Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost 12 November 2017
(Amos 5:18-24 Psalm 70 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25: 1-13)
“The Bridegroom is Coming!”
“The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this,” says Jesus, and then he tells them a parable about ten bridesmaids. Now I know this image may be a really good image of The Kingdom of Heaven, but I sincerely hope that heaven isn’t going to be one big wedding reception. I’m just saying!
Let me set the record clear that I really do enjoy working with couples and celebrating weddings, but with all due respect to the weddings I’ve done, the weddings I will do, the weddings in preparation right now, the Kingdom of Heaven yet to come and the glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven that is already here—I surely hope that heaven will be more than expensive dresses and suits, more than an open bar, more than cake smeared on the couples’ faces, and a whole lot more than everyone waiting for the next line dance to happen. I’m just saying!
So how do we really “get at” this parable? My suggestion will not please some of you. But maybe a sermon is not supposed to “please” everyone!
I think many of you know that I use poetry in therapy, in spiritual direction and in sermons. Well, I am using a poem today. The title is, “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins, who was the poet laureate for the U.S. from 2001-2003.
I ask them to take a poem//and hold it up to the light//like a color slide
Or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem//and watch him probe his way out,
Or walk inside the poem’s room//and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski//across the surface of a poem//waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do//is tie the poem to a chair with rope//and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose//to find out what it really means.1
Wherever the word “poem” is, I’d like to suggest you substitute the word “parable.” Because I think too often, we look at these parables in the Gospels and we start beating them with a hose to find out what they really mean. We tie the parable to a chair to torture a confession out of it! We want to squeeze them so tightly that every detail means something; and we squeeze so hard until there’s nothing left in it.
I want to waterski across parables; and I want to drop a mouse into them and watch the mouse probe its way out!
So we get to the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.
When we beat this parable with a hose and squeeze it so tightly, this is what happens: the bridegroom becomes Jesus; the maidens become the church; the banquet is the Kingdom; the closed door is the Final Judgment; the oil is good works; the delay of the bridegroom is the Second Coming. That’s it. We have it figured out! We can go home!
Not so fast! Hold the final hymn! You’re not getting out of here quite yet!
When Jesus begins with “The Kingdom of heaven will be like this,” quite honestly, it’s not the wedding banquet idea that draws me in! (I already made that clear!) For me that’s not the “hook.” If it were, then it becomes too easy to say that the wise women should have shared their oil, and that Jesus should never have shut the door. It becomes too easy to say, the foolish bridesmaids should have thought ahead, or to spend too much time trying to figure out what the oil stands for.
All these other things we keep beating with the hose of our intellect and our knowledge of Greek in order to figure out what all this really means.
So what does get me excited about this parable? Do you really want to know? What gets me excited, the core of the parable, the focus of the story, the creative center, the wheel on which the plot turns is this? What is the one thing in the entire parable I have not yet mentioned? — the bridegroom coming!
Notice how the delay, the groom, the oil, the door, the wise, the foolish—they all turn on the fact that the bridegroom is coming.
The bridegroom is coming! I want to suggest (stronger than merely suggesting!) that the arrival of the bridegroom (although delayed) is the creative center of this parable! That’s where the life is! That’s where God’s grace is to be found!
So let me say, “Quit it!” Quit spending all your time trying to figure out all those other things! Rather, let’s walk inside this parable and feel the walls for the light switch so that we can let the “arrival of the bridegroom” come into our lives.
What I want you to know from this parable is that the bridegroom (even if delayed) is coming to you, is coming into your lives—when you are feeling hopeless, when you are lonely, when you are made the outcast, when you are ill, when a loved one has died, when you are in conflict with a person you love.
I want the grace of this parable to speak to you in those difficult and troubled situations. I want you to hear from this parable that the bridegroom is on the way, even when it becomes dark and you get tired of waiting!
All ten of those bridesmaids (foolish or wise) never lost faith that the bridegroom was on his way! And sometimes we are foolish and other times we are wise, but regardless, let’s not lose our faith while we are waiting because to believe He is coming is the astonishing nature of a faith-filled life!
Before I end, I ask you: How are you most hurting right now? Where are you most broken right now? What are you most ashamed of right now? When are you most hopeless right now? Can you believe that the bridegroom is coming? Do you believe that the bridegroom is coming? Is there enough oil in your lamp to be ready when the bridegroom finally arrives?
Please, don’t torture this parable to make it all fit. Rather, hold it up to the light; press it against your ear. Rather than simply giving you simple answers, it may be drawing you into a deeper faith in the midst of the insecurities of your life. Amen.
1 The Apple that Astonished Paris. Billy Collins. University of Arkansas Press. 1996.