Lectionary 32A (November 12, 2017)

Long before Kristen Wiig did Bridesmaids, Jesus had already explored the topic in the Gospel of Matthew. You got a better idea for what this parable is about? Scholars are all over the place on what today’s Gospel means. The bridegroom is Christ. The bridegroom is not Christ, but rather the time of salvation. The bridegroom is nothing, stop taking things allegorically…except the ten virgins: they’re the church. No, they aren’t; the metaphor doesn’t match the one used elsewhere. The point is to “stay awake.” Except that even the wise fall asleep. Maybe sleep is a metaphor for death? No! Yes! And so it goes. Sometimes we dispute the meaning of events or stories. While we undoubtedly live in an era when the truth is up for grabs in a way it wasn’t for most of our lives, this story is a 2,000-year-old object of dispute. We ask still today, “What is the point of this?”

We may ask that of Confirmation. If you’re anything like I was as a Confirmation student, you spent a great deal of your time in Confirmation asking, “What is the point of this?” The whole church asks that question. Back when Jesus’ disciples were baptizing adults there was no Confirmation. It arose because it marked a part of the faith journey of those baptized as infants. It became a sacrament in the middle ages. Then, in the Reformation, it stopped being a sacrament, but we kept doing it. It became a time of intense education and memorization of the catechism, capped with an examination, and finally admission to the communion table. Then we recovered the idea of baptism as the invitation to communion, and it got hard to justify such intensive work. Today, we tend to focus on confirmation as building community and creating a space for wrestling with big questions. That may seem a far cry from the days of Confirmation as a sacrament. However, you all wrote and published your thoughts on faith, after considerable time spent dealing with major faith questions as a group. If you spent three years thinking about God in community, that’s a pretty big deal.

A Christian in the world needs to know how to discern faithful responses to events. Whether events are major national news like the shooting at the church in Sutherland, TX last week, or are local matters confined to your city or your personal life, you, as Christians, will respond. Our culture tempts you to respond alone, to hunt down sources or graphics that say what you’re already thinking (as though this somehow reflects your own originality) and not to respond in a community of faith. You can do that, but it is ultimately a lonely and frightening place. Besides, you have learned how to discern in a loving community. The need to discern arrives unannounced. It’s like the bridegroom in the parable. The bridesmaids know he is coming, they just don’t know when. We don’t know precisely what will arise during a day, only that we will be asked to bear witness to the resurrection. I think that might be the best provisional explanation of the parable this morning.

Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who meet the bridegroom. “Kingdom of Heaven” is Matthew’s roundabout way of naming God. God will be like this. Part of First Century Palestinian wedding ritual was that the older girls in a village would perform a torch dance welcoming the bridal party. The torch was a copper bowl filled with rags and fastened to a pole. You added olive oil to the bowl as fuel for the rags. Half of the kids left their oil at home. It’s like a nightmare field trip. The bridegroom is delayed a long time, it’s night, and the girls fall asleep. Wise and foolish alike sleep. Sleep is a common New Testament metaphor for death, and today I am taking it that way. In the middle of the night, the bridegroom finally shows up acting like it’s all cool to make people wait. Someone wakes up the girls. Waking is the partner metaphor for sleeping, and can mean resurrection. Again, that’s what we’re going with.

The girls “trimmed their lamps.” “Trimmed” has been the English translation since at least 1611: the Greek word just means they got ready, in this case ready to light the lamps. They’ve not been burning all night. At this point, the five girls who forgot their oil realize they have none, and they try to make it the other girls’ fault. “Give us your oil!” They say, “No, there won’t be enough. How did you not bring oil? This is literally the only reason we’re here!” So, the five foolish girls go to some all-night olive oil place (which, apparently, this city had?) and miss the dance. Afterward, they try to get into the party, but they’ve missed this one.

A death and resurrection happened. The girls all slept, and the girls all awoke. And five of the girls had no response to one of God’s people—the bridegroom—when he came before them. It’s not death and resurrection on the scale of torture and crucifixion on Good Friday, blast out of the tomb with an earthquake on Easter; it is a death and resurrection like what we face regularly as Christians.

