Wake Me Up (or why I shouldn’t title my sermons) – a sermon on Matthew 25:1-13
After the last couple weeks and the tough parables we’ve heard Jesus speak, I was thankful that Jesus has decided to tone down the rhetoric a little bit this week. And I only mean a little bit…
It starts again with that familiar line, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
And it was only after the second time reading through that I was thankful that Jesus didn’t just say the kingdom of heaven was like these wedding stories we’ve been hearing recently. Thankfully the kingdom of heaven is also like the mustard seed that can grow, and the leaven in the bread that turns out the most delicious loaf imaginable, and like the party thrown by a father after welcoming the long lost son home.
Thankfully, the kingdom of heaven is like all those things as well, because I’m not sure I want the kingdom of heaven to be like this tale of the bridesmaids that Jesus tells us this morning.
Because again, like in previous weeks there is someone being left out, and it seems like God doesn’t care for everyone and everything God has created. The door is shut, and there are some on the outside looking in while the party goes on inside.
And worse yet, not only are the so-called foolish bridesmaids on the outside, but the host of the party – Christ – doesn’t even know them.
This just doesn’t seem like the God of love and grace that we have come to know through scripture, and Matthew’s Gospel. In seminary, my favorite preaching professor, Anna Carter Florence, would often encourage us to let scripture help interpret scripture. Approaching this text with others from the Gospel of Matthew might help us deepen our understanding of what the evangelist was trying to convey about this parable.
Reflecting specifically on reading this parable with other passages from the Gospel of Matthew, Anna writes:
I tried starting that with the Sermon on the Mount back in Matthew 6 and 7, but I didn’t get very far, because the wise and foolish bridesmaids were making mincemeat out of the Beatitudes. I was coming up with rewrites like this:
(Matthew 6:19ff) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and ruse consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. Or (Matthew 6:25ff) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem. Or (Matthew 7:7ff) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. Or (Matthew 7:12ff) In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you. In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.
Like I said, I didn’t get very far, because it was tough, a rather deflating experience. This parable challenges most of the things I believe about God. It flies in the face of pivotal stories. If taking care of yourself were the main message of the gospels, the miracle of the loaves and fishes would never have happened. Jesus wouldn’t have lifted a finger for that hungry crowd, not if they hadn’t packed their own picnic supper. Instead of “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” we would have “The Moral of the Very Few Who Came Prepared,” and that is not what I want to teach my children about God. I don’t want them to emulate a bunch of smarmy bridesmaids and stingy oil men. I want better for them. I want better for Jesus, and I get tired of defending him when he tells stories like this.
Like Anna, I find this parable, and the picture of Jesus turning away those who aren’t ready when he shows up because they are sleeping, or didn’t know to come, or weren’t prepared once they were there somewhat troubling. Especially since these bridesmaids might be us in the church, and here we’re shown that there might be a time where a brother or sister in need gets denied by those faithful who are there and in a position to help.
This parable might tell us about how we are to share our oil, our knowledge of Christ, our love of God with others. It might warn us about hoarding that love and knowledge when there are others so desperately in need of it. Maybe this parable does indeed tell us to always be prepared for we never know the day or hour when we will encounter someone who is in need of hearing of God’s redemptive love.
But what if it’s not about the oil. What if this parable of the bridesmaids is not the great Boy Scout “Be Prepared” parable, but something else? What if the problem that our bridesmaids run into isn’t that they ran out of oil?
Earlier this week, a colleague shared this story, he writes:
A few years ago, to help out another pastor who had to be out of town that day, I officiated at a wedding at a very nice hotel. The hotel scheduled a wedding in the same room every two hours.
The bride and groom were concerned because the bride’s family had a history of somebody or another being late for everything—always running behind. And, sure enough, the wedding rehearsal ran way behind because people were late.
We only got to run through the structure of the wedding once, not twice the way I like to do at a wedding rehearsal. And the family almost lost their restaurant reservation for the rehearsal dinner—at this very nice hotel– because they were so far late.
But the bride and groom had a plan for the wedding day. They asked everybody to show up an hour early. And it worked.
Until the Father of the Bride (Yes the Father of the Bride) . . . went home to get something that somebody in the wedding party had forgotten.
He ran into bad traffic—and wasn’t back when the wedding was supposed to start. The hotel’s wedding coordinator insisted that the wedding had to start on time so that we would be out of the room in time for the next wedding.
When I joked that I’d never been to a wedding that started on time (I said it with a smile, but I think it was true), the wedding coordinator looked at me and said VERY seriously, “then you’ve never been to a wedding HERE.”
We managed to stall a little longer, but at about quarter after the wedding coordinator insisted the wedding start. And, with the Father of the Bride stuck in traffic, the Bride’s uncle walked her up the aisle.
The problem wasn’t that some member of the bridal party left something at home, because the wedding went on without it. The problem was that the Father of the Bride left, and didn’t get to walk his daughter up the aisle.
The Bridesmaid’s problem wasn’t that they ran out of oil. The problem was that they LEFT.
What if through all the layers that we peel away to the center, at the core of yet another story from Jesus, this story from Jesus, we get to a place of hearing this story not about abundance and scarcity, the foolish and the wise… But what if we hear about how we are called to be there with and for one another.
That what Jesus desires more than anything else when he returns is to see us together, being present with one another. Being present with those most in need. Standing beside one another when a medical test returns, or as we’re celebrating the baptism of a child or grandchild. Sitting with one another at a table sharing a meal, or making sure our neighbors who are hungry have a place to come and get some food.
Present. Together. Waiting and watching for the One who is still coming to show us a better way to live and love…
 Anna Carter Florence in the sermon Filling Stations, http://day1.org/1065-filling_stations
 As told by Jay Egenes on the Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group Page.