I come to you in the name of the One on whom all our hope is founded, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN
What a week it’s been. What a year it’s been since we last began this season of Advent.
Waking up early Wednesday morning, after a long day working the polls, and an even longer night watching returns, falling asleep, only to wake up worrying that perhaps I missed some news, falling asleep again, and then waking up way before dawn (my internal clock still trying to adjust to last week’s time change), I decided to head to the lake for a walk with the dogs. On Monday morning, the lake had been bumpy (as kayakers like to say) with waves of 3-4 feet. The water was unpredictable and the wind was brisk. (It’s as if the water knew our collective mood of uncertainty and anxiety). But Wednesday morning was different, the lake was smooth as glass, with just the slightest breeze. The beach was wider than it had been several days before. And just as it had on Monday morning – the sun rose into a glorious sky. I didn’t feel any less anxious or uncertain – but that sunrise and calm lake reminded me that in the midst of everything – God’s faithfulness is sure, God’s love is unbounded, and that we, all of us, each and every one of us are beloved by God, made in the beautiful image of God our creator.
And I’ve reflected this week how easy it is to lose sight of these truths, these things of which we can be certain, these bedrocks of our faith. How easy it is to situate ourselves apart from God’s economy and live as if the traps of scarcity, fear, and winner take all are the true narrative.
And it seems to me that the puzzling and somewhat disturbing parable of the ten bridesmaids, may offer some insight into these days and this season we are beginning.
As I read and re-read the parable over the last week, I couldn’t escape the questions that kept arising, the questions that kept me wondering what it all means.
- Where is the bride?
- Why is the bridegroom so late?
- What’s up with those bridesmaids who wouldn’t share their oil?
- Why did the foolish bridesmaids leave? Where did they think they would find oil in the middle of the night?
- Is Jesus really the bridegroom? Would Jesus really say, “I don’t know you”?
New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine, in her book “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” reminds us that parables are stories full of memorable characters, not historical portraits of real people but characters who challenges our stereotypes, characters who can inspire, humble, challenge and confront us. Characters who help us ask the right questions. Parables are not answers but invitations, she writes. They are stories that prompt us to draw our own conclusions and also force us to realize that our own answers to the questions we ask may be traps. They are stories to be shared in community so we might learn, assess, and challenge together.
So in reading this parable today, what invitations, what new ways of thinking might we consider. How does this parable challenge us?
I do not like to wait – and these past 8 months (and especially these past 5 days) have been full of waiting: waiting/longing for an end to this pandemic, waiting for some sort of return to “normalcy,” waiting for election results, longing to see this place full of people sitting shoulder to shoulder singing with abandon (oh, how I miss singing together) longing for an end to injustice and oppression. And in that waiting, that longing, I can become irritable, anxious, closed in, and despondent with that sort of fatalistic thinking that none of these things will ever happen or think that somehow it all depends on me to do more, be more and then, everything will be ok.
The ten bridesmaids are waiting today, too. It’s hard to know how long they’ve been waiting. But picture them all dressed up, lamps in hand (some of them with extra oil), waiting for the bridegroom, waiting for the party to start. Waiting and waiting and waiting (no text messages to tell them about a traffic jam, no cell phone to call and ask about the delay) Just waiting.
So what do they do – they all fall asleep. Not only the so-called foolish bridesmaids but the so-called wise ones too. This wedding day is not starting out as any of them were expecting. They didn’t ask for the situation they find themselves in. They had no idea the bridegroom would be so late. And it’s when that bridegroom finally arrives, when they all hear the shout of, “he’s coming, let’s go out and meet him,” that our bridesmaids diverge into two groups. All ten wake from their slumber (I picture it as one of those sleeps where you keep waking up wondering if it’s time, wondering if the one you’re waiting for has finally arrived).
The wise bridesmaids awaken to the shouts and they are ready. They know they have enough oil in their lamps, plus some to spare. They trim their lamps knowing that the light will keep burning. They were prepared for the delay.
The foolish ones, well they wake up and panic. They, too, trim their lamps for the most efficient use of the oil, but they know there isn’t enough, their lights will go out. They ask the wise ones, “Will you give us some of your oil?”
