A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
October 11, 2020
We are beginning our stewardship campaign today, and for the next three weeks, we’ll hear the parables from Matthew 25. Last month, the session voted to become a Matthew 25 congregation, a Presbyterian-wide effort to live into the story at the end of the chapter, which we’ll hear in 2 weeks, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
Today we begin with the parable of the bridesmaids. And let me start out by saying I’m opposed to the very premise that women should be sitting around in the dark, just waiting for some guy to show up.
I know, I know. That’s not the point of the parable.
But some days it is for me.
Some days I need to question Matthew’s assumptions. Why didn’t the bridegroom bring his own lamp? What was the best man doing?
Our weddings still have bridesmaids, but other than that, perhaps we feel a little removed from this parable of Jesus’ in Matthew.
When we invite people to our weddings today, we tell people to show up at a particular time. But in Jesus’ day, the invitation to this wedding would have said, “please join us on Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday.” Because the party wasn’t going to start until the bridegroom arrived. And if his camel were stuck in a traffic jam in Tel Aviv, or if he were standing in line to vote, then the party would be delayed until he got there. So the bridesmaids had arrived at the church early, helped their friend into her wedding finery, put on their own fancy dresses, and then taken their lamps to line the road, so that when the groom arrived, he’d be able to see where he was going.
These bridesmaids, these friends of the bride and groom who were so excited to help the celebration, also needed to think about oil. And the wise ones did. They recognized that the waiting time could be long. The foolish bridesmaids, on the other hand, were perhaps so excited about the party that was to come that they didn’t worry about the details in the meantime. For all we know, they had vats of oil sitting around at home, but a fat lot of good it was going to do them now.
So this text is not calling us to hoard or stockpile our oil or our resources. You can sock away all of the oil in the world, but if you don’t bring it with you when you head to the wedding, it won’t do you any good. You cannot be the light of the world, or the light for the bridegroom, if you leave your oil squirreled away in your vault. Oil is only of value when you are willing to use it to be a light.
So, five of the bridesmaids were ready to use it. Five were not. Please notice that this is not an “us vs. them” text. Even though Matthew often does divide people into camps, in this case all 10 of the bridesmaids were invited to the party and were close enough friends of the couple that they were invited to this task. We shouldn’t be looking for the foolish bridesmaids outside our community. We are them. Wise and foolish all in this congregation. We are together in this.
And, this particular bridegroom was late. Very late. All of the maids had fallen asleep. But when they heard the shout that he was on the way, they woke up and made preparations, trimming the wick and refilling their lamps. But the foolish, who had left their extra at home, tried to borrow some from the wise.
At first glance, it is the wise who look like hoarders here. I can hear them saying, “a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.
“Oh come on!”, we want to say, “just give them a little”.
At this point in the text, I am very conflicted.
On the one hand, I’m reluctant to buy into a model of scarcity that doesn’t allow for the bridesmaids to share their light. Why can’t the ones with all the oil say, “here, sister, walk with me. The light from my lamp will be enough for us both to find our way to the feast”.
I do think it is important for us to be generous with the other bridesmaids with whom we’re journeying through life. It’s important to recognize that while our own preparations matter and are essential, they aren’t the whole story.
Some of us, as bridesmaids, have access to more stores of oil. I look around at the world and see bridesmaids with so many physical needs not being met, and I think.… How are people who have to struggle for their literal ‘daily bread’ or physical safety, supposed to have the resources, the energy, the focus, to be wise with their oil supply?
We live in a world where some of us have access to lots of oil and can fill up our lamps whenever we want to. We also live in a world where others do not have access to the same stores and stockpiles.
I can’t read this text without thinking about the ways I can casually explain away my privilege and opportunity while ignoring how difficult it is for other bridesmaids to have the same resources and opportunities to even allow them to make it to the party and have the time and leisure to sit there all night. If I’m working three jobs to pay the bills, I’d have to turn down the invitation to be a bridesmaid, right?
Some bridesmaids face racial prejudice when they go to buy oil for their lamps, with employees following them in the store because they don’t look like they belong.
