Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
1st Reading: Amos 5:18-24
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Are you one of those people who likes to be prepared, who is always ready well ahead of time and has everything organized? Or are you one of those people who always puts everything off until the last minute? Or maybe you fall somewhere in between. I remember being so frustrated with my fellow seminarians who would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning the night before a test studying, or finishing a paper because they put it off. That just seemed ridiculous to me. I almost always started papers well ahead of time and nowadays I always have a draft of my sermon on Thursday, or I can't enjoy my day off. I know several pastors who's sermons are bouncing around in their head all week. Then they come in early Sunday morning and put it all down on paper. I tweak mine on Sunday morning, but you're not going to see me sitting down to a blank page that day and starting then. That would make me anxious.
I could congratulate myself for being wise and put others down for being foolish, but maybe it is more that I am nervous and they are more relaxed. Or it could be that we each have our own style and process that works for us, so we are all wise. And even when I am well prepared, sometimes things happen to ruin all my preparations, and I have to think on my feet or scramble to get something together.
For the early Christians, they were expecting Jesus' return any day. They had been told that some of them would live to see it happen. Now, 40 or so years had passed and people were starting to die and others were getting anxious and others were forgetting about Jesus' teachings and going back to their old ways. They weren't acting like wise people prepared for Jesus' return. So Matthew tells this parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids and being prepared.
Being prepared for what? Is this ultimate salvation that these bridesmaids are getting in on or missing out on? What are these early Christians preparing for? What are they gaining or losing by being prepared or not? I have a hard time thinking of the bridegroom as Jesus, locking the foolish, wedding-crashing, latecomers out. We attend more than one wedding in a lifetime. I tend to think this is more about missing celebrating with Jesus. Sometimes we are unprepared to meet Jesus and go to his party. That doesn't mean we'll be unprepared for the next time he appears among us. And it certainly doesn't mean that he's locking all us foolish ones out of heaven. Hopefully we'll learn from our mistakes and either bring more oil or share our lamps or not let ourselves be distracted from the party to go off and get oil.
What does the oil represent? Is it faith? Is it a changed life? Does it matter? What do we need to have a lot of, in order to wait? I'm not sure we know. But I will say, if this is about Jesus coming again, and not having enough of something stored up to last until he did come again, since we're still waiting 2000 years later, it is hard to imagine having enough oil or food or anything to last that long. Not knowing how long of a wait we're talking about, how can anyone be completely prepared?
Now who here is really wise or foolish? Can you call someone wise who won't share her lamp with her sister? Can you call someone wise who sends her sister away to go get more oil, knowing that the Bridegroom could be coming at any moment? Can you call someone foolish for bringing enough but not packing extra? Can you call someone foolish for allowing herself to be shamed and distracted and convinced to leave the vicinity of the party to go off on this errand?--ok, maybe we can say yes to that one. The question for us is this, if we are prepared, are we willing to help others who might have been a little more foolish and share what we have, either the oil or the light? If we feel unprepared, are we willing to wait it out without our light, knowing that the light of the world is coming to illumine our way? Or might we be willing to ask for help, for someone to share their light with us so we don't have to wait in the dark? Can we keep a focus on our Savior Jesus, however he appears to us—as a groom, as a child, as a person with ebola, as a person who is hungry or filthy or weak or undocumented? Will we stick with keeping our watch, however prepared or unprepared we are? Or will we be distracted telling our unprepared sisters and brothers to go jump in a lake, shaming them and sending them on an unnecessary errand? Will we be distracted by those who would shame us, telling us we didn't bring enough and go off to find it instead of staying to find that very thing we are there for, the presence and joy of Christ?
Jesus Christ came to us, the most unprepared of all. He came as a baby. He had no language, no clothes, no defenses, no knowledge. He grew up with no royal title, no crown or throne, no status. As an adult, he had no place to lay his head, no armed forces to command, went long periods without food, was followed by foolish disciples and women no one had a kind word about and finally surrendered all that he had, even his very safety and his body over to death, no dignity, no privacy, no pardon, finally no breath. So completely unprepared. Yet, he had what mattered most—he knew who he was in God's eyes, and he lived and understood his calling to love others and to serve those who are rejected and hated.
In God's eyes, all our preparations must seem silly. We must seem quite foolish, whether we are under-prepared or over-prepared. And notice all the bridesmaids fell asleep. We all get tired. Yet, we are all invited to the party. We are all invited to be near Jesus. We all get another chance to try again and learn to share and not be distracted. We are children of God and guests at the wedding feast, and so are those around us, prepared or not. We get to extend the invitation by our words and actions so that others know they are invited and we are especially encouraged to share our light, or Christ's light, so that we can all enjoy the party, together.
So what is it that distracts us today from seeing Jesus in our midst? Funny to go back to the Old Testament reading this morning. Some things never change. The real point is seeing “justice roll down like waters and righteousness, or goodness like an ever-flowing stream.” But we get distracted by our solemn assemblies, and our noisy songs. We think that our worship is the place Jesus mostly is, and when we worship, we always hope that it isn't the actual hymns or musical instruments, or colors of the day, or pews or the pastor preaching from the pulpit or down in front. Actually, worship should strengthen us to meet Jesus in our everyday lives. It should renew us so that we use our time and energy to share all we have and bring justice to those who never get a fair shake.
I probably spend too much time on Facebook, but I had my latest chuckle on the ELCA Clergy page when one pastor suggested switching church buildings with another congregation for a season to get us out of the worship we all get caught up in, of our own spaces and buildings. I just love thinking like this, about the chaos, but not just all the confusion, but of meeting Christ there and what we would see about ourselves and how we get distracted by things that don't matter and miss Christ standing right in our midst. I love it, in theory. I would certainly be as discombobulated as the rest of you and have difficulty producing sermons and probably drive to the wrong place half the time and never know where such and such is kept. We don't actually have to go through the exercise to start to see a picture of ourselves among these wise and foolish bridesmaids. We are completely foolish and distracted and unprepared, yet Jesus comes to us anyway, gives us his light, keeps us from burning out, feeds us, and parties with us forever more. And in turn we get to be foolish like Jesus, completely unprepared from the world's standpoint, living simply, hanging out with all kinds of rough characters and misfits, welcoming, taking risks, being open to God's leading, and loving, so that more people might know the presence of God.
Maybe the oil is love. Left to our own foolishness, if the abundance and sharing of life is based on who deserves it or who didn't offend us, it runs out. But based in God's own generosity, it never runs out, and so we keep our lamps of love lit, so that others can see what we see, Jesus present with us and celebrating with us.