you to even remember, in this moment that I’m asking you to do so, a time when you were too late.
However there are situations in which being late or being unprepared in a timely way is serious, or really problematic. I think about my friend, “Susan”, who had been estranged from her father for years. In her late teens she became very angry with him and cut him off as soon as she was able to leave the house. However, after some time had passed, she worked through her childhood challenges and had finally come to a place where she was at peace with her past, where she remembered the good things her father had done and had enough compassion to understand the mistakes he made. More importantly, she saw her own mistakes and she came to a place where she was ready to reconcile, to reach out, to apologize, to make amends and to create a new relationship with her father. It took a long time to get there, but once she finally did, she still found that finding the time to reach out to her father was difficult. She found herself postponing the reconnection in the name of busy schedules and more immediate concerns. But it was during that time, a time when she was ready to reconcile but simply hadn’t done it yet when she got the news that her father had had a heart attack and had passed away. That “being too late” was one she could not fix.
I think of a parishioner who a week before his death informed me that he had a burden he needed to confess, but that he wasn’t ready to do it. While opportunities were offered, he never got to a place where he was ready before he became unable to talk or share. I can only hope that his soul was at peace in the end. But I could not make him confess what he felt he needed to share, and time passed him by.
I have another friend who in a rage said some things to a person she deeply loved and cared for. Her apology was too late. She could not take back what she said, and she could not fix what had been done. Her sense of what to say, her timing with her apology, her realization of what needed to happen to make the situation as whole, peaceful and healing as possible – all of it came too late. I remember still another friend who had broken up with a man she had deeply loved. When she came to the realization that her reasons were small, were trivial, and that this was the man she wanted to spend her life with, it was too late and he had found someone else.
Personally, I find that the things I regret the most about my life are the opportunities I failed to take until it was too late, as well as the wisdom about relationships, things that should have been said, could have been said, or might have been expressed differently, that also came too late. Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about being too late, ”You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.”
Friday at Faith and Film night we watched “Pieces of April” - a movie about the healing and reconciliation in a very broken, dysfunctional family. As we reflected on the movie afterwards, I thought about the fact that the mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer allowed the family members to make the very important decisions to reconcile. But many people’s deaths are sudden – car accidents, heart attacks, or other. We don’t know when these things will take someone we love. If we aren’t diligent about healing our relationships, sometimes our efforts simply ARE too late.
As Christians, as people of faith, passages like today’s from Matthew call us to be prepared in a further way, to be ready, and to be on time, to “bring enough oil with us that if the bridegroom comes later than we expect, we still have enough oil to meet him with lamps lit.” This means putting our spiritual concerns above our worldly concerns, our busyness, our activities at all times. We do not know when we will be called to declare and stand up for our values, when we will be called upon to demonstrate who it is that we really serve. Is it God and the values of our faith that tell us that our primary concern must be about loving God above all and loving everyone we encounter as ourselves? Or is it the world and the values of our society which tell us to care for ourselves and our own before thinking of others, that say, “go for that luxury because you deserve it?” Are we ready for the day when we are confronted and forced to make our faith commitments clear by the choices that we make? When we may be surprised by having to choose between God, faith, and love for others; or the world asking us to do something that is ‘wrong’ by the standards of love and care that our God calls us to uphold, that hurts others, that is a betrayal of our faith? Most often we won’t even know we have declared ourselves until after the fact. It may be in hind-sight that we see when that moment came and went. Are we prepared for it?
When it comes to spiritual matters, “being too late” can have great consequences. If we fail to engage God in a meaningful way that creates in us wholeness and connection, we risk being too late – of missing out on the most important parts of this journey that we are given, of the depth of connections to life, each other, ourselves and God that we could have. The parable tells us that in waiting to connect with God, with Love until it is too late, we risk the possibility of being unknown to God. And failing to be known by God is the greatest loss we can experience.
The reality is that we will probably have such moments. And as the human beings that we are, my guess is that sometimes we will find, after the fact, that we have not acted in a way that honestly reflects values of love, compassion and faith, that we have chosen for the values of the world instead, that we have not chosen intimacy with God, not chosen to be known by God, have been unprepared in meeting God, but instead have walked and lived in a way that is contrary to the faith beliefs we espouse.
So where, then, is the Good News in this? I asked Jasmyn, about three years ago, as I was working on this parable for another sermon what she thought of this parable. She told me that she thought if the wise bridesmaids had been really wise they would have encouraged the bridegroom to give the others a second chance because it was not really their fault that they are foolish. I found great hope in her words, because they show a level of compassion for others that God shows us again and again. God is the God of love, of forgiveness, and of second chances. We are given the opportunities, even when we mess up, to try again to work out our relationships with God. When we mess up with God, God does forgive. When we are too late, God does give us chances again and again to be faithful, to be connected to God, to be prepared to be in relationship with God. As the God character in Joan of Arcadia put it, “The question is what are you going to do now? That’s what I’m all about – your next chance to do the right thing. That’s how you know I am who I am. That’s how you shall know me from all others. What are you going to do now? Every new decision is a chance to do the right thing. You don’t get that from the other side… It’s all about what you do next.”
Additionally, we, too, are called in all things to forgive, both the other and ourselves, when we are ‘too late’ and when others are “too late”. And, we are given the amazing gift of being invited to learn from our mistakes. Connie Shultz said, “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.” “Our mistakes and failures connect us to others in profound ways that our successes and conquests never will. It’s in the moments of humility, when we have no choice but to see our own foibles and missteps, that the seed of compassion takes root in our hearts….I regret how often I hurt others when I was so sure some wrongs were beyond forgiving – until I committed them myself.” Just as God does not set a deadline for us, we are called to not set deadlines for others, but to accept and invite reconciliation and healing whenever it is offered, whenever it comes. That is good news both for us and for those we love.
I do not believe that God sets limits or a time line on when you can turn to God. But still, God wants us to choose God now for our own sakes. Do we want to miss the wedding? Do we want to miss out on knowing the God of celebration and of life and of love who is amazing and grace-filled and faithful and awesome? When we are not prepared, when we are late, we miss out on those opportunities. We miss out on that closeness and wholeness and wondrous support.
Will God give us another chance? Of course. Will we mess up? We do, again and again. But personally, I’m going to work hard to be ready, to not be late, to be present with God at all times. Because I don’t want to miss the party and have to wait for the next chance. I don’t want the angst of being out in the cold waiting, while others are inside celebrating with the bridegroom. I don’t want the bridegroom saying to me, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” And I don’t want that for anyone else, either.
I want to end with a poem that to me sums up the hope that is in today’s lesson. It was written by Charles Peguy who is a French poet. He wrote,
“When grace doesn’t come straight, it comes bent.
When it doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.
When it doesn’t come from the center, it comes from the circumference.
We may finish a way we never began, but we shall finish.
This age, this land, this people, this world, will get there along a road they never set out on.”
And that is good news indeed.