Sermon preached November 23, 2014
Text: Matthew 25:1-13
The Beatles, “The Long and Winding Road” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LneBIOa9B8s
O.K. You would have expected this song from me today. No surprises. I bet you would have been surprised, though, had I taken the advice of some of my colleagues and friends and posted on our sign outside, “Pastor David and the Ten Virgins.” A group I meet with weekly sometimes asks me what’s on my sign, and they kiddingly suggested that with this week’s text, I could post that. I replied that this would be too edgy even for me.
So what about this story about the ten bridesmaids, or, more accurately in the Greek, the ten virgins? Maybe a good beginning place to think about the story is with the words of Frederick Buechner about the stories of Jesus. It is too bad we know Jesus’ stories so well, or think we do. We have read them so often and heard them expounded in so many sermons that we have all but lost the capacity for hearing them even, let alone for hearing what they are really about. (Frederick Buechner web page)
So let’s see if we can hear this story in some fresh ways. Let’s see if it can speak to our hearts, our lives.
The outline of the story is familiar enough. We have ten bridesmaids, or ten virgins. It may have been the custom of the day that bridesmaids were virgins –and, frankly, I am not sure I want to say any more about that. Actually, we are not very certain of how much of this story reflects wedding customs of the time. Anyway, five of the bridesmaids are foolish and five are wise. In many weddings I’ve attended, if you can get half the wedding party to act wisely instead of foolishly, you are not doing too badly. So these bridesmaids need to take oil lamps with them, and the wise ones take an extra flask of oil, while the foolish ones don’t. Things get long. They all fall asleep. The bridegroom finally arrives. The foolish bridesmaids discover they are running out of oil, and ask to borrow some from the wise bridesmaids, but the wise bridesmaids know they don’t have enough to share – otherwise none of the lamps will stay lit long enough. The foolish bridesmaids head out to the all-night lamp oil store, but arrive to the wedding banquet after the doors are closed. How awful, first they had to buy new dresses that they will only wear once, and then they had to buy oil, and now they can’t get into the banquet. The ending lines are rather cryptic. “I do not know you.” How can that be? “Keep awake” – but they all slept.
So what’s this story about? It is about the long and winding road of life. It is about missed opportunities. It is about readiness. It is about responsibility.
The story is about missed opportunities. It ends on a sad note. Five young women who had been planning on attending a wedding banquet are left out. The truth about life is that we cannot go backwards, only forwards, and the truth about life is that sometimes we miss opportunities.
When I was younger, I did not take music lessons. I did not learn to play an instrument. When I share songs from my i pod – that’s my musical gift. I do sing, and sang in choirs quite a lot when I was in school, but I never learned to play an instrument. I wish I had. While it is never too late to begin, I will never make-up for time lost if I do decide one day to play something.
One other thing I did not do when I was younger was learn a foreign language. Along the way I have had to do some work in foreign language. I did some rudimentary work in Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but if you were to hand me a Bible in Hebrew and Greek, I could not read most of it. For my Ph.D. I had to pass reading exams in German and French. I can make a bit out of such texts now, but I could not make my way in either of those languages day to day. With a more multi-cultural world, I wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity to learn another language when I was younger.
On the long and winding road of life, there are opportunities to do good that we miss. Inevitably, we cannot do all the good that needs to be done in the world, but here I am talking about opportunities that we might well take easy advantage of, but don’t – the small courtesy we might offer, the friendly hello we might give, the encouraging word. Sometimes we are too preoccupied with our own stuff, and sometimes that’s o.k., but not all the time.
We will miss opportunities to learn and grow and do good on the long and winding road of life, but we want to be ready to make the most of as many opportunities for learning and growing and doing good as we can.
One way we can be ready is with a little help from our friends. It must be “the Beatles’ day here! It should disturb us, a little that in this story wisdom seems on the side of not sharing. Someone has said they are really glad that this isn’t the only parable Jesus tells about the Kingdom of God, and I agree. Here the wise bridesmaids don’t share their oil. There may be times when that is the only way forward, the only way to make the best of a difficult situation, but more often than not, we need to be there for each other.
Sometimes we miss opportunities for learning and growth because we lack confidence. We need others to help give us some encouragement. Sometimes we don’t reach out to others because we have lost our sense that it makes a difference. We need others to help remind us of our power, our strength, of that fact that God works through us – yes, even us. We are in this faith thing together. God has brought us together so we can help each other be ready when opportunities for learning and growth and doing good present themselves.
Yet, there is also a truth in saying that there are some things no one else can do for us. I recall an episode from Seinfeld where George has lost his job and is pondering with Jerry, his career options. He could do something in sports, like be the general manager of a baseball team, or be a sports color commentator – except he has not training in broadcasting. He likes movies, perhaps he could be a projectionist, except he doesn’t know how to run the projector. No one could do the things George needed to do to get him ready for these careers. He would have had to do them for himself. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LCggmsCXk4)
I remember as a boy that my dad had records by the Kingston Trio. The Kingston Trio was a folk singing group from the late 1950 to the mid 1960s, and one of their popular songs was called “The Rev. Mr. Black.” The chorus of the song was, “You got to walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, oh, nobody else can walk it for you, you got to walk it by yourself. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0lYDkAfViw) Finally, there are some things that no one else can do for us. As a student you can copy someone’s homework, but no one else can learn for you. Much as I wish it were possible, no one can exercise for us, we have to do that for ourselves. We can pray for each other, but we really cannot pray instead of someone else – that is, the growth that happens with prayer cannot be shared. In Romans 12, in The Message, we are encouraged to “keep yourselves fueled and aflame,” and there are some things only we can do to make it so.
Only we can do some of the things that need to be done to ready us for learning, growth and doing good. There are certain kinds of oil that really cannot be shared.
This is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a time for gratitude. I am grateful for moments in my life when I have been ready to learn, to grow, to do good, to see beauty, to create beauty, to love.
I am grateful to getting help from my friends along the way, help in being ready to learn and grow and love and give. My family has been a tremendous help to me, and it is such a joy for me that they are all here this morning. You, my faith family, have helped me learn and grow in countless ways. Thank you.
I am grateful for the grace of God. Today’s story is a story Jesus tells about the Kingdom of God, but it is not the only story Jesus tells, nor is it all the Bible has to say about God. I don’t think God really ever gets to a point where the doors are shut and God says, “who are you?” Rather, God is a God who speaks the words in Isaiah 43: I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…. I am the Lord your God…. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
On the long and winding road of life, there will be times when a door will be shut, when we will lack the resources needed to make the most of an opportunity to learn or grow or do good. Then I think God in grace comes looking for us, puts an arm around us, and shows us where we can find some oil for our lamps so we can once again become fueled and aflame. For that, I am grateful, and in gratitude I want to go share a little of that light with others. Amen.