Reverend Philip Stringer
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to our hearts with your living word and feed us, that we may live to serve you in faith and love. AMEN
Several years ago, the synod office asked me to be the supply pastor for a congregation in Lexington. My mind immediately went back to this little congregation where I had led worship a number of times before. “Sure,” I said. No sweat. I knew the drill.
I looked up the texts and prepared a sermon. On Sunday morning I glanced at the email from the synod office and noted the time: 11:00AM. That seemed later than I recalled, but whatever — it had been a while since I’d been there. I was just glad to know I didn’t have to rush.
Patty and the girls came with me. We piled into the car and drove to the church. At 10:40, when we arrived in the parking lot I could hear music and started to get an uneasy feeling.
With my robe draped over one arm, my sermon in hand and my family in tow, I walked up to the sanctuary doors and opened them …
The presiding minister looked up from the communion rail where he was offering someone Christ’s body .. people in the pews turned around to see who was arriving so late. Fortunately, the organist kept playing — but even so, there was no escaping the obvious: I was in the wrong place!!
The church where I was supposed to lead worship was 20 minutes away. I was going to be late.
Have you ever let someone down? Missed a deadline? Forgotten a birthday? Been caught off guard or made an assumption that was clearly wrong? Have you ever been embarrassed at your own, publicly displayed failure? If so, then you are probably a little uneasy after hearing today’s gospel reading.
For we who have been embarrassed by our own incompetence, today’s readings can be alarming, indeed. I never want to feel the way I felt that Sunday, ever again. And I’m afraid of being one of the foolish bridesmaids in Jesus’ story. “Please, don’t let me be one of the foolish bridesmaids!”
If you are with me on this, I have something important to say to you:
You do not need to be afraid. Do not be afraid. Remember: the bridegroom is Jesus, and he loves you. The bridegroom is compassionate. He came to save sinners. He came to save the weak, the blind, the lame and, yes, even the foolish. In other words, he came to save you and me.
The parable we heard today is not the whole story. But it IS part of the story — and it is a part we need to hear. Jesus told the parable of the bridegroom and bridesmaids near the end of his ministry — shortly before his arrest and crucifixion — in response to his disciples asking him about (what they believed to be) the end of the world and, “what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”
Jesus tells them that there is going to be a lot of unhappiness between now and then. Unhappiness that comes as a result of human sinfulness and as a result of the frailty of life. “There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nations and Kingdoms will rise against each other and fall. There will be famines and earthquakes and darkness ...”
In other words, there will be many occasions when we feel like the world is falling apart and everything good is fading away. “But don’t you believe it,” Jesus tells them.
“Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.”
It is after Jesus gives this warning that he tells a series of parables — and they all include examples of people who are faithful and people who are not. In each of them, Jesus makes the point that he wants us to get caught up in his joy. In today’s parable, the 5 faithful bridesmaids are examples of those who are celebrating with him, and the 5 who are foolish are examples of those who just don’t “get it,” and continue to live self-centered lives.
In biblical times, bridesmaids served an important as well as a symbolic role. Their job was to attend to the bride in her father’s home, and then — when the bridegroom arrives — to accompany the bride in a procession as the groom leads her from her father’s home to his home. The procession was a public display showing that the bride was now safely in the care of the bridegroom. At the bridegroom’s home, there was often a celebration for the invited guests.
It seems to me that the important point in the story is that it is supposed to be a celebration. It’s a wedding! It’s a parade! It’s a banquet! These should be things to celebrate.
The 5 foolish bridesmaids are not celebrating.
When I’m excited about something, I can’t stop thinking about it. In 3 weeks, my dad, my sister and her husband will be visiting us. My dad and I always have fun when he is here. My sister and brother-in-law live in Oregon. They have never been here before. I’m excited about them coming, and I keep thinking about all the things we can do and all the things I want to show them.
It’s an honor to be a bridesmaid. They are given the privilege of helping the bride and groom celebrate with those they love. The role of the bridesmaids is to make sure every need of the bride is attended to. Their role in the procession is to light the way and shine light on the happy couple — to draw people’s attention to them as the focus. And at the wedding banquet, their laughter and joy are to add to the joy of others. They should be looking forward to the event.
