“Oh, those Foolish Bridesmaids!” – Sermon for November 9, 2014

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"Clever Bridesmaids", He Qi, 2001“Oh, those Foolish Bridesmaids”

A Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached November 9, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

We here in Connecticut have gotten pretty used to the drill of things to do in the run-up to a major storm. It’s been just shy of four years now that I’ve been here with you here in Storrs and in Connecticut more generally, and in that time, we’ve had the threats of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the freak October snow storm that took out power for more than half the state for nearly a week, and some real doozies of regular winter blizzards where snow fall was measured in feet rather than inches. Each time one of these weather threats is approaching, we watch and participate in what’s become almost a community-wide ritual: it begins when the local TV news shows switch gears into all-weather, all-the-time mode. After all, weather reporting does drive ratings, and so they’ve gotten quite good at slicing and dicing the same weather forecast into enough bits to fill up an entire half-hour or even hour-long broadcast. After these weather watchmen and watchwomen start sounding the alarms, then we all start our sometimes dutiful, sometimes frenetic treks to the nearest retail establishments—the supermarket, the hardware store or home improvement center, perhaps the gas station. That 24-7 news coverage of impending doom even starts to include field reports on these expeditions, so get eyewitness confirmation that the Tru-Valu in Cheshire is indeed out of roof rakes, or that the Stop & Shop in Vernon does still have bread on the shelves.

A couple of the items we tend to stock-pile as part of this ritual are a little amusing if you really think about it. For a winter storm, roof rakes and snowblowers become hot commodities, which sometimes makes me wonder what happened to all the thousands of these we’ve all bought in years past; will the time ever come when every house already has a roof rake…? Regardless of the season or type of storm, milk is often one of the early items to disappear from the shelves at the grocery, which is a little curious if you really think about it, since that’ll be one of the first things to start spoiling when you lose power. And then there’s toilet paper… I don’t know if most people just don’t keep much on hand, so they really do need to increase the inventory in case they can’t get out for more than 24 hours… or if people are simply worried that the low-pressure systems that make up these storms are going to have certain physiological effects on top of the meteorological ones.

Joking aside, we do know that storms and other severe weather systems can leave us homebound for a little while, whether it’s snow fall or downed trees or flooding that makes roads impassible. And we can be left in the dark for days, even, as some of you know all too well. Being prepared for this period of delay and waiting, it can make the difference between mere inconvenience and outright misery or even danger.

But what about when it is God upon whom we are waiting? What do you do when the delay is that of the divine? For it is that, when it comes down to it, that the first hearers of this parable from Jesus faced… and it is that which we still face today.

There’s an old quip, one of those bumper-sticker one-liners, that says “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” By the time the writer of the gospel of Matthew witnessed to the story of Jesus, though—and by the time Matthew’s community was figuring out what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus in their time—the experience was becoming more like “Jesus is coming! Yeah right…!” Or at the very least, “Jesus is coming! Are you sure…?”

At this point in the gospel story, Jesus knows he’s soon to be captured and killed. Sitting in Jerusalem in the last days leading up to his crucifixion, he’s preparing his disciples for what comes after, after his capture and death, after his resurrection even. And the promise is that he will come again… “[T]he stars will fall from heaven,” he tells them, “and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”[1] Jesus soon follows this up with the admonition to “keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”[2]

But, you see, by the time the people for whom the gospel of Matthew was first written were on the scene, the eyelids were starting to droop and the all-nighter they were trying to ‘pull’ was taking its toll. The question didn’t seem so much about whether they were going to have their stuff together in time, if they were going to be caught off-guard because Jesus showed up too soon. No, the question was quickly becoming one of whether he was still coming at all. Did he get in an accident along the way? Or did his GPS lead him off to the wrong destination? “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,”[3] Jesus had said, but gosh, this whole waiting around business is getting quite old.

And we too, today, in our own times… we find ourselves in the same boat. In fact, it’s all the worse for us. The original hearers of Matthew’s gospel only thought Jesus’ coming again was getting to be a couple of years late. Well, those couple of years have turned into a couple of millennia, and we’re still waiting. And it’s not even just that we’re still sitting around waiting for some sort of apocalyptic end-times of the world, the sort of stuff that’s the fodder for a bunch of pop literature and the rantings of a bunch of crazy-sounding fringe groups. So often we spend our lives waiting for the signs of God’s presence in far more ordinary ways: the disease that never seems to heal, the broken relationship that never seems to be reconcilable, the bonds of injustice that never seem to get released. “Keep awake” and “be always ready”, we’ve heard those admonitions. But how long do we keep on waiting before we begin to doubt that the return, the restoration, the reconciliation, and yes, the rejoicing… that any of it will ever come?

