The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27A): November 9, 2014
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
“Are we there yet?”
What child has not tortured the parent at the wheel of a car headed out on vacation with these words? I know I uttered them many times as a kid.
You will remember that I grew up in Texas – central Texas to be exact. As a child of the sixties and seventies, almost all family vacations were car trips, and it took a full day of driving just to get out of Texas. So those family vacations always entailed several days in the family car.
Our family routine was to rise early and get on the road by 6:00 am at the latest. We kids would sleep soundly for a couple of hours until a stop at a roadside Waffle House woke us for breakfast. We would usually continue driving until three or four o’clock in the afternoon, when a Howard Johnson’s or Holiday Inn would draw us in with the promise of chilly air-conditioning and a dip in the pool.
But along the way my brothers and I would ask that question: Are we there yet? I don’t remember my Dad being impatient at the question. I don’t remember his response at all. But I certainly remember the question. The excitement of taking off on a car trip gave way all too soon to boredom. I just wanted to get there—wherever there was for the day.
And that question seems quite appropriate for this day: Are we there yet? We seem to have been in a state of anticipation here at St. Michael’s for a long time now, haven’t we? We are all eager to get to the next destination—to the next chapter of our life together here on the corner of 99th Street and Amsterdam.
Today’s gospel warns us that it is not enough just to want that next important thing. We must be ready. Now, rest assured I know that today’s gospel is exhorting us to be ready for something much, much bigger than the arrival of a new rector. This is a text about the second coming of Christ. But still, I am guessing there is a lot we can learn.
The people for whom Matthew was writing were impatient about that second coming. Scholars tell us it was probably written somewhere between 80 and 90 C.E., 50 to 60 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. This parable is part of Jesus’ discourse on the end times—the apocalypse. He speaks to the disciples on the Mount of Olives, describing the violent events of the end of the age, followed by the Coming of the Son of Man.
The original audience—probably Jewish Christians who had split from Pharisee-led Judaism sometime after the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E.—were certainly people who believed that Christ’s return to earth was imminent. While we have perhaps largely forgotten about this promise from God, they had not: They felt certain it could happen at any moment.
So this parable has a very specific context and meaning. Yet it is strange to our ears: we are not versed in 1st century wedding customs, so it all feels a bit odd.
I learned this week that, in this time and place, it was the custom that wedding guests would gather at the home of the bride and be entertained by her parents while they awaited the groom. When he arrived, guests (including the bridesmaids) would light torches and come outside to greet him.
A procession would then take place to the home of the groom’s parents, where a ceremony and banquet might span several days.[i]
So in this parable, we have dropped in to the story at a specific moment in the festivities: the bridesmaids are waiting for the groom.
The parable is allegoric; everything in the story symbolizes something to convey a theological truth.
The bridegroom is Jesus at his second coming; the bridesmaids represent the members of the church; the wedding banquet is the kingdom of heaven; and the rejection of the foolish maidens represents the final judgment.[ii] We are to understand that the foolish bridesmaids are those who will not be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven at the end of the ages. They got it wrong.
But what, exactly, did they do wrong? It’s not that they weren’t alert; all of the bridesmaids slept. It’s not that they didn’t have the resources needed for such a celebration; all of them had lamps. It’s not that they were impatient in their waiting; we don’t get any clues about how any of them felt about their long wait. It’s not that they didn’t react properly when the good news came of the groom’s approach; all of them awoke and trimmed their lamps.
And it’s not even that the foolish bridesmaids were not in the know about the importance of the groom or of their place in the celebration; we get no sense that they were outsiders of any kind.
The only difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids was that the wise ones were prepared for the duration and brought extra oil. They anticipated that it might be a long wait.[iii]
It seems to me that this is really a story about our expectations. And about being prepared. What message does this hold for us here at St. Michael’s, in this time of transition?
Well, I suppose we need to think about our own expectations of a new rector. I have very much enjoyed beginning to know Mother Kate, and beginning to dream about what’s next for all of us together.
