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.Matthew 25:1-13
My sermon from the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2023) on Matthew 25:1-13.
Today’s parable from the gospel according to Matthew has fed the faith of many different kinds of people in many different kinds of places over these last two thousand years. The oldest church building we’ve ever found, which was constructed sometime between 230 and 240 CE, painted on the walls where people were baptized a picture of ten women holding lamps. Nearly sixteen hundred years later, on the other side of the world, enslaved people in this country sung in the fields a song telling them to “keep yo’ lamps trimmed and a-burnin’” despite the inhumane violence they received at the hand of their enslavers. These ten women gave these two different communities a spirit of hope and new life even though they were separated by time, language, and culture. Now I’m pretty sure Jesus’ disciples weren’t really thinking that far ahead when they heard this story. They were, instead, wondering why their teacher seemed so focused on preparing them for what was about to come. In Matthew’s version of Jesus’ life, he began his public ministry with a long sermon detailing his thoughts about the kingdom of God. And then, right before his arrest and trial, Jesus did the same thing; offering another sermon since the Cross was just over the horizon. He wanted those who followed him to notice how God’s kingdom would continue even though our kingdoms would try to end His story. This last sermon, like his first one, was full of different stories. And in the middle of it all, he chose to tell his friends what happened when ten bridesmaids fell asleep at a wedding.
Now in the culture Jesus grew up in, weddings lasted at least seven days long. There were parties, pre-parties, and many different ceremonies that included the families, their guests, and everyone else in the village. And to kick off the last round of the events, the bridegroom first needed to visit the bride’s parents. It was then when they, together, would finalize what financial resources – like money, land, or animals – each side would bring to this new relationship. Most of these terms had been laid out when the couple became engaged, enabling them to set a date and send out invitations. But once the wedding date drew near, there typically was an attempt by all sides to try and get a little more out of the deal. It was expected that this final meeting would go long and so they developed a ceremony that announced when this meeting was over. Once all parties agreed to the exchange of money and gifts, the bridegroom would then be escorted away by a group of women holding lamps. These bridesmaids always knew that their job required them to wait. Yet they had a responsibility to be immediately ready once the negotiations were over. We can almost picture this story in our heads; imaging a group of women, standing in the courtyard of the bride’s family, ready to go with their lamps lit. But as day turned to night and the delay grew longer, these women soon fell fast asleep. They were ready to be the bridesmaids they were called to be; yet as hours passed by, their lamps soon went out – one by one.
In a sense, their experience of the wedding was now paused while they were busy sleeping under the stars. But since weddings were multi-day events, the nights were often just as active as the days themselves. While these women slept, the wedding continued with the bridegroom still negotiating with the family. The village or town they were in was full of guests milling about as they enjoyed all the food, snacks, and drinks. Everyone in that space knew that the next part of the wedding could kick off at any moment so all the caterers, musicians, officiants, and singers, were gearing up for what comes next. The wedding ceremony might have been a bit delayed but the entire experience of the wedding itself was still going on. The bridesmaids weren’t the only ones involved since it was someone else who shouted to announce the bridegroom was coming. It was then when all ten women woke up and got ready to be who they were supposed to be. But that’s when five of them noticed something was wrong because they didn’t have what they needed to be part of the procession they were called to lead.
Now Jesus’ words after the parable seem to imply that all the women messed up since they fell asleep while they were waiting. But I wonder if Jesus was trying to tell us something else since both those with oil and those without nodded off. I don’t think the snoozing itself was the problem; rather, it was about what happened when they finally woke up. Some of them had failed to be vigilant or prepare properly for what was about to come. Over the next two weeks, we’ll hear Jesus describe a little bit more of what that kind of vigilance might look like as we stay ready for the ongoing unfolding of the kingdom of God. Yet at the heart of Jesus’ argument, I think, is how this vigilance is always centered in what we’re already a part of. The bridesmaids were part of a wedding that they did nothing to bring about. They were simply called to be there and were given a role reserved for them alone. The vigilance Jesus asks us to embrace means noticing what we already are a part of. This, though, isn’t easy since there are many different things pulling on our soul. We all have lives full of different responsibilities, vocations, hurts, and joys. And it’s not often easy to notice what we belong to when our health fails and we watch loved ones enter the part of their life where getting better is no longer an option. It’s difficult when we’re exhausted, tired, and worn down to even guess what we belong to. And yet you, through your baptism, the gift of faith, and Jesus himself – have been brought into God through no work of your own. You, right now, are God’s beloved even if you no longer know what that feels like. And when it feels as if your light has gone out and you have no oil left to fuel your soul, Jesus’s love still burns within you because you’re already with your God.
I was reminded earlier this week what that kind of living might look like while watching videos about the New York City Marathon. On the day of the race itself, most of my social media feeds were filled with people who were either in the race or were holding a funny sign while their friends ran by. But one thing I hadn’t noticed before was what happened to the final finishers of the race. Unlike other professional marathons, New York has a really long time limit. They do, after six hours, re-open all the roads but the runners are invited to keep going. Last Sunday, a little before 10 pm, the last runner crossed the finish line. When she got there, she was completely exhausted and even needed someone to hold her up while she walked. Yet when she neared the finish line, there was a crowd of people cheering behind her and those up front couldn’t help but hoot and holler. They were there to place a medal around her neck, wrap a blanket around her body, and let a medical team check to see if she was okay. She ran the race on her own but there was a community already surrounding her. There are days when we are like her – barely able to move forward on our own. Yet we also, at the same time, have the opportunity to be like those around her, noticing who is struggling and helping them as they participate in something they didn’t create on their own. We, as part of the body of Christ, get to live in the exact same way: moving forward in the life we’ve been given while remembering we’re already part of something so much bigger than ourselves. We, because of Jesus Christ, are always beloved even when this life feels like anything but. And that’s because God’s endless love is with you and Jesus will be there to carry you through.