November 9, 2014

Proper 27, Year A

Matthew 25:1-13

            The last few words of today's gospel passage can be hard to hear bright and early on a Sunday morning: "Keep awake."  The full final sentence of today's gospel gives us what sounds like the moral of the story that Jesus tells: "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."  When our reading ends on that sentence, it's easy to hear the so-called "gospel" as a command to be inexhaustible.  Often, the Christian message sounds like variants on this theme of inexhaustibility: Be inexhaustibly patient, inexhaustibly generous, inexhaustibly forgiving, inexhaustibly . . . inexhaustible.  Or maybe I should say indefatigably inexhaustible.  Either way, it can be exhausting to hear this message.

            Of course, part of the resurrection life is to help us find more strength, more courage, more compassion, and more hope than we thought possible.  But the admonishment in this particular passage to "Keep awake" seems a little out of step with the rest of this parable.  Because in this parable, none of the bridesmaids, foolish or wise, manages to stay awake.  As the gospel tells us, they "all . . . became drowsy and slept."  They drift off to sleep when the bridegroom is late.  Even the wise bridesmaids are not inexhaustible, superhuman beings.  They are aware of their own limitations, and they work within those limitations to be fully present to Christ when he appears.

            So this parable could offer some relief to the weary.  In his book Wild at Heart, author John Eldredge proposes a little experiment.  He says, "Walk into most churches in America, have a look around, and ask yourself this question: What is a Christian woman?"  Eldredge answers his own question, "You'd have to admit a Christian woman is . . . tired" (17).  After all, the woman in Proverbs 31 gets up before sunrise to cook for her family, and she keeps her lamp burning into the night.  Fortunately, Grace Episcopal Church isn't "most churches," and I don't think that we revere tiredness as the model of discipleship in our community.  But there's always the temptation to think that Jesus requires us, men and women, to exhaust ourselves.  Yet as today's parable show us, what Jesus longs for is our presence and our companionship in his kingdom.  He doesn't want us empty.  He wants to find us with so much oil that we can burn with love for him.

So if you're feeling drowsy and need to nod off right now, I completely understand, and apparently so does Jesus.  Someone will tell you when it's time to wake up.

            But if you're bearing with me, I'd like to suggest a couple of other morals to the story besides "Keep awake."  First, it seems like the message is not so much, "Don't let the Lord catch you napping," but "Don't let the Lord catch you shopping."  The foolish bridesmaids miss their moment with the groom because they have to go buy oil.  When the foolish bridesmaids run out of oil for their lamps, the wise bridesmaids tell them, "you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves."  So they're in the marketplace instead of at the wedding banquet. 

            Like these foolish bridesmaids, it's so easy for us to get caught up in the business of life.  It seems like we're always needing to run out for a gallon of milk, or seeing our gas gauge dip below a quarter tank, or watching the clock tick down to an important deadline.  Sometimes, we have enough practical wisdom to plan ahead, to stock up on what we need, or to pace ourselves.  Life is certainly less stressful when we're a little more on top of things.

            But the real fruit of not being consumed by the business of life is that we're more present and available to God and God's kingdom.  The less time we spend buying things we don't have from the dealers like the foolish bridesmaids, the more likely it is that we'll have enough and be enough for the Lord.  We may not be able to keep awake around the clock, but we can learn to rest in the gifts we've received, and to make them and our contented selves available to God.  Instead of going to the dealers for something we lack, we can offer what we already have. 

            Another moral to the parable of the ten bridesmaids could be this: "When you get invited to a wedding banquet, bring your own flask."  (No, not that kind of flask!)  The flask in this parable is a flask of oil.  When the bridegroom is delayed, the five wise bridesmaids who brought their own flasks can trim their lamps.  However, they only have enough for themselves; they can't possibly share with the five foolish bridesmaids.  They say, "there will not be enough for you and for us."  This refusal to help out the other bridesmaids seems unkind, but the five wise bridesmaids who don't share their oil make another point: There is no possible substitute for what each of us brings to God and God's kingdom.

            We each have to bring our own flasks of oil because we each have a particular grace, an irreplaceable essence, that no one else can bring to the wedding banquet.  There are things that no one else can do for us, or in our place.  Others may support us in our spiritual growth, but so much of our relationship with the Lord depends on us simply showing up, with our lamps lit, present and waiting.  No one else can do that for us.  We have to bring our own flasks of oil.  There is no substitute for our presence or our company in the kingdom of God.  And only we can bring our true selves.

            These alternative morals to the parable in today's gospel are both harder and easier than the command to "Keep awake."  Finding a way to transcend the business of life and not let the Lord catch us shopping is not easy.  Sometimes, our responsibilities and our distractions seem all-consuming.  And it's also not easy to bring our own flask of oil, or our full and irreplaceable presence, into the presence of the Lord.  But the command to "Keep awake" seems to demand something of us that the rest of the parable does not.  Even the wise bridesmaids get to fall asleep.

From this parable, it seems that, when we accept that nothing in this finite world, including us, is inexhaustible, we become wiser stewards of all the gifts at our disposal.  When we accept that we have natural limits, we also discover that we have something—we are something—that no one else can offer to the kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim.  When we recognize ourselves, humbly, as finite and limited creatures, we realize that we are also, by some miracle, worthy enough to be the companions of Jesus.

And perhaps, when we receive sleep and rest as a blessing, we are much more likely to be wide awake for it when the kingdom shows up.