Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Nov. 12, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Nov 12, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Nov. 12, 2023

It sounds absurd to 21st century ears to be invited to a wedding, to be as a bridesmaid even, and not have the wedding at a set hour. Imagine getting ready and then waiting hours or perhaps half a day until the groom’s advance man would announce his impending arrival, and he’d be greeted by lamp-bearing young women, usually waiting with the bride. Such a delay was a traditional prank, as the groom tried to catch the bridesmaids unaware or even sleeping. They would rouse themselves and rush to walk him and his bride to the home they would share. The bridal party would travel the longest possible route home so to allow people along the way to come out and wish them well. For all of this we can understand why someone would need a bit of extra lamp oil! 

We did not invent weddings as a major event! If the parable was told today, the Wedding Planner would have helped the couple pick out tasteful portable lights in the bride’s chosen colors — and would have made sure to have back-up or rechargers at hand.

The idea of bolting the door on latecomers makes me recoil, (we won’t be doing that here) and the idea of Jesus as the door-shutting bridegroom is even worse. So remember this is not a story of Jesus’ wedding or even of callousness towards some very young women too foolish to bring extra oil. This is a teaching parable about faithfulness and about the parousia or end, and it may be about a more immediate and personal meaning. 

And much as parts may bother us, that doesn’t make it untrue. This one is more allegory than strict parable – meaning roles or parts of the story point specifically to other people or things.  Jesus is the bridegroom, we are the bridesmaids, prepared and ready—or not, and Matthew set the wedding to be the Second Coming which his audience was getting worried about. This also applies to our own earthly death and new life in Christ, a time which doesn’t often come with a groomsman shouting ahead Behold, the time is coming! The Bridegroom is near! 

What we can draw from it is Jesus telling us we cannot always know what to expect—since much of life and death are unexpected; “for you know neither the day nor the hour” Jesus told them. We also hear the message about being prepared for such a life. In those days you weren’t allowed to be out in the dark without a lamp, but it’s more than that. What if the end of the daylight is also pointing to the end of life?  Or to a time when our faith is badly shaken, challenged to the point of breaking? Preparation for these is far beyond a flask of oil. It means being actively intentional about our relationship with God; staying in close contact and real relationship. All the time.

If we treat this parable literally, it sounds stingy and mean-spirited for those with extra oil not to share it with those who have too little. They were all invited, each had a lamp,  and all waited together for the celebration, so why not? If a few loaves and fishes could feed five thousand surely oil for five young girls could stretch to ten, right? But that’s not Jesus’ point here. 

He’s talking about something we cannot borrow or share by Venmo or gather up for someone else. Righteousness is one old fashioned term for it—mind you, not self-righteousness, but real deep down right relationship with God, a relationship we develop like any other; with regular contact, enjoying each other’s company, being curious enough about God to learn and act, spend time and grow. 

God invites us all and ‘warns’ us against delay. God wants us in the celebration, but it’s up to us to prepare now and to head out to that wedding. In the light of day it may seem unnecessary, what then when our lamps are too dim to see by? Is refusal to prepare like refusing God’s invitation? 

If you’re hearing this, you’re already engaged in this holy relationship. And yet, like all things, we know we can become lax or too busy or self-focused so that we lose track of that relationship bit by bit. Until something stops us in our tracks and we reach for it, finding there’s not enough oil to wet the wick when an unexpected crisis calls for light. So we pray, we love our neighbors, and we step closer to Christ because our life, our wholeness, depends on it. We prepare for his coming with joy, with prayer and worship, action and a faith community.

There is no place, no time, no crisis in which you cannot be more with Christ than without him. When people think they’re shutting God out, we are in fact, shuttering ourselves up.

Often our actions are our most prayerful communion with God. We know it in our bones when we try to build God’s Kingdom first instead of focusing on building the Kingdom of Me. When we serve others, when we visit, feed, house, welcome, or listen with love,  Christ is present. Present also in our listening together to hear his guidance and call.

We have to cultivate what we want to build, and that’s true for most of what we do in fact. People need to keep skills sharp for jobs, be aware of what might happen next, build in time to prepare, train, practice. When the Seahawks play the Washington Commanders later today, you can bet they’ve showed up for practice, drilled, learned plays, and know what they’re up against. It is not a stretch to understand the same is true for one’s faith life. 

We cannot coattail another’s relationship with God any more than one can borrow character, respect or love. We can however learn from it and be inspired by it. It comes from each other and from investing time as you do this morning, in hearing scripture, hymns and our Prayerbook liturgy. We are clothed with it here, whether online and in person, and we come back for this gift again and again. Certainly people do good works of kindness, generosity, and character even without any belief in God, that’s not to say God isn’t right there waiting anyway. We are co-creators with God in building and strengthening our faith week in and week out, we are prepared when the night comes unexpectedly or the lamp grows dim.

Today we get to bless our pledges and offerings for the year of ministry ahead because you have made them already. The action of giving itself is part of what fills our spiritual lamp with oil, because when we do we are giving to God and caring for others and growing in faith and trust. We’ve heard talks from friends about how their faith is deepened and grown, how they discover preparation for ‘the wedding feast’ is a gift itself. Apathy and absence may be easier, but won’t make the Spirit’s grace flutter within you. 

The relationship between God and a person of deep faith becomes so fully entwined that to rely on one without the other is like setting out in a raft without enough air. We need both to be whole and full-hearted, to reach the shore of the life to come with joy instead of fear, confident in God’s love instead of dread of nothingness, sure of the Spirit’s lamplight to guide us safely home. Amen.

My thanks to William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, Westminster Press, 1957, 1975, which informed me on a number of traditions and context for this parable.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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