Sunday, November 12, 2023

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

“Be Prepared” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Amos 5:18-24, CEB)

Gospel Reading (Matthew 25:1-13, NRSVUE)

With all the lead-up to last night’s 70th Anniversary celebration here at Holladay UCC, I’ve recently been reflecting upon big milestones in my own life too — and so I’d like to share with you all the one that’s been on my mind this week.

In a ceremony on a Friday night around this time of year 1979, I became a proud member of Boy Scout Troop 88. That evening was really important to twelve year-old me (and is memorable to way-older-than-twelve-year-old me now), not only because it was a symbolic rite of passage, but also because it was the occasion of my first camping trip (this might not sound like much to you outdoorsy types here in Utah, but I grew up in New Jersey). And I remember that trip to this day because it was a complete and total disaster.

I rushed home right after the ceremony and changed from my well-worn Cub Scout blues into my brand new Boy Scout greens. My uniform felt strange and uncomfortable in the way that unworn clothes sometimes can — and, well, because I’d been a Boy Scout for about fifteen minutes at that point.

But I didn’t have time to think about any of that then. I had to get moving because my new troop leader was coming by to pick me up so that we could head off to the campsite, which was about an hour away. The rest of the scout troop was already there — the troop leader had stayed behind in order to be a part of the ceremony and to drive me to the campsite afterwards.

I was so psyched about going camping that I had packed up all of my gear over the course of the previous week: Sleeping bag? Check. Pocketknife? Check. Mess Kit? Check.

The one thing I hadn’t bothered to check, however, was the weather report for the weekend.  As a result, I neglected to pack a poncho and other essential rain gear that, as I was soon to discover, would have really come in handy that night.

Most of my brothers in green were already in their tents by the time I finally got there, but they all came out to say hello, electric lanterns in hand. Seeing them standing there in their uniforms made me feel a bit less self-conscious about the new one I was wearing. I was one of them now, which made me feel a bit more at-ease. My bunkmate John and I — both of us rookie campers — quickly set up our tent and turned in for the night.

A few sleepless hours later, the skies absolutely opened up. This was really unfortunate, because we had unwittingly established our quarters right at the bottom of a small hill. And since we hadn’t planned for rain, neither of us had thought to put a tarp underneath the tent or to place our belongings inside a waterproof bag. 

To make a long story short, we soon woke up to a tent full of water and completely soaked gear; I mean neither of us had a single dry anything. And the other scouts had no extra equipment for us to borrow. The next morning, John and I had no choice but to go home, and one of the leaders had no choice but to leave the others behind to take us there.

It felt like the older boys were staring holes through us as we left, looking judgmentally at us for our complete lack of readiness. And the silent car ride home seemed to take forever. On my very first day as a Boy Scout, I had failed — and by that I mean miserably — to live into the one responsibility put forth in the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”

The need for Jesus’s disciples to be prepared is the premise underlying the parable that he tells in today’s Gospel passage (maybe that’s why the memory of my ill-fated camping trip was so present with me this week). This text comes right after the section of Matthew that is known as the “Little Apocalypse,” which is the last of Jesus’s five big speeches in the First Gospel. The Little Apocalypse is important because it is where Jesus warns his disciples, in pretty stark terms, about the end of the age — time at which Jesus will return and God’s reign will come to be. 

The disciples ask Jesus what the sign of the end times will be, and his reply is both disturbing and a little thin on details. He warns them about the danger of listening to false messiahs, he informs them that they will suffer tribulations and persecutions before the arrival of God’s reign (which sounds like a whole bunch of fun), and he strongly encourages them to prepare and to be watchful for his return. 

Today’s passage falls right between the Little Apocalypse of the previous chapter and the Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus’s journey to the cross) that begins in the next chapter. At this point, the disciples are getting increasingly stressed-out as Jesus makes his way towards the trouble that they all know awaits him in Jerusalem, and it’s in this context that Jesus decides to share this parable about the ten bridesmaids. On the surface, the lesson here seems pretty simple — disciples must be prepared. But what does that really mean? Because it’s Jesus we’re talking about here, this is a question that we’re going to have do some work to answer.

And this wedding story leaves us with a whole bunch of other unanswered questions too. Why do we hear from the groom while the bride remains conspicuously absent? What are the chances that an oil store in the first century Holy Land would actually be open in the middle of the night (I mean, it’s not a 7-Eleven)? Why do the bridesmaids who brought extra oil choose not give any to the others? Why is the groom so late and why does he so quickly turn the unready bridesmaids away? Sorry, but I don’t really know what to tell you.

But, as is the case with so many of Jesus’s parables, we really need to look at this one allegorically rather than literally: So the more obvious and pertinent question here is this: In this story, who represents whom? And this one ain’t exactly rocket science; the groom here can be seen as the returning Jesus, and the bridesmaids as the disciples who are awaiting his triumphant arrival. 

At the start, all of the bridesmaids seem equally ready for the celebration; they are all appropriately dressed for the occasion, they all have their lamps; and when the groom is late, they all fall asleep. When the groom returns, though, only some of them seem to be prepared. 

We’re really not meant not to get too mired in the details of this story — kind of like Christ’s disciples aren’t supposed to be too concerned with looking for particular signs of his return. Jesus appears to be encouraging his followers to focus on the bigger task to which they’re called, which is this: readying themselves for his return — and here’s a news flash: it’s going to be a while.

This is an idea that would definitely have resonated with Matthew’s audience. This version Gospel was written late in the first century — decades after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, the people who are reading it and hearing it thought that Christ’s return — the realization of God’s reign here on earth — would have already happened. 

They have been waiting for a long time now, they’re constantly looking for signs that Jesus’s return is imminent, and let’s just say, they’re growing a little impatient.

But as they feverishly search for signs of the impending end times, they seem to have lost sight of Jesus’s message and God’s call upon their lives in the meantime: living out the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, honoring the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor. 

These things were probably tough enough for them to do in the short term, but were even tougher as time wore on and their patience wore out. And so another big question here, amidst all of the other questions is this: What happens when living into the gospel proves to be more of a marathon than a sprint? This parable is meant to remind Jesus’s disciples in every age that this race is being timed on God’s clock, not their own.

The oil in this represents the need for each individual to prepare for the long haul by continually putting into practice what Jesus has preached. When the unprepared bridesmaids run out of oil and seek to borrow some from the others, their refusal to give them some may seem harsh, but it also kind of makes sense. After all, if they were to give their oil away then none of the bridesmaids would have enough when the time for the wedding finally arrived.

But the point of this part of the lesson is not “every bridesmaid for themself.” The point is that by putting the other bridesmaids, the groom and everyone in the wedding party in this situation, the unprepared bridesmaids show a remarkable lack of concern for others, and a lack of gratitude for the invitation they have been given. You see, this whole parable is about honoring the call that Jesus makes upon individuals to be a part of something greater than themselves, something more important their own particular interests. 

We have been invited by God into relationship with God and with one another, and the faithful response to that invitation is a total commitment on our part to live into it and to keep living into it.

When we fail to do this, we suffer — we all suffer — and the responsibility for that is on us. We can’t always depend on others to carry the weight for us or to bail us out. Having enough oil for our own lamps when the time comes means honoring the gift of grace that we have been given by living as Jesus taught us to live. 

Don’t you see? Watching out for signs of the end times isn’t how we prepare for Jesus’s return — loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves is how we prepare for Jesus’s return.

So, do you think we’re ready?