“The Foolish, the Wise, and some Oil” Colchester Federated Church, November 12, 2017 (Matthew 25:1-13) Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel parable in Matthew 25 is kind-of a doozy.  Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There’s ten bridesmaids who are awaiting the bridegroom and take their lamps and go outside to stand watch for his arrival.  We are told that five are foolish and five are wise.  The foolish take no oil with them to refill their lamps.  The wise take flasks of oil—prepared for a long night.  The bridegroom gets delayed and they’re tired so they sleep for a while.  At midnight there’s a shout that goes up, “Look!  Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him.”[1]  The bridesmaids get up to trim their lamps and the foolish ask the wise to share some of their oil.  They’ve run out, right?  The wise refuse and tell them to go and buy some for themselves.

The foolish bridesmaids rush off to get that oil and in so doing miss the bridegroom completely.  Those who were prepared go into the wedding banquet to celebrate and the doors are shut behind them.  The doors remain shut.  When the foolish bridesmaids return with their oil they ask the Lord to open the door.  His response is, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  And Jesus ends his parable with the somber words, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”[2]

It seems in today’s parable that sharing of resources may not have been emphasized in some of these bridesmaids’ households.  After all, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is primarily about the coming of the Son of Man for the final judgment of all creation and the necessity for watching out and preparing for that day.  This may sound a little far-fetched, but it was a widely held belief among the earliest followers of Jesus and even some Christians today.  This parable is about keeping watch, being ready, and staying alert.  We are to emulate the wise bridesmaids.  Our task is to welcome the newly married couple into their new household with light and fire and a cozy ambience.  We are to “keep awake” for we don’t know the day nor the hour that Jesus (who is symbolically represented as the bridegroom) will be with us again.

New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out that this parable makes only one point—be prepared for the Parousia (which means “presence,” it’s the Greek term for Jesus’ Second Coming.)  Therefore, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is not a general picture of ideal Christian life.  If it were, the wise bridesmaids should have shared their oil with the foolish ones.[3]

We can consider this passage in light of an ideal Christian life though.  Because this parable is particularly thought-provoking given recent events.  We can look at it from a Christian ethical standpoint since there were many people in and around Colchester who were without heat and light for days on end because of that storm.  And what happened?  The library, churches, friends, and family helped out neighbors without power.  Because that’s what you do when people in your community are in trouble—share your resources as best as you are able.  We open up our hearts and our homes.  We have food banks and community meals and social services.  We show hospitality and love to people who need it.

Because I’ll tell you what, there are times when we may be the wise bridesmaids and there are times when we may be the foolish ones, all of us.  There will be times when we don’t have enough oil because maybe we just forgot to bring some.  Maybe you caught us unprepared.  Maybe we couldn’t afford to get that extra bit of oil for the night.  Maybe we procrastinated.  Maybe a storm knocked out the power in our house and we don’t have any light and heat to contribute this time around.

And instead of turning us away and saying, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us” like those wise bridesmaids said.  Instead of that, we would all hope to hear, “Okay, well let’s share.  We’ll figure out what to do if someone’s light goes out.  Or maybe we can go next door and ask the neighbors for a little bit of oil and they’ll help us.”  Charity.  Sharing.  To me, these are good values to have in community especially in times of crisis.  For as Christians we’re both praying and working for the time when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.

Sharing and compassion, caring deeply for one another in communities of faith is often what attracts people to churches.  You can have a great building and a good preacher, spirited music and informative educational opportunities.  You can have great programs for children and youth and fun fellowship events for people of all ages.  But what keeps people in the pews and wanting to formally commit to being part of a church is often the people inside that church building and how those people treat me, and you, and one another.  Remember that children’s rhyme?  Here is the church.  Here is the steeple.  Open the doors and see all the people?  The people are what make the church.

