November 12, 2017 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Occasionally, one or two of you will come out of church and tell me that the sermon I have preached was written just for you. That’s nice to hear, of course, but we both know that it isn’t true. “That’s the Holy Spirit’s work,” I often say, and I trust that if you feel that kind of direct connection with the sermon it’s because God is moving powerfully through both of us in ways that neither of us could anticipate. I don’t craft a sermon for anyone in particular, and you don’t come to church so that your individual needs can be addressed. Instead each of us offers ourselves to God and, in so doing, asks God to speak to us and through us. If the preacher makes you squirm, maybe it’s because you needed to squirm a little bit. If the preacher gives you hope, you probably needed some hope.
In today’s gospel lesson, however, Jesus isn’t speaking to anyone. He’s speaking to you. And he’s speaking to me. During the last six weeks of readings, Jesus has addressed his words mostly to those outside his inner circle—to Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and elders—but today he tells a parable of the kingdom directly to his disciples. He isn’t challenging those who questioned his authority. He isn’t pointing out the flaws of the hypocrites. He’s asking his committed followers to consider whether they have what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven. He’s asking us, “Do you have the faith necessary to follow me into my Father’s kingdom?”
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise.” Notice how Jesus makes the distinction between them from the beginning of the parable—not as a judgment on their actions but as a defining characteristic that explains how the two groups will behave. And what distinguishes the wise from the foolish bridesmaids? The wise took extra oil for their lamps, but the foolish took none. Then, when the bridegroom was delayed, all of them slept. Both the wise and the foolish, they all became drowsy and dozed off. The test of kingdom-worthiness, therefore, is not one of whether they could stay awake but whether they were prepared for a delay.
When the bridegroom came, the call went out, and all of the bridesmaids awoke and trimmed their lamps in preparation for the feast. In horror, the fools discovered that they did not have enough oil to last through the festivities, and they begged their wise counterparts to share with them, but this wasn’t a Hanukah miracle. There wasn’t enough oil to go around. So, at the urging of the wise bridesmaids, the foolish ones went out into the marketplace to buy some for themselves, but, by the time they had returned, the wedding feast had begun. The doors were already shut. It was too late.
It is easy to conclude that the moral of this story is a first-century equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scout motto: be prepared. But being a faithful disciple of Jesus isn’t about carrying an extra flask of oil, bringing an umbrella on a cloudy day, or having an emergency kit in case a tornado hits. The issue that Jesus raises in this parable isn’t one of preparedness but of relationship. When the foolish bridesmaids knock on the door and request entry, they were not turned away because they were late. Instead, the bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The fools found themselves excluded from the wedding feast not because they were poor planners but because they never knew and loved the bridegroom in the first place.
What makes a good bridesmaid or groomsman? Well, what are the responsibilities entrusted to a wedding attendant? You have to buy the terrible dress or rent the matching tux. You might be expected to coordinate the bachelor or bachelorette party. There is a good chance you’ll need to make a speech when you toast the happy couple. And you certainly need to show up on time—on time to the shower and the luncheon and the rehearsal and the ceremony. But what else? A truly faithful bridesmaid or groomsman is one who is devoted to the bride or groom. When something goes wrong, the faithful groomsman is there to fix it. When something goes missing, the loyal bridesmaid is there to find it or get another one. When the rehearsal starts late, the faithful attendant doesn’t sneak out the back door to take a phone call. When the sermon goes on too long, the devoted attendant doesn’t pull his cell phone out to check the football score. The bridesmaid or groomsman who truly loves the bride or groom is one who, for the span of a wedding weekend, puts everything else aside and spends those days focused only on the needs of the bridal couple.
How are we waiting on Jesus? The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five of them were wise. The wise ones didn’t want anything to get in the way of their duties, so they brought extra oil just in case. I have never been to a wedding that didn’t start on time, but, to these bridesmaids, it didn’t matter how unlikely a delay was. Their wisdom is a product of the love that they have for the bridegroom. It never occurred to the foolish bridesmaids that they would need to bring provisions. They bought their dresses. They brought their lamps. They showed up on time. What else did they need to do? With them, something was missing. They came to the wedding feast expecting to enter on their own terms. Their folly was thinking that all they had to do was show up.
Jesus has brought all of us to the threshold of the kingdom. God has prepared a place for us at that great messianic wedding feast. But we cannot simply show up. We cannot participate on our own terms. We must be utterly and unequivocally devoted to the one who has called us to the banquet. A fool is someone who has built his or her life around nonsense, who lives each day without any bearing on the truth. It is folly to think that we can follow Jesus into the kingdom when and where and how it suits us. This is not our wedding. It belongs to God. But we are the ones who have been invited and entrusted with the sacred responsibility of serving as God’s chosen bridesmaids and groomsmen. Will we be faithful to that calling?
Do not forget what it means to be faithful. Thanks be to God that we are not judged on whether we get it right all the time. Sometimes we lose our focus and fall asleep, and, still, we have a place in God’s kingdom. But those who do not know the bridegroom—those who do not know what it means to love our Lord so completely that their whole lives revolve around him and his invitation—cannot know what it means to live in the kingdom of God.
When the fulfillment of the kingdom and the arrival of the bridegroom are delayed, it is easy to forget that we owe our lives to the one who has promised to return and bring us into God’s celebration. It is easy to think that we get to choose our own priorities and set our own schedule. “Keep awake,” Jesus says. “Be vigilant.” Not because Jesus might return at any minute but because he might be delayed a long time. We must keep watch for the one who is coming. We must let our every day, our every night, our every word, our every action be one of availability for God. We have been called to wait upon the Lord. Only those who truly know the bridegroom and honor the one who calls them by devoting their whole lives to that call are found worthy of the kingdom of God.