Sermon November 12 Matt 25:1ff Fuel Up (Bridesmaids) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you ever just get fed up? Same story, different day, when’ll it end, enough already?
There are probably about a thousand different directions I could go in now, having asked that question, because I’d be pretty surprised if any of us NEVER just gets fed up –
But I’d be equally surprised if what each of us probably just gets fed up WITH doesn’t run the gamut. From the manifestly unserious – like how I routinely hit the wall of “just fed up” when I’m trying to turn left off Oxford Street –
To the merely irritating, to the definitely frustrating, to the actually infuriating. And eventually maybe even to the maximum point of “No. No more. Can’t deal, fed up, no more.”
It’s unfortunately not that difficult to get fed up. We’re not a patient people generally, and things do kind of feel right now as though they’re on a real sharp edge of being fraught. And it isn’t easy. If we find we’re really grasping for patterns and practices and ways and means to find solace and comfort and rest in our fed-upped-ness right now, we’re certainly not alone.
But if you’d like a bit of an outlet, if you’d like to let your fed-up flag fly for a few brief moments in an utterly trivial way, just to have the release of it –
Then I invite you to join me right now in being thoroughly fed up with those five wise bridesmaids, in the parable from Matthew’s gospel that Paul read for us just now.
Because honestly, those wise bridesmaids – with their smugness and their extra oil and their “oh it’s just so SAD that you don’t have enough” to the REST of the bridesmaids, the ones we’re all meant to call foolish –
They’re horrible. And we’re meant to be impressed with how “wise” they are? I mean, okay, if we must. But not to put too fine a point on it, it’s pretty hard to muster that up when not a single one of us here would want to be caught behaving like them.
Because they’re horrible. I feel completely fed up with them. There’s nothing wrong with setting a good example of “always be prepared!” but when it comes alongside an example of how to be really really selfish and smug into the bargain? Not so much.
Which is when we have to remember that this is a parable. It’s not a morality tale, it’s not an allegory, it’s a parable. It’s not a story where we look for who to identify with or what example to follow or who’s meant to represent God or the faithful or the unfaithful –
A parable is a story that reveals its meaning in the wholeness of it. The whole story and what it points to. And what it comes down to is this: Listen, Jesus says. The reign of God is like this.
It’s like a wedding banquet, where everyone’s gathered and it’s so ready. It is so ready. But it can’t begin yet. It’s being prevented from beginning because the bridegroom’s late. And that’s making its guests wait.
The bridegroom’s late, it’s being prevented from beginning, and that’s making the guests wait, and they’re waiting too long. So long that they’re falling asleep. So long that their fuel’s running out. It wants to begin. But it can’t begin. It’s being blocked. It’s being prevented. The guests are waiting, and they’re waiting too long. The energy’s going. The energy’s gone.
In other words, listen, Jesus is saying. The reign of God is like this. It’s like a banquet. Justice and peace and grace and healing, it’s like a banquet of all of these -- that wants to begin. It is so ready. But it can’t. Not yet. It’s being prevented. By people being people.
So the reign of God is like this: there’s waiting. Until it stops being prevented. And that waiting is so long, it’s just so long – it’s hard. It’s hard to stay expectant and ready.
It’s hard to stay awake. It’s hard to keep the lamps trimmed and burning. But the reign of God is like this: there’s waiting.
The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – it isn’t a parable Jesus wants to tell – it’s a parable he has to tell. It’s meant to be an act of compassion. Because he’s looking at his followers, he’s looking at us, and we’re expectant, and we’re hopeful, and we’re yearning – Justice, peace, grace, healing --
But the reign of God is like this: there’s waiting. And it’s long waiting. You're going to need a lot of fuel. The expectancy fades – but keep alert, Jesus says. And the hopefulness wanes – but keep the faith, Jesus says.
It's meant to be an act of compassion. For when we’re finding we’re getting fed up. With the waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, for justice and peace and grace and healing. Keep the faith, keep the hope, keep the trust, the promise is real.
That’s the message, when we read this as a parable, as Jesus told it.
But here’s the thing. I always read the wise and foolish bridesmaids as a parable. It comes up in the cycle of lectionary readings every three years and I always read it as a parable, and I always locate its message as a parable, and I always preach on it as a parable.
