Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 27], November 11/12, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
From time to time I read passages in Scripture that remind me of bad dreams I have had. When I was a seminarian, preparing to be a minister, I used to travel to churches carrying my clerical robes on my arm. Once I was ordained and in a congregation, my robes hung in a closet at the church I served. Nevertheless, I had a recurring dream of arriving at a church without my alb, stole, and cincture … the game uniform of a clergyman.
I had dreams in which my sermon was missing from the pulpit and I could not remember even the text or the theme … I had frequent nightmares about oversleeping on a Sunday morning, even though that has never happened in fifty years of ministry. And, of course, I have had that classic anxiety delusion not unique to ministers … the one where you arrive for a critical presentation without your trousers! That also has never happened!
Our Gospel lesson for today is something of a Biblical bad dream story. Tradition calls this story ~ the Parable of the The Wise and Foolish Maidens. I call it a holy nightmare!
In the wedding tradition of Jesus’ day, it was common for a group of people, generally young women, to form a welcoming party to greet and accompany honored guests into the assembly area. Since the wedding would be at the bride’s home, the most important guestS would be the bridegroom and his attendants.
When it comes to weddings we know that nothing ever happens precisely as planned. For unknown reasons, the bridegroom in this story was delayed. When he finally arrived, the young women in the official welcoming group were expected to jump into action. Matthew tells us that because of the delay, many lamps had begun to sputter, requiring additional oil. Five of the young women clearly had mothers who drilled them on the importance of planning for all contingencies! They had extra oil. But their abundance did not encourage generous hearts … a sober reminder to all of us!
Since the five with extra oil would not share, the girls with sputtering lamps panicked. They abandoned their duty, racing off to find oil. What a poor decision. How much better it would have been for them to have simply remained with sputtering lamps, letting their youthful joy and enthusiasm cast a bright light on the Bridegroom’s arrival.
This Biblical nightmare pivots on poor decisions:
One group of young women was selfish. They made the poor decision of ignoring their friends in a desire to gain approval;
The other group of maidens was unwilling to own their mistake, and so they compounded their error by running away.
The story has a harsh and graceless conclusion. The bridesmaids who had extra oil, albeit with hard hearts, were admitted to the feast. The girls who ran off to find oil missed their moment and were excluded. Excuse me if I have difficulty equating this bridegroom with Jesus Christ!
What an unsatisfying story … you see why I call it a Biblical bad dream! The behavior of all of the bridesmaids was terrible! The wise maidens were selfish and uncaring. The ones called “foolish” manifested an immaturity and poor decision-making that is a hallmark of youth … if you are not sure what I mean, ask the three young basketball players from UCLA who are in a Shanghai jail for shoplifting sunglasses and could not fly home on the team’s plane!
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids evokes feelings of fear and failure. While the parable is about young women … it could easily be about teenaged boys or college students or young adults or anyone who just did not think through all the implications in a given situation.
Who can hear this story and not have a flash back to a time when a parent said: What is your problem … how could you not see what was coming … why do you never anticipate that something could go wrong … why are you always a disappointment to us?
By the time Matthew recorded this parable Jesus’ followers had been waiting for his return for fifty years or more. The eye-witnesses were gone. The church had expanded in dramatic fashion, but oppression had begun. The Temple in Jerusalem, revered by both Jews and Christians, had been destroyed by the Romans.
Where was Jesus? He had said he was going to prepare a place and he would come again.
What would happen to those who loved the Lord but had died before his Second Coming?
The difficulty of waiting is still a problem for us. We live in a culture where delayed gratification is intolerable. Everyone wants everything … right now. Waiting is considered a waste of time. …
I have suggested before that the theme of “waiting” may be a helpful approach to this challenging parable. Life is filled with waiting:
Waiting can be good – waiting for the birth of a healthy child … waiting to close on your long-awaited dream house … waiting for career advancement or acceptance to the college of your choice … this is good appropriate waiting.
It is difficult when we wait for something painful – waiting to see if this time you will be able to get pregnant, or for the bank to foreclose on your home … waiting for the doctor’s report to confirm what you know ~ that the cancer has returned.
Whether we are waiting for something good or bad, how we wait is important. As Christians we do not wait alone!
We are not like the self-centered maidens who would not share. We open our hearts and give what we can to those who are in need.
We are not like the young maidens who ran away. We stand up and acknowledge our shortcomings. We stand by God’s grace, not by our accomplishments.
In closing, let me encourage us all to be the Church of Jesus Christ, baptized believers who seek to make a difference.
As baptized believers … we will wait for one another – the wise and the foolish alike. We will be present for each other in times of loss and need and pain.
As baptized believers … we will rejoice with others in their accomplishments, not with envy for their good fortune, but truly happy for their blessings.
That is what it means to be a Christian, then and now. And that is why we come here rather than go to Starbucks or the gym … to hear God’s word and share life with our brothers and sisters in Christ. To God be the glory! AMEN.