As often as I have wrestled with this text, I have never really identified with these ten bridesmaids. When it comes to weddings I have always been the soloist, and now the officiant, never been a bridesmaid. But these days I find myself waiting and watching (and counting) with the bridal attendants. Please don’t take this as a slight but I have been watching the calendar and counting the days til December 1 – not so I can open the windows on my advent calendar but because, well, you know, that is when my sabbatical starts. It’s not because I want to leave you all. In fact, as the time gets closer I get a little teary thinking about being apart from you all for three months.
I have said it before but I will say it again, life has been full for us as a congregation the past couple of years. We prepared well for the rebuild of this building and the transition of moving out of this space; then we said goodbye to an associate pastor (Adam); a long time administrative assistant (Annabelle) and a decades long treasurer (John). We moved back into the building, said welcome to a new administrative assistant (Jake), a new associate pastor (Michelle), over 25 new members and about a dozen babies. Yes, it has been an amazing few years and I am grateful.
Some of the changes are fairly easy to track. Less tangible are the ways we are deepening as a community, increasing our reading and knowledge of the bible, nurturing new leadership, spreading the good news of hospitality and Jesus’ welcome, seeking ways to talk about difficult issues like racism, gender identity, Thankfully, this is our work together, not my work alone. But still, I admit to a bit of weariness.
I also find myself counting the days because there is so much to do to prepare for being gone for three months. Can I get all the preparations done or will I run out of oil? I am making a list of things for others to be aware of but even as I prepare I realize there are some things that are unpredictable in spite of preparation: what if it snows, will church be canceled? or what if the furnace stops working or someone dies. Of course I hope none of these things happen. And – I know that you all are more than capable when you work together to respond to the needs and surprises that inevitably come our way.
The ten wedding attendants may have had all sorts of preparations on their lists but the only one we are told about in this parable is escorting the bridal party to the wedding banquet by lamp light. One thing is required, to make sure they have enough oil for their lamps, and yet half of them prepare inadequately.
Five go to the trouble of bringing extra oil, in case the bridal party is delayed. Five of them have only the oil already in their lamps, surely there will be an opportunity to refuel at some point – on the off chance that they need to. But the wedding party is late, very late, and these five do not have a contingency plan for a midnight arrival. All ten watchers fall asleep but half of them can no longer light the way for the bridal party when they awaken.
This parable always troubles me. It seems cruel to penalize half the group for having poor executive functioning skills, for being procrastinators. All of them fall asleep for goodness sake, which is what the disciples do in just a few more pages.The ending of the parable is “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” and yet all ten fell asleep, not just the five. Is it that bad to be late to the party, that you must be treated as a stranger?
I can get stuck here, with my anger, at what seems like unfairness to those who may have a harder time planning ahead. So it is helpful to remember that this is not the only image of “the end” that we are given. The writer of Matthew gives us numerous images to work with and if they don’t all resonate, well, I think we can be forgiven for that. After all we are told the reign of God is a mystery. Good on Matthew for giving us so many chances to try and understand God’s kindom, for giving us multiple angles and viewpoints.
In fact, these ten bridal attendants come in the midst of seven different descriptions and parables – in Matthew 24-25 – about the end, about the reign of God. And if some seem to conflict with some of the earlier, pithy sayings of Jesus about the reign of God – like “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” let’s say that just adds to the mystery, to the possibilities, of how God works in the world.
The gospels give us plenty of images of the reign of God – but if we need more, we can always turn back to the prophets in the Hebrew bible. The passage today from Amos gives a description of the “Day of YHWH, ” a glorious, but apparently dreadful, day when God will “vanquish the enemies of Israel.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1949 It sounds like Amos describes the “Day of YHWH” as a day when bad things happen to people who thought they were good. And it doesn’t sound unfamiliar; the writers of the new testament obviously have some source material in the prophetic tradition.
Amos is hard hitting with his assessment of the people of Israel, those who believe themselves to be the chosen faithful. Amos says that God doesn’t side with Israel (and we can surmise the Jesus followers) just because they pull out their identification card, “says right here I am a good God-fearer.”
God pays attention not only to participation in worship. God wants action as well. In fact, Amos says, it is the joining of worship and work that interests God. It is not only faithful ritual that is important but the integration of ritual and ethics, praise and justice. For Amos, and for Jesus, worship and justice go hand in hand. It is not enough to worship God with beautiful words and song. The worship must continue after the final hymn, continue into the street. The justice that God wants rushes in like a flood, like a stream that flows and flows and flows. In fact, the people working for justice are to be that flooding stream.
What a different image than the sleepy bridesmaids with their lamps, waiting for something to happen. They seem so passive compared to this rushing, roaring river.
No wonder we get confused about the reign of God, the kindom of heaven, the kindom of God. Sometimes it is depicted as a one time event, like the wedding feast, to which the faithful, and prepared, are invited. Other times we are told the reign of God is an ongoing event, like the rushing of an everflowing stream. Is the kindom of heaven a place to which people will disappear (like in Matthew 24) or is it like later in Matthew 25 where people are constantly being separated out like sheep and goats, according to how they treat others.
We might wonder, is the reign of God a final destination, a wedding banquet, that we will attend when we die or when Jesus returns? Or is the reign of God a process that we are always part of, a river of justice that we join our small droplet to, to make a rushing torrent that washes away oppression?
Similarly, we might wonder if the bible is a book to be figured out, to be solved. Is it like Algebra, some of the answers are at the back of the book? Or is the bible an invitation to wrestle with a tradition, a story to be engaged – not so much to find an answer once and for all but to enlighten and enliven the readers, to challenge and point us toward ideas and actions.
It seems that the biblical text says Yes. The reign of God is a destination and a process. The bible is a book of answers and a living text. As people who prepare we get to get to choose how to live into the process and the destination. And we are invited to make choices that bring life to the community, to the individual, make choices that bring justice in the world.
I have been waiting and watching, preparing for this privileged sabbatical rest. People ask, what will you be doing? Most people aren’t satisfied with an answer like, “I’ll be waiting and watching for God to show up.” So I have a few other ways of responding, ways I am hoping to meet God in the dark months of the year.
This past year I have been part of a writing group with two other women who are working on books and articles. I do not have grand plans to write a book, certainly not in three months, but I hope I have enough oil to illuminate and keep me going. I hope to see the hand of God as I read through my old journals as well as those of my mother and grandmother. I hope to do some writing of my own story and get a better understanding of my mother and grandmother’s stories, their spiritual lives and their interactions with the church. How do their stories help form my own?
I have been waiting and watching with a contemplative prayer group the past several months. I am hopeful that this practice will help me be more alert, that silence, prayer, and deep listening will point me toward the holy, toward further opportunities to be a drop in the rushing torrent of justice.
This is what I am doing to prepare, to watch and wait. But what if we are not so good at preparing? What about those bridal attendants, waiting in the dark? Are they given another chance to get oil? Or at least given another metaphor to live into?
It is probably too easy to say from my place of privilege but I do think those who sit in the dark, without any oil, are given another chance. And remember, they are not alone in the dark, they have company, there are five of them. They each can decide – will they get more oil and be ready for the next wedding? Or see themselves as a small seed with mysterious potential? or become yeast that silently and powerfully does its work? Or perhaps throw themselves in with other drops of water and become part of the justice stream that wipes out oppression.
We are each invited to watch and wait. It is never too late to look around, to see the beauty and holy that are present and to choose to be part of God’s work in the world.