11/12/17: Expect Delays, Matthew 25:1-13
First Lesson: Psalm 70
Second Lesson: Matthew 25:1-13
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s the Wednesday of Holy Week, and Jesus has gathered not with the crowds—they’re all making their preparations for the passover—but privately with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, which lies just outside the gates of Jerusalem. And perhaps sensing that some kind of end was near, they’ve asked him how it will be at the end of the age:
What can they expect?
How will they know?
What can they do to prepare?
Now, last week we looked at a passage from 1 John where the author, who’s called simply “the elder,” addresses some of thee same concerns for his congregation of ancient Christians. He tells them we’re prepared for what’s to come by remembering who we are today: which is beloved children of God, and finding hope that what was revealed in Jesus will be true of us as well—that death is not the end. And I feel confident Jesus would agree with this assessment: our hearts are calmed and prepared by this hope. But Jesus also tells us there’s work to be done. Which brings us to these bridesmaids and their lamps.
We’re told ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom—five are wise and five are foolish. The wise bring oil enough to make sure their lamps will be ready when the time is right, but the foolish do not. As it happens, the bridegroom is delayed, and they all become drowsy and fell asleep, only to awake at midnight with the shout that the groom is on his way. They all go out with their lamps, but the five foolish bridesmaids realize they’re running out of oil, and when the wise ones tell them there’s none to spare, they go into town to buy more. And of course, while they’re away, the groom comes, and when they return they find that they’re too late. Keep awake, we’re told, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
And the church has tended to focus on this warning to "keep awake”: stay on guard, always be looking for the end times. This has been a fascination for much of the church. I remember as a youth being a fan of to so called “Christian rock” and listening to song after song about the rapture: I Wish We’d All Been Ready, was the title of one. DC Talk, I believe was the band. “Two men walking up a hill, one disappeared, and one’s left standing still. I wish we’d all been ready.” Good song; questionable theology.
The temptation is to focus on this warning to “stay awake,” so as not to miss Jesus when he comes, but notice that the issue here isn’t so much the bridesmaids staying awake—after all, they all fell asleep, the wise along with the foolish. The issue is being prepared. If you’re prepared, it seems, you can sleep all you want!
And understand that being prepared doesn’t mean being a doomsday “prepper.” Keeping your lamps trimmed and burning doesn’t mean hoarding AAA batteries and bags of rice, and it certainly doesn’t mean stockpiling ammunition. The wise bridesmaids aren’t prepared by constant anxiety and fear—their hearts and nerves are calmed enough to sleep deeply.
One of the first things I tell the wedding party at the rehearsal, when we’re all standing up here on the chancel, is to relax. To breathe. Get comfortable. Don’t lock your knees or else you won’t be standing for long. This isn’t just an urban legend, by the way. I’ve seen it happen. It was sometime during the minister’s sermon, which I’ll confess was on the longer side—it wasn’t me—when over in the corner the congregation’s eyes caught the far bridesmaid as she began to sway, and finally toppled over, thankfully into the arms of someone on the front row who’d seen what was about to happen.
This isn’t keeping ready.
Take a breath, loosen your shoulders. If you lock you’re knees, you’ll never last. The kind of preparedness Jesus is after doesn’t involve tirelessly fretting about what’s to come, in fact, it means the exact opposite. It means finding healthy, sustainable rhythms that honor the gift of life, the beauty of creation, the joy of community—all the things that make this life worth living in the first place, and doing what you can to make sure others can enjoy all these things as well—and to do this over the long haul.
This is really what separates the wise from the foolish bridesmaids: they were prepared for the groom to take longer than expected. And I’ll confess this is not a part of this parable I’d appreciated before. I’d always assumed the foolish bridesmaids just hadn’t brought any oil at all—that they’d just brought their lamps without any way of lighting them, which makes it easy to not feel much sympathy for them: who brings a lamp without any oil? But that’s not exactly what we’re told. We’re told they all brought their lamps with oil in them, the wise and the foolish. What made the wise bridesmaids wise was that they brought extra. So when the groom is delayed and the lamps are going dim, the wise are able to replenish their lamps and keep their light burning through the night, while the foolish are left without.