But I realize that we have a lot of work ahead of us—not only do we all need to get to know each other, but we have to figure out how we will work together. We need to learn what Mother Kate expects of us, and she will need to learn what we expect from her.
It will take time to get to the work we all really want to do. For me that’s about envisioning who we will become, and how we will embody Christ for our neighbors in the coming years.
For others it may be about how we are going to serve specific groups of people in the future—children, youth, families, those in need in our neighborhood, and many, many other groups. For still others of you, it may be about how we are going to be the face of Christ in specific situations and needs in our community and in our world: How will we make sure the needs of the least in our community are being met? How will we fight injustice throughout the world? How will we raise up those who should be recognized?
And Mother Kate will undoubtedly have questions and challenges to put before us—ideas that we may not even have contemplated. Who knows?
What we do know is that we will need to be patient with Mother Kate, and with each other as we approach this work. I don’t think it’s always going to be easy to be patient, though. I am chomping at the bit, and I’ve only been here a year and a half; and most of you have been in this transition for more than twice that long.
But it is clear that what we are getting ready to do is turn a page; it will take a little time for us to get our bearings in this new chapter of life at St. Michael’s.
So, what should we do while we wait? Well, looking back again to those bridesmaids, we see that it is our job to prepare. I was never a very good boy scout (that’s a conversation for another day), but I always thought the Boy Scout motto was pretty good advice: Be Prepared.
One way we prepare ourselves is by checking our readiness for the challenges that will be put before us. We can be sure that we are ready to move: That means that we have our house in order (and yes, that includes finishing our stewardship campaign successfully), and it also means getting ourselves in order.
Are you spending all the oil in your lamp every week before all the work is done? Are you using what oil you have in the way you really wish? And have you figured out how to adequately refill your lamp? Taking care of yourself is important: I always talk with the caregivers of those who have loved ones with long-term needs about how they are being sure they themselves are cared for. We do no good for those who need us if we don’t care for ourselves as well.
And what’s holding you back from becoming more involved here at St. Michael’s? What do you need to change in your life to be more open to being part of the light of Christ in this community? As Christians, we are called to be Christ for others—and that is certainly a challenging proposition. But we are called to this work because of the reward that it holds, and the ways that it feeds our souls. Each of us must consider how we are advancing the Kingdom of God here on earth.
But there’s still one more important lesson we can take away from today’s lesson, and that is that our real work is to be prepared for the second coming of Christ. Remember, this parable is an allegory, pointing to that all-important event. Now I am the first to admit that I’m not exactly sure what that second coming will look like; despite all that is written in the scriptures, and all that has been written subsequently, I am not sure any of us know.
But maybe the point is not worrying about what the second coming of Christ will look like, as much as equipping ourselves for it: Tending to our own souls; making sure that we are doing things that really matter—fulfilling the gospel imperatives to seek and serve Christ in all persons; striving to be the light of Christ.
All the rest is really window dressing. We need not worry so much about what the immediate future of St. Michael’s will hold, as much as we worry about what’s happening with each of us—about our own part in bringing about the promised reign of Christ.
And the good news is that, just like the retirement planning that I never feel like I’ve quite got under control, it’s never too late to get started! We are all here as a community to help you figure out where to get the oil you need for your lamp—to help discern how you can embody the light of Christ for yourself, for your family, and for the world.
And, as we look for the fuel we need to make our lights shine, remember that it is offered to us, week after week, at this altar. The grace of God, embodied in the body and blood of Christ given to us all, is food and fuel for the journey. We are God’s beloved, for whom all is given and all is possible. Thanks be to God!
Are we there yet? No, not quite. But oh, what a wonderful journey lies before us! Amen.
[i] Buchanan, John M. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), pp. 284, 286.
[ii] Stegman, Thomas D. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, p. 285.
[iii] Douglas, Mark. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, pp. 284, 286.