The Red and Blue Bridesmaids
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
How many of us have been keeping that commandment of Jesus from our gospel today all too literally this week as we waited for election results?
I’m usually asleep at a deeply unfashionable 10 p.m., but on Tuesday night, actually Wednesday morning, I was up at 1:30 a.m. waiting for returns. I did that even though I knew full well it would be very unlikely for us to have a final result on day one, two, or even three of this election week.
We spent all week knowing neither the day nor the hour of a conclusive election result, and honestly it’s been one more exhausting ordeal in a year full of them.
It was a little 2020-ish in our story from the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells it.
This is not a happy group of women waiting in the house for the result.
You might say they were divided.
You might say they were polarized.
You might say they were unable to find common ground.
I feel like maybe half of the room was painted blue and the other half red.
The interesting thing was they all had lamps. But only half of them had oil.
One of the most frustrating yet fascinating things about Jesus’ parables is that they can be interpreted so many ways.
Sometimes I read this parable from the side of the Wise Bridesmaids and think, “Yeah! Ha, ha, Foolish Bridesmaids, you didn’t get your act together and now you’re in trouble. Do your work like the rest of us or pay the price!”
Sometimes I read it from the side of the Foolish Bridesmaids and think, “What is this bootstrapping capitalist tomfoolery? Would it kill the Wise Bridesmaids to share their resources with their sisters in need? Lord.”
I am polarizing myself in a gospel parable. This is getting bad.
That’s one of the hardest parts of being an American right now, we can only see things from our own perspective.
If our candidate won, we’re probably thinking, “Good job, Team Wise Bridesmaids! We got out the vote! We won the day!”
If our candidate lost, we’re probably thinking, “Why didn’t we do something different so we could have won? And also, we hate you, you smug, arrogant, gloating oil-hoarding Wise Bridesmaids. Shut up and leave us alone.”
These bridesmaids are supposed to be a community, united in service and love and relationship.
But that’s not really working out very well.
This community of people waiting together are missing some important points.
First of all, they all have lamps. They all have the means of lighting the path before them.
But they’re focusing on the oil, thinking they need it in order to greet the Bridegroom and enter the wedding.
Resources. Money. Power. Status.
Any of those means of measuring worth that we hoard so carefully could stand in for the oil.
They’re about self-sufficiency.
We need the oil or we’re not going to make it.
We need the oil—the money, the power, the status—or everything will fall apart.
The country will be destroyed.
The church will close.
But here’s what everyone in this story misses: the lamps and the oil are completely irrelevant to the main event.
What is the most important part of this story?
What does the entire community and their life together turn on?
The coming of the Bridegroom.
The coming of Christ.
And Christ comes to all of them.
Christ comes for the Wise and the Foolish Bridesmaids.
The Foolish Bridesmaids miss it because they’re scrambling around with their lamps, thinking they need to earn their way into his presence by finding oil.
In fact, they’re so convinced of it that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
They could have gone outside to him, but they thought they weren’t ready.
They thought they weren’t worthy.
And so they didn’t.
But that was not the desire or the decision of the Bridegroom.
If they had gone out in darkness, he would have found them.
His presence is the true light. Jesus is the light of the world. Lamps and oil are completely meaningless in the radiant outpouring of his love.
It’s like a kitchen match next to the sun.
Really, all ten bridesmaids were foolish if they thought they needed to, or they could, light their own way.
I find myself doing this a lot, concentrating so hard on assembling the tools to generate my own light that I completely miss the Light of Christ beckoning me through the night into safety and love.
Gotta get that oil, I think.
Gotta save that oil.
Job. Pension. Degree. Ordination. Title. Paycheck. White privilege.
Oil, oil, oil.
What if I run out? What if the other bridesmaids won’t help me?
Or, wow, glad I’ve got all this oil. Definitely not sharing it with anyone else. They should have thought ahead. There’s not enough light for everyone.
But that’s the insane thing about light.
It can’t be rationed. It can’t be hoarded.
You can’t place lines and boundaries and walls around light.
You can’t reserve light for only one group of people based on your judgment of their worthiness.
There is no one on the wrong side of the border of light, with the wrong name, the wrong ancestry, the wrong gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, immigration status, race or ethnicity, political party, unworthy of being in the light.
And we are utter fools if we think our hoarding of oil means we can fence in the light.
The smallest spark, the tiniest flame, illuminates the riches of the glorious darkness and brings all into balance, harmony, and relationship.
The Bridegroom comes to us and welcomes us to come to him, those of us who think we have oil and won’t share it, and those of us who don’t have oil and can’t find it.
The invitation and the choice await.
I can’t tell you how to feel about this election.