Here’s an example: UCC Minister Rev. Lillian Daniel once reflected on the practice of hospitality.  Her church was in the inner city and desperately needed new members to keep the doors open.  Her first Sunday there two men visited the church named Tim and Jack.  They introduced themselves at coffee hour as partners, and the response from one of the older women in the church was, “And what kind of business are you two in?”[4]  Lillian visited Tim and Jack at their home to speak about the church.  She blurted out in this awkward visit that though the church didn’t have many gay members, they desperately needed new members.  She explained the church as she dreamed it would be, as “a place where all people would be welcome and God’s grace would abound.”  Tim and Jack listened and said they had prayed a lot about it, and realized they wanted to be part of this community, and that their ministry in the church would be a ministry of hospitality.

In their first year at the church, they decided to throw an Epiphany party at their home.  Lillian was worried sick, hoping that Jack and Tim’s hospitality would be accepted, that the flock would show up for these two men who were really putting themselves out there and who were probably denied hospitality from the Church in the past.  It ended up that the older members arranged to go to the party together on this chilly winter’s night; they wore their Sunday’s best and balanced their tea sandwiches with grace and ease.  The older members appreciated all the care that Tim and Jack put into the party, down to the beautiful table setting and the doilies under the cookies.  One of the women remarked, “Now this is a party the way we used to do them.”[5]

Lillian concluded that on that Epiphany night hospitality went in many directions.  She wrote, “Our hosts invited us into their lives and their world.  The church accepted the invitation, which in turn invited Jack and Tim deeper into the church’s life.  But first God makes the invitations, when we take a moment to welcome a newcomer, when we make an awkward visit, when we serve a cup of tea, when we entertain angels unawares.”[6]

A ministry of hospitality is one of the most important ways for a congregation to truly be the Church.  Knowing that sometimes we are wise and sometimes we are foolish, and what helps is giving one another the benefit of the doubt.  Here’s another example of how this ministry plays out.  Rev. Christopher Perry, a United Methodist minister in Alabama, once wrote, “Robinson Springs UMC, where I currently serve is not overrun with resources.  We do not have a large budget, a fancy children’s area, or a worship center that will wow anyone (except with its history.)  But the laity of the church ‘get’ that they can be the most welcoming church around . . . they help every person who comes through the doors to feel connected.”[7]  That’s the kind of community that Jesus would want all churches to be.  Jesus didn’t turn anybody away.  We can always seek to create and maintain the kind of community where people who walk through the doors are made to feel, not like a foreigner or even like a visitor, but like a new part of the family stopping in for the morning.  As Perry goes on to say, “You can be a Christian for three seconds and welcome someone.  You can have a budget of $0 and make people feel loved.”[8]

At the end of the day, if the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids was only about ethics and living a Christian life (where I’ve admittedly taken it today in this sermon) it points to the responsibility we have to help people who are cold and hungry, for whatever reason.  And it’s about the responsibility to go a step further, to make them feel welcome and loved.  To extend hospitality.

We can look at those five foolish bridesmaids and say, “What a bunch of unprepared, undeserving women, what were they thinking?”  Or we can realize that there may have been times when we have been them, that we didn’t have enough oil to last the whole night through.  And that instead of being punished for it and cast outside in the lonely, cold darkness, we were just waiting for someone to share some of that precious heat and light—to have their gift shared with us.  So that we could all stand there holding out the light together and welcome God into our very midst.

It’s like someone once said, the age-old Christian strategy is to “gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories.”[9]  What are the ways we can gather the folks in and make everyone welcome?  What does it look like when we break bread together in a shared community meal as the body of Christ?  What stories will those of us who have been here for a while tell to those of us who are new to Colchester Federated Church?  What new stories will we tell together?  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 25:6, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 25:13.
[3] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 199.
[4] Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, 21.
[5] Daniel and Copenhaver, This Odd and Wondrous Calling, 25.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Christopher W. Perry, The Church Mouse: Leadership Lessons from the Magic Kingdom, xxiii.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Larry Rasmussen, “Shaping Communities” in Practicing our Faith, Dorthoy C. Bass, ed., 119.