I’ll admit that there is just a smidge of the autobiographical in today’s sermon title. Both Bruce and I have helped to plan countless wedding ceremonies, but it’s been a long time– over 36 years–since we had to plan a whole wedding day, our own. We sat down with Meredith and Chris last night to map out responsibilities and expenses for their wedding, and I have renewed sympathy for the couples who approach me about getting married. The one area where Bruce and I are moderately “expert” at–the ceremony itself–is being taken care of by Meredith’s godmother, an ordained United Methodist minister–so we just get to be the parents of the bride, which is wonderful and, as I said, a little overwhelming.
But this parable about a wedding which is the assigned reading for this morning? What is it about weddings that brings out the ruthless and vengeful in Matthew’s Jesus?! Remember the other wedding parable we read a few weeks ago where the invited guests all gave excuses why they couldn’t come, so the master had his servants go out and bring people in off the streets. And then when he sees one of these guests not in proper wedding attire, has him tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth! It kind of makes you dread weddings, or at least to begin to advocate that all couples elope and get married privately.
This parable isn’t in any of the other gospels. And Matthew seems to have a fondness for finishing off Jesus’ parables with somebody getting thrown or banished into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–there are at least 6 instances in this gospel, whereas it only appears once or twice in the others. While it’s not in today’s reading, it appears in the parable just before this one and the one immediately after (stay tuned for next week!). Here toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, set in the last week of Jesus’ life, we can either read Messianic stress and strain in Jesus’ words and mood, as someone has suggested, or, more likely, read the stress and strain of Matthew’s community–under extreme duress from Rome and bitterly estranged from their own Jewish community who didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Human nature doesn’t seem to have changed all that much in 2000 years, as fear, humiliation, and estrangement still drives otherwise faithful people to entertain images of revenge, violence, and ruthlessness.
One woman asked a friend of hers who is relatively “unchurched” to read this parable of the 10 “Bridesmaids,”– as the NRSV translates, “the 10 Virgins” is really more accurate– with her, and when they had finished, he said, “Is that in the Bible? Well, it’s not right.” (Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, DayOne.org, 11/4,07) It certainly seems to contradict what Jesus teaches elsewhere–the “wise” virgins won’t share their oil with their sisters, but send them out into the darkness to buy more for themselves [and what gas station is open at midnight?]. It sounds like the beginning of an end-of-fossil-fuel dystopia. If taking care of yourself and being prepared with enough supplies is a priority for Jesus, then what about the feeding of the 5000? Jesus didn’t tell the crowds there, “All right, those of you who planned ahead and brought a picnic supper, we’ll take a dinner break now. The rest of you are out of luck.” Or how about when the five young women finally return and knock on the door to be let into the feast, and the bridegroom says he doesn’t know them and the door remains shut. What happened to, “Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you”? What about that “extravagant welcome” that we in the UCC talk about? Do we want to tell our children this story? This is what it means to be wise?
So what are we left with, besides “wedding panic”? First of all, it’s ok to critique a passage in the Bible based on what we know from other parts of the Bible, the overwhelming biblical values of sharing and compassion and hospitality, for example. It’s ok to say, “That’s in the bible? Well, it’s not right.”
But is there any wisdom to be gleaned in this troubling parable put on Jesus’ lips by Matthew? The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence points out that “the parable doesn’t say whether the bridesmaids had any oil at home.
It doesn’t say a word about motives or extenuating circumstances or reasons why five women might conceivably have left their oil flasks at home. And that’s significant, I think. Maybe this is not a story about how much oil you have. Maybe this is a story about the oil you carry with you. And the parable is very clear: all ten bridesmaids had lamps, but five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. The wise ones brought flasks of oil with their lamps when it was time to wait for the bridegroom. The foolish ones showed up with lamps and nothing to keep them going. And when your lamp goes out, you may have gallons of oil sitting at home; but it’s not going to do you any good there. (Carter Florence, op cit.)
“Maybe this is a story about the oil you carry with you.” There are some things, aren’t there? that you have to carry with you, that you can’t borrow from somebody else. You can’t borrow someone else’s story or self-esteem, for instance, even though our celebrity-worshipping and sports fan culture would try to tell us otherwise. You have to be prepared to stand in your own true self when you lose your job or your health or a loved one, let alone when your team loses or your favorite celebrity falls from grace. “Keep awake,” Jesus says, and don’t get lulled into the illusion that you can live off someone else’s life.
Maybe this is a story about the oil you carry with you. You can’t borrow someone else’s faith or trust in God. You’ve got to carry that with you. You’ve got to nurture it yourself, with practices like prayer and meditation, worship and sacred reading, acts of service and standing for justice. First we form our habits, and then our habits form us, a wise man once said. We can’t prepare for every situation, but if we’ve practiced affirming God’s presence at all times, we are more likely to experience that presence when the rest of our world seems to be crumbling. If we’ve practiced acts of service and advocated for justice, we’re more likely to find the courage to stand up on behalf of another in the midst of an injustice. “Keep awake,” Jesus says, and don’t get seduced into all kinds of other busyness that crowd out the practices and disciplines of faith.
Maybe this is a story about the oil you carry with you. I read somewhere that most people think they’ve got at least another 5 years to live. If you’ve got another 5 years to live, you’ve still got time to make a will and to fill out an advanced healthcare directive. If you’ve got another 5 years to live, you’ve got time to clear things up with your parent or your child or that estranged friend. If you’ve got another 5 years to live, you’ve got time to do some thinking about what’s really important to you and what you’d like to do with your time, your resources, your energy.
But what if time, let alone 5 years, isn’t the oil you can carry with you? What if “the bridegroom” arrives during our Sunday Social today? What if tomorrow life happens to you when you’ve made other plans [which is the definition of life]? What if you or your loved one don’t have 5 years to live? What oil are you carrying with you ? “Keep awake,” Jesus says, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This isn’t a parable that we need to use to scare people–to put up on a billboard like the one just before you come into Vermont on Rt. 7 that says something like, “What if you were to meet God tonight?” and has flames in the background. Or, frankly, like the movie that’s being shown in one our sister churches next weekend about heaven and hell and where you’re likely to go if you’re not “right with God and accept the Lord Jesus into your heart.” I don’t find fear to be a sustainable motivator. It is meant to give us the energy to run away from lions–not to keep us going day by day. “Keep awake,” Jesus says, but all of us will fall asleep at some point. We have to. Our bodies require it.
But we can practice being awake to the signs and presence of God that are all around us. We can keep filling our oil resources from the Source that never runs dry, through practices and disciplines that increase our capacity and strengthen us for carrying. We can “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as it says in the book of Hebrews, not so that we can become “like Jesus,” but so that, like him, we can become all that God intends us to be. The Bridegroom that we await in another coming has not undergone a horrible transformation since his first coming, so that his compassion, his wisdom, his grace, his healing have all morphed into vengefulness, ruthlessness, score-keeping, and destruction. Rather his coming is more likely in every moment, all around us, in the face of the poor, in the cries of creation, in the pain of those who grieve and suffer. How sad, how tragic even, that we should be so dulled by the glitter and glitz and distractions of the world, or so paralyzed by fear, that we miss his coming in our midst.
The Bridegroom is the beloved, after all, who came to live among us to tell us that we too are beloved. God intends for us joy. God intends for us wholeness and beauty. God intends for us a wedding whose union creates blessing and new life. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark