Scripture: MATTHEW 25:1-13
One of my countless quirks is that I like to see how far I can make it on a tank of gas. Last summer, when Mary and I travelled to Maine, I filled up here in Chagrin and didn’t fill up again until we got to Portland, Maine—736 miles on one tank, over 49 miles per gallon! Nice, huh?
There is a downside to this obsession, though, and that is, of course, that I may run out of gas. One day early in our marriage, when we lived in Vermont, Mary and I were on the interstate with the tank running low. I assured her that it would be fine, that we would make it to the station without a problem. Much to my chagrin, unfortunately, we ran out of gas just as we got to the exit we were taking to go home. That’s actually the good news, that we made it to the exit. The bad news is that the exit ramp was five miles long. But there was more good news. That whole exit ramp was downhill. So with no engine running, Mary and I coasted the whole way down that five-mile ramp. And when we got to the bottom of the ramp, the traffic light was green. So I whipped around the corner and into the gas station that just happened to be right there. Triumph! Vindication! One of my finer moments! Except that if I ever run out of gas again with Mary in the car, there could possibly be hell to pay! Just sayin’!
I still test it, though—obsessions are hard to break! And not just with gas. I almost always run my phone battery down to nothing before recharging it. I’m told batteries do better and last longer if they’re allowed to run all the way down, so I dutifully do it. And my Fitbit—how many steps have not been counted because, as a cheap Scot, I refused to replace the battery before it had totally run out, and then, in the middle of a walk or run, suddenly the battery was dead!
Never mind that I may miss a call when my phone dies, or that I may miss counting some valuable steps, or that I may be stranded at the side of the road when I run out of gas. I clearly like living on the edge! What I don’t do is make sure I always have enough. What I don’t do is what would be sane and safe. No, I am the proverbial foolish bridesmaid, the one who would stupidly let the oil run out. I should make sure I’m always ready. But No!—were I there with Jesus, I’d likely be caught with not enough gas or battery charge or oil in the lamp as I awaited the arrival of the groom.
Once again this morning, we are confronted by an odd and disturbing story from Jesus. If you’ve followed along with our worship series this fall, you are likely more and more aware of the unsettling nature of so much of Jesus’ teaching. Today’s story leaves us with question after question: why are ten bridesmaids awaiting a groom; why does the groom show up so late at night; why would the foolish bridesmaids go out at midnight expecting there’d be any dealers of oil open at that hour? And then there are the more central questions: why are the prepared bridesmaids so selfish when the unprepared bridesmaids ask for some of their oil? More important: why doesn’t the groom—who stands, of course, for Christ—commend the so-called foolish bridesmaids for at least showing up? Isn’t their presence something to be praised? And maybe most important of all: why does the groom keep them out of the party for such a patently minor infraction?
Why, why, why, a thousand whys? And the answer to all these “why” questions, as it is to every “why” question, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, is “Yes!” (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, p. 212). Why this, why that, why anything that confounds us? Yes! Meaning, I think, that God is embedded in that “why” question so deeply that our work, our vocation, our blessing is to seek God in the midst of the anxiety, the fear, the agony, the disgust, the hopelessness. Why? The answer: Yes. Because God is.
In some stories about Jesus and the end times, the warning that comes is, “Keep awake” or “Stay alert.” This is one of those stories (Matthew 25:13, NRSV and The Message). Among this story’s many oddities, though, is the fact that even the so-called “wise” bridesmaids fall asleep. It’s not as though only the foolish ones fall asleep while the wise ones stay ready and alert. No, the wise ones, too, get drowsy and nod off.
So this is not really a story about keeping awake, even though that’s the story’s punchline. It’s much more a story about being prepared. At one level, it’s about practical preparation, with enough oil in our lamps, gas in our cars, battery power in our phones and Fitbits. More than that, though, at a deeper level it’s a story about being prepared for the coming of God.
In Matthew’s day, the assumption was that Jesus would come again soon and usher in the last days of the world. And while few of us now likely believe that Christ will return soon to write the earth’s final chapter, we are still formed, nonetheless, by a faith that is convinced that God will come, in some way, to make everything right, that God will finally be all in all, that God will, in some sense, arrive to be at the center of everything. If that apocalyptic perspective doesn’t particularly speak to you in this postmodern world, though, another way to think about this, another way to frame this, is to conceive of God as always approaching, always coming near. Matthew, in fact, frames his entire gospel with the promise of God’s coming. At Jesus’ birth, we’re told that Jesus is our “‘Emmanuel,’ meaning ‘God is with us’” (1:23), and the gospel ends with the promise issued by the risen Christ: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). God’s presence, God’s coming, is foundational to Matthew. God keeps coming near.
