A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY – November 9, 2014
Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ parables. One important thing to remember about parables is that they are not allegories, they are stories. An allegory has the form of a story, but each element of it refers to a particular thing outside the story—in other words that there is sort of a code and if you figure it out, you know who the bridegroom is, or who the wise bridesmaids are, what the lamps represent, and so forth. That kind of interpretation of Jesus’ stories can end up being misleading. Jesus’ parables are stories that deserve to be heard as they are without presuming any key to interpreting them.
The story starts, “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In the ancient world, in ancient Palestine, a wedding was the biggest event that most people ever attended. The Yankees weren’t winning the World Series with the big after-party or ticker-tape parade. The coronations of the Roman emperors or their triumphal entries after winning wars took place way across the sea in a city that was, for the most part, known only by legend and imagination. And, truth be told, only a very few of the ordinary rural folk ever really made it to Jerusalem for the observance of Passover or any other major festival. In a local village, a wedding was huge. It involved virtually everyone. It was the best news and the most hopeful thing that anyone ever had in those places and at those times. I venture that this was the case, perhaps especially, in the less lavish weddings of humble people with few resources for throwing a huge party. Being a bridesmaid was a huge and important honor. And these ten young ladies are there to welcome the star of the show, make ready, and get the festivities started. (I realize that nowadays the bride is, rightly, the star of the show and indeed the bride’s role may have been equally important back then, but this story centers around the bridegroom.)
So this is a big deal, and welcoming the bridegroom is a big deal. So you have ten bridesmaids, and in among all the bustle of getting dressed up right and being ready, five of them thought, well maybe we should have some extra oil with us for our lamps in case things get delayed. Apparently the other five said, oh, there’s a big hurry and he’s supposed to be here in half an hour, this lamp will do, help me fix my hair.
Sometimes we expect things to happen on a schedule that doesn’t quite work out, for whatever reason. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was working at Union Theological Seminary, one of our doctoral students was the pastor of a church in the northern part of the Bronx, I forget which neighborhood. And she got married, a wonderful woman to a wonderful guy, and the wedding was at the church where she was the pastor. The wedding was scheduled for 2 pm and the church was packed by ten minutes before. I was sitting on a window ledge with my kids. And the word filtered out a while later that there was a little delay with the bride’s arrival. And hymns were sung and love was shared. And more hymns were sung. At 4:15 we got word that the bride was soon to arrive. The wedding took place and we all rejoiced, though the bride was two and a half hours late to her own wedding at her own church.
So, it’s not such an inconceivable thing that a bridegroom might be delayed, in the real world as a well as in story. And as little control as I had over my friend and doctoral student, how much less control do we have over God and God’s timelines, especially when the expectations we have of God don’t come from an engraved wedding invitation but from our own imagination and interpretation of ambiguous signs?
So the story of the bridesmaids continues. And remember this is a story, not an allegory, and there is nothing in here saying that any of this is rules or judgments by God or Jesus or anything. We have the wise bridesmaids and the thoughtless bridesmaids. And the thoughtless ones are the ones who said, yeahyeahyeah, oil, let’s take care of what I’m interested in first. And we reach the critical point in the story, and these thoughtless girls suddenly realize they need more oil and they turn to their friends: “Oh poor me, give me some oil.” What do you think the thoughtful girls are going to say? Of course they are going to say—“uh uh. No way. Go get your own oil.” What were these foolish bridesmaids thinking? Oh yeah, they were foolish, they weren’t thinking.
The kingdom of God is here and is coming, we do not know the hour when we need to be ready. At every hour we need to be thoughtful, ready to celebrate with the joyful and ready to mourn with those who mourn. This living business, especially abundant and joyful living, is not about us, it is about reaching out and respecting others, realizing the possibilities of loving for God’s sake in our lives. We might get frustrated, when the things we hope for don’t happen on our schedule, or when the things that happen are not what we wanted at all. But God has great things for us, we just make sure that we remember to keep a supply of oil for our lamps at hand.