Matthew 25:1-13, Amos 5:18-24
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Each November, Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, that is, the series of biblical readings shared in worship each Sunday, find themselves in a bit of a mini-season.
November is a mini-season of the end times, the season when we consider Jesus’ return, eschatology in the vocabulary of theologians. Usually on the last Sunday in November or sometimes the second to last, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, the very last day of the church year, when we look forward to the kingdom of God come in its fullness. Today, we begin our mini-season with the tale of five wise and five foolish bridesmaids with their lamps who wait for the bridegroom that they might accompany him to the wedding banquet. In this tale, the bridegroom is delayed. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep, and all of their lamps go out. At the bridegroom’s midnight arrival, all the women rouse from their slumber. However, only five bridesmaids had wisely prepared by bringing extra oil to trim their lamps; the other five didn’t. The five wise bridesmaids with their trimmed and burning lamps join the traditional wedding procession to the banquet while the five foolish bridesmaids, on the other hand, scramble to find oil and in the process miss the procession.
All ten bridesmaids show up to welcome the bridegroom with their lamps in hand. All ten bridesmaids get drowsy and fall asleep. The lamps of all ten bridesmaids go out. All ten bridesmaids recognize the bridegroom when he comes at midnight. What is the difference between those who are foolish and those who are wise? Allow people to answer. The wise bridesmaids prepared for a long wait. They brought extra oil.
In the first century, Christians expected that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, a return laden with theological claims about who would be saved and condemned when Jesus, in his glory, would sort between the sheep and goats, believers and unbelievers, doers of the word and hearers of the word. That, at least, is the picture drawn by Matthew’s gospel. Regardless of claims about salvation or condemnation, I suspect that this parable was written in response to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. Like the delayed bridegroom in the story, Jesus too is delayed—at least from the perspective of first century Christians. In the meantime, while waiting, what were they to do? How were they to prepare?
We may not be on the edge of our seats like those early Christians waiting for Jesus to return, but we probably all know the agony of waiting for God to act. Right now in our world, no matter our social or political views, the world seems very scary, fragile, hanging by a thread. Wars and rumors of wars, shootings and drug abuse, hurricanes and earthquakes, fires and floods, hunger and poverty, suffering and misery. We are eager, are we not, for God to come and act. Where are you, bridegroom?
Two weeks ago, I took a couple of vacation days and attended a symposium at the University of Arizona. Artists shared art created at or inspired by the US/Mexico border, and folks who interact with the border in other ways reflected on our current immigration laws and debate. One of the presenters, Mike Wilson, founded the organization Humane Borders. Weekly, he and other volunteers place large cisterns of water near the border for those traveling through the desert with little or no supplies. For Mike, providing water is a human issue, a way to alleviate suffering in the harsh climate of southern Arizona. From Mike’s perspective, the way we have responded to the desperation of those seeking a better life in the United States, despite the journey’s many risks, has been a response of hate, of intolerance, of a lack of compassion. But he knows—as we all do—that there are a diversity of views on immigration and many and various other social issues. And at this moment in our political life, we in the US are so very divided that we struggle even to talk with people who stand in a different place than us. People of goodwill, perhaps some of us in this room, hate others because of their views. In this context, Mike asked: How do we respond to these hateful times without drinking from the cup of hate? How do we respond to these hateful times without drinking from the cup of hate?
As we wait for the return of Jesus, as we wait for God to act, we prepare by keeping on—with love, with compassion, with justice. We are eager for God to act in so many ways on behalf of all those who are marginalized and vulnerable, including those of us who feel marginalized or vulnerable. As we wait on God, we keep on keeping on. We do not drink from the cup of hate. We do not give up loving. We do not give up showing compassion. We do not give up doing justice. Yes, we get tired, and we rest. And when we rouse from our slumber, refreshed, we keep on with love, compassion, and justice. We bring extra oil to the wait.
I keep by jumping up to answer the church office door and finding someone on the other side needing water or a blanket, perhaps the fourth person in one hour.
I keep on by answering another email or another phone call, someone requesting my help.
I keep on by watering my garden and feeding my chickens each day, a commitment to living gently on the land.
I keep on by filling out various necessary, dry, and boring paperwork that makes our ministry possible at Grace.
I keep on by attending meeting after meeting, meetings through which we really do plan and implement what God has called us to do.
Your lives are likely as full as mine, and sometimes, it’s hard to keep on—with love, compassion, and justice. People, perhaps our families or our church family, friends or coworkers, they wear us thin with their demands and flaws, their habits and tenacious brokenness. Mass shootings and other forms of violence, they confound us; we don’t know what to do. The effects of natural disasters, a broken criminal justice system, a complex and ineffective health care delivery system, compassionless immigration law, the amount of what needs fixing in our world overwhelms us. We are tired. We are anxious. We are overwhelmed. Where are you, bridegroom? When are you going to act, God?
While we wait, like the bridesmaids, we get to sleep, to rest. We get to take breaks, to practice sabbath. Whether that is simply a nap or a day off, a boundary kept with a demanding person, quiet time each day or this time set aside each week to worship God. When we rouse from our slumber, refreshed, we keep on keeping on—with love, compassion, and justice.
I wish I could tie up this sermon with profound and lilting words, but the reality of our world and of our lives is that this waiting for God in the midst of a broken world is neither neat nor tidy. All we can do is trust that, one day, the bridegroom will come, and when he does, we’ll be ready.