I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next in this rollercoaster of a year in which pandemic, the call to racial justice, and an economic downturn were only the top three crises we face.
But I can tell you two things.
Christ is coming.
Love will never abandon us to our foolishness and fear.
No matter what the story is with our oil and our lamps, the Bridegroom invites us all to walk through the night and into his arms.
And the second thing is this: y’all, until Christ comes on the Last Day at the Final Trumpet, we’re all going to have to live in this room together.
No matter which team of bridesmaids you think you’re on, this room isn’t getting any bigger.
If we’d like to be formed into people brave and wise enough to walk out into that night together, with no one being left behind, we might consider starting with sharing our oil.
Hoarding and fearing being without it have gained us very little but making this room we’re waiting in seem smaller and more hateful by the hour.
The waiting continues. But we actually do get to choose how we wait.
We can hoard and fight and worry, living out of scarcity or complacency, ignoring one another’s needs and perpetuating systemic injustice of all kinds.
Or, we could share our bounty with one another, reach for one another’s humanity even as we strive for moral accountability and fight for justice, and give up the imprisoning illusion of manipulating our finite oil until we have enough light to see.
I’ve spent the week worrying and trying not to get eaten by hate and fear, feeling responsible for generating and keeping the light alive.
But I’ll tell you two stories of how the light came to me this week, and showed me that the friendly and beautiful darkness of the night is the frontier that leads into the arms of the Bridegroom.
They are two very small stories in a great big world of conflict, but their smallness is actually part of the point.
Few of us have any illusion that this election is going to immediately solve all of our problems. We are a nation deeply divided over race and justice, not to mention the correct response to coronavirus and so forth.
We’re probably in for some rough days ahead, even on the scale of 2020.
But one of my most constant sources of spiritual renewal is the courage and fidelity of ordinary people through insanely difficult times, people doggedly trying to live with integrity and care for one another even when it’s so hard and feels like the world is ending.
On Thursday night, I was poking around in the diocesan archives and found the minutes of Saint James in Macon, Missouri from an emergency vestry meeting on October 14, 1929.
They met to discuss the fact that the church would probably close if they couldn’t find a way to raise more funding (the more things change, right?).
This meeting was happening as the financial panic that would spark the Great Depression was snowballing, but the actual stock market crash, Black Tuesday, was still two weeks off.
Things were accelerating into crisis, but that vestry had no idea how bad it would get.
Still, they came to church, because they loved their community and wanted to find a way to keep going.
It’s why I still have faith in the Church despite all her flaws—Christian community, no matter how much it struggles to stay afloat, strengthens us.
The courage and fidelity of ordinary people–it humbles, awes, and inspires me always.
Thank you, St. James Macon of 1929. You strengthened me this week. You showed me your light, from almost a hundred years ago, in the midst of a storm that must have seemed as overwhelming as ours today.
Here’s my other small story of the light coming to me.
I have a friend and swing dance partner in my Covid bubble with whom I watched the election returns on Tuesday.
We always end an evening together with 2 slow dances, where we each pick a song, to just round things out.
We were tired and cranky after staying up till 1 a.m. with no answers and almost didn’t do it.
But then we decided to do at least one song, and he said to me out of the blue, “Can you find a jazz version of Amazing Grace?”
So I put it into YouTube and found Cory Henry’s piano version of it live at The Red Room.
And it was a moment of pure blessing. We danced that song and heard the beautiful gospel resonances of a jazz Amazing Grace, and it was an oasis of peace and gratitude in this long desert of anger and fear and disillusionment.
And it didn’t really sink in until the next morning that that was our witness against hatred and bigotry and injustice.
Everything about America’s sea of sin that stretches back generations, that I am complicit in, no matter how much power and wealth and hate are behind it, could not touch that moment at all, could not corrupt it, could not interrupt it, could not destroy it.
It takes that small and simple of a moment of love for the light to shine.
We couldn’t generate any light.
We had no oil. We were all out, if we even had any to begin with.
But the light came to us, reminded us that the darkness is part of the gift too, and called us through the night to God’s presence.
So I ask you, fellow Bridesmaids, to set down your lamps. Let us quit fighting over oil.
Even as we take up the needed work of change to make America live up to its promises, the gospel call to seek and serve the dignity of every human being, first and most especially those who have been oppressed, let us remember that we do not do this work under our own strength.
We do not do this work guided by our own wisdom.
We work through necessary conflict and healthy confrontation with injustice as well as, God willing, some day, needed healing, only by the invitation, the empowering, the call and the righteousness of God.
“But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,’” the gospel says.
No lamps, no oil, and no fight over them can ever stop the call of Christ to turn to his redeeming love and let it flow through us, healing and transforming us.
How is the light calling you out through the night and into grace?
Let’s go together.
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