Saturday, November 11, 2017

Year A Proper 27 Silly Bridesmaids and a Cautionary Tale

Year A Proper 27, 12 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Silly Bridesmaids and a Cautionary Tale”

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus said, “Then 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 were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

There are certain things one learns after being in the ministry a while. Be loving and gracious to all. Especially those where extra grace is required. Take care of your spiritual and emotional life. If you are running on empty you cannot feed or nurture anyone else. And when you get a Gospel reading like today’s, preach from another lesson. But, alas, I am going to do it anyway. So much for wisdom.

We studied this passage this week as a vestry, and different comments came out. Some said this seemed like a Grumpy Jesus. And it can.
Some said that it seems exclusive. And it can.
So where is the good news here? That is the question we all have to ask. Some weeks it is easy to see, and some weeks the Lessons are like this.

Let’s look at exactly what is said, and some assumptions we are making.

First, this is a parable, an extended metaphor if you will. And Jesus is spinning it. Now remember, he is a master storyteller, and he sometimes says a fish is “this big” [stretch arms WAY out] to make a point. Jesus is not lying, he is not stretching the truth. He is telling a story and stories are told for different reasons. He is giving instructions here, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this…” He is not talking about people coming into the Kingdom of Heaven, he is talking to insiders. To be blunt, this is a cautionary tale;  it is supposed to make us stand up and give pause. Anybody here take Drivers’ Ed in high school? The point was to keep you safe and on the right track with those horrible movies. This is Jesus doing the same thing for us.

These women are part of the wedding party. They are as "in" as one can be, and not be the bride. So there is a distinction here. Jesus is talking to those with a job and a responsibility to fulfill. The Bridesmaids job is to welcome the Groom and lead the celebration, standing in support of the Bride at the festivities. That was their role and their responsibility.

We in the Church have responsibilities. We have roles and functions. We have things that are our duties. These tasks vary, by day and season and role, but they all must be done and they all have their place. If undone, someone has to step up or they are left undone.

Also notice, the Bridesmaids, ALL of THEM, fell asleep. The “Good Ones” and the “Bad.” They all fell asleep. All of them succumbed to human nature. Some were ready when they slipped to recover, some were not. The unprepared ones wanted to be rescued, but if those prepared had done so, then none could have fulfilled their responsibilities and the whole wedding would have been in shambles.

While the unprepared bridesmaids were away covering their inability to fulfill their duties, the Groom came, the party started, and the door was closed. Part of having a job is being ready and able to do it, or find someone who can. Is this harsh, or an expectation of the Kingdom? The King wants workers who are ready to labor. The King wants laborers up to the task at hand. Remember, we are talking to the ones who are the insiders, the ones who should have no excuses. The ones who knew better than to be unprepared.

We are speaking to ourselves. What do we need to do to be ready for what is to come?

One of the hardest parts of growing up is being held accountable for our choices when we choose poorly, and learning to pick ourselves up when we fall. I taught Middle School for 12 years, and daily I was asked for a rescue or to give another chance. Now the wonderful thing about Middle School, is most of the choices, especially the bad ones were recoverable. But consequences still were needed. I was constantly amazed at how stupid kids thought that I was. I was a Middle Schooler. I knew the scams. I had pulled them, too! So instead of yelling and screaming, which is what my students expected, I would get so I could look them in the eye, and I would be very clear. “I respect your choices,” I would say. “You can do Fill-in-the-blank-here, and when you do, this Fill-in-the-next-blank-here will have to be my response. Now I will not want to do that, but if you do A, then B is the response. Now, if you do C, this good and better choice, then this other outcome would happen. When I could tell they needed to save face, I would let them step out into the hallway for a No-harm-no-foul time out to get themselves together, and hopefully get into the right space to make the right choice.

And that is what I think Jesus is saying here. We are invited, welcomed, and part of the insiders to the party. Sometimes we all slip up, and are caught off our guard. But even then, if we have done the proper work in preparation to fulfill what the Master requires of us, then we can still rise to the occasion and fulfill what is expected of us.

The other thing we must remember with any analogy or extended metaphor, none of them are perfect. None. Stories are just that. Stories. These are not laws or dogmas. This parable is an analogy, and some are prepared and some are not. There are responses to both. Parables are teaching stories, nothing more, but nothing less. We forget that sometimes.

I had the great good fortune of visiting Israel/Palestine while I was in Seminary. It was a wonderful time that I will never forgot. I will never read the Bible the same way. While there, we took a bus from our hostel near Jerusalem through the Wilderness where Jesus had his temptations on the same road that has been used for millennia. While winding our way down to Jericho and the Dead Sea we passed a small building on the side of the road, and the guide stopped the bus, and said to this group of Seminary students, “This is the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the man he found on the road.” En masse my fellow seminarians jumped up and began flashing pictures. I was aghast, and cried out, “It was a parable! It was a parable! There was no Good Samaritan or man in the road!” Now I took my picture, too, because it looked as dilapidated enough to be 2,000 years old, and I did it mostly to be able to tell this story today. But it reminds me, we can often elevate the story so much that we miss the point.

If we get sidetracked here by how mean it is, or how unfair it seems, we miss the two little words that is the point of telling the whole story. And what is the point?

“Keep awake!” That is it. If you are awake you will not be caught unaware or off your guard. As subjects of the Kingdom who enjoy the privileges, we have certain expectations we should not be surprised to fulfill.

Looking at the metaphor, the Groom speaks honestly, he does not know them. The Bridesmaids should have been ready and prepared, no matter when he arrived. The posers attempting entry were not real Bridesmaids or were not ready to fulfill their duties.

This parable could not be more appropriate to this season of our Stewardship where we are looking and planning and preparing for the tasks at hand in the coming year. We are trying to have our personal and our collective houses in order, our wicks trimmed, and haves healthy systems in place and be fit for whatever God brings our way in the coming year.

So if “Keeping Awake” is the point, how do we stay WOKE? A few brief ideas.
  • God wants to be in your life, daily. Find a way to connect with God in prayer and God’s word regularly. Daily even. Or even, as Paul put it, pray without ceasing.
  • Find a place where you can serve and make a difference all year long. Humbly, quietly, in service. We all can serve. We all should serve. In so doing, we remember whose we are. We love God by loving and serving our neighbors, especially the Least of These.
  • When you see your fellow insiders slipping, and not keeping their wicks trimmed, find a way to encourage, support, and bolster them so they can put first things first. Often we forget that that is our spiritual duty, and yes, we are our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.
  • When we fall asleep, and at some point we all do, rouse yourself. Do your spiritual jumping jacks and get your heart, soul, and mind going again. Don’t quit and say why bother. Keep awake.

Not one of us knows the day or the hour when we will be called upon. All we can do is our best, be prepared, and keep a watchful eye. And when the time comes, we will respond. No one knows the day or the hour, therefore, “Keep awake!”

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Blessings, Rock