The Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Be prepared! Make sure your ducks are lined up!
Get your house in order! That seems to be the overt message of the Gospel story we just heard. The Lessons today and for the next few weeks are a response to questions of how the disciples would know the coming of the end and Christ’s return to our world.
The details of today’s story reflect the wedding customs of first century Palestine. On the date appointed for the wedding, the groom would go with his friends to take the bride from her home, usually at night. The return of the groom and bride would begin a celebration that lasted for several days.
There was no set time for the wedding entourage to appear so no one knew exactly when they would arrive. Ten bridesmaids wait with lamps to light the way for the bridegroom. The “wise” ones have come prepared with extra oil and the “foolish” bridesmaids have brought no oil with them.
They waited and waited and eventually dozed off until midnight when the arrival of the bridegroom was announced. The unprepared bridesmaids had to trek off to the local hardware store to get oil but the bridal party appeared while they were gone and the feast began without them—and upon their return they found that they had been locked out of the banquet hall. That was the practice for guests who did not arrive on time.
The church has looked on this parable as a strong warning to be ready for the day of judgment—the return of Christ and the end of time as we know it.
But the Good News here is that God does not wait for the end to come into our lives. God comes to us in the present, in moments of truth, holy encounters, and even in challenges we may not want but that surprisingly help us to flourish.
We could easily find ourselves reading this parable as a strong alert that the end times are coming…or may be here. Get your house in order! Line up those ducks! Then we recall that God’s timing is not ours, that God is still speaking to the world, that God is not done with us yet. Jesus’ call to “keep awake” was a reminder to his audience to take seriously the reality of the sudden appearance of the Kingdom of God, yet he made it very clear that no one knows the day or hour when that will happen.
The readiness to which the parable calls us, the “having oil in your lamp” is living the Gospel life today in hope and expectation that God’s reign will be near—not as an end but as a beginning. Even if we drowsy lamp- bearers nod off or forget to buy or run out of fuel, God will still come to us because our relationship with God is not entirely up to us; it’s up to a living God who is always awake and always bearing light into the world.
I love what author Robert Farrar Capon, writes in The Parables of Judgment: ‘“Watch, therefore,’ Jesus says at the end of the parable, ‘for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party.
“And the party is not just down the street making up its mind to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way into the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.
“God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
Who can say that it won’t be today—but if it isn’t, we will be better people if we live as if it is.
During Communion time, we will hear these words of a great African-American Spiritual attributed to Blind Willie Johnson:
Keep your lamps trimmed an burning,
keep your lamps trimmed an burning,
keep your lamps trimmed an burning for the time is drawing nigh:
What about your lamps? What depletes you?
We live in a culture that is highly stressed. Since COVID, people suffer more from anxiety than any recent time in the past. Prices are up. Houses, whether rentals or purchases, have become unaffordable for many.
Many people are suffering from a lack of an emotional or spiritual anchor.
Many retirees suffer from depression from lack of direction, purpose, meaning, and identity. A frightening statistic as we observe Veteran’s Day is that veterans take their lives at a rate of one per hour. Those who have lost relatives in COVID still lament over their loved ones dying alone or with misplaced guilt over what they believed they “could have” done differently. Young adults were severely impacted with little opportunity for classroom learning and socialization. Many feel lost. The pandemic has left its mark on the world.
In our own nation, everyone seems to be fighting. Division and dissension flourish. While dynamics of protest continue to be fueled by hatred, bias, and anger, people are running on empty. They are depleted, exhausted.
In all of this, what fuels you? What fuels me? What’s our “oil.” What keeps our lamps trimmed and burning and our lives filled with authenticity, identity, and meaning in our everyday living?
Maybe what we can best take from this parable is the invitation to think about that.