Whether I like it or not, I’m in the wedding business. I’ve lost track of how many nuptials I’ve blessed along the way, but I can tell you this with a great deal of certainty: Weddings—like other major life transitions—cause significant stress. The details of pulling off a major event, the beginning of a new chapter in life, the desire for things to be social media perfect. Add in to this mix other potent ingredients, perhaps parents who have divorced and may not be on the best of terms, or a sibling rivalry that rears its ugly head.
A Sermon based on Matthew 25.
Every couple I meet with as we prepare for their big day gets the same comments from me: Sometimes weddings can bring out the worst in people simply due to the stress of the event. I then point them to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress inventory which lists significant stressful moments in life and assigns point values to them. “Marriage” sits in the number 7 spot—and the very first of the seemingly “happier” events on the list—with a score of 50. (And, I show them the corollary for their parents, that having a child get married is Number 23 garnering 29 points.) If you total up 150 points or more on the scale of 43 life events, the risk of a major health scare over the next couple of years rises dramatically. Be gentle, I tell them, with how you respond to others, especially your parents—everyone is stressed. I then encourage them to take some time to do something other than wedding planning. At the end of the big day, no matter what else happens, they’ll be married.
So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding,” well it catches me off guard. Jesus then goes on to tell what can best be described as a dark parable. There are ten bridesmaids, and they’re waiting for the festivities to begin. Now weddings back then were unlike those in our day where the wedding party shows up at the church with the groomsmen getting there first to help with ushering and whatnot, and the bridesmaids arriving with the bride just prior to the start. In Jesus’ day, the groom and his family made all the preparations, and once everything was ready the groom and his entourage would go pick up the bridesmaids and bride in order to escort them to the festivities. Since electricity wasn’t around back then, and with nightfall coming at around 6pm or so, we’re told that the bridesmaids were smart enough to bring lamps in case the groom was a little late. But, Jesus tells us, of the ten bridesmaids, only five were smart enough to also bring along a flask of oil.
And that’s when this wedding seems to go off the rails. The bridesmaids wait a longtime for the groom to come, and they all end up falling asleep—Lord knows what that does to their dresses. Finally, after six hours of darkness, the cry comes out that the groom is arriving, and they all light their lamps. It’s at that moment that the foolish five recognize their mistake, and they ask for some help from the ones with the oil. Nothing doing. Those five wise bridesmaids rebuff the request, and so those five without oil run off at midnight to see if they can rustle up some oil from the local 24 hour market. They exit Stage Left, and almost immediately the groom and his fellas make their entrance Stage Right. The wise bridesmaids ready with their lighted lamps get picked up, and they all head out to the party. Minutes later, the five who have now found some oil return on-stage only to discover that everyone is gone. They run after them, but arrive too late. The door is shut. They then cry out, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But the groom replies, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And then Jesus tells his disciples, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” What Jesus describes might bump up that Holmes-Rahe stress number another 50 points. And the Kingdom of Heaven is like this.
Well, I’ve got all sorts of questions. What took the groom so long, and why did he leave those ten young women waiting out there past any reasonable hour? Isn’t he partially responsible here? And why didn’t the five wise ones share their oil? I mean doesn’t Jesus often tell us to give to others in need? What about the fact that the groom couldn’t wait a little bit longer until the other five got back from the Qwik-E Mart? They waited for him for hours and hours themselves, didn’t they? And what about that locked door and saying he didn’t even know them when they were certainly on the guest list? Pastor Layten E. Williams, asks, “Are we meant to conclude then that our invitation to the kingdom of God hinges on hoarding supplies and prioritizing self-preservation over the collective good? Or that God will be careless with our time and how God shows up, but exacting about the way we show up?” See, all sorts of questions.
But then Pastor Williams redirects my inquiries in his commentary on this passage. He writes, “But I wonder if the first mistake is for us to worry about and critique everyone in this story except for those we are meant to identify with and learn from. After all, if we were all wise bridesmaids, what need would any of us even have for such a parable? On the contrary, we are often foolish, so perhaps we’d do well to look there for a lesson to learn.”
And the only thing that separates the foolish from the wise is their lack of reserves. They didn’t have enough oil in their lamps to make it through the evening, and they didn’t bring an extra container with them. I know what that feels like when I sometimes encounter someone who needs my help, and I’ve got nothing left in my own tank to support them well. I know what it feels like to have the candle burning at both ends, mixing my metaphors a bit. I’ve had moments where I feel like I need to take on yet another thing, and yet don’t even have the energy for what I already have in front of me.
The difference between the wise and the foolish was simply having enough oil—enough energy—reserved for the appearance of the kingdom.
How often do we miss the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom because we simply are already too spent spiritually and emotionally? What can we do now to regather those supplies so we’re prepared? To, as Pastor Williams puts it, “develop and grow spiritually so that we are ready to do the work when opportunities arise.”
A colleague commented recently that since Covid-19 she’s working about the same number of hours as before, but now she’s much more exhausted. While it’s easy to point to the reality of Zoom fatigue, she also mentioned all the new things she’s had to tackle especially with technology, and of course the stress of a worldwide pandemic (something that, alas, does not appear on that Holmes-Rahe stress indicator.) In addition to all of that was the reality of limited physical connections and interactions with others which is taking a toll on her too.
Friends, as we enter in to a troubling new season with this pandemic and cases hitting new stratospheric highs every day, we need to look to God to refill our dwindling or non-existent reserves. We are not wise if we think that we can just keep going and going and going without developing and growing our interior lives. Alas, we are not the Energizer Bunny.
Many of you know that I started a four year Doctor of Ministry program with Fuller Seminary this spring. This year our coursework included learning about the many spiritual practices that have sustained Christians for centuries. Things like the examen, the Daily Office, walking a labyrinth, contemplative prayer, taking time outside, and sabbath keeping. In the coming weeks, I intend to share these practices with you through twice monthly videos describing the practice and how to engage it in your daily life. My hope is that these will provide all of us with some reserve oil for our lamps. Because it is our faith that sustains us during times like these.
And finally notice this from Jesus’ parable: even the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. This isn’t a parable about how the wise ones worked all evening while the foolish ones slept. It isn’t about finding extra oil in order to stretch ourselves thin. But rather to have the reserves necessary to do the work of Christ’s Kingdom when it appears among us. To be prepared when the bridegroom arrives. May we take that time now to prepare ourselves—and get ready— for that day.