Sermon; 23 Pentecost/Proper 27A; Matthew 25:1-13
We are coming to the end of the Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary time, and Advent is fast approaching. The end of the Church year is only two weeks away. If we didn't know that by looking at a calendar, we might have an inkling of it by the selection of gospel texts.
Keep alert. Stay awake. The bridegroom is coming but we know not when. The season of hopeful anticipation is at hand.
All of that said, I find today's parable of the ten bridesmaids to be one of the most difficult to deal with. We have a story of ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so they can celebrate with the new couple. They all fall asleep. Then, when the time comes, five of them will not share their oil with the other five, forcing them to go look for supplies in the middle of the night. When those five eventually come back, they find themselves locked out of the party to which they were originally invited.
I find this parable to be more depressing than hopeful. But this is what we get as we near the end of Jesus' ministry on earth and his refocusing on the end times: stories of who's in and out, stories of inclusion and exclusion. So what can we take from this parable for our lives today?
The first thing we need to avoid is saying that this parable is clearly about “X”, because as soon as we do that there are valid points and questions to the contrary. And then we begin asking, “If it's not about “X”, then what is it about?” The best we can do is to put forth possible and plausible interpretations.
Two possible and plausible interpretations is that this parable is about 1) doing the works of ministry and the works of the Church continually, and 2) we need to look beyond and ahead of ourselves. These are not two separate interpretations as much as they are two interpretations that are deeply intertwined.
In the first interpretation, the burning lamps represent our works of ministry. Notice that all ten women had lamps. The story implies that all ten lamps were lighted when the women originally went to meet the bridegroom. And all ten lamps were lighted when the ten women all fell asleep.
In this interpretation, the lighted lamps represent our works of ministry. As Christians we are called to work for the gospel. Last week we made promises to this effect: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people? These are the works of the gospel and these works are the lights of our lamps. As Christians we are called to do these things in a variety of ways and to infuse ourselves with these actions and attitudes in such a way as they become part of our lives, whether we are awake or asleep. Let your light shine at all times.
But then we get the differentiation between the five foolish and five wise. And here I want to put my own spin on the story. This interpretation incorporates both part of the first interpretation – doing the works of the gospel – with where we are right now in the life of the church, and particularly our parish.
The five foolish bridesmaids brought no oil, while the five wise bridesmaids did. All ten had lamps that burned while they were awake and asleep. All ten, in that respect, did the works of the gospel (see above). However, the foolish looked only at the short-term, only to the here and now, while the wise looked to the long-term beyond the here and now (where we are right now).
Right now we are officially wrapping up our pledge drive today. That doesn't mean we will stop collecting pledge cards, but it does mean that the official drive is over. This always seems to be a tense time for certain people as we try to budget for the upcoming year and/or as we try to get a handle on expenses. And everywhere I've been there is always a push to cut costs or programs in order to meet expenses. “We need to focus on ourselves until we get the budget under control.”
This, my friends, is short-sighted and foolish. For this is exactly what the five foolish bridesmaids did – only focused on themselves in the here and now, without planning for the future, without bringing extra oil.
I received an article in my box a few weeks ago from the Washington Post about churches needing to do business differently than they've always done it. This article stated that that meant mergers and closures. And while it seems to be all doom and gloom (maybe like today's parable), two things jumped out at me. One was that death always leads to resurrection. But that's a topic for later.
The second was the statement, “shrinking outreach into the community [leads] to a membership slide.” By focusing only on ourselves, by not bringing that extra oil that allows us to go beyond what we only have in our lamps, we are being foolish.
The five wise bridesmaids had oil for their lamps and burned that oil so their lamps were lighted when they were both awake and asleep. But they also recognized that at some point they would have to provide light beyond what their lamps could provide in the here and now. They would have to prepare for the long-term and carry extra oil. This is the mark of the wise, looking beyond the here and now. We must not be so focused on cutting costs and programs and budgets that our lights only shine for the short-term. We must recognize that we need to plan to have our lights shine in the long-term.
The extra oil represents long-term stewardship and mission. How we care for this place, our stewardship, allows it to be a beacon to those around us. How we do the works of the gospel, our mission, allows people to see the light of Christ in their daily lives. The extra oil of the five wise bridesmaids represents our ability and our willingness to look beyond the short-term, beyond simple cost-cutting measures that allow us to keep our doors open. It may be that that extra oil not only allows us to be part of the party, but that it allows us to host the party.
As we wrap up our pledge drive, let's not be foolish and only light our lamps for the short-term, but let us continue to be bold in Christ and foolishly wise by preparing for the future and carrying extra oil for the works of the gospel. Otherwise we may just end up discovering that we weren't doing the work of the gospel, we were simply maintaining our club. And maintaining our club is not what Jesus is asking us to do.