Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God our Father!
Ah yes, just the words of inspiration and hope your COVID and election weary soul needed to hear this morning, am I right? As I spent days pouring over the texts preparing for this sermon I kept thinking, aw geez, are you serious, God? Do you have any idea what we are dealing with right now? Well of course He does, it’s an age-old condition of the human story. Why do you think Jesus tells so many parables that leave us rather stunned and wondering what Jesus is telling us no matter how many times we hear them. Stories that leave us with more questions about our questions than before. But maybe this is what we’re supposed to do with Jesus’s parables. Maybe we’re supposed to let their meanings open out, wider and wider as we sit and wrestle with our questions, our discomfort, our wonder. You see the truths the parables reveal are various and infinite; their interpretation as ever-changing as our lives. I preached on these weary and wayward bridesmaids three very long years ago and while the words and the struggle to comprehend them are the same, they sound very different to me now in this time and place.
Quite honestly, the passages of scripture chosen for today could have been pulled right out of one my pandemic nightmares of late. Alas, the call of this Lay Pastoral Associate is not to regal you with my dreams, it is to find the good news – to shed some light on the darkness. So where to begin…
This is one of four parables Jesus uses toward the end of his ministry to prepare his disciples for His 2nd coming, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting – of yes, the good and the bad. Matthew is writing to a community who was dealing with an oppressive government, a rupture from the synagogue, and a delay in the much awaited return of the Messiah.The return of whom we are still waiting for today. Matthew fills his Gospel with judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise. But it is in the harshness and the surprise that the hidden meaning is often found. The surprise this time for the disciples and for us is that the wedding banquet – the return of Christ – is not going to go the way we think it is or WHEN we think it is.
These parables ARE challenging ciphers at times but I always find it helpful to try and identify with the characters whether it is the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the old woman who lost the coin, or the servant who buried his talents rather than risk investing them.
I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids. The good girl. Always prepared. Always having a plan for every moment of my day and always making sure I had more than “enough of the good stuff in my lamp – you know good works and faith.” Quite simply I have used perfectionism and control to a fault to get me through life. Spontaneity is not my strong suit.
And though I have been a lifelong Lutheran saved by grace and not by works, my parents did a good job of “raising me right” instilling in me the importance of perfect church attendance, giving regularly a portion of my allowance and later income, holding leadership positions within the church, including two stints as a council president, a call committee chair, and Vice Chair for a million dollar church building campaign, not to mention adding my voice to every church choir that I could come across. (Can you imagine my utter chagrin as I heard the words of Amos today? But I digress…) So yes, I envisioned myself as one of the wise, firmly holding onto my lamp and my stores of the requisite oil in the dead of night.
And to be sure I was saying the right things to you today I immediately turned to my considerable collection of outside resources: Bible commentaries, different Bible translations, word studies, and on and on. I needed to consult all the outside experts and then share THEIR wisdom and insights of this challenging text because I am not one to trust that I have it in me alone to correctly share the Good News of today’s Gospel with you. Because you see, I also have this terrible tendency to doubt, especially with regards to my inner qualities and abilities.
Ah, but wait a minute! Isn’t that what the five foolish bridesmaids did in their midnight quest to go buy oil – you know the good stuff for their lamps? Doubt? Doubt that their presence alone was what the Bridegroom desired?
But hey, none of this would have happened had the Bridegroom been on time in the first place so I definitely identify with him as I am always running late!
In truth, what drew me into this parable this time is the startling idea that despite my best efforts in life, on that much awaited day when God’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and our broken earth is restored and made whole, just as Scripture promises – that God wouldn’t know me.
I mean how could that be? He knows every hair on my head! I was made in His image?
It reminded me of this dream I had recently about my father. It began as I was preparing to fly to Washington D.C. for a theology conference – yeah, I know – a nightmare inside a dream right there! I hate flying under normal circumstances – road trips for the win any day!! – and despite all the reports saying it is safe to be on an airplane there is no way I am flying anywhere right now.except of course in a nightmare. The plane landed at Dulles International Airport – but when I got off the plane I was in Billings and was headed to my old house on Audubon Way. Of course the weather was terrible – dark, gloomy, rainy and the wind was howling as it always does in Billings even when the sun is shining. When I pulled my Santa Fe – which came along on the plane with me – into the driveway, my brother Fred and his wife Kathie were there as were the neighbors from across the street. There was a lot of activity as there always is in dreams and everything was so alive – including both of my parents who have been with God now for over three years. I could see the glow from inside the house as I ran from my car to the front porch in the pouring rain. I was all set for the much anticipated big hug from Dad that always awaited me when I came home – but instead all Dad said to me was “I don’t know who you are.” A wave of sickness and grief washed over me and I woke up shaking.
