* Today’s sermon is a guest post by Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker. You can find her on Twitter @ReedmanParker *
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. (Read the whole passage)
Waiting is not easy.
We know this. And yet, every time, we are caught by surprise by how difficult waiting can be.
In today’s parable we encounter 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are wise for bringing extra oil for their lamps, and 5 who are foolish because they do not. And, wouldn’t you know it, but there is a delay waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Maybe half of them knew the bridegroom well enough to know he would be running behind, we don’t know. But they wait, and they wait, and they wait. They wait for long enough that they fall asleep – all of them, the foolish and the wise.
What are the things that we wait for? That we LONG for?
Maybe it’s a better relationship with your kids or your spouse. Maybe it’s a new or better job. Or being free from pain or illness, addiction or abuse, violence or oppression.
Whatever it is, we know what it is to long for something. We know what means to wait. Really wait.
I don’t think it’s any mistake on the part of the lectionary committee, the group that determines the readings we hear week after week in worship, that this particular parable comes just 2 weeks before Advent – the season of longing, waiting, anticipation for God with us.
Or that Matthew, the gospel writer, tells this particular parable to a community that is waiting for Jesus’ return – his imminent return. His hearers are an anxious group. The early Christian community, as we are reminded of in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, did not anticipate that Jesus’ Second Coming would take so long – they didn’t expect him to be delayed, and were becoming drowsy waiting for him. Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids is told to remind the early Christian community to keep faith that Jesus is coming.
This parable, however, does not leave one with a very confident sense of hope in Jesus’ return. Once the bridesmaids are divided into two groups – the wise and the foolish – the wise get into the banquet while the foolish, having not brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning brightly are locked out while they go to get more – we take it upon ourselves to judge who’s “in” and who’s “out”. In this way the parable becomes more about waiting in fear of Jesus’ return rather than in hopeful anticipation of it.
It would be easy to interpret the parable of the 10 bridesmaids based on the wise and the foolish; to say that those who don’t have enough oil aren’t getting into the eternal banquet. It would be easy to say that we all better get ready and start making a list of what we all need to do to get in. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from Jesus’ teachings – especially in the parables – it’s that the answer is never as easy or as obvious as it seems. God is so much more subtle than we anticipate.
Besides, looking at the parable this way doesn’t accurately represent the God we profess as Lord and Saviour – you know, the one through whom we have been saved by grace through faith, but a God who tests and judges, who condones the idea that to earn favour we must “do” something, and that if we don’t we will be left behind. This is not a God whose return we hopefully anticipate, but one we fear.
It is this kind of thinking that tells us that bringing guns into churches and schools will keep us safe from potential harm, or victims of abuse that if they had just worn different clothes, less make-up, or had said more – or less – that the abuse wouldn’t have occurred. When we know this simply isn’t true. It is a false logic based in fear and in our own abilities to save ourselves.
Also, the bridegroom does not say “keep your lamps lit and full of oil” but “keep awake” – and if we look at the text we see that ALL of the bridesmaids fall asleep waiting for their delayed bridegroom to arrive. Maybe the bridesmaids have a lot more in common with one another than in opposition: they all hold the same position in the bridal party, they all have lamps and they all fall asleep – I don’t know enough about ancient wedding practices, but in my mind they are probably all wearing the same thing.
It strikes me that we are not that unlike the bridesmaids or the early Christian community. Two-thousand years on, we’ve been waiting a long time. Some of us wonder if the bridegroom is EVER coming. The banquet hall is empty, we packed up the banquet hall some time ago. We are anxious. We are tired. No, we are exhausted… All this waiting, and for what?
But when we make this parable about the banquet – about who gets in, and who gets left out – we miss what is actually going on. Because this parable isn’t about the banquet, but it is about waiting and hope.
Hope that transforms us as nothing else can. Hope, which births in us something new, something beyond what we could dream or imagine on our own. And hope of new life must come before new life itself can occur.
We don’t know why the delays occur. But we live in faith that God is with us in the midst of our waiting. God’s promise of new life, of forgiveness of sins, resurrection from the dead aren’t just for some of us but for all of us. God’s promise that we are known by God – that we were created in God’s image, knit in our mother’s womb, and are marked with sign of the cross in baptism to mark God’s promise that we are God’s children. God knows us more intimately than anyone else in this entire world, even ourselves. More than that, we trust as people of faith that God is already changing and transforming us even while we are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another “. Encourage one another to hope in what God is doing in and through us here and now, even as we wait for the bridegroom to arrive.