But these 5 foolish bridesmaids are not looking forward. Their job description for the parade is pretty simple: light your lantern and go. They’ve got their lanterns, but they haven’t cared enough to fill them with oil. They’ve even had extra time to think about this and fix the problem. They’re just sitting around with nothing else to do but wait for the moment of lighting their lamps. The fact that they don’t have oil shows that they simply don’t care.
We can assume that they didn’t take care of the bride’s needs while she waited.
They didn’t care about the embarrassment the bride and groom would feel when they walked with their feeble band through the half-lighted streets.
They just didn’t care. And if they didn’t care, then they wouldn’t be joining in the banquet celebration — even if they were present. They would have just been there for the food. Freeloaders. Moochers. Parasites.
“Let us in.”
If you handed these people the Mona Lisa, they would use it as a placemat.
Jesus wants more than this for us.
I think that sometimes we simply want to use Jesus as a way to serve our own interests. Like foolish bridesmaids who want to fill their pockets with food at a banquet, we want to take advantage of Jesus’ kindheartedness and generosity to get the things we want:
To prove we are the best nation.
Or the best religion.
Or the best denomination.
Or that Jesus wants us to prosper and get rich.
Or destroy our enemies.
Cherry-picking Bible verses to support our arguments — make Jesus our cheerleader.
Or — prize above all other prizes — to get immortality — go to heaven when we die.
What Jesus makes clear, over and over again in his parables and teachings, is that the kingdom of God is not a place of selfishness. The kingdom of God is a place of love. It is filled with expressing love by giving, and celebrating with thanksgiving and appreciation of what is received. It is where one celebrates receiving, because it gives them something to turn around and give with love.
The 5 foolish bridesmaids just don’t get that.
On that Sunday morning in Lexington when I went to the wrong church, it was pretty clear I wasn’t paying attention. The name and address of the church were in the email —- but I didn’t bother to read it.
Over a hundred people had gathered together because they wanted to celebrate God’s love. They wanted to be encouraged by God’s word through a sermon. They wanted to be fed at Christ’s table and strengthened for the week ahead. I had not respected any of that. I was just showing up to perform my character’s role in the play.
The realization of that came crashing down upon me as I stood in the doorway of the wrong church. We rushed back to the car. I looked up the proper address and called the church and explained what had happened — and that I would be 15 minutes late.
Embarrassed and humiliated, I robed and entered the sanctuary — where I was not met with anger, but by a congregation singing hymns. They were gracious and forgiving ... and I was acutely aware that my presence there — and my purpose there — were a gift of grace to be celebrated. I joined them in celebrating — I celebrated that grace is what allowed me to celebrate God’s love.
Jesus doesn’t want freeloaders at his banquet. But he does want you there. When Jesus tells this parable, he tells it to point out that everything that God does has meaning and purpose and value — but we can only appreciate those things when we value and appreciate the one who makes them happen.
Jesus doesn’t save us so that we can become invincible parasites. Jesus saves us to set us free to live the lives God intended for us from the start. Lives in which we take our joy from loving. From giving and receiving in love. Defending the poor and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry and forgiving our enemies because we love them all.
The bridegroom tells the foolish — parasitic — bridesmaids, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
But he does not say, “Go away and never return.” He does not say, “I will never let you in.”
I would like to think — I hope — that the bridegroom does not say these things because it is not the end of the story.
Because after telling this story, Jesus was betrayed by those who were supposed to be his closest friends.
Instead of a joyful celebration through the streets, he was marched with a cross on his back.
Instead of a celebration banquet, he was fed sour wine on the end of a stick while he hung to die.
After Jesus told this parable, he died for sinners. And he was raised by the power of a love stronger than all of the hate and selfishness we could throw at him.
You do not need to be afraid. Do not be afraid. Remember: the bridegroom in Jesus, and he loves you. The bridegroom is compassionate. He came to save sinners. He came to save the weak, the blind, the lame and, yes, even the foolish. In other words, he came to save you and me.