Deaths happen. Change of any sort involves a death. Sometimes it is a literal death. A loved one dies. You no longer have that person. Your life is changed forever. Sometimes it is not a literal death, but a major health change. An accident or diagnosis changes you or a loved one, and dealing with this becomes part of daily life. What daily life was before has died. Maybe the change is not so traumatic. Those ones can catch you off guard. “The kids have all gone off to college or jobs and the house is empty, disturbingly empty, and my social calendar no longer involves chauffeuring, and I only know my kids’ friends’ parents, and I don’t like them …I have no idea what to do with myself!” Life as you knew it has died. Or maybe you have a new job or an altered work schedule, and you’re out of the house at a different hour than you used to be, and all seems well until your child has a meltdown at school, and upon further investigation it turns out they rather enjoyed interacting with you and they miss it. Something has died. Or maybe you’re in 9th Grade, and it’s Affirmation of Baptism Sunday, and you realize you’re no longer a little child. Life as you’ve known it for three years has ended. You’re not going back to what you were before. Something has died.

Everywhere we go we carry around some of that death. And we encounter other people who carry that death. And this is true if we’re dealing just with friends and family, or in our community, or in matters that affect the whole human race. We carry death around in us. Our culture tells us that we can overcome that death by expediting the deaths of others. Like the bridesmaids who didn’t have any oil: make it somebody else’s fault. Whether that comes about violently—as in a mass shooting—or systemically—as in political rules written to keep someone down—or just by being a jerk to your sister, we see attempts to overcome death by taking others down. But that’s not how it plays out in Matthew. Oil or no oil, fire or no fire, the dead rise because Jesus raises them.

Jesus calls us to be a community that builds up rather than one that tears down. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He’s overcome death not by expediting the deaths of others but by giving them life. Because of Jesus the grave is only a rest stop on the way to the resurrection. We will have eternal life in the resurrection of the dead, and the life we now live we live by faith because the risen Christ is giving himself to us. With that faith, we respond to the events of our lives. Death and resurrection happen to us daily. The question is, when those resurrections happen, are we ready to respond, or are we at the all-night olive oil place?

Are we ready to respond? We’ll be doing it together, as a community. So, when there is a literal death, we hurt together and we work together to help the living faithfully honor the dead. When there is a life-changing diagnosis, we ask how God wants us to respond in a way that helps and affirms the value of the lives involved. When there is a change in the living or working situation of a fellow member, we ask how we can help everyone involved be fully themselves and feel fulfilled in what they do. When we’re done with the cake and punch and Confirmation really is over, we ask our fellow workers in the gospel, What now?

The resurrection comes. That horrible shooting in the church in Sutherland, TX, involved a whole lot of death, and Christ is still giving life to the world. Christ raised the friends and relatives of victims, and raised us, and a response is called for. The bridegroom approaches. Our response? We’re here, this morning. Trinity Lutheran Church of Valparaiso will not live in fear. Yeah, I have thought of the possibility of such a calamity, even before last week, but I am not going to let that scare us out of opening our doors and welcoming the broken to Word and Sacrament. We will not live in fear of gathering, or fear of mentioning what happened, or fear of asking what we can do about it.

The resurrection comes. A little over a year ago, Trinity members gathered to lobby for a housing project that would’ve benefitted lower income citizens with mental health diagnoses. It was the perfect project, and we were blindsided and devastated when the project was defeated. And Christ is still giving life to the world. Christ raised everyone the next day regardless of income bracket, diagnosis, or position on the issue. A response is called for. The bridegroom approaches. Well, we didn’t back down from hosting the shelter, Trinity members and others in the community kept looking for other projects to benefit the vulnerable, and we’re at least tinkering with the idea that it is time for Trinity folks to adopt another house building project.

The resurrection comes. The kingdom of heaven—God—is like this. To those of you being confirmed today: I’m looking forward to responding together with you.