A sermon by Rachel Twigg Boyce from November 12, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
When I was in grade 9 I made a plan for my life. I knew exactly where I wanted to go to school after high school and I knew exactly what it would take to make that possible. Every decision I made over the next couple of years was a part of my plan. I did all the right things – took advanced classes, agonized over every grade, and participated in as many extra curricular activities as was humanly possible… and then I did a few more.
And then I wasn’t accepted to my dream school, I didn’t even make the short list, and I had no idea what to do next. It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be accepted and so I had never thought about what I would do if that happened.
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I was surprised, and I don’t like being surprised, and I was hurt, and I don’t like to be hurt, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. And, while I hope I am getting better at this, I REALLY don’t like not knowing what to do next.
I’ve always found that the best way for me to sort out my feelings is by walking and so after I got the news that my life wasn’t going to work out the way I had planned, I took a lot of long walks in the woods behind our house. Just me, my dog, and my thoughts.
I didn’t literally walk around with the psalms in my pocket, but Psalm 43 is a pretty decent paraphrase of what I was thinking as I walked and walked and walked.
“Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause… why had you cast me off? Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”
That’s how I felt, cast off, rejected, and oppressed, with the depth of feeling that perhaps only a sixteen year old can really understand.
This Wednesday night at our Anglicanism 101 series, I’m going to talk in more depth about my daily practice of praying the psalms, but tonight I’ll just highlight how grateful I am for the inclusion of psalms like this one that speak exactly to the condition of feeling let down, attacked, and rejected. Sometimes when I pray a psalm like this it is an exact reflection of how I am feeling and the psalms help provide words when I have none.
But sometimes, when I get up and pray with psalms like this one they don’t resonate with how I am feeling at all. Thankfully, I don’t wake up every single day feeling oppressed. I wake up every single day feeling grumpy, I am not a morning person, annoyed yes, but not oppressed. And on those days if I’m paying attention, I know that there is someone who is feeling oppressed and I can pray these words on their behalf, or I know that I have certainly felt that way before and I feel grateful that I do not feel that way in the present moment.
Psalm 43 ends this way: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
I love that the Psalmist doesn’t expect us to move to the place of praise by the end of the Psalm, the psalmist merely asks us to have hope that the way we are currently feeling is not the way we will always feel. We may feel there is no reason to praise God in this particular moment, and we don’t have to pretend that we do, rather, we can be honest about how we are feeling, holding on to the hope that we will not always feel this way.
Despite my carefully crafted plans and best efforts, life isn’t something that can be predicted or controlled. We can set a goal, put everything we have into meeting that goal, and not achieve it. We can apply for the dream job, and not get it. We can think we know what’s going to happen next, and we can be utterly surprised by the way things actually turn out.
It hurt to find out I wasn’t going to go to my dream school and it left me shaken for a time. Thankfully, the experience hasn’t stopped me from dreaming big and putting myself out there. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not. I hope I am getting better at realizing that my value and my worth are not tied up in whether or not I am indeed successful.
I hope, that like the psalmist, when it seems that everyone is out to get me, I am able to honour that reality, be gentle with myself, and hold onto the hope that there are better days yet to come.
Our gospel reading for tonight could be described as a story of 5 successful and five unsuccessful bridesmaids.
This story is, a story, a parable meant to make a point. Jesus isn’t reporting the events of an actual wedding he’s attended recently, he is making up a story in order to make a point.
It’s a story about a wedding. A wedding that has some different customs than the ones we are used to.
10 bridesmaids are invited to be a part of this wedding and as part of their role as bridesmaids they are expected to wait at a specific place with lit lamps with the bridegroom arrives.
And all 10 bridesmaids are ready to fulfill their role. They all show up at the appointed time and place with lamps filled with oil.
But something unexpected happens, the groom is delayed, he does not arrive on time and so the 10 women need to wait longer than expected, they need to wait long into the night for his arrival.
And here is where we find out what distinguishes the bridesmaids that Jesus describes as wise, from the ones Jesus describes as foolish.
5 of the women bring extra oil and Jesus says they were wise to do so and 5 don’t bring any extra oil. Jesus calls them foolish.
At first glance, it seems that the 5 women who bring the extra oil aren’t wise, they are lucky. Or even uptight. Even though the groom has taken much longer to arrive than anyone expected and they have been forced to wait for him late into the night – all the lamps are still burning, they are running out of oil, but they are still burning. This implies that under normal circumstances, the lamps held enough oil for the wedding procession. It wasn’t necessary to bring any extra along.
The women whose lamps are burning out ask the women with the extra oil to share with them but they refuse to help, so the foolish women leave to try and buy some oil.
And while they are out shopping, the groom arrives, and everyone heads into the wedding feast and they shut the door behind them.
The foolish women – who under normal circumstances would have had enough oil and would have had no need to leave to purchase more –are late to the party.
Now remember that Jesus is telling this story in order to explain something about the Kingdom of God.
When something is too large, too complicated, or too mysterious for us to comprehend, we often try to explain it by comparing it to something else. “My love is like a red, red rose…” for example. We know that my love is NOT actually a red rose, but rather there is something about our shared understanding of red roses that provides an insight into the nature of my love.
