1“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
So we’ve got these ten bridesmaids. Ten young girls in their fanciest dresses, their hair perfectly set, their feet crammed in the daintiest of shoes. Ten girls waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. They're waiting for the haggling over the gifts to be done. Waiting for the groom and the bride’s relatives to come to some sort of agreement.
The night begins with anticipation and excitement. It’s a celebration! A party!
But then the waiting comes. And more waiting. Ten anxious and excited young girls get tired, and they fall asleep. The bridegroom is delayed. And the excitement dwindles.
And the doubt comes in. Will he ever come? Where is he? What has taken him so long?
The lamps grow dim and the darkness descends.
Imagine the deep darkness of a town before electricity and streetlights, before light pollution and headlights, before the glow of television and computer screens through living room windows. Imagine the heavy, deep darkness. The girls’ eyes are straining to decipher every shadow in the darkness, their ears aching over every crack of leaves and fallen branches underfoot, every shift in the wind that might indicate that their groom is coming.
But their limbs grow heavy and their eyes grow weak. It’s too much to ask that a group of young girls stay awake any longer.
And they all fall asleep.
And the bridegroom comes, and they all startle awake, scrambling to smooth their dresses, tuck their hair back in their bobby pins, and grab their lamps, ready to escort the groom to the party.
And five have enough light. And five do not.
Five planned ahead.
They were like those moms on the playground who always have a snack and extra wipes and those tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.
They were like those folks who carry an extra cell phone battery in their glove compartment and always refill their gas before it goes below a quarter of a tank.
They’re the folks who do their homework right when they get home from school and make outlines of their papers before they start writing.
These are the ones who have retirement plans and extra pairs of socks and never run out of clean underwear.
Considering the fact that it is 10:03 on a Saturday night, and I’m still working on this sermon, I suppose you could guess that I am not one of those people.
It’s a win if I can get my kids out the door with shoes on the right feet and teeth brushed. It’s a win if I don’t have to ask for the extension and I actually do something with the potatoes I bought instead of letting them rot on the kitchen counter. I’m happy if I leave a conversation not feeling like an idiot, and I’m really proud of myself if I can go home and not rewind the tape of the day over and over in my head, trying to figure out how I can do better next time.
I drink too much coffee and not enough water.
And the laundry always piles up until I have to stay up until midnight waiting for the last load that has the spiderman socks and the not-itchy pants and the ninja turtle t-shirt that is the right color green.
I forget the preschool snack until 8:45 that morning, and I always pay my bills on the 31st.
I ran out of oil a long time ago.
I ran out of oil when my Young Life leader told me that the Muslims in Africa were going to hell.
I ran out of oil when the boy I had a crush on in eleventh grade wouldn’t date me because my boobs weren’t big enough.
I ran out when my parents almost got divorced when I was in fourth grade, and my brother was killed when I was in sixth.
I ran out after the miscarriage and after they rushed my son to the NICU.
I ran out of oil when my roommate in college told me that the only reason I was depressed was because I wasn’t praying enough.
I ran out of oil because I’ve asked for more -- more faith, more energy, more hope, more commitment, and I was told to go down the street, pray the right prayer, believe the right things, go to the right church, and buy it.
I am no wise bridesmaid.
I’m wandering in the dark.
I’ve run out of oil and my dress is wrinkled and covered in dried leaves and moss and my hair is ratty and I have no idea where I’m going.
Maybe the wise ones have it all together and they have planned for the future and they’re the patient ones who brought the steam iron and the extra bobby pins and their faith is just right and they can stand up and say the Nicene Creed without flinching over the virgin birth -- but they, too, have forgotten where light comes from.
The wise are busy - busy making plans and lists and lists of plans, busy plugging every possible hole and organizing for every possible contingency. They worry about filling the pews and doing the programs. They worry about having enough pot roast at the pot luck and enough bakers for the bake sales.
And these are all really important things. But that’s not where our light comes from.
Maybe it’s not about having light at all. Maybe it simply about being able to dance in the dark. Being able to trust that the Bridegroom is there, leading you, instead of the other way around.
Most scholars claim that this is a simple “parousia” parable - a parable about the end times and the waiting for when Jesus comes back. Jesus is praising the wise ones and rebuking the foolish ones. It reminds me of this song the church choir used to sing when I was growing up: “be watchful, be ready, for you know not when the Son of Man is coming” and then they’d end it with this deep baritone solo: “Heeeeeeeee’s Commmmmminnnnngggg!” It was creepy, really. Matthew wants to tell the Christians who are still waiting for Jesus to come back to wait a little bit longer, to be ready, to do good works and fill up their lamps with love and kindness and faith and justice. "I know it's been 25, maybe 50 years after Jesus' death, but hang in there - He's coming.
And that’s all good and well. It’s great even.
But we’re still waiting. It's been 2000 years now, and it’s still dark. And so now the parable must mean something else for us.
It means that we’re all running out of oil. We’ve all started to forget where our light comes from, and we’re all running low, and we’re all rushing from one thing to the next trying to keep our lamps full, trying to do the right thing and say the right words and come up with the perfect program that will finally get people in these doors.
But I don’t think it’s about all the stuff, or the plans, or our perfection. It’s not about the oil anymore.
Jesus has been gone for 2000 years. And he’s coming. Someday. Probably. I mean. I hope.
Or. Maybe he’s already here, dancing with us in the dark.
I’m out of oil, but I’m not going back in to town.
I’m not going to miss it when the groom comes by.
I’m going to sit here in the dark, and feel it deep into my bones.
I’m going to wander and feel lost and a little bit scared in this heavy darkness.
I’m going to breathe it in.
I’m not leaving this place to find some artificial light to light my way.
I’m going to stumble over tree roots and uneven sidewalks and fear all that unknown all around me.
Jesus said he was coming, and I guess he still is.
Meanwhile, I’m going to try to dance in the dark.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep searching for the bridegroom even though I have no idea where I’m going. I’m going to follow the glimmer of the ones ahead of me, the ones who did bring enough oil, and I’m going to make it to the party.
Mother Teresa once wrote: "If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness,’”… "I will continually be absent from Heaven—to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth.” “Darkness is such that I really do not see — neither with my mind nor with my reason — the place of God in my soul is blank — There is no God in me — when the pain of longing is so great — I just long and long for God.”
Just long and long for God.
Learn to dance in the dark.
So that when the bridegroom comes, you’re not off on some wild goose chase for some fake light. You’re out there, wandering, searching for God, dancing in the dark because you know that you’re already in, you’re already at the party.
Thanks be to God.
***The image and focus of girls dancing in the dark has been shamelessly stolen from a sermon on this passage by Angela Hancock. Seriously, y'all, she's the real thing.