Saturday, November 8, 2014

There's More to the Story!

I cannot begin to express the depth of gratitude I owe to David R. Henson for helping me face the prickly issues in the Gospel reading, as well as the usual suspects (like Kathryn Matthews Huey, Bruce Epperly, and "Working Preacher" contributor Greg Carey).

Seriously, y'all, come by sometime. Lunch is on me.

Matthew 25:1-13

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 have a confession this morning. Just between us, OK? This reading bothers me.

OK, I mean, I get what the gist of the passage is: be prepared for the Lord's return. The “wise” bridesmaids brought extra oil just in case things ran a little over schedule and the party was late getting started, I get that. If we take this as a metaphor for the return of Christ, then the idea is that Christians should understand that while the Lord's return may be imminent, it isn't necessarily immediate. Don't give up. Stay the course, keep the faith. And hold that perseverance in tension with the knowledge that Christ's return just might be immediate... so stay alert. Be prepared.

And as long as we hold it right there... understand that, historically, the people Matthew was writing to had seen the Temple destroyed, which Jesus prophesied in the previous chapter, and they were expecting Jesus to return in triumph any day now... they had been expecting Jesus to return any day now for a long, long, long time... so the message of not giving up, not abandoning the truth of Jesus in search of some other pleasure or comfort or temporal assurance makes sense... and as long as that is as far as we go with it, everything is fine.

Don't pick at the edges. Don't scratch at the finish to see what's beneath. We're good, right? There isn't anything more to the story. Pass the plate and let's sing.

And maybe that was what Jesus intended. Maybe there really isn't more to the story. After all, he is in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew's apocalyptic passage, which began with Jesus predicting that the Temple would be utterly destroyed, and ends with Jesus talking about separating sheep from goats at the Final Judgment. Maybe all Jesus intended to get across was “be vigilant, be alert, be prepared. Period.”

There is a brusqueness, a harshness in this passage about the bridesmaids, after all, isn't there? It lacks the element of grace we're used to seeing in Jesus' parables – the father who runs to meet the Prodigal Son, the joy of finding the lost sheep or the lost coin, the wild abandon of selling everything to obtain the pearl of great price. Maybe it's like Fred Craddock says, and there are really two types of parables, “those that offer a surprise of grace at the end...and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other.”

Still... the passage closes with the admonition, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” That's fine, I guess, but it occurs to me that out of the ten bridesmaids, exactly zero stayed awake waiting on the bridegroom. All of them fell asleep. The only difference – the only difference! – was that half of them brought extra oil.

Oil that they would not share because they might – might! – not have enough. That fact right there drives me crazy! And I don't mind telling you that many of the scholars and commentators that I have read concerning this passage feel the same way.

And the very idea that the bridegroom would punish these five “foolish” bridesmaids for going to get what they needed because of their stingy counterparts... it just seems kind of arbitrary to me. All ten got to the banquet hall on time. All ten of them waited. All ten of them fell asleep. On only one point did they differ. I don't know if I can agree with Fred Craddock. This just doesn't seem all that just to me. There has to be more to the story, doesn't there?

Yes, I confess, I almost went with another reading today. It was a choice between doing that and just kind of glossing over my discomfort, preaching about preparedness and what that means, and being done with it. Nothing wrong with that, it's safe, and it would be true.

And it would be one-dimensional. No depth. And there isn't anyone here who is a one-dimensional person. We have facets, and depths, and complexities and experiences that make us who we are, unique and wonderful and beautiful, and the faith that each of us possess is no different.

So is it enough to say “be like the wise bridesmaids?” Sure, I want to identify with the wise ones... and there are times and subjects in which I feel pretty wise. Some days my lamp burns nice and bright. Some days I think, y'know, Jesus could come back and I'd be OK. I'd be “in.”

But there are days... who am I kidding? There are weeks sometimes, endless dark periods where, if I am honest, I identify more with the “foolish” bridesmaids than I do with the “wise” ones. I doubt, I worry, I harbor fears and gnaw on anger over some offense, where something or another, or several dozen somethings, it seems, overwhelm me, and my lamp isn't so bright. The flame flickers and grows dim. If Jesus came back then, would I be “in?” Is it as arbitrary as this passage makes it seem, is my presence in the Kingdom of God predicated upon what side of the bed I get out of in the morning?