In the same way, when we read this parable we know that the kingdom of heaven must be like the wedding celebration Jesus is describing but it is not a one for one comparison. – the kingdom of heaven is NOT a wedding with 10 Bridesmaids, it is LIKE a wedding with 10 bridesmaids. The parable is meant to tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it doesn’t tell us everything about it.
A seminary professor of mine liked to say, “all metaphors limp.” Or in the case of today’s gospel passage, “all similes limp.” The nature of similes is that in order to highlight one element of the thing they mean to explain, they often hide or muddle other elements.
For example, my love may be like a red red rose in that it is beautiful like a rose or precious like a rose, but I probably don’t mean that my love is like a red, red rose – full of thorns that will make you bleed, and likely to die in a short period of time. If my goal is to swear my undying love to you then the simile about a rose is helpful, but it also limps.
So what element of the kingdom of heaven is this parable trying to highlight, and what elements of the kingdom of heaven is it obscuring?
10 women are invited to be part of a wedding and they all arrive at the appointed place with lamps filled with oil to fulfill their role as bridesmaids. 5 have a clear idea of how long a wedding is supposed to take and so they plan accordingly – filling their lamps with oil. 5 are prepared for the possibility that things may take much longer than expected, and bring extra oil.
Why would some women bring one lamp’s worth of oil and others would bring enough to refill their lamps?
I wonder, if the foolish women were foolish simply because they thought they had an understanding of how weddings were supposed to work, they thought they knew how long a wedding was supposed to take and they planned accordingly.
What is so foolish about that? What is foolish about having a good understanding of how a wedding is supposed to work and planning accordingly?
I wonder if the point that Jesus is trying to make is this – be prepared to be surprised. Don’t think you know how all of this is going to work out. Don’t make plans according to how you expect things will happen. Because things may not happen the way you expect them to, they may take longer than you think.
You may think you know exactly how your life is supposed to turn out, you may think you know exactly what university you’re supposed to go to and just what it will take to be accepted, and you might not get in.
Be prepared to be surprised.
The bible is full of stories of people who are surprised by Jesus. People who think they know what a Messiah will be like.
And Jesus is not what they are expecting.
Some are willing to be surprised and they see Jesus for who he is. Some remain so locked in their preconceived notions of what a Messiah should be that they don’t recognize Jesus as all.
In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there are people who think they have the timeline figured out. They think they know what’s going to happen next.
And they are not prepared to be surprised.
This happened when Jesus was alive, and it happened in the time period when these gospel narratives were being written down and it continues to happen today.
In the time when the gospels were being written down, people were starting to realize that perhaps Jesus wasn’t going to return in the next couple of days and they might need to rethink a few things. They might need to start writing these stories about Jesus down before the people who remembered them were too old to keep telling them.
They might need to start doing some long term planning.
They might need to begin to settle in for the long haul of history.
They might need some extra oil.
They might need to be prepared to be surprised.
We might need that too.
Now what are we going to do with those troubling final verses? The verses where the foolish women pound on the door crying, “Lord, lord, open to us” and the response they receive is, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Followed by Jesus’ warning in verse 13, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Verses like this make me squirm, they are some of the first ones I’d cut out of the bible if I could.
You see I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in at a party I want to be at but haven’t been invited to. And I’m sure that many of you have had the same experience. It’s not a good feeling, and I don’t want to have any part if making other people feel that way if I can help it.
So if I could just cut these verses out, I would. This week as I was preparing I thought, maybe I just won’t mention this last bit.
But then I wondered, what would happen if I let this text surprise me?
And I started asking questions.
What if the foolish women had decided to stick around even though their lamps were burning out? What if they had decided that just their presence was enough? What if they had decided that being present when the Bridegroom arrived was more important than having it all together?
I’d like to think that they would have been welcomed, burnt out lamps and all. I think there is a decent amount of Biblical evidence that they would have been welcomed into that party, just as they were.
Because I don’t know if it’s OK to go to a party without enough oil for your lamp, but I know it’s impossible to go to a party if you don’t show up.
Jesus is using this story to try and explain something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it is not a stand-alone story. It needs to be read in context. It needs to be read in the context of stories where Jesus says God is like a shepherd who gets 99 sheep safely into the pen and is not content until he also goes and finds the one sheep that is still missing. (Matthew 18:12) And that God is like a women who hunts for a lost coin until she finds it and when she does, she wants to celebrate with everyone she knows.
And this gospel needs to be read in the context of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you…”
And the foolish women are knocking.
Maybe this isn’t the end of the story.
Maybe the foolish women need to have a little more confidence in the Bridegroom.
Maybe the foolish women need to keep knocking.
We can take a passage like today’s gospel text and wrestle with it and be prepared to be changed by the process of wrestling with it, not with the discovery of an easy answer.
We can be prepared to be surprised. We can keep knocking. We can pack a little extra oil for the journey.
And we can remember that one of the things that Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel reading is that the kingdom of heaven is like a party.
And it would be such a shame if anyone for any reason thought they weren’t invited to the party.
Because we are all invited, and it’s a party worth attending.
So keep knocking, pack a little extra oil for the journey, and be prepared to be surprised along the way. Amen.