“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
For months and months our collective lives have been filled with a lot of waiting. When the coronavirus snuck in last March in early spring, none of us expected that we would be headed toward Christmas still waiting for things to get back to normal. When it all started we had no idea how devastating the virus would be, or that it would become a political football in an already tense political environment, or that tensions would rise as police violence against unarmed African Americans would increase. And here we are, eight months on with infection counts rising, loved ones still dying alone, more and more people standing on food lines, and calls for racial justice still ringing in our streets. During this time we have cycled through brief and bright moments of resilience and hope in between longer slogs of impatience, frustration, exhaustion, and anxiety. We are waiting for the day when we can celebrate that the virus has ended, and racial equality and employment for all people are on the rise, and our sharp griefs become less piercing.
This past week we had a smaller exercise in waiting as volunteers throughout this nation opened envelopes, unfolded, checked, and counted legal ballots, and laboriously cured the “problem child” ballots, until four days after election day, it was finally announced that Biden and Harris are our new president and vice president elect. It was fairly excruciating for millions of us, even though we had all been warned that it would likely takes days for the votes to be counted. Yesterday our waiting ended, and over half the people in this nation began celebrating. But not everyone is dancing in the streets. The divisions in this nation are cavernous. We are hopeful that we can begin to mend all the tears in the fabric of our collective life, and eagerly waiting to see how things unfold from here.
Add to our collective waiting, the reality that as individuals we are waiting for all kinds of things. What are you waiting for this morning? How long have you been waiting? How much longer can you bear the waiting? How much longer can you cry out, “How long, O, Lord, how long? Waiting is hard. Frustrating. Anxiety-producing. We can and we do adapt ourselves in the waiting. But we can also lose patience. Grow weary, become cynical, run out of hope, and just give up. In God’s good providence, our gospel reading this morning is about persevering and persisting in our waiting.
Once there were ten bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom to appear so that they could accompany him to the wedding venue. Five of them were wise, and five of them were foolish. So begins the parable that Jesus tells his disciples in the hours just before he is arrested, tried, tortured, and finally executed. The parable is spoken with urgency in an urgent time. Jesus wants to prepare the disciples for his death. But even more, he wants to prepare them to keep on keeping on after he is risen and no longer present with them in the flesh on the earth. Jesus wants them to wake up and be ready for the perpetual arrival and breaking through of God’s kingdom in places where they least expect it. Jesus wants to give them eyes to see that in his impending crucifixion the liberating presence and action of God are hiding in plain sight. He wants them to see and know that in this apparent defeat, in this suffering, in this tragic turn, in this violence, in this loss, God is in process of mending all the tears in the fabric of the world’s life, and in the fabric of their individual lives, once and for all.
This is a lot for Jesus to want. That these disciples could bear to stay with him all the way to the violent bloody end and have eyes to see the radiating grace and power of God hidden in the darkness of the cross. This is a lot for Jesus to hope for. That these first disciples and we ourselves could trade in our ideas of what God’s presence and power look like—ideas formed by the wisdom of a broken world and broken people—and embrace instead the foolish idea that God’s wisdom and presence is both hidden and revealed in what the world calls weakness. This is a lot for Jesus to hope for. That these first disciples and we would have the patience to wait, to be ready to keep on keeping on as the hidden, foolish grace and love of God seeps into our frightened, resistant hearts, and causes us to trust that God’s foolish grace and love slowly seep unseen into the soil of a broken world whose future depends on God’s faithful, mysterious presence and power in weakness.
Like all the parables that Jesus tells, this one about the wise and foolish bridesmaids draws sharp divides between two types of people. You are either this or that. Wise or foolish. Good or bad. If you’re wise and good, you get into the wedding celebration. If you’re foolish and bad, you don’t. But the gospels themselves and our own experience show us that this isn’t the way things are. The disciples are both wise and foolish. They are both good and bad, as are we. What this parable wants to assure us of is that God is closing the door on the world’s false wisdom and false understandings and misuses of power and God is opening the door into the world that lives, moves, and has its entire being in the life and love of the Triune God.
Collectively and personally we are waiting for all kinds of things to be healed, to be ended, to be reconciled, to be resurrected to new life. And the truth is, all kinds of things happen for which we are absolutely unprepared. We are scrambling to get a hold. We are making it up as we go along. And the truth is, we get weary. We lose hope. We lose the will to keep on keeping on. We fall into deep, unmindful sleep. Our oil runs out. Our trust in the presence and perpetual action of God waxes and wanes. And this is the good news. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how things go with us, because God’s love doesn’t run out. God’s labors will not end until the only thing that remains is a door that opens into the eternal divine celebration of God’s faithful presence, God’s suffering, dying and rising love.
And this is the good news. By God’s design, like the ten bridesmaids, we are waiting together. Over the past two weeks, I heard story after story of people waiting on line with masked strangers to cast their votes. And because the waiting was often long, they began talking with one another. They learned each other’s names and listened to snippets of each other’s life stories. They didn’t care who was voting for whom. They recognized that we are all in this thing together, no matter what. We are all in this thing together.
And while we might want to say of the wise virgins that they are stingy and therefore unwise, the fact is that had they shared their oil, everyone’s lamps would have burned out before they reached the celebration. They would have all been stumbling around in the dark. And I would say of the foolish virgins, their greatest foolishness lies not in their being unprepared, but in their following the advice of the supposed wise virgins. They should not have run off to buy more oil just as the bridegroom was arriving. They should have stayed with the others in procession with this bridegroom who is the symbol of God’s self and God’s kingdom arriving on the scene. And all of the bridesmaid should have recognized that with five lamps burning, there was enough light for all of them to walk in. Light spreads out from even the tiniest source. It may have been foolish to share the oil. But it would have been wise to discern that they could share the light. They could have held hands and huddled together in the darkness and all arrived safely, together for the celebration. This is the good news. The radiating grace and love of God are hidden in the cross of Jesus and draw us into the reality that by this grace we, all people are one, together, stumbling along in the light of God. Already celebrating what God has done and is doing and will do to mend the tears in the fabric of our lives, and set our feet to dancing.