There are lots of other situations that keep some of our neighbors from accessing resources, from being wise bridesmaids. I’ve used a few illustrations, but there are plenty more.
We could talk about the 1 in 4 San Franciscan bridesmaids who are food insecure and aren’t sure where they will be fed this week. Despite increased attention to the issue, as many of you know, conditions to continue to make the stresses and strains on life challenging here. How are these bridesmaids supposed to find enough oil when they can’t feed their kids or afford rent?
We cannot pretend WE were the ones who were wise enough to gather extra oil without acknowledging we live in a society that actively keeps other people from succeeding as we do.
So that’s the one hand.
On the other hand, how are we preparing, stewarding our resources, as we wait for the bridegroom?
What are the reserves you have to prepare for yourself, that others can’t prepare for you, no matter how much they might want to?
I think about some of the homebound members of churches I’ve served, with whom I have visited, back in the days when we could visit people. It is not uncommon to hear them say something like, “I wish I could keep my pledge to the church as high as it used to be. I care so much about this church and want to build for the future, but my medical expenses have doubled and I have just enough to get by. I will still give what I can, but I can’t give as much as I would like.”
These people, and others, who have built and provided for our churches, would like nothing more than to fill each one of our lamps, to fund the budget of their churches. But it doesn’t work like that. We each have our part to play here at Calvary to prepare for God’s kingdom.
I don’t know what your part is. I can’t just tell you, “give us x amount of money and we’ll have what we need.” All I can say is that you have to consider the future for yourself, look at the reserves you have, and figure out what you need to bring with you so we’ll all have enough to wait for the bridegroom.
This oil crisis is about putting things in the right order. Are we prioritizing our time and talents to serve God and serve others?
When my husband and I first started pledging, we were newly married. He was in medical school and I hadn’t yet found a job. We didn’t have any money, but we learned that if we prioritized the important stuff at the beginning of the month, we still had enough to get by at the end of the month.
Now, we have more money, and can give more money to the church, and we give money to other charities, but we have chosen to prioritize our giving to the church. In response to what church has given us, we make our biggest gift each year to the church. And find we still have plenty to donate to the other charities that matter too.
There were times in my life, when I felt like a foolish bridesmaid, out of oil, a victim of my own bad planning, and someone from church would come alongside me and walk with me through the night, their light helping me through the shadows of night. I’ll tell you more about one of those times in my next sermon.
But it was because of the kindness of church people that I came to know and experience what the grace of God is. I want to keep giving in response to that grace so others will know of it too.
How can you help shine light for someone who can’t find the path? Or when in your life did someone hold the lamp for you to find your way?
Because we are called to light the path. The bridegroom shows up and tells people to “Keep awake! For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
On one level, this story is surely about Jesus’ return. His followers were and had been, expecting his return any day. And you can imagine that if you think Jesus is coming back tomorrow then maybe it isn’t so important that you go do the laundry this afternoon.
But the bridegroom says, “keep awake.”
Matthew is addressing a real concern in his community. What do we do while we wait for Jesus’ return? We are told to keep awake.
That doesn’t mean to just sit there and look down the road so we’ll see the bridegroom when he approaches. This isn’t a passive waiting to which we are being called. We are to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. It is an active waiting, keeping a light on the path to mark the way.
We actively wait when we serve in the community, making the path easier to find for others.
We actively wait when we call and send cards to people who are alone, especially during this time when we can’t be together the way we wish we could.
We actively wait when we educate ourselves about the ways our society keeps some bridesmaids from having the same opportunities as others.
We are called to be wise bridesmaids. We are to keep our lamps trimmed and burning so that when the bridegroom shows up, we’ll be ready to join the party. This text is about awaiting the kingdom with a watchful joy.
I don’t know the day nor the hour either. But I do know this. It is in the preparations—in the spending time serving alongside you— that the light shines bright enough that I can see a little further down the road.
As we move along in our stewardship campaign, even though it is in the midst of uncertain economic times, I invite you this week to consider the oil that you have to bring along with you as you actively wait. It is in shadows of night that the world needs light the most. Let us bring our oil in watchful joy and pray with anticipation and excitement about what God is dreaming for us here at Calvary. Amen