Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13: The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I just want to warn you all. Matthew 25 is full of such good stuff that Becky and I are gonna preach on part of it for three weeks in a row. This chapter has everything: lamps, a wedding, coins, a hole in the ground, sheep, goats. Everything. I’m preaching this week and next. Becky is preaching on the 22nd. We are all going to know so much about Matthew 25. It’s going to be great. We’re starting with my favorite of the three stories Jesus tells in this chapter: The story of the Bridesmaids Who Should Have Stayed Awake. You may have heard it called something else. But, this is how I think of it. Because the Bridesmaids problems could have been solved had they stayed awake and talked to each other.
A lot of people don’t love this parable. It certainly has a hard ending, with the bad planners getting locked out of the party when they go get more oil. People feel bad for the women who ran out of oil. Who here has ever run out of something they needed for an important project? A lot of us have. I think it’s easy for us to identify with the ones who mess up in the story because we mess up sometimes. We don’t want to think Jesus might lock us out for a mistake. Most of the time when we thing of Jesus, we remember that he welcomed a lot of people to follow him. That’s why I think people have a hard time with this part of Matthew 25. You can’t follow him if you’re locked out!
I think we make a mistake in reading this by imagining that Jesus is the groom and we are either the bridesmaids who are good at planning or bad at planning. For one thing, this groom is kind of the worst. He is really late to his own wedding. He doesn’t even seem to warn them that he’s going to be late! Who here has ever had to wait on someone for a long time? Who here had to wait on something this week? Was it fun to wait? No. It was really hard. Has anybody ever fallen asleep while you waited?
Also, nobody in this story shares anything. Jesus wanted people to share. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be people who don’t share, even if the other people we are with have messed up. Also, Jesus usually forgives people when they say that they are sorry. He gives them a chance to fix their mistakes. The groom in this story doesn’t. So, that makes me think that we’re not supposed to think that Jesus is the groom or even that Jesus is the bridesmaids who don’t share. Here’s what I think we can learn about Jesus and how to be the church from this story.
Notice that Jesus tells the disciples that the point of this story is "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." Notice, too, that everybody in this story fell asleep. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. The five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need, and, don't share with the people who don't plan as well as you. That’s what gets you into the party. But, when he explains the story to the disciples, he doesn’t say, “be prepared.” He says, “Keep awake.”
Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually, the people who are most prepared are the ones paying the most attention to what is going ok. In this story, Jesus makes them seem more different. And, he asks everyone to stay awake, not be prepared. Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. And, since they fall asleep, they all almost miss what they are supposed to be doing: welcoming the groom with joy and celebration. Only some of them have enough saved that they can still scramble around and do what they are supposed to. But the party isn't as big as it could have been had everybody been able to do their job. I can’t help but wonder how the story would be different if they all would have done what Jesus said and stayed awake.
Had they stayed awake, maybe these two groups of women would have started talking to each other. Someone would brew some tea and offer it to someone else. Maybe one of them would suggest playing a game to pass the time. Maybe someone else would share stories about how they know the bride and groom. I don’t know if you know this but you don’t usually get to be in a wedding if you don’t know at least one of the people getting married. This is wedding between a man and a woman and maybe one of the bridesmaids knows the groom. She’s his cousin or something. She tells the other women that he is late for everything. That's why she brought extra oil. She knew he couldn't be on time. Maybe four other bridesmaids, all family of groom, nod their heads in agreement. They brought extra because they knew he’d be late, too.
If all the women are awake and talking to each other, the five bridesmaids who don’t have extra oil learn that they’ll probably need some, because the groom is late for everything. Now, having learned they’ll need more oil, the five who didn’t know the groom have time to run down to the corner store and get some before he arrives. In this version of the story, because they have stayed awake and helped each other, everyone has enough and they all get to do the thing they have gathered to do, to welcome the groom with joy and celebration. One of the most difficult things about waiting is feeling like you are doing it alone. If we tell a story about them where they do what Jesus asks, stay awake, we can tell a story about people who had the option to make the waiting easier for each other. And, who might be able to help each other actually do what they were called to do: welcome someone in joy.
When I read articles and books about this story in the Bible, several of the writers pointed out that Jesus in this story seems to be telling the people who follow him that there is going to be lots of waiting. I feel like most of what I’ve been doing for the last 8 months and definitely for the last 4 days is waiting. I think some of you feel like that, too. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service and naps and party games and probably some arguments. But, we have really spent a lot of time waiting. Waiting for a vaccine for a serious illness. Waiting for school to get back to normal. Waiting to see if the Covid numbers go up. Waiting to see if they go down. Waiting to hear how the election will turn out. It turns out that from the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting.
We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't be locked out. The thing is, regardless of how prepared we are, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we work to build it up with God, we do not know when it could be complete. We may grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some partners who can help us to stay awake to new encounters with the Divine. We can find friends who will elbow us if we fall asleep. Maybe today we can make a promise that I help you stay awake if you help me stay awake. Then, none of us will get locked out of the party. Does that sound like a good plan to you?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.