My Dad and I had an extremely close relationship – he inspired me in my walk in faith and guided me through the rough patches of life with an earnest faith. We golfed together, went to church together, discussed politics and relationships. We even served on church council together. I didn’t hide much from him – not that I could if I wanted to – nothing got past him – and I always tried to live up to his standards and expectations of me. But now that he s gone, I have come to realize that there is still so much I don’t know. There is still so much I need to know and tell my dad and my mom but my questions can’t be answered now and I wonder how much closer and richer our relationship could have been had I only taken more time to ask the questions – if I had been more vulnerable at times and really opened up. I wanted to be perfect in their eyes – what child – deep in their hearts doesn’t – even as adults?
I got to thinking about how that might be how it is with God. He longs to know you but will you let him and trust him? What does it take to be known by the Lord? Digging into one of my word studies, the word “know” in our passage today is oida. This word can simply mean “to have information about,” but it also has the meaning, “to be intimately acquainted with or stand in a close relation to.”
We often say that we know the Lord but do we ask ourselves if we do? Do we live in close relationship to God? Do we let him in? Examine your relationships in life – your friends and family and casual acquaintances. How well do you let yourself be known to them? We have surface level relationships – we know each other’s names, birthday, favorite foods, occupation, likes, dislikes. And then we have those critical deeper trusting relationships – ones in which you can share your deepest secrets, confess your darkest thoughts, and expose your greatest struggles. You can trust them with the real you.
If you are like me – you probably think you have a good relationship with the Lord – you know with all your church doings – but how much of you do you trust to God? How much of God do you let into your life? Into your uncertainties, Into your waiting? Does your waiting reflect a confidence in God? Do you still wait for God? We have been doing a lot of waiting lately and I wonder where you find yourself?
I am not good at waiting, are you? And I am definitely not good at letting go of control in my waiting.
Waiting carries many emotions — anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss. Of course, our emotional response will be determined by that for which we wait and our time of waiting will be experienced differently depending on that which we expect.
In truth, most of what we wait for is not guaranteed.That prolonged uncertainty can bring out the worst in us. We act out in fear, anger, distrust, or simply fade away losing hope. What we wait for can leave such a void in our lives that we attempt to fill with busyness, excessive work or spending, substance abuse – anything to block the discomfort, anxiety, or emptiness that waiting can cause. And perhaps we have let our waiting for Christ’s return affect us in the same way – we turn to doubt or skepticism because we have grown tired of waiting. Maybe your heart for Jesus’ has grown cold with impatience.
Speaking of which, I don’t much like the fact that the story leaves five women out in the cold. Especially after they waited late into the night for the bridegroom to arrive. I don’t like how their fearful quest out into the dark of night for external sources of light led them to be excluded from the wedding feast and denied by the bridegroom.
But it reveals to us a harsh truth.
And this is the nugget of light I found this time as I waited for divine sermon inspiration from on high. More often than I would like to admit I have been a foolish bridesmaid. I know how hard it is to stick around when my “light” is fading and my reserves are low. To this day I scramble for perfection, insisting on having my ducks in a row before I show up in front of God, or the church, or the world. How about you? Do you put God on hold so you can put your game face on? How is he ever going to know you?
There will come a time when we face darkness, when we are not ready, when the unexpected takes our light away. Doors close. Chances fade.Time runs out. Words go unsaid. Friendships end. Debts are called. Addictions break us. Wounds grow deep.. Courage flees. Justice is too hard. Bitterness sets in. Faith ebbs. Life closes down.The opportunity ends.
It is in these moments of darkness – often our darkest hour – when our faith has all but expired and our attempts of perfection and doing for the Lord rather than getting to know the Lord have left us exhausted – that the bridegroom comes. Darkness is the greatest revealer of light. God comes when we least expect it with a glimmer of light – signs of a better way to wait – a better way to live.
Allow me to share a little bit of my oil with you – yes this uncertain Lay Pastor has oil to share afterall – lingering in the dark when your woeful wick is flickering, your once-vigorous faith is vanishing, and your sodden soul is filled with nothing but doubt and pain and grief and weariness – that my friends is when God knows you best and when you come to know the fullness of God.
Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and created in God’s perfect image. God delights in you — not what is in your lamp – not what you prove to the world.
Have the will to wait, have the courage to question, have the faith to doubt. The God whose deep and unconditional compassion,with light and oil to spare, who finds your messy and imperfect presence is of intrinsic value will meet you there. As baptized children of God, His presence was never in question – learning to live in His presence is our lifelong quest.
My favorite theologian, Henri Nouwen writes – “People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”
In these anxious, uncertain, judgment-filled times of waiting we are experiencing take time to let God know you and strive to live into the joy of His presence. Remember, your light doesn’t have to dazzle. God created light. God is light. And Jesus is the light of the world. That your lamp is flickering isn’t the point. You are. So stay and wait in the good news of God knowing you and let that be the light that sustains and inspires you to love and serve the world.
Thanks be to God.
Let your light so shine!!