Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – November 9, 2014
+In the Name of God, who creates us; Jesus, who befriends us; and the Holy Spirit who empowers and sustains us. Amen.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. The story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is our Gospel today. Matthew is on a rant again and this time he’s not gnashing teeth—however, the teeth will be back next week— but he is slamming doors shut! This is not a favorite parable of mine. Frankly, I think it scares the hell out of most of us.
It’s worrying and condemning and final, as stories about the end of the world have a tendency to be. It has dreadful characters and disturbing plot developments. Worst of all, it has a history of awful and offensive interpretation—and all the damage that goes with it. We might even have some seriously bad memories of this text as it has been preached. In my sermon prep work I read about a guy who tells the story that when he was in high school, his teacher took great pleasure in slamming the classroom door as soon as the bell rang, and then saying with pleasure to every late student who knocked at the door, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
This is a parable that needs serious rehabilitation. Remember that Matthew’s Gospel was written as many as 60 years after the Resurrection of Jesus so there is legitimate cause to wonder just what Jesus actually said and what Matthew edited or added. As a former tax collector, he clearly had a thing about payment on time and we’ve seen his penchant for gory judgment stories.
The story draws on Jewish wedding tradition. The festivities took place at the home of the groom’s parents. These young women have gathered there awaiting the arrival of the groom who, most likely, was delayed by haggling with the bride’s father over details in the marriage contract.
Because they had come to light the way of the bridegroom, all of the women brought some sort of oil lamp with them, but half of them carried extra oil and the other half had none at all. Maybe the bride’s home was a long distance from the groom’s, maybe her father got into a rumpus with his future son-in-law over the dowry, maybe the camels needed a rest stop—whatever the case—the groom was very late and the bridesmaids had fallen asleep.
Then, when he does arrive, the women with no oil go hunting down a market to buy some, whereas the wise women go right into the party. Later, when their cohorts return with illuminated lamps replenished with oil, they are turned away. As an aside to Matthew’s intended message here, it is very likely that whoever was stationed at the door did not recognize some of those invited to the party and thought they were just wedding crashers. And once those old doors were shut for the night, it was very difficult to open them.
I think the story raises some interesting questions more than it gives answers. Who is always wise and who is always foolish? Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Why did half of the bridesmaids come with no oil knowing that they would need functioning lamps to illuminate a dark night and why were the others not willing to share some of their supply to provide sufficient light for the bridegroom.
And why didn’t the foolish ones just go into the reception when the groom arrived and rely on his graciousness to offer them hospitality rather than go away and return so late? Finally, what do a delayed bachelor on his wedding night and a handful of forgetful attendants have to tell us about God? For the very early church, this story offered assurance that Jesus was, indeed, going to return as he promised but not necessarily in the time frame that people expected. It is first a teaching about how God’s timing and ours are not always in sync.
This parable has often been preached as a dim, somber warning about not being ready when Jesus returns. Like the bumper sticker on some cars read, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”
I prefer to embrace it as the promise that God knows how difficult it is to sustain religious fervor over a long time even after a dramatic transformative experience. So, even if we fall asleep like the bridesmaids, even if we come up short on oil, still God comes to us in God’s own time.
Apologies to Matthew, but I see this parable as encouraging counsel to keep waiting and to be patient about our waiting even when God’s appearance seems so far at a distance and delayed; that God is still speaking to the world; still revealing the mystery of Godliness to the world. There is so much we don’t know, so much mystery to be discovered. Furthermore, Jesus has told us that God can and will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Few of us are ever totally wide awake or running on a full tank when it comes to our spiritual life.
Maybe we need to take a look at the oil in those lamps. What kind of oil are we talking about? Something we hoard and keep only for ourselves? Something we sell to others for profit?
The parable doesn’t say a word about whether the bridesmaids had any oil at home. It doesn’t tell us if the wise ones were stockpiling it, or the foolish ones hadn’t had time to get to the store yet. It doesn’t tell us what they had in their IRA’s, or how generous they were with their finances. Maybe the wise bridesmaids were down to their last flask of oil, and the foolish ones were sitting on vats of it; the parable doesn’t tell us. Its only concern is what they brought with them.
Maybe this is not a story about how much oil you have but a story about the quantity and quality of oil you carry with you. When your lamp goes out, you may have gallons of oil sitting at home, but it’s not going to do you any good.
So what does the kind of oil you carry look like? What fills you up spiritually and emotionally when you run dry? What replenishes your oil? Where do you find God, and how can you make sure that you get enough of that oil for your lamp? Because we all run dry. When we do, we can’t be a light for anybody.
I wonder if the message Jesus intends here is that we all have to figure out what fills us up, spiritually, and then make sure we have some to carry with us, every minute of the day, because that’s how often you’ll need it.
Don’t fill your lamp because you’re afraid you’re going to get locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t hoard oil because you then can turn everybody else away. Stop at the filling station, wherever that is for you, fill your flask, and take it with you, because you just can’t wait to meet the bridegroom—not out of fear but in utter joy.
Until then we continue to wait in patience in the expectation that God will appear in places and ways and times we just never expected. We wait for the rising of the sun and the hope of a new day. And, just when we’re ready to fall asleep, God may turn the world around, the lights may brighten, and we may experience the unexpected: the One for whom we wait, in animated hope, ushering in the best that’s yet to come.