(a sermon for November 9, 2014, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 25:1-13)
OK… let’s do the math here…
In our text for this morning, Jesus tells this story of ten bridesmaids waiting together on one particular night for the arrival of the bridegroom, at which point, as was custom at the time, the wedding festivities would begin. We are told, however, at the outset that “five of them were foolish and five were wise;” which is interesting because for all practical purposes all ten of the bridesmaids are pretty much identical: all ten of them were invited to the wedding, obviously, and given that they were all waiting there, it’s also clear they all wanted to be there to meet the bridegroom and join the party. Moreover, “since the bridegroom was delayed,” all ten had waited long into the night; and yes, though as that night wore on they’d actually fallen asleep on the watch, that doesn’t account for “the foolishness of the five,” either; because, again, they’d all done that; so none of them come off in this story as particularly steadfast or heroic.
No, what separates the foolish from the wise in this parable seems to come down to lamp oil, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Understand, it’s not like these five “foolish ones” didn’t have any oil to begin with, because they did; it’s just that when the big moment finally arrived they’d realized they were running out, and had to go looking for more oil to keep their lamps burning. Never mind that the five “wise ones” likely had more than enough to share because they’d brought extra; no, these others have to go off looking for whatever dealer might be willing to sell them some oil at that hour of the night. And as a result, these five bridesmaids end up missing the bridegroom’s arrival and worst of all, with the party now in full swing they are uninvited to the wedding and quite literally locked out of the festivities; the bridegroom, we’re told, hears their pleas to be let in, but claims to not even know them!
Which quite honestly, at least as I hear this story, comes off as rather harsh and unyielding; downright rude, and even kind of mean! I mean, all this for just forgetting an extra flask of oil? Come on! Let me tell you, I’ve officiated at a great many weddings over the years and trust me here, where the bridal party is concerned there are a whole lot worse offenses than that! Nonetheless, as Jesus’ parable comes to a close we are left with this image of five bridesmaids left outside alone in the cold, forgotten and excluded from the celebration inside. And to this, Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Which is where things really get troubling: because if we’re to understand that “the kingdom of God will be like this;” that its coming is to be likened to that of the bridegroom to his wedding; and if that ultimately, there may well be some who are excluded from that celebration, then what does that say about Jesus? This gets complicated by the fact that most biblical scholars consider this parable as Jesus’ way of saying (and by extension, Matthew’s reminder to the early church who were actively waiting for the kingdom of heaven to arrive) that while the kingdom might not come immediately, it will come; and that there will be dire consequences for those who are not prepared when it does; hence what is literally and spiritually a very dark ending for what begins as a celebrative story!
That Jesus would even tell a story like this is troubling; after all, this isn’t exactly the kind, forgiving and welcoming Savior we’ve come to know and love! We’d expect this story to end with the doors of the wedding hall bursting open and the five remaining bridesmaids, despite their foolishness, to be welcomed in with open arms. But that’s not how it goes; in fact, to quote Matthew Skinner, if the question asked by this parable is “what does the Christian life consist of,” and “what does God expect from us” in anticipation of the kingdom’s coming, then “Jesus’ answer, according to Matthew’s Gospel [is] ‘Wait faithfully. Together. Or else.‘” Or as another commentator has noted, “this passage doesn’t feel at all like the good news of the gospel;” but there it is.
So what do we do with this? Clearly this is a story about our own spiritual readiness, and how where the kingdom of God is concerned the time to be ready is now; it’s a parable in which Jesus is calling his disciples to vigilance: it’s “a call to wrap our lives more securely in the faith we profess,” and to be constantly aware and open to God’s dramatic future as it unfolds. But the problem is that just like what happened to those five foolish bridemaids, “stuff happens” to us as well; life and its concerns intervene, we find ourselves pulled in other directions and before long, and all too easily we find ourselves distracted and unprepared for what God is doing. I love what M. Eugene Boring of Bright Divinity School has written about this; he says that “living the life of the kingdom” can be done relatively easily for the short term. But “when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise… being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after hostile year; being merciful for an evening can be a pleasant experience, but being merciful for a lifetime requires [true] spiritual preparedness.”
