WHEN SHARING IS NOT THE POINT
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13]
"Lving God with all our hearts and minds and loving our neighbor as ourselves' ': As Jesus says, this summarizes the purpose and point of the entire Hebrew Law. In fact, it is the overarching motto for what it means to honor and live the God-life. So, can we not be forgiven, if we find ourselves puzzled by the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Girls' ' and by what so blatantly seems to run against loving one’s neighbor?
In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ parable, our focus is drawn to the gathering of guests for a night wedding and specifically to the events surrounding ten bridesmaids. (It’s a large wedding!). In addition to tending to the bride’s needs at this threshold occasion in her life, apparently a part of the bridesmaids’ ceremonial job was to light the way for the groom to meet his bride and for the marriage ceremony to begin. Like human luminaria (that is, those candles many of us put in paper bags at Christmas to light the way to the Savior’s birth – which is something we at St. Philip’s do on Christmas Eve) – like human luminaria, the bridesmaids were to lift their oil lamps to guide the groom to the wedding where he would meet his soon-to-be wife for the exchanging of their vows and for the blessing. But, as the parable unwinds, there is a problem – actually two problems.
The first problem was that the groom was late for the wedding. In my own experience of officiating at weddings, the tardiness of the wedding party (specifically either the groom or the bride) is a sure way to raise the moment’s level of anxiety to the breaking point. And I must say from my own experience that if anyone is late to the wedding it has been the bride. Those last-minute dressing details or simply getting through the unpredictable traffic can cause enormous problems. Delay at such a formal, public ceremony soon expands into the kind of anxiety that can soar into questions of dread. Did something happen to the bride? Worse yet, the unspoken worry wonders if she had last minute jitters about the entire affair and has left town and run away a la “Thelma and Louise”.But in the case of this parable’s wedding, the groom is late, and one is left to wonder about the source of his delay? Perhaps he and his groomsmen over did the “bachelor party” the night before; or again, who could predict a traffic jam at a dysfunctional traffic light or a flat tire with no spare in the trunk? (Believe me, these things happen!) In light of the groom’s delay, the parable’s wedding festivities ground to a halt, to the extent that in waiting for the groom, all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep.
In the true and necessary drama of a Jesus parable, the story picks up with the stroke of midnight, when a cry went out that the groom was finally approaching. The wedding was on. So, the groggy guests and the ten bridesmaids awakened to resume their festive parts. Rising from their reclined positions, the ten bridesmaids quickly stood on their feet and dutifully helped one another in smoothing out their wrinkled gowns. More to the point, they grabbed their lamps to welcome the groom’s arrival. Now, at this point, we confront the parable’s second problem.
In their sleepiness at waiting for the groom to arrive, it would seem that the bridesmaids left their lamps lit. The result was that at this late hour, the lamps’ oil supply needed to be replenished, for it would be a deep wedding insult and a personal embarrassment to have a lamp snuff itself out in the middle of the ceremony. (Think how distracting it is in our worship when one of our candles sputters and smokes out.)
As it turns out, five of the bridesmaids evidently had made provision for such an emergency circumstance and had brought some extra fuel for their lamps. Yet, the other five did not take such precautions, forcing them to ask the five prepared girls to share some of their reserves. And in true Jesus parable style, the answer that is given by the five “wise” bridesmaids to this needy request causes us – the hearers of the tale – to balk and stumble.
“No!” the “wise” bridesmaids said. “There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And wouldn’t you know it, while the five sought more oil for their lamps from the dealer, the groom arrived. The wedding began; and with the wedding hall door being closed, the unprepared five were locked out of the festivities. Returning to participate in the partying, they banged on the festival door and yelled to be given entrance, “Lord, lord, open to us!” they frantically cried.
Now, I am unclear about the identity of the “lord” to whom the “unwise” girls asked for entrance. Was it the groom or his father or the brides’ dad or the DJ at the reception; but in any case, the response to their request was brief and terse: “I do not know you!” In other words, “I do not trust you; go away!”
In the wake of this story with its lack of sharing, Jesus concludes this parable with a portentous warning to all who have been paying attention: “Keep awake…”. In three weeks, we will hear this stern admonition repeatedly as we enter the liturgical season of Advent; but what might Jesus be saying beyond the bounds of Advent?
"...the kingdom of heaven will be like this” is how Jesus inaugurates the parable. “Keep awake” is it's instructive conclusion. What does this warning have to do with being wise, aware, awake as followers of Jesus? What is Jesus saying to us about life on God’s terms and what it takes for us to receive this life? Moreover, what is the significance of not sharing the oil? Doesn’t the action of the “wise” bridesmaids contradict all that you and I have been taught since early childhood? For instance, what would Mr. Rogers say? With what tone of voice and with what facial expression would he sing his “Be my neighbor” song? What about the prepared bridesmaids and their unwillingness to share their oil with their wedding colleagues?
Here's my take on all this. Yes, sharing is a good thing. It is a necessary thing; one concrete way human beings give palpable expression to the fact that we are all in this life together; that life is better when we help one another; when we can rely on one another; when we recognize that (in fact) we are all God’s children. Sharing matters because it is rooted in gratitude. Sharing is the way we express our thanksgiving for receiving the gift of our lives. In this, I remind you of what we have established here among us as our three-part, theological template: 1) God has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves; 2) as our mothers have taught us, say “thank you” for the gift; 3) share (don’t hoard) the gift. “Be my neighbor.”
Yet, here is the crucial rub, the one the “Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids” presents: Some things cannot be shared.
This statement has nothing at all to do with being selfish or stingy or (God forbid!) calling Mr. Rogers’ life and his “Golden Rule” ministry into question. It is, however, true that some things cannot be shared, must not even be tried to be share.
For instance, no one can make another sober. Sobriety cannot be given to another. It can be modeled, but it cannot be borrowed. Other such examples, such as maturity, character, fidelity – these and other virtues cannot be given to another. They can be modeled, talked about, learned about; but to have this illuminating lamp “oil”, a person must do the transforming work it takes (using the parable’s image) to welcome the groom to his wedding.
And of course, the groom in the parable is Jesus, and we are still waiting for him to return and to bring the entire world to the wedding. This means that each of us has spiritual work to do in our own lives; and no one can do this personal, inner work for anyone else. We are (again in the parable’s imagery) responsible for the “oil” in our lives that illuminates the “groom’s” way. Yes, we can model this work through our own efforts and struggles. We can support one another in this illumination ministry and life. But no one can do this inner work for another.
I will close with the lines from the Prayer Book’s “General Thanksgiving”, which contain for me the closest thing I have ever had to a palpable “conversion experience”. (But this is another story.) This remarkable and available prayer reflects a profound recognition of the place the illuminating “oil” plays for us and what we need to do in response to it.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of all your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…
[Book of Common Prayer. Page 101]
Lamps up. Amen.