A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 9, 2014
This morning’s text describes ten women, bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. We have no idea how long the bridesmaids waited for the bridegroom but he was quite delayed and we are told that some of the bridesmaids were better prepared for the wait than others.
Waiting is hard; especially waiting that requires us to be ready at a moment’s notice. My most vivid memories of waiting are from the weeks preceding the four births I have attended as a birth doula. A doula is a non-medical birth assistant who provides physical, emotional, and informational support to a birthing mother and her partner. As a birth doula I am on call for a 6-week range during which the baby could arrive at any time. Those weeks of waiting are a full body experience. Careful planning is required: is my phone charged and on? Am I within a 45 minute drive of the birthing mother? Is my bag packed with comfort supplies for the mother and her partner? Am I well rested? Those are just the logistical details.
There is much internal work to be done: reviewing the birth process so that I can be a calm and informed presence, spending time in prayer for the new life, taking time to meditate and still the other demands in my life so that I can be fully present when the time comes. There are also communal responsibilities: letting colleagues and family members know I may be gone for a day when I receive the call from the mother and communicating consistently with the pregnant mom and partner about how they are feeling as the day nears.
This is the kind of active waiting that is very much connected to the waiting we are called to as Christians. We are living in the in-between of Christ’s Resurrection and Christ’s coming again. We await the second coming…but what does that waiting involve? Some doula notes for us as followers of Christ:
Waiting involves daily preparation. Faithful waiting transforms who we are on a daily basis. Our days are shaped by the hope of God’s reign. With the Left Behind series now on the big screen, it’s important to distinguish that active preparation is different than hyper vigilance. All ten bridesmaids fell asleep. Stockpiling canned goods and weapons and guessing at the day of Christ’s return is not active waiting. Holed up in fear, we would never see the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom happening here and now. Daily acts of love, orientation of our time toward community, testimonies of hope, dedicated periods of rest and meditation – these are acts of preparation that shape our days of waiting.
The waiting that we do is focused on new life. Remaining alert means tuning our ears and opening our eyes to the new life being born through the Spirit in this world. This means that we wait with joy, watching and helping even the small signs of hope in the world unfold into the bigger picture of the new creation.
Waiting is not an individual enterprise; it is done in community. We are called to dwell together in peace – now – not just in the vision of the New Jerusalem. Reconciliation, reparations, and forgiveness are the acts of faith done in community that plant the seeds of the new creation here on earth.
Waiting is a central practice of Christian community, which is why this parable feels so troubling. The writer of Matthew draws a sharp line between the wise and foolish bridesmaids from the outset of the parable. Initially all ten bridesmaids wait together – they all bring lanterns, they all fall asleep, and they all spring to action when the bridegroom is announced.
As it turns out the foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they did not bring enough oil. The bridegroom is delayed and when he arrives their lights are barely flickering. The foolish bridesmaids ask of the wise bridesmaids, “Can you spare some of your oil, since you have plenty?” To which the wise bridesmaids offer a flat refusal and direct the foolish bridesmaids to go search for oil to buy in the marketplace. The foolish bridesmaids return, presumably with oil in their lamps, and still they are denied entrance into the wedding feast because they are late. The doors are shut.
This is deeply upsetting, not just for the foolish bridesmaids but for the wise ones as well. Half of the community is left out in the dark. We can imagine a wedding feast beginning that is half full or, better stated, half empty. The absence of the foolish bridesmaids would be noted, especially as they knocked on the door to gain entrance but were sent away. Is the kingdom of heaven really like wise bridesmaids who refuse to share? And a lord who refuses entry to the foolish bridesmaids simply because they arrived late with their lanterns burning?
Matthew drives the point home that preparedness is key in the time of waiting, which could be much longer than originally expected. But this sharp binary – between the foolish and the wise – splits the community in two. That, mostly likely, was the gospel writer’s intention: to warn a group of false teachers, “foolish ones,” who were disrupting the community because they did not have what the others had. They were not filled with oil – the acts of love and grace by which the community was known. This parable was an exhortation to the community to address their divisions now, before the bridegroom’s arrival.
When we preach and share this text, we must be careful to read ourselves into both parts, the wise and the foolish. Yes, we seek to fill our lamps with the oil of goodness, love, generosity, God active within us but we have also experienced days, weeks, perhaps years when those oil reserves felt low. We have depended on one another and long difficult periods of wrestling with God to be filled again with what it takes to be love and hope in this waiting time.
Many have reimagined this parable ending in a different way, holding forth a different picture of the community awaiting Christ as one that welcomes the lost and the least and even the late-arrivers. How differently this parable would read if the wise bridesmaids had been willing to share or if the foolish bridesmaids had decided to stay, with their lamps barely flickering, confident in the fullness of light that would be present at the wedding feast. At the banquet, it is God who lights up the feast. Once we are inside there is no need for our lanterns or our reserves. The host provides.
We need each other as we wait to catch glimpses of the joy of that heavenly feast through the works of compassion and justice that we do and experience together. We tend to one another’s preparedness by dwelling together in community, regularly checking on each other’s oil reserves, the light of hope within. And we nurture in one another the trust in a God of grace kept in balance with today’s text. God who demands much of us as we with live our faith in this world. God who seeks after those who are lost or late.
Yesterday was the last day of this season of the Community Supported Agriculture program run through our church in partnership with Lineage Farm. When we began the season last June, one of the members was a little less than 3 months pregnant. We watched her belly grow as each Saturday pick up went by. Then right around her due date, she and her husband missed a week or two, and I knew that the baby was born. Her husband was there yesterday to pick up vegetables. I asked if it was a boy or a girl and what was her name. He answered and then, beaming, said, “She changed my whole life.” It was a sacred moment to share with him, to see his unfiltered joy. It was sacred to wait with that couple over these 23 weeks as a vegetable eating community of all kinds of people from this congregation and around White Plains. How beautiful that our door was open to wait together in that way! I left feeling anointed not just by that interaction but by conversations and stories shared throughout the season.
We rehearse and practice God’s kind-dom here and now. We await the day of Jesus’ return and also recognize that God’s hope is discovered among us and far beyond us on a daily basis. The work that we do together in community prepares the way to birth hope and its arrival shapes us, it changes our whole life.