Sermon preached November 6, 2011
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
I don’t really like the gospel reading for today. Can you say that in church? I guess I just did. The story has a sad ending that does not seem justified by what precedes it. Five bridesmaids, foolish though they are, are refused entry into the wedding party. It seems an overreaction to their foolishness. And the “we’ve got ours” attitude of the wise is troubling too.
I am not alone, though, in my feelings about this story. None of the other gospel writers in choosing which of Jesus’ stories to include in their gospels included this particular story. Only Matthew uses it. Some scholars argue that its details mirror wedding customs of Jesus’ time, but there is debate about that. Even so, that does not help me much. I still feel sorry for the five bridesmaids left standing holding their now oil-filled lamps.
Just because I don’t like the story does not mean it is not worth grappling with. In fact, just for that reason, I need to struggle with the text. Maybe there is something in here that I just don’t want to hear, but need to.
So what’s the story trying to tell us? Basically, the story is about continuing to grow in faith. Wisdom is continued growth in faith, hope, and love and the good works that flow from them. All the bridesmaids sleep, the keep awake ending of the story does not fit the story very well. What distinguishes the wise from the foolish is that the wise had a sufficient store of what they needed when the time was right. The foolish simply slept. And even more pointedly, the story wants to say that if we don’t have the resources we need when the crucial time comes, we risk missing out. Missed opportunities cannot always be recovered. Timing matters.
That is something we don’t always want to hear, but need to hear. We continue to grow in God’s Spirit, we continue to grow in faith, hope and love so that when occasions arise that call for loving response, we have what we need to respond. And sometimes if we don’t respond, it can be too late. You procrastinate buying your concert tickets until they are sold out then your friends tell you it was one of the best concerts they ever heard. The opportunity was missed. As a relationship deteriorates, you refuse to ask for help, or ask for forgiveness, and there comes a point of no return, a point where the relationship will never be what it might have been – too many harsh words, too many moments of neglect. You can’t buy enough of the oil of kindness to light the way forward. You meant to send that letter, make that call to a friend who is sick, and then they die before you get it done. In many contexts of our lives, opportunities missed cannot be recovered. The good news of the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is that God continues to make new ways for forgiveness and restoration in our relationship with God, but that does not change the fact that in life, there are points of no return, that there are missed opportunities and we want to continue to develop the inner resources and wisdom to make the most of life.
So there is an important message in this story, even if there is a tragic dimension to it. But the story does not convey the whole truth of Christian life. My main problem with it is that in the story the wise do what they need to do, but are no help to the foolish. That part of the story has wisdom, but not all the wisdom there is. Yes, there are things in our lives we have to do for ourselves. No one can develop our hearts, our souls for us. Yet the Christian life is not intended to be solitary. In another reading from the New Testament suggested for today, from I Thessalonians 4, we read – “encourage one another” (4:18). In the next chapter of that same letter we read – “encourage one another and build up each other” (5:11). I don’t see a lot of encouraging in this story from Matthew. The truth of the Matthew story is important, but partial, and that is particularly evident on an “All Saints Sunday.”
Saints are those people we think of as wise, to some degree. They are wise in that they have continued to grow in their faith, their hope, their love, continued to grow in God’s Spirit. But there is another quality to saints as well. Saints are not just those who are wise enough to plan for themselves, saints are those who often wonder if others have enough, wonder how others are doing in their journey of faith, in their growth in grace. Saints shine brightly and always seem to have light to share.
If saints are those who shine brightly to help light our way, who ask if we have enough oil to shine, who are your saints? Who are those people who have helped you on your journey of faith. I am going to give us two minutes to remember them, and give thanks for them.
Christian faith is personal and individual, and there are some things no one else can do for us. But Christian faith is not solitary. How are you opening yourself to God’s grace and working on your own faith so that you can be a saint for others, so you can shine to light the way for others?
And to take a lesson from the parable, NOW is always the time to grow, NOW is always the time to shine, NOW is always the time to be there for others. Amen.