Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
I am so happy to see each of you here today. I treasure you, and am so grateful that you come here faithfully to worship and to be part of a community learning together about what it means to follow Christ. The value of this community has been very evident to me in the last few weeks, but particularly last Sunday. We gathered here for the Feast of All Saints, and together we remembered the great cloud of witnesses in the church, in this place and in each of our lives. We also began the ingathering of financial commitments for the coming year—we’re off to a good start on that—and we gathered together to eat and enjoy one another’s company. Of course, shortly after we left church, we got reports of the mass shooting in Texas—folks like us, gathered at a small church, killed senselessly at the hands of a madman. 26 people dead, ranging from toddlers to seniors, and another 20 injured.
What do we do with that? How do we respond? It seems clear that the thoughts and prayers that follow these events, which seem to be becoming more and more common, may give us comfort, but do little to challenge this epidemic of violence. My friend and colleague Erik Karas, the priest at Christ Trinity in Sheffield, said this: “When I think of the approach we have taken to gun violence over the last five years… outrage, vigils, letters, marches, demands, showing statistics, comparing our country to other countries, etc. I ask myself, ‘Self, how’s that working for you?’ and my answer is, ‘not so great. It seems like we just say and do the same things every time there is a mass shooting.’ Then I ask myself, ‘Self, how long do you want to keep trying those same things that aren’t that great?’ and my answer is, ‘I’m pretty much done.’”
And yet, to do nothing seems utterly wrong. Perhaps today’s gospel provides some ideas about what we can do.
Of course, the thing this parable is really focused on is nothing less than the second coming of Christ. The people for whom Matthew was writing were impatient about that second coming. Scholars tell us it was probably written somewhere between 80 and 90 C.E., 50 to 60 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. This parable is part of Jesus’ discourse on the end times—the apocalypse. He speaks to the disciples on the Mount of Olives, describing the violent events of the end of the age, followed by the Coming of the Son of Man.
The original audience—probably Jewish Christians who had split from Pharisee-led Judaism sometime after the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E.—were certainly people who believed that Christ’s return to earth was imminent. While we have perhaps largely forgotten about this promise from God, they had not: They felt certain it could happen at any moment.
So this parable has a very specific context and meaning. Yet it is strange to our ears: we are not versed in 1st century wedding customs, so it all feels a bit odd.
In this time and place it was the custom that wedding guests would gather at the home of the bride and be entertained by her parents while they awaited the groom. When he arrived, guests (including the bridesmaids) would light torches and come outside to greet him.
A procession would then take place to the home of the groom’s parents, where a ceremony and banquet might span several days.[i]
So in this parable, we have dropped in to the story at a specific moment in the festivities: the bridesmaids are waiting for the groom.
The parable is allegoric; everything in the story symbolizes something to convey a theological truth. The bridegroom is Jesus at his second coming; the bridesmaids represent the members of the church; the wedding banquet is the kingdom of heaven; and the rejection of the foolish maidens represents the final judgment.[ii] We are to understand that the foolish bridesmaids are those who will not be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven at the end of the ages. They got it wrong.
But what, exactly, did they do wrong? It’s not that they weren’t alert; all of the bridesmaids slept. It’s not that they didn’t have the resources needed for such a celebration; all of them had lamps. It’s not that they were impatient in their waiting; we don’t get any clues about how any of them felt about their long wait. It’s not that they didn’t react properly when the good news came of the groom’s approach; all of them awoke and trimmed their lamps.
And it’s not even that the foolish bridesmaids were not in the know about the importance of the groom or of their place in the celebration; we get no sense that they were outsiders of any kind.
The only difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids was that the wise ones were prepared for the duration and brought extra oil. They anticipated that it might be a long wait.[iii]
It seems to me that this is really a story about being prepared. I was never a very good boy scout (that’s a conversation for another day), but I always thought the Boy Scout motto was pretty good advice: Be Prepared.