The wisdom here, the mark of preparedness, is to be ready for the long haul. Of course, this parable is meant to be an analogy for the end times, with the bridegroom representing Jesus and the wedding banquet representing life in the world to come. The wise Christians are the ones who are able to keep pressing on, keep living the life of faith deep into the night, even after Christ is delayed. And this was a live issue for the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel. The first generation or two of Christians expected Christ’s return to be imminent. They fully expected it to happen in their lifetime. And when it didn’t there was some concern. Some questioning. Some doubts, even. Had they been wrong? Had they given their lives over to a lie? Were they here suffering and enduring for nothing? Was their no end in sight—was the bridegroom coming as all?
These days I’m not sure how much the imminence of Christ’s return factors into our decision making—I’ll confess it’s not much of a motivating factor for me. Not that it’s not important—of course it is. But it’s just that there are more pressing reasons for me to get my spiritual house in order. For one thing, I’d like to make it through this troubling season we’re in as a people, of anxiety and violence and fear and polarity, with a sense of wholeness. Every day brings a new outrage, a new scandal, a new seemingly strong case for despair—it will suck the life out of you if you let it, and I confess I often do.
On top of that, there’s so much need—no even in the world, but in our community; so many struggling, so many looking for relief and support. How can we keep the light on for them as a church? And how can we do these things, how can we stay vigilant to injustice, aid the suffering, comfort the mourning, mend the broken, visit the sick, while also tending to our own souls; replenishing our own oil to keep our lamps burning through the darkest part of the night?
Back in June, you’ll remember, a group of us from our congregation and our friends over at New St. traveled to Durham, North Carolina to participate in a week long training in the work of reconciliation. It was good week, an intense week. And sensing this would be the case, I think, the final day’s theme was “Spirituality for the Long Haul.”
I wrote about this back in June but thought of it again this week and realized I’d already forgotten the wise words I’d learned there, so this is as much for as it is you—which is always the case!
But after a week long deep-dive into the work of reconciliation, they saved this final day to talk about how to engage in this hard, hard work without losing yourself as you do it. The work of God is filled with disappointment, set backs and failures. Old and deep wounds do not heal over night, and opposition is never far away. Commitment to tending to the Kingdom of God requires an equal commitment to tending to your own soul.
But unfortunately, this is not something that comes natural to most of us—I’ll confess it doesn’t to me. And we’re not likely to find help from our surrounding culture; true spiritual self-care is at odds with our culture’s self-centeredness. Tending to our souls is something that requires discipline. Our facilitator argued it requires a discipline in at least three directions. First an inward discipline toward prayer, study and self-examination. Taking time to center yourself, better yourself and be honest with yourself. But also an outward discipline toward simplicity, solitude and service to others. Living your life with others in mind; not taking more than you need, making sure others have enough. And finally, it requires a “corporate” discipline of communing with others through worship, guidance and celebration.
Coming together to “retune our hearts” in worship of that which is at the same time beyond us and within us. Of guiding and encouraging each other on the way, and celebrating together as we go—and this last one has stuck with me: the discipline of celebration. It’s strange to think of celebration as a discipline. But isn’t it true when the weight of life and work and family piles on us, celebration is the first thing to go. We’re too tired or too busy to share in the joys of life with each other. Other “serious” things seem more pressing. And yet, if there is nothing worth celebrating, than what good is any of our toil? If there is no party, why keep our lamps burning at all?
What if keeping ready for the bridegroom meant finding that rhythm between personal discipline and communal joy? Between doing the work of God as tirelessly as we can: being people of love and compassion and generosity, people who feel deeply the suffering of the world, and understand it has something to do with us—but then people who look for every opportunity to celebrate the joys that are nonetheless around us? What if it meant being honest about the darkness we see in the world, but just as honest about the light that’s being kept by so many—even us here at the top of Poplar, even you?
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, church. Not with anxious fear of what’s to come and when it’s coming, but with the kind of hopeful joy that comes from a job well-done. Unlock your knees. Let your shoulders drop. Loosen muscles you didn’t even know you had clinched. Take a deep breath. Live your days with the energy that comes in knowing good news is on the way, because it is. And sleep the deep sleep of knowing it has already come, because it has. Tend the light that’s been given you, dim as it may often seem, knowing that you need not carry it alone. That when we all tend them together they shine as brightly as the sun, that is surely on the way. Amen.
 Tom Long makes this point beautifully in his commentary on Matthew from Westminster John Knox.
 Alice J. Peterson was our facilitator, and my notes indicate this is drawn from the work of Richard Foster.