The only difference between the two groups of bridesmaids in today’s story—the ones labeled “wise” and the ones labeled “foolish”—is about how prepared they were for the delay, how ready they were to endure the wait.  All ten bridemaids came with their lamps. All ten—even the so-called “wise” ones—fell asleep when the wait became too long. All ten heard the cry of the watchman and woke up. All ten trimmed their lamps and started getting ready to join the procession. But the so-called “foolish” five, they hadn’t come prepared for the long wait. And that’s where the crux of this scene hits us. The invitation, the joyful feast, the gathering in of the people, all of these are a given. But what’s not always recognized is that all of it may—in fact, most of the time, does—come amidst the shadows and the pain and the delays. “Foolishness[…]” one commentator writes, “Foolishness means accepting the invitation to be part of the kingdom’s celebration without being prepared for the waiting and the darkness that may have to be endured.”[4] Remember, Jesus never promises us an easy path; he promises us a destination, a final ultimate reality, that is worth the journey.

Where do we find our “oil” supply? What is it that we need—as individuals and as a community together—to sustain us in the waiting? How do we find ourselves in a place that doesn’t descend into despair in the delay, whether we are yearning eagerly for some sign of God’s presence in the midst of an immediate need or whether we are watching expectantly for nothing less than the new creation itself. After all, if there is anything that all this talk of the return of the “Son of Man”, or the arrival of “the Bridegroom”, or the coming again of Jesus and a new creation… if there is anything this should do, it should remind us that this—this world as we know it, this life as we live it—that this is not as good as it gets. Indeed, we must not lose hope, real hope that comforts and challenges.

But where do we find that “oil”? How do we keep the lamps trimmed and burning when the time doesn’t seem to be drawing so “nigh”?

For the gospel of Matthew, part of it would seem to be about the journey of simply doing those things Jesus has taught us: loving God and our neighbor, resisting the forces of violence, feeding the hungry and healing the sick. That’s the thrust we’ve been hearing from the very beginning of the story. As well-known theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in[,] it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if you’re not able to overcome the darkness.”[5]

In fact, as I hear this parable today, I wonder if it stands to challenge us as to whether we can do that for one another. Perhaps the story serves, in part, to ask us to change the story. I’m thinking specifically of the five so-called “wise” bridesmaids who would not share their oil. What if being church together, being disciples together, what if that’s about the invitation to carry one another through the delays and look after each other that we have what we need. Or, as one preacher puts it, “Can the church be a community where we help one another through the long days and nights of waiting? Can we ask one another, ‘what do you need to keep going?’”[6]

That same preacher tells the story of friends of hers who had lost a child to cancer while that child was still quite young. “They were overwhelmed with grief,” the preacher says, “and the light of faith seemed an ember ready to go out. ‘We went to church,’ they said ‘but we couldn’t sing.’ Nevertheless they kept going Sunday after Sunday. ‘We let others sing for us and we listened until we could sing again.’”[7]

For Matthew, for Jesus, for us today, “the life of discipleship … is not [some] test leading to salvation. It is the gift of salvation.”[8] In coming together and carrying one another, in walking the road of discipleship, in taking the journey of faith and hope grounded in the life and witness and death and resurrection of the One who has promised to come again… in all of that, we find the strength we need to endure. Or, better, I should say, in all of that and through all of that, God is pouring out upon us the strength we need to endure.

For indeed, delayed or not, the bridegroom is still coming. And while it sometimes is a challenge to keep those lamps burning for so long, we need simply to remember that “the lamp light is just for this side of eternity.” [9] For, the truth, my friends, is that “there is already more than enough light at the banquet.”[10]

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 24:29b-31, NRSV.

[2] Matthew 24:42b, NRSV.

[3] Matthew 24:44b, NRSV.

[4] Wally Fletcher, pastoral implications commentary on Matthew 25:1-13 for 9 November 2014, in Lectionary Homiletics 25:6 (October/November 2014), 45.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 209

[6] Barbara Lundblad, homiletical commentary on Matthew 25:1-13, in Feasting on the Gospels: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis & Elizabeth Johnson, Matthew, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 259.

[7] Ibid.

[8] O. Wesley Allen Jr., Matthew, Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 245; emphasis added.

[9] Mark Douglas, theological commentary on Matthew 25:1-13, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 288.

[10] Ibid.

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