But right now I kind of want to be a tiny bit fed up with preaching it as a parable… and go back to those five horrible ‘wise’ bridesmaids. And the five other ‘foolish’ ones. As though, however briefly, it’s not really a parable at all.
Because if we leave behind the parable and we just look at those bridesmaids, it sort of feels like, there we are. The human family. Artificially divided by our own inner voices and deeply ingrained biases into ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’. Super duper on top of everything, and barely hanging on by a thread. All the ducks in rows, and scraping it together just to make do. Wise and worthy and deserving of all good things, and foolish and regrettable and deserving what they’ve got.
But it’s not real. It’s kind of the construct that to some degree we all live inside, but it’s not real. And I hasten to say again that Jesus isn’t presenting it as real. He’s just telling a parable about the kindom of God being about waiting that happens to include ten bridesmaids with varying degrees of foresight.
But they hover. As a narrative element, as part of our cultural story that’s created the cultural constructs we live inside. And even when we profess ourselves to be fed up with how smug and selfish the ‘wise’ bridesmaids turn out to be, that construct still hovers.
And it’s hard to break down. Because the truth is, it reinforces every instinct that we have as human beings to want the security… of goodness being earned and troubles being deserved.
We’re often appalled by victim blaming – but victim blaming is I think one of the most unbelievably obvious human impulses there is. Because if we can just make it in our head so that somehow that person DID something that brought on the trouble, then we can pretend we’re safe from it.
And like the “wise” bridesmaids, we can then decide we don’t have to address it. We can call those other bridesmaids “foolish” when they get left behind, rather than noting that in fact EVERYONE arrived with and would have had enough oil for their lamps…. And the real problem was the bridegroom. Arriving hours and hours late.
In fact, if he’d been just a few MORE hours and hours late, NONE of them would have had enough oil. So “wise” and “foolish” don’t actually figure into it at all. The whole construct isn’t real.
But it’s really hard to break down. In the world it’s hard, sure, but it’s really hard to break down even in ourselves. It’s just so easy, no matter how much grace we try to abide by, if we’re basically doing fine, to look at need and want and trouble and think “ooh, bad choices” or “they really should work harder” or “somehow they’ve brought it on themselves”.
It's basically self-defense. But that doesn’t make it admirable. We don’t want to believe that their need or want or trouble could hit us. We need to call it the result of being foolish, and commend ourselves for being wise.
But those wise bridesmaids in the story – they’re horrible.
So there’s a challenge here in this reading. That has absolutely nothing to do with the actual message of the parable, which was Jesus’ actual message, because what Jesus taught his followers, and us, that day was in fact a parable, and the message was ‘the kindom of God is like this: lots of waiting” – but it’s still there too. There’s a challenge to us, in those wise bridesmaids.
Because sometimes they kind of might be us. Self-satisfied in our “wisdom”, in the comfort we’ve secured. Disinclined to prop up those around us who’ve regrettably been more “foolish”. And above all very much not interested in contemplating how little would have to change – like just a matter of the bridegroom being a few more hours late – for ALL of us to find ourselves in the same boat.
They kind of might be us, sometimes, those wise bridesmaids. But I think we really don’t want to be horrible. And maybe they didn’t really want to be horrible either, but they just got stuck with it because that’s how the story went.
But our story doesn’t have to go that way. Jesus is moved with compassion to tell this parable to his disciples, to us, because he knows how exhausting it is, how fed up we can get, waiting for justice and waiting for peace and waiting for God’s promise to unfold and not be prevented anymore by warmongering and vengeance and greed and oppression.
He acts out of compassion. Because when the waiting is hard, and everything’s fraught, and we’re all “this close” to completely fed up – he KNOWS. What gets us all through it is compassion. For each other.
The “wise” bridesmaids just could have shared. It’s really not about the oil. It’s just about knowing that the impulse toward compassion should trump… everything else. The geo-political complexities of a war. The rigours of the Protestant work ethic. The quiet but real certainties we harbour that somehow there’s been “foolishness” –
The “wise” bridesmaids just could have shared. After a long night of waiting, and they’re all fed up, the “wise” bridesmaids just could have shared. They just could’ve shown some compassion. It wasn’t the point of the parable. But it IS what Jesus modeled in telling it. Thanks be to God for the gift of his example. Amen.