What message does this hold for us at this moment in our national history? Perhaps the message is simple: perhaps this is a warning not to stand idly by. In the face of the rising violence and unrest in our country, my first reaction is to do nothing. After all, these horrific things aren’t happening here. And my sphere of influence is so small; how could I make a difference?
Well, those things are true. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. The foolish bridesmaids didn’t take the steps they should have to make themselves ready. They seemed to be only living in the moment. They weren’t prepared.
How can we prepare ourselves? Being prepared means checking our readiness for the challenges that will be put before us. We must be sure that we are ready.
For me that is about two things. First, it is about getting ourselves in order. We must build our own spiritual resilience. I remember a churchperson discussing why they go to church, explaining it was about keeping their spiritual muscles in shape. This person knew that there would be difficult moments in the future—she couldn’t say what they would be, but she knew that the could occur: The sudden death of a loved one, a difficult medical diagnosis, a tragedy that struck close to home, or something else that might shake her to her core. By coming to church, and becoming familiar with scripture, and learning more about what it means to be a person of faith, she hoped she was building her ability to weather those blows—to have the psychic and spiritual strength to weather such a storm
I’ve heard people talk about memorizing a meaningful psalm, or learning about different kinds of prayer, or doing spiritual reading, as a way of building their library of coping mechanisms for difficult moments. Having these things in our spiritual arsenal may be what will see you through the hard times.
And being prepared is also about investment in our community. How do we help everyone to be prepared, building up the resilience to withstand the blows of life that may come? I personally am doing work in the arena of early childhood development. I want to help every child in Berkshire County have the opportunity to become his or her best self. I have grown passionate about helping our youngest citizens make the best start in life they can, as a basis for a good life. That work has not only made some difference in the community (I hope), but has given me hope for our collective future. And hope is another important component of resilience I think.
Another person in our congregation does work with immigrants to help them succeed here in their new home. Others find deep joy in helping provide food to people who might otherwise go hungry. All of these people are helping our neighbors “store up oil” so that they will be ready for what comes.
But this parable is not only about the extra oil. Are you spending all the oil in your lamp every week before all the work is done? Are you using what oil you have in the way you really wish? And have you figured out how to adequately refill your lamp? Taking care of yourself is important: I always talk with the caregivers of those who have loved ones with long-term needs about how they are being sure they themselves are cared for. We do no good for those who need us if we don’t care for ourselves as well.
And what’s holding you back from becoming more involved in our community or here at St. Paul’s? What do you need to change in your life to be more open to being part of the light of Christ in this community? As Christians, we are called to be Christ for others—and that is certainly a challenging proposition. But we are called to this work because of the reward that it holds, and the ways that it feeds our souls. Each of us must consider how we are advancing the Kingdom of God here on earth.
But there’s still one more important lesson we can take away from today’s lesson, and that is that our real work is to be prepared for the second coming of Christ. Remember, this parable is an allegory, pointing to that all-important event. Now I am the first to admit that I’m not exactly sure what that second coming will look like; despite all that is written in the scriptures, and all that has been written subsequently, I am not sure any of us know.
But maybe the point is not worrying about what the second coming of Christ will look like, as much as equipping ourselves for it: Tending to our own souls; making sure that we are doing things that really matter—fulfilling the gospel imperatives to seek and serve Christ in all persons; striving to be the light of Christ.
All the rest is really window dressing. We need not worry so much about what the immediate future of nation will hold, as much as we worry about what’s happening with each of us—about our own part in bringing about the promised reign of Christ.
And the good news is that, just like the retirement planning that I never feel like I’ve quite got under control, it’s never too late to get started! We are all here as a community to help you figure out where to get the oil you need for your lamp—to help discern how you can embody the light of Christ for yourself, for your family, and for the world.
As we look for the fuel we need to make our lights shine, remember that it is offered to us, week after week, at this altar. The grace of God, embodied in the body and blood of Christ given to us all, is food and fuel for the journey. We are God’s beloved, for whom all is given and all is possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Buchanan, John M. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), pp. 284, 286.
[ii] Stegman, Thomas D. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, p. 285.
[iii] Douglas, Mark. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, pp. 284, 286.