At first glance, this is a hard story to understand or relate to. This morning’s parable is part of an apocalyptic grouping in Matthew. The grouping begins in the previous chapter, as Matthew remembers Jesus warning that there will be days when it seems even the sun doesn’t shine, and our foundations are shaken. And Jesus said, look to the fig tree, and remember the seasons. Remember the leaves of summer, and then what happens . . . Remember the fig tree.
Today we read of the bridesmaids, which is the first in a triad of apocalyptic parables that make up chapter 25. Next week we will have the story of the investor, who gave gifts to his servants and walked away. Then he returned to see what they had done with the gifts in his absence, and was outraged to know one had hidden it in fear. And finally, we’ll have the story of the Son of Man returning and blessing those who fed and clothed and visited him, and their puzzled response, for they did not know it was him.
These apocalyptic stories are of loss and disorientation. They are stories with uncertainty, and of waiting that goes on painfully long. They are times when anxiety and fear rise like dragons. We prefer certainty, control, and security. Apocalyptic writings seem so strange at first glance, but honestly, we know these times too. We know them on a personal level-when we lose relationships or health or jobs or lives that had once seemed so sure. We know them at a congregational level—when someone we love is sick and we don’t know all the answers, or even what to do next. We know unsettling times through the news cycle. We were grieved this week by the news of a gunmen in worship in Texas. The story joins a string of violent atrocities that seem to come so fast we can not process in between. And then there are the stories of violence that don’t make the news—but who people who suffer at home or flee for their lives every day. It is telling that we have the worst global refugee crisis since WWII.
The story of the Incarnation is that God became flesh and dwelt among us. God in Jesus chose to come alongside in love. In doing so, Jesus suffered with the world. Every time Jesus opened himself to others, reached out, spoke up . . . he also opened himself to be hurt or rejected. Jesus drew deeply from the Divine to receive strength, and trust, and courage. In the Incarnation, we see the Essence of God. “Light from Light. True God, from true God.”[i] At times unrecognized, Jesus reveals the Divine love and everlasting life. The Greek root of the word “apocalypse” is ‘to reveal, to illumine.’
This morning’s parable focuses on preparations for a wedding banquet that is to take place in the ancestral home of the groom. In traditional village life in the Middle East, the groom would go to the home of the bride, and when she was ready, she would mount a riding animal, and the groom and friends would follow behind, making a parade that was greeted and cheered. They would go through as many streets as they could, extending this happy time as long as possible. Meanwhile, family and friends would gather at the groom’s ancestral home to await their arrival.[ii]
This waiting in this story takes place at night, and among the guests are ten young women. Each of them has a lamp, and each one is lit. Women, young and old, always carried lamps. It wasn’t as important for men to have lamps, but for young unmarried women especially, being without a lamp in the dark was unthinkable. Without a lamp people would wonder what they were trying to hide, or someone could assault them unseen.
So, ten young women had lamps, and all were burning. But the difference is that half brought a reserve of oil with them, and half did not. They all knew that this would be a long night. The young women who had gathered in the night all eventually placed their lamps on window sills or ledges, and all fell asleep. They awoke to shouts of joy. As they reached for their lamps, they adjusted the wicks, and half of them realized they needed more oil and had no reserves. They were burning out. They asked the wise women for some of their oil, but the wise ones knew if they shared theirs, they would burn out also. And so, the foolish women went to find some elsewhere, which would be easy to do in a village where everyone knew everyone. While they were gone, they missed the entrance of the wedding party. The door opened, and the door closed, and they missed it. When they knocked, and said, “Let us in.” The groom said, ‘No, I do not know you.’ Ken Bailey said that such a ‘no’ in middle Eastern tradition is never an answer, it is merely a pause and the beginning of negotiations. We don’t know if these women went into the party or not. The story ushers us into reflection.[iii]
All 10 were invited. All 10 lamps burned. All 10 fell asleep. All 10 didn’t know when the bride and groom would arrive. What separated the wise from the foolish was knowing they would need reserves from which to draw. We are reminded of how Jesus drew strength and life from God. Wisdom comes in drawing “Light from Light.” Wisdom comes in dwelling with God. Wisdom comes by being warmed, illumined, and sustained by Holy Fire.
As Timothy wrote to a beloved and struggling congregation, “ I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love . . . (2 Timothy 1:5-7)
The wise bridesmaids knew ahead of time that they would need reserves and protected and drew from them as needed. They discerned and cared for what was theirs to offer. The wise ones did what was necessary to provide light. By their light, those around could see each other. By their light, they could see the One who beckons us to join the Feast. They and those around them could see the open door, and enter the joy of the Presence.
This week, the stewardship committee sent out packets about the life and ministry of our congregation. Today during Christian Education hour Doug Paterson and Gary VanKempen will lead a time of discussion, and next week we will bring back our pledge cards. In his stewardship letter, Rob Carlson, reminded us that, “Our common life as a congregation is grounded in gratitude, revealed in prayer, and lived in faith.” Grounded in gratitude–When I begin to list my thanksgivings, I find my list grows, exponentially. And I become aware of strength and resources all around me. Near the top of the list, is you, dear church. Revealed in prayer—indeed we may not always know what to do, but we return in prayer to God’s presence, where we are renewed. Lived in faith—lived in the knowing looks of compassion, listening ears, planning of details, giving of food and basic needs, and the lifting of courageous voices. “Our common life as a congregation is grounded in gratitude, revealed in prayer, and lived in faith.” Rob invites us, “to examine our faith life and consider the impact of all we do and all we are as a congregation. Luther insists that the things we place in God’s hands, these are the things that last.” Rob continued, “prayerfully consider what we will place in God’s hands during 2018.”
What light do we have to shine? Each of us? Wisdom lies in claiming and cultivating what is ours to offer? We need to shine our light, to be able to see one another and the One who beckons us into the Feast, not just because he wants to put us to work, but because God delights in our presence.
Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners community, had a colleague living in a village in Central America. She worked in a community that was marginalized in all kinds of ways. She poured herself into her work for social justice, laboring with great might to bring change to this village. One day, some of the people of the village came to her, asking her why she worked so hard, why she didn’t join them in their fiestas or sit with them in their porches in the evening.
“There’s too much work to do!” the laboring woman replied. “I don’t have enough time.”
“Oh,” the people of the village said. “You’re one of those.”
“One of who?” the woman asked.
“You are one of those,” they responded, “who come to us and work and work and work. Soon you will grow tired, and you will leave. The ones who stay,” they said, “are the ones who sit with us on our porches in the evening and who come to our fiestas.”
Jim Wallis said that his colleague took the story to heart, that she became a party animal, and that she was still there.
There is work to do: flasks to be filled, lamps to be lighted, long nights ahead that call for labor and readiness instead of rest. It’s a good time, too, to ponder how, and whether, we are seeking sustenance for our own selves. We cannot find or fashion light merely by our own efforts; it comes not solely with labor but by opening ourselves to the light of Christ that we find as we linger with one another.[iv]
At first glance, this parable of the bridesmaids is a hard story to understand or relate to. Then again, we know it very well. And we know something about light, and the need for it, and the need to have plenty for the keeping of this night. There are moments, we have no idea what to do. And yet, at the same time, we know exactly. We know to draw near to God and one another. Let our lives be grounded in gratitude, revealed in prayer, and lived in faith. Let us discern what is ours to offer.
[i] The Nicene Creed
[ii] Early manuscripts of Matthew include the bride, her presence with the groom is assumed.
[iii] 269-272, Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.
[iv] Jan Richardson, “Midnight Oil,” The Painted Prayerbook, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/11/04/midnight-oil/