November 8, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Learning to wait…Enduring the delays…Have we not had a crash course in waiting and delays this week?! We were told by political experts again and again and again that counting the votes would take time. Results would be quite slow to come in, especially in key states. But we weren’t prepared for the delay, not really. Though our rational mind told us to wait, the rest of us still wanted quick results on Tuesday night, or Wednesday morning at the very least. Our hearts and souls…our gut…wanted immediate answers because so much was on the line for us, our neighbors and our nation.
And what exactly could we do to prepare for this delay in election results, for this prolonged uncertainty, this balancing on the edge of a knife all week long? Ours is not a culture of waiting. We do not practice living with delays in our day-to-day lives. I am not seeking to lay any blame here. I am as bad at the practice of waiting as anyone else. Delayed flights, gridlocked traffic, long lines…the stuff of nightmares. When I find myself becoming impatient in our fast-paced culture, I remind myself of Homer Simpson, that cartoon character at the center of the Simpson’s cartoon. He is the parody of our love instant gratification. In one episode, Homer is visiting the local bar run by Moe. Moe receives a delivery of a deep fryer on the back of a tractor trailer. Moe brags to Homer, “I can deep fry a buffalo in this thing in around 40 seconds!” To which Homer whines, “40 seconds??? But I want it now!!” Now, most of us are not Homer Simpson. He is an exaggeration. However, he is a commentary on our cultures inability to train us to wait, to live with delays.
How appropriate after this week of forced, anxious waiting, that the parable assigned to this particular Sunday is a story all about waiting and delays?! This is a hard parable. At first reading it seems devoid of grace. It seems to contradict our values, our Christian values. Five woman refuse to share their oil. People are shut out of the Kingdom-Kin-dom-party. Women are labeled as foolish. On top of this, it is a parable about the end times and the second coming of Christ, something the church has wrestled to understand for 2000 years. When I encounter scriptures that make me uncomfortable, that cause me to wish to turn the page and find something easier to spend time with, I lean on some advice from a rabbi friend given years ago. She encouraged me to live with such passages. She used the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling all night long with an angel of God, with God. Jacob refuses to let go until the fellow wrestler blessed Jacob. Part of Jacob’s blessing for ‘staying the night’ was to receive a new name, the name of Israel. My rabbi friend called me to ‘stick with it,’ to ‘wrestle’ with the difficult text until I found the blessing within. Sometime we have to take a step back for a moment, get some good footing under us, but to stay committed to the wrestling, even in the dark, until the blessing reveals itself. So where is the blessing in this parable before us today? It does help to take that step back.
What is going on? Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time, in what we term Holy Week in the church. The mood is tense. The Disciples, all Galileans, are wandering the grand holy temple on the mount, oooh-ing and ahhh-ing over the magnificence and architecture, like rural tourists visiting the big city for the first time. Jesus cuts through this distraction, “Are you impressed by all this? I tell you all will be destroyed, not one stone left on top of another!” This is a proclamation of the end of the world for the Jewish people, the destruction of the house of God in their midst, the great Temple of God. Shocked and dismayed, the disciples approach Jesus a little later to debrief from such a statement. “How will we know what such a world-ending thing will happen? What will be the signs? What will alert us to your coming again among us?” Jesus’ answer is two chapters long, but the short of it is, “You won’t know. No one will know. There are no signs. Stay awake. Be vigilant. Stay focused.” All of the parables of Matthew 25, which we will spend time with for a few weeks, are variations on this theme—awake, vigilant, focused. However, each story contains nuances that we often miss.
At first gland, this parable today is all about the oil. It is a wedding, what should be a joyous occasion. But when weddings show up in Jesus’ parables, not so much. What happens at a first century Jewish wedding? The groom processes, with attendants, to the parent’s home of the bride. At the bride’s house a ceremony happens, and then the groom escorts to the bride, her family, and all attendees to the wedding back to his home, where other attendants are waiting to welcome them and all go inside the groom’s home for a many day party. And I mean that literally, the celebration goes on for days. Remember the miracle story from John’s gospel where Jesus turns to the water into wine. The embarrassed groom had run out of wine before the party was over.
The ten young women are assigned to wait outside the groom’s home to welcome the wedding procession and lead them inside for the celebration. Five women brought extra oil, just in case. Five women do not and are caught unprepared at the delay of the procession. They run off to buy oil and are therefore left out of the party. We often end our interpretation there—the moral of the story is to be prepared, to have extra oil with us always. Yes…and no, for we are missing a rather important point.
Jesus’ parables always have a twist, something shocking or unusual, something that would cause that first-century audience to wrestle to find the blessing—something to ‘chew on.’ What wedding attendants would even think that the wedding party would be so delayed they wouldn’t arrive until midnight? What oil venders are open at midnight to sell the five women some oil? Why would the groom be so upset at the women’s delay as they go to buy oil if the OIL was so important? That’s an important question: Why would the groom refuse admittance to the five women if the oil they just ran off to purchase was the whole point? Consider—what was the role of the women that night? What was their purpose in this wedding? Was it to have oil? Was it to keep their lamps burning? Or, was it to wait for the groom?
Here is the challenge and the blessing in this hard story. Yes, it is good to be prepared, to be stocked up on your resources, to have your lamps trimmed and burning. But…sometimes we aren’t prepared. Sometimes we fail. We don’t anticipate the delay and we aren’t ready—all our ducks are not in a row. We are caught completely unprepared, our lamps go out, and we find ourselves caught in the dark. In these instances, our first instinct is to do something, anything! We need to cover our failure, to look like we have it all together. We rush off to find any source of light that we can. This story, this strange and unsettling parage, says to us: Of course, we want to be always ready for any delays, to be well stocked on all our resources. But, if we aren’t, if our resources run out and we are left feeling a bit foolish, or embarrassed or afraid, stay focused! Stay alert! Stay ‘awake!” Stay the course. Ultimately, it is not about our oil but about the One who is always coming to us, in every moment, each and every day, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Stay focused on the One who is God-with-us, Emmanuel—the Word Made Flesh—The Light of the World.
It has been a hard week. Though many of us are filled with joy and relief at the election results, the anxiety of the waiting was intense and we are exhausted, to say the least. It was pretty impossible to be prepared for this wait and we burned through a lot of oil. That is okay. Jesus is here with us. Jesus came to us throughout the delay. Jesus gifts us with ways to encounter him in each moment, ways to be opened to his presence, ways to be replenished. Prepared or not, let us be focused, awake to Jesus’ presence coming to us—through deeds of justice, through words of prayer, through acts of kindness. Let us learn to wait, to wait for the Light that shines in the darkness, for the darkness cannot overcome it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.