In other words, to be vigilant can be hard: for us to truly live the Christian life “for the long haul;” to be faithful day in and day out, imitating Christ and keeping his values until his promised return is at best a challenge for us; but as Jesus reminds us, a crucial one. But : ultimately that ends up being less about whether or not we have that extra flask of oil on hand than it does being about how that oil is burned; remember, when we’re singing “Give me oil in my lamp,” the point is to “keep me burning till the break of day.” It’s about the light that is created in the burning!
That’s actually the failure of those five foolish bridesmaids; remember that the whole reason that those ten bridesmaids where waiting there with lamps lit in the darkness was so that when the bridegroom finally did arrive, they could welcome the bride and the groom with all joy! Their job was to truly be the heralds of unbelievably good news: this was their first job and their primary task; but you see, when the critical moment arrived, they’d abandoned their post and failed in their task, all because they’d run off to look for more lamp oil! It turns out that the oil was only a means to an end; one tool, one way for the bridesmaids to stay ready and to keep on task. So at the end of the day (or the end of the night, in this case) the foolishness of the five was revealed not by the lack of extra oil but by their failure to be ready to embrace and communicate the joy of the bridegroom’s coming!
This is the kind of failure that Jesus was warning against; and friends, make no mistake, that is a concern for us as well. You see, in this generation we continue to be the people who keep vigil for the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness and glory; we are the ones that Jesus is calling to be waiting, and watching… and ready; ready to embrace and to communicate the utter joy we have in our faith. After all, it’s one thing for you and I to “be religious;” it’s another to be the kind of person who truly radiates the joy of what we believe: the joy of knowing Jesus Christ; the joy of his victory over sin and death; the joy of his presence and his peace and his counsel with us in every situation of life; the joy of knowing in our heart of hearts not only that “God is still speaking,” but that in Christ, he is coming again. The question for each one of us, friends, is whether or not our lives radiate that kind of joy; for as Jesus reminds us here, when the kingdom does come that is what will make all the difference to us and to a hurting world.
This parable does indeed remind us to keep plenty of oil on hand for our lamps, but the point is how we keep those lamps burning; the importance of our keeping our hearts full of expectation so that we may hear the call of Christ and be able to respond whenever it comes. It’s about letting things like justice and mercy and compassion regularly flow from our lives to the lives of others; it’s about being ready to bear the burdens and carry the grief of those around us, so that they can be open to receiving the unending hope and strength of God in their darkest hours. It’s about love honestly and truly being the answer in the multitude of questions and conflicts we face in this world; and it’s about being prepared for every opportunity to do God’s work in te places where we dwell and among the people with whom we share this life. It’s carpe diem — “seize the day!” –– on a massive, life-long scale for the sake of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and his kingdom; and it’s our first and primary job, yours and mine, as his disciples.
We don’t generally do catechisms in the Congregational/UCC tradition; it is, however, very much a part of some Christian traditions, and a worthy one, in which a summary of the principles of Christian religion are presented in the form of questions and answers. The idea is that by knowing all the answers to the questions, you’ve been properly instructed as to what it means to be a Christian. I mention it because there is something called the “Winchester Shorter Catechism,” which is used in the Presbyterian Church, and the very first question, slightly translated (!), is as follows: what is the chief goal of humanity; what is our chief purpose? And the answer is, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
You know, I like that; it almost makes me want to take our UCC Statement of Faith and turn it into a series of questions and answers! “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever:” it’s a good reminder to each one of us we wait and watch for God’s grand celebration to finally begin that our purpose is ultimately not to go out and find joy; but to indeed embrace and share the joy we’ve already been given! Christ has come, and he will come again; our job, beloved is to share it: today, tomorrow and in everyday and every way that comes, so that when the time comes when that joy is wholly fulfilled we’ll be found right where we should be,doing exactly what we should be doing in anticipation of his coming.
Because remember the time to be ready is now, and we would not want to be caught unprepared...”keep awake therefore, for [we] know not the day nor the hour.”
Stay ready, beloved… and may our thanks be unto God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry