St. John's, Centreville
November 12, 2017
Proper 27 A
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For those who might be hearing this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, from the gospel of Matthew, for the first time, or even for those of us who have heard it a hundred times, it may not seem to make much sense. Who has a wedding at midnight? Why couldn't the bridesmaids who ran out of oil for their lamps just run down the street to get some more? And why couldn't they get into the wedding just because they were a bit late?
To really understand this parable, we need to look at the customs of the day. On the date appointed for the wedding contract, the groom would go with an assembly of friends to take the bride from her family's home to their new home, usually at night. The return of the groom to his house with his bride, the symbolic act of marriage, would begin a festive celebration that lasted for several days.
Young women from both families would attend the bride. Those of the groom's family would wait in his house until the wedding party's arrival. There was no set time for the wedding party to arrive, so everyone had to be prepared at any time.
We don't know how long the bridesmaids had to wait for the groom to appear. It was around midnight when he finally showed up and the bridesmaids had fallen asleep. When they awoke to the sounds of the groom arriving with his bride and his friends, five of them who had brought extra oil for their lamps, awakened, filled their lamps, and joined the party. The five who did not bring extra oil could not light their lamps as their oil had run out because they had to wait so long. Those with the extra oil could not share lest they run out as well. So the five foolish bridesmaids have to leave to find someone who will sell them oil at midnight. By the time they do that and return, the party has already started and they are locked out. After the party starts, no one else can enter.
And Jesus says, "Keep watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." Be prepared, for we do not know when Christ will return and we do not know the day or the hour when we will die.
When the gospel of Matthew was written, during the last third of the first century, many people thought that Jesus would return any time. They did not understand the delay. Jesus had indicated that he would return before many of them had died. But that was not happening. So this parable addresses waiting for and being prepared for Jesus to come again.
The problem was not that the bridesmaids fell asleep. The problem was that five of the bridesmaids were not prepared. They did not bring extra oil in case the groom was delayed. What this parable is telling us is that we, too, do not know the day or the hour of the Second Coming of Christ, or the day or hour of our death. But no matter when these events occur, we need to be ready. We need to have our spiritual lives in order. We need to be in a right relationship with God. And usually that does not happen overnight, though in rare circumstances it can happen on one's deathbed. It takes a lifetime of prayer, worship, and education for our spiritual lives to grow and to deepen. It takes preparation on our part to do what we need to do to love and serve God.
We might wonder why those with extra oil would not share with those who had run out. In this parable, the oil represents what we each need to do to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, to prepare ourselves spiritually to meet God face to face. And that is not something that someone else can do for us. Someone else cannot form our relationship with God. Someone else's devotion cannot make us a Christian. We cannot ride into heaven on someone else's coattails. We have to have our own relationship with God. We have to nurture that relationship ourselves. We need to engage in worship, prayer and study to deepen our relationship with God. We can get help and support from others, but we must take responsibility for our own relationship with God.
Christianity is not a spectator sport. Observing another's devotion does not make us a Christian any more than watching a TV show makes us actors or actresses. Just sitting in church does not make us Christians.
We must be fully engaged in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We must be fully engaged in the work of the gospel - to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the lonely. We can't put off doing the work that God has given us to do.
We do not know the day or the hour of our death or when Christ will return in his glory. We need to be ready now, to live our faith now, to reach out to others in need, to deepen our relationship with God. There is some urgency in this. We do not know what will happen to us this afternoon or tonight or tomorrow. We need to get ready now.
Author Will Willimon tells the story of a funeral he went to in rural Georgia. "The funeral was in a little, hot, crowded church. Well, I had never seen anything like it. They wheeled the coffin in, and the preacher began to preach. He shouted and fumed and flailed his arms. "It's too late for Joe," he screamed. "He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it's too late for him now. He's dead. It's all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can't now. It's over."
"But it ain't too late for you! People drop dead every day! So why wait. Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!"
"Well, it was the worst thing I have ever hear", Willimon said. "Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family?" I asked my wife on the way home. "I've never heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that," he said.
She agreed. "Of course," she added, "the worst part of all is that what he said is true."
We seem to think that we have all the time in the world, to mend broken relationships, to deepen our relationship with God. If God were to call us home tomorrow, and God asks us how we have taken care of the poor, the needy, those in prison, those who are outcasts, how will we reply? When God asks us how we have been God's hands and feet in this world, how will we reply? When God asks us how we have lived out the gospel and shared it with others, how will we reply?
We do not know the day or the hour of our death or the Second Coming of Christ. So we must constantly be ready, ready to meet God face to face and give an accounting of our lives and how we have used the gifts God has given us. Will we be ready, whether it's tomorrow or next year or 20 years from now? Will we be ready? "Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." Amen