To hear that, though—that God is always coming near—may simply yield more questions than answers. An election week full of anxiety and rancor and bitterness shows little signs of divine transcendence. COVID-19, while taking something of a back seat this week to the election process, nevertheless continues to ravage us, with over 5500 new Ohio cases yesterday alone, revealing apparently little of God’s healing power. And you—what are you wrestling with that keeps you up at night? An intractable mental illness, a recent diagnosis of cancer, a child who can’t seem to get unstuck, bills you can’t see a way to pay, the prospect of a cold and lonely and apparently endless winter? You may well wonder, in whatever might be your own upheaval, where in the world is the ever-approaching God who promises always to come near.
After yesterday’s conclusion to this year’s presidential election, some of you are likely in despair, wondering how your dreams could have fizzled so dramatically. And others of you are likely elated at a result you had hardly dared hope would transpire. Wherever you stand on the results, though, it’s abundantly clear how divided we remain as a nation. Seldom do we find it in us to talk civilly about the issues that tear us apart. We cry out to be able to talk and listen and understand. And beyond that, we are citizens of a country and a world in which people starve and contract COVID-19 and are crushed by financial pressures and are persecuted for their race and resort far too readily to war and violence. God coming near? Hardly.
Or maybe it’s just that we’re too jaded and distracted by other interests and preoccupations to perceive that holy coming. Maybe part of being wise bridesmaids, part of being prepared, is learning to see with new eyes. Roger Owens, a teacher of theology, wrote an essay before the election in which he wondered what would happen if the results didn’t turn out the way he wanted them to. He said his hope was that he would approach that result with the eyes and imagination of a child. A child, he says, sees the rich possibilities in even the ordinary. “A child,” he says, “can spy possibility in the unlikeliest of places” and “see the hidden reality of God’s [dominion] lurking where most of us would never dare to look. An imagination that can see a sword in a stick, a rocket ship in a refrigerator box, or an ocean in a mud puddle is the kind of imagination that can see a feast in a few loaves of bread or the face of Christ in those who are poor, naked, and imprisoned.
“. . . I suspect,” says Owens, “I will need just such an imagination to endure the days and weeks after the election—indeed, the years that follow, whoever wins”—whoever wins.
Owens can see the anxiety in his children. “A few days ago,” he says, “over a dinner of takeout sub sandwiches, [my ten-year-old daughter] asked nervously, ‘But what will we do if [the election doesn’t go well]?’
“I paused,” says Owens. “I thought, We’ll wake early, open the curtains on the blue dark of morning; we’ll sit in prayer and let the tears come—tears of fear, grief, and anger.
“But that’s OK,” he says, “because I trust my kids know the answer to her question. What else could we do [if things don’t go the way we hope,] but what we did last week and the week before that? We’ll stand against racism, feed [those who are] hungry, check on our neighbors, demand rights for LGBTQ people. We’ll pray to see God’s [dominion] and to live in it accordingly. We’ll laugh. We’ll love—each other and [especially] those [some mock] as unlovable. And maybe, eventually, if God answers our prayers for imagination, [we’ll love] even [those who have acted abhorrently and stood for what we find reprehensible].
“In other words, we’ll refuse to let the narrow horizon of [partisan] realities frame our lives. We’ll acknowledge fear and anger but deny them the power to constrain us.
“We’ll become like little children, looking for possibilities each morning as we open the curtains on this world God so loves, this world in which God is endlessly, if hiddenly, making all things new” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/how-i-hope-approach-days-following-election?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=e2fbbbe754-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_EdPicks_2020_11_3_trump&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-e2fbbbe754-85603527).
If we want to live as wise bridesmaids, if we want to live prepared for the coming of God, now and now and now, we will live with the same sort of lightness and joy and love that God shows to us. And we will practice that love wherever we go. That love is the way of Jesus. It’s what gets us through the hard times. And it’s the preeminent sign of the coming of God. Wise bridesmaids, prepared for God’s presence by always living in love: that’s who we are, and that’s who we’re called to be. Thanks be to God.