The other five say no, and send the foolish ones off to the store for more oil. (Almost as if they are trying to get rid of them) When the foolish bridesmaids return, they find themselves locked out of the party with the bridegroom proclaiming he doesn’t even know them.
And it’s here where, in my perspective, we can go off the rails in how we interpret this story. Where we can fall into a dualistic thinking that features winners and losers, wise ones and foolish ones, and no second chances. It’s not so simple (although it may be appealing) and there is more learning than just saying – be like the wise ones.
So what might we take away from this parable today without falling into this trap. I’d suggest several things for us to consider.
Waiting is simply the reality of life:
All ten bridesmaids wait. They wait and they wait. They trust that the bridegroom will show up. And that waiting may look like eager anticipation or sometimes a drowsy (half asleep) presence. And waiting for God does not mean God is not there. God is in the midst of the waiting for we proclaim a faith in a God who is both here and yet to come.
Be prepared for the delay
My colleague, Eric Biddy, rector of St Christopher’s in Oak Park wrote this the other day, “Despite Jesus’ admonition to stay awake, the real point of the parable itself is to be sure that you have prepared for the delay. So in this timely parable, Jesus is telling you to buy some chocolate, take a walk, tell some jokes, goof around with your pet or kids, enjoy a favorite beverage, knit a sweater, talk to your friends, even while you keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” God will come again – we cannot know when, but we can be prepared. Being prepared is not about hoarding (making sure there’s enough for me and me alone) but is about living life fully while we are waiting.
What we do in the midst of waiting and preparing makes a difference. Jesus’s admonition in the parable to keep awake is not a call to hyper-vigilance for we all know that leads to utter exhaustion. It is a call, though, to pay attention, to remain aware. When we think waiting means we must just put our heads down and wait it out, we miss the world around us. We miss seeing the needs of our neighbor and world. We risk thinking we have to go it alone. This for me is where the wise bridesmaids make an error. When the foolish ones ask if the others would share their oil, they are rebuffed. There is no consideration given to how they might all share the extra supply. There is no creative thinking or wondering about how much light is really needed. The response is one of scarcity – there won’t be enough. Go find some on your own. While this parable may seem to punish the ones who didn’t have enough, other stories throughout our scriptures remind us that in God’s economy, there is always enough. What would it be like for us to fully live into God’s economy and care more about the emptiness in our neighbor’s flask than to covet the brimming fullness of our own.
Don’t give up and leave
The foolish bridesmaids panic when they think their lights are going out so they take the not so wise advice of the other bridesmaids and head off in the middle of the night to search for oil. As Debi Thomas writes, “they assume that their oil supply is more important to the groom than their presence at the feast. It can be hard to stick around when our light is fading and our reserves are low, to think that we must have it all together before we show up in front of God, when we believe that God will not accept our imperfect and messy selves. In God’s economy, we are accepted as we are. There is love and light for all. God wants us to show up.
God does not shut the door
It seems dangerous to me if we think that the bridegroom is a perfect stand in for Jesus. Parables are written in context and we know that the Matthean Jesus movement of the 1st century was in conflict with local religious leaders about who was “in” and who was “out,” who was welcome to the party and who was shut out. Sounds familiar doesn’t it, as we too in our day are often more concerned for policing borders of all kinds – borders of race, class, political party, nationality – than in truly welcoming our neighbors. Perhaps that stark statement near the end of the parable when the bridegroom says, he does not know the ones who are knocking, is a warning about the ugliness of the closed door. For we proclaim the God who transcends all that divides us, who welcomes those on the outside, who greets even the ones who’ve been gone a long time.
What we are waiting and preparing for is a party
When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party. And as scholar Robert Capon Farron reminds us, “that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our [basement] stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and making its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.” We do indeed need to watch for him; because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
And all of this I believe is the message of our Advent season:
While we wait, remembering we are waiting for a party that God is hosting for all of creation.
While we prepare, remembering to invite others to join because there is enough for all.
We are waiting, preparing for Emmanuel, the return of the one who dared to live among us. We wait with eyes and hearts wide open to the needs and suffering of the world knowing with sure confidence that on this day and all days we are beloved children of God.
Come, come, Emmanuel. AMEN