Just about everything was in order, except for the presence of the bridegroom. No one was sure exactly when he would arrive. Some of the wedding party went out to wait for the bridegroom’s approach and greet him. Because it had turned to evening, the ten bridesmaids who decided to wait on the road, watching for the groom’s arrival, brought along their lamps.
The hours dragged by: to the bridesmaids’ disappointment, there was no sign of the one they awaited, and eventually, their eyes closed in sleep.
When they heard a cry announcing the approach of the bridegroom and his friends, they startled awake and prepared their words of welcome. As their lamps were flickering with the last of the oil that fueled them, those of the young women who had come prepared with additional flasks of oil topped up their lamps, and they burned brightly.
Half of the young women had not had such foresight, however, and they watched in horror as the last of their lamps’ light sputtered and died.
You know the rest of the story: the wise bridesmaids did share their oil with their friends whose oil had run out, but instead, proceeded with the bridegroom’s party to the wedding hall, where the door was shut behind them. When the other young women finally arrived, having replenished their oil, they were denied entrance.
We know all about waiting in the dark.
Way too much waiting, not knowing when what we wait for will come.
Today’s parable from Matthew is largely about judgement, about the sad consequences that befall the ones who do not prepare for the challenges they might face. Jesus’ words to the disciples to whom he tells the parable are cautionary: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, referring to God’s judgement at the end times.
As I’ve suggested, however, it’s also a parable about the difficult experience of uncertainty, of hoping and waiting without knowing when we’ll have what we seek.
It is, as well, a parable about the need for light in the darkness, when the way ahead is uncertain and unclear, a light that shows the road so that we can move forward with confidence.
And it’s this powerful metaphor of light and darkness that I’d like to pause to dig into a bit this morning.
Light and darkness are a recurring metaphor in the biblical tradition; when you look it up, you find that there are more than 40 instances, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, in which light and darkness are compared, as well as 335 times when “light” is used on its own.
Light and darkness are both recognized as “good” as God separates the two in the act of creation.
And the Psalmist cries out to God (in words that are echoed in our final hymn this morning) –
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
Jesus is never quoted as contrasting light and darkness, but he did frequently make use of light as a metaphor, about knowledge of God’s love as illumination to the human community, urging disciples, for example, to “let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus actually refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), clearly building on the image of light as illuminating the way.
Unfortunately, the biblical tradition has also provided a foundation that human beings, in our frailty, have used to reinforce the sin of racism.
Many times when light and darkness are used together in scripture, the light represents that which is good, and the darkness represents that which is dangerous, which needs to be overcome.
Lutheran Pastor Lenny Duncan, in Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., makes this observation about the way black and white, light and darkness are used as symbols in the Christian tradition:
Over and over again, in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race….
Duncan goes on observe that “these powerful symbols”, our continual association of white and light with holiness and black and darkness with evil, have “ill effects on our community that we have yet to explore”. The power of these symbols has impacted both the oppressed and the oppressors.
So are we to entirely jettison all imagery, all use of this language and these symbols in our faith life? I don’t think so: images of light and darkness are deeply woven into our faith tradition, both biblical and liturgical. As theologian Paul Tillich observed, symbols cannot be intentionally stripped of their power.
Pastor Duncan suggests that we broaden the vocabulary of our symbols, and turn our focus away from exclusive (or even primary) emphasis on symbols that have been used to reinforce racist ideologies.
We need to think and pray and talk about these challenges. As we do so, it also seems imperative to me that as we continue to use (and pray and sing) symbols that are deeply embedded in our tradition but that have contributed to oppression, we do so with penitence for the ways and times that we have been thoughtless, complicit, and complacent, and that we be intentional in our work to transform the way we understand them, to work toward bringing an end to all that causes suffering.
And so here we find ourselves, bridesmaids waiting in the darkness for the sound of the bridegroom’s approach. We wait because we live in this world of viruses and climate change, of injustice, distrust and animosity, and God’s realm has not yet come, and too often we just don’t know what to do.
As we wait, we are the laborers in the vineyard, to call on another of Jesus’ metaphors. The bridegroom’s approach is ours to hasten. Our lamps must light the way to the wedding banquet. And Jesus shows us the way.
Our call is to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other of the love of God that surrounds us, even in those moments when it is hard to discern.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to exercise resilience and hope. We are called to roll up our sleeves and do the work we have been given to do. It’s work that we know and understand – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner.
The oil that will keep our lamps burning is the strength we draw from our sacred stories, our worship, and our fellowship with one another; it is the presence of God’s Spirit.
Let us keep watch. Let us do the work. Let us those lamps burning, with hope. Amen.
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