C'mon. Do I even have to say it? No! There is more to the story.

Our faith, our theology, dare I say our God is so much larger than a single passage of Scripture from the Lectionary reading! Yes, we an say the Kingdom of Heaven is like this parable of the ten bridesmaids, and – and! – we can say the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like leaven, and like a treasure hidden in a field, and like a pearl of great price...

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

We can call the five prepared (but stingy) bridesmaids “wise,” sure, but we can also put them up against the servant in the very next passage of Scripture who, rather than take a risk with the money his master left him with, hid it away and did not use it at all, and was punished severely for his cowardice, or we can compare them to the goats at the end of this chapter who saw the hungry and did not feed them, who ignored the cries of the thirsty or the shivering of the naked.

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

So yes, let's take the important base message here – be patient, but be vigilant, because the Lord will return, and it might be tomorrow and it might be today but maybe not – but let's not stop there. Let's not let this be the only lesson.

David Henson asks a wonderful question about this passage, about the bridesmaids who left, seeking oil for their lamps: “...[W]hat would have happened, I wonder, had the bridesmaids simply continued to wait, with sputtering lamps and dwindling lights?

What would have happened had the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night?

To me, this was their mistake. They left, when they should have stayed. The bridal couple surely would have welcomed their friends into the light of the banquet, unconcerned about the state of their oil lamps, happy just to see their friends waiting for them.

What faith it would have taken, though, to wait in such frailty, in such honesty!”

Perhaps what we see in this parable is a lack of faith on the part of all of the bridesmaids. After all, the wise as well as the foolish are operating out of fear, not trusting the love that the bridegroom has for his friends. If the wise ones really trusted, really believed, they would have shared their oil. So what if they all end up with flickering lamps, weak flames barely hanging on to the end of dry, smoking wicks, weakly beating back the darkness of midnight? After all, the bridegroom is on his way, and he will welcome his friends who have been faithfully awaiting him into the light and warmth and joy of the wedding feast!

There are times I have been like the five wise bridesmaids: I have all my ducks in a row I have enough and a bit to spare, but I have been stingy; afraid that if I gave away part of my excess, that spare bit, I'd end up with not enough.

There are times I have been like the five foolish bridesmaids, too: scrambling to make up for lost time or a lack of resources or cover my bases because I made a mistake, desperately hoping that no one finds out what an idiot I have been.

And you know what? There are even times I have been like the bridegroom. I know, and the context of the passage is pretty clear, that the bridegroom is supposed to represent the returning Christ. But, again, I think there is more to the story, and I want to separate the personality of the bridegroom for the moment from the apocalyptic nature of the parable.

This guy didn't care about protocol, didn't give a rip about how long anyone had to wait on him, he just showed up when he pleased, and he callously excluded half of the bridesmaids because they were away in that moment when he just decided to pop in, never mind that they were knocking on the doors of friends and family and merchants in the middle of the night, desperately trying to make up for what they lacked, trying their hardest to be good enough for the bridegroom.

What. A. Jerk.

I've been that guy. I've spoken out of my place of privilege, judged others harshly for perceived shortcomings, snubbed those who struggle with difficulties that I have never had to deal with, arbitrarily dismissing whole classes of people because they aren't as “good” as I think I am... or as I pretend to be.

I can, if I am honest, identify with every character in this parable in one way or another. And perhaps that is the lesson.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When we find ourselves feeling like the foolish bridesmaids, remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet us there.
When we find ourselves feeling like the wise bridesmaids, remember to share what we have, even if it scares us.

Especially if it scares us.

Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved community. The chance to give of ourself is a holy place and God will meet us there.

When we find ourselves feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Don’t let hurt feelings and fear insulate us from others. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet us there. The Lord's table is vast, and the banquet hall as large as the Kingdom of Heaven.

No matter how thin our light, no matter how dark the night, we wait, not seeking to be anything other than present right where we are. We trust that in the end, when the light of the bridegroom arrives, it won’t matter whether our tiny oil lamps are flickering still or extinguished completely. Rather the light of bridegroom will be enough for all, to illuminate the beauty of the darkness and to bring us in joy to the midnight celebration.

Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Alleluia, amen.

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