St. Philip Lutheran Church
8 November 2020 + Lectionary 32A
Rev. Analyse Triolo, preaching
Sometimes things don’t go the way that you expect them to. The bridesmaids in our parable this morning wait an incredibly long time for the bridegroom to make an appearance and for the wedding festivities to begin. They wait..and they wait...and they wait until the midnight hour before there is news of the bridegroom’s imminent arrival. But what kept him? Well, when the marriage deal was set with the bride’s family, the bridegroom would go back to his family dwelling and build a room onto his father’s house. The groom’s father was the one who decided if and when the additional room was ready. This was where the newly married couple would reside. Once the building project was close to completion, someone would send word to the bride and wedding party to get ready, which could happen at any time of day or night. Brides would often sleep in their wedding gowns not knowing when that announcement would happen.
The bridesmaids have no choice in their waiting and they have no agency in how long that wait might last. As the bridegroom’s anticipated arrival is announced Jesus shares that the singular difference between the first five bridesmaids and their companions is that they come prepared with extra oil. They don’t know what is ahead, but they prepare just in case. They anticipate the unpredictable and are ready when that’s exactly what happens. They remain open and adaptable to the circumstances.
Pastor Josh possesses a lot of the qualities of the prepared bridesmaids. Our friendship started in an interesting way. When I first moved to Chicago for my Lutheran year of Seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago I was looking for a way to plug into the community through helping out with worship preparation. I was told to talk to a student named Josh who was probably in the Chapel space. After worship I saw him wandering around, so I approached and introduced myself to him, explained that I had 3 years of experience in worship planning and setup, and that I would love to help. His response was...and I quote…”Thanks. We’re good.” While I was admittedly taken aback in that first interaction what I learned later was that Pastor Josh is prepared, disciplined, very particular about the way things are done, and fiercely independent. At times that’s been a growing edge for him, but one thing was clear. Pastor Josh was in it for the long haul, in ways that I’d seen from few others. A few weeks later Pastor Josh learned the error of his ways and he searched me out to help sew some Advent paraments and design a prayer altar. It wasn’t until after I’d finished both projects that I reminded him of our first meeting in the same chapel space we found ourselves in. Then it dawned on him who I was and we’ve been friends ever since.
But ministry isn’t like a classroom. Being church looks drastically different from how it did in January.
I arrived in Queens New York three and a half weeks before the Coronavirus hit the City. The first U.S. epicenter was 5 minutes away from my house. There’s no preparing for something like that. And so, like the bridesmaids we need to ask ourselves: Are we ready for the long haul? Do we have the patience and flexibility to handle the unexpected? Are we so stuck in our own unmoving thinking of what God looks like that we are caught completely unawares when God shows up in our midst? Are we willing to follow Jesus if Jesus is a bridegroom who surprises us? Will we stick around or will we bail? It’s a lot to think about.
Something you may not know about Pastor Josh is his love for the Broadway Musical RENT. Over the years when we’ve visited each other we’ve put on the soundtrack and belted the songs. One character reminds me of Josh more than any other: ivy-league lawyer Joanne Jefferson. She’s competent, organized, dedicated, and a bit of a control freak. In the song “Take Me or Leave Me” Joanne describes who she is as a person. She sings:
“I look before I leap.
I love margins and discipline
I make lists in my sleep
Baby, what’s my sin?
Never quit, I follow through. I hate mess, but I love you…”
Like Joanne, Pastor Josh is all of these things, I’ve seen the margins and discipline. Every list I used to plan my own ordination this past January, came from Pastor Josh. But it’s the last two lines that are most important: [He] never quits. [He] follows through. [He] hates mess...but [he] loves you.
In this exciting start to your time in ministry together, imperfect and unexpected as it may be, you’ve chosen to be in it together for the long haul, just like the wise bridesmaids. You see, the mistake of the five foolish bridesmaids isn’t that they didn’t bring enough oil, it’s that they leave, believing that the value of their oil supply is of greater importance to the bridegroom than their presence at this momentous occasion. In their absence, their compassion, love, and support are missing too.
It’s easy to see where the bridesmaids are coming from. This year in particular, it’s been especially hard to maintain that guise of having everything together perfectly when mental, emotional, and spiritual reserves are low. It is a frequent experience that makes it hard to stick around. It’s scary and vulnerable to stand before God and before God’s beloved community, that is the church, when our lamps are flickering and our flasks are filled with weariness rather than fuel. But the thing is, the bridegroom never sends the bridesmaids out for more oil.
Only a bridesmaid who trusts in the groom’s deep and unconditional compassion, who knows that the groom has oil to spare even when they have run out, who understands that her presence, messy and imperfect though it may be, is of precious value to the bridegroom will find the courage to stay.
Five of the bridesmaids missed that and so they leave….and the celebration suffers because of it. There are five fewer presences to guide the wedded couple’s path, to rejoice in the groom’s arrival and the wedding to come. There are five fewer loved ones to share in cherished memories. The loss is tangible and communal.
I think what Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable is this: don’t allow your fear or sense of inadequacy or imperfection to keep you away from the party. Be willing to show up as you are - complicated, disheveled, and even half-lit.-- for you are no less extraordinary because of it. The groom delights in you, not the lamp that you carry. Your lamp doesn’t have to be flaming and dazzle at all times. After all, God created light. God is light. Jesus is the light of the world.
Your half-lit lamp and empty oil flask are not what matters. You are.
So look before you leap or make lists in your sleep if you wish, but either way even when the wait seems endless, or the unexpected occurs, remember Joanne’s words. “Never quit...follow through and most of all don’t forget to love each other.