You can tell we are getting toward the end of the Church Year. Sunday readings are become dark and ominous: warnings about dumping any false gods you still cling to; trumpets in the sky, the Lord descending and the die rising – that’ll get your attention. And then today’s gospel – Jesus sounds a bit edgy. His early parables are inviting and full of grace. We are being saved in spite of ourselves. Recently we learn when we accept God’s invitation, don’t mess up, like the guy who forgot his wedding tux, or these foolish bridesmaids who hadn’t counted on the groom being late. Just showing up is not enough. People who are in the kingdom can be tossed out or shut out.
Heaven’s kingdom is like a wedding banquet. Ten bridesmaids wait with their lamps at the banquet hall to welcome the groom. We’re told five are foolish; five are wise. Evening becomes night. The groom’s late. The girls doze off. As midnight a shout pierces the silence: “He’s here. Bring your lamps and come welcome him.” Well, these lamps have been burning since dusk. Oil is running out. The foolish panic, “My oil is gone. Let me borrow some of yours.” “No way; go get your own.” They dash off while the groom and five wise maids go inside. Think about this: a store selling oil is going to be open at midnight? When the foolish five return the party’s started without them, and they find the door is locked. They pound on the door: “Let us in. We’re back.” The groom looks out the window and shouts, “Don’t know you. Go away.” ”You don’t understand. We have invitations. We went to get oil – let us in.” The groom leaves them out in the dark, and that’s what makes this story unpleasant. The five foolish aren’t shut out for bad behavior or lack of faith. They just weren’t ready when the groom arrives. Aren’t we all supposed to get in – isn’t there a no sinner left behind policy – in this kingdom?
Those in Matthew’s church know exactly what’s going on. They’ve been waiting for Jesus to return. Years pass. “Was it all a bad dream? Am I wasting my time?” People will grow tired, and lose patience and faith. They find other amusements, look for other gods for their lives, their time and money. The light of Jesus’ life grows dim in theirs. They foolishly go unprepared.
Here we are two thousand years later – still waiting. Do we still expect the groom to show up? Or have we given up, too? As with Matthew’s church, some of us fall away. We still show up but go through motions with hearts disengaged, lives unchanged. We pray if we want something. Some Christians know little of God’s story – not enough to recognize where God is at work in this world.
Here’s another way to look at the question. Maybe we aren’t the only ones waiting. Maybe Jesus waits on us, like at this table – in bites of bread and sips of wine. Jesus says he could come at any moment, even this one – even in the least of these – the voiceless, the forgotten, even in those we may lock out from the banquet. Are we prepared for Jesus’ return?
Isn’t life like this? One day our time runs out, the monitor flat lines – we draw a last breath. That’s it. The door is shut and it’s too late to do what we didn’t get around to doing? What is the oil that keeps our lives lit with the light of Jesus? I don’t know exactly what this oil is. We can tell when it’s missing. How do we prepare? We learn God’s love story for us. We study scripture. We worship, give our time and money. We pray, and listen some more. And it’s God’s love that draws us out of ourselves. Others see Jesus coming to them through us. We live in union with God and in love with one another. We live as if today is our last day.
How many have made a “bucket list?” You do know what they are – a list of what you want to do or accomplish before your time runs out? What about creating a faith bucket list – have you done that yet? Are you satisfied that you have prepared well – your oil stock is full, you are ready – or are there some faith goals still hanging out there? What would be on your faith bucket list? Remember, the foolish were good, well-intended and invited – they just weren’t prepared.
Hanging around Duke Divinity School some years ago, I heard a story of a sermon about beloved professor and chapel dean, Jim Cleland. Decades ago, when we spoke King James English, this story was called “The Parable of the Ten Virgins.” He came to the end of his sermon at a male prep school, and boldly asked: “Men, would you rather be inside in the light with five wise virgins, or out in the dark with five foolish virgins?” The boys shouted back, “Out in the dark with the foolish virgins!” Sermon ended. That’s Jesus’ question to us. Are we living wisely? We don’t want to get stuck in the dark – especially when we know better.