By Amy Richter
Here’s a story, supposedly true, from one of the survivors of the Titanic. When the ship was sinking, a frightened but fortunate woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the raging North Atlantic. She suddenly thought of something she needed, so she asked permission to return to her stateroom before they cast off. She was given three minutes, but any later and they would leave without her.
She ran across the deck that was already slanted at a dangerous angle. She raced through the gambling room with all the money that had rolled to one side, ankle deep. She rushed into her stateroom and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and necklaces as she reached along the shelf above her bed. What she grabbed were three small oranges. She quickly rushed back to the lifeboat and got in.
Now 30 minutes earlier, she would not have chosen a bushel of oranges over the smallest diamond. But death had boarded the Titanic, and now everything was different, and all values were transformed. Priceless things became worthless; worthless things became priceless. And in that moment, the woman chose three small oranges over a crate of diamonds.
Some events have the power to transform the way we look at the world and what is most important to us. The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson is about one of these events. The parable is about the unexpected coming of Christ at the end of time. The woman on the sinking Titanic understood that she must make preparations for life on a lifeboat, and three oranges would be infinitely more precious than diamonds. Likewise, our parable tells us in this world when Christ may return at any moment, or when Christ meets us at our death, we also must be ready. How do we prepare?
Before I say how, I want to tell you a little bit about the ordinary events used to explain the extraordinary in this parable and why biblical scholars believe it’s about the Second Coming of Christ. In Jesus’ day a Jewish wedding had three parts to it. First came the betrothal or engagement. After about a year came the formal religious ceremony, usually held in the bride’s home. Third was the wedding feast, held in the bridegroom’s home.
The wedding feast usually began at night and lasted about a week. On the night when the great feast was set to begin, the bridegroom would come to get his bride and together they would go to the wedding banquet. The bridesmaids were part of the group that welcomed the bridegroom by holding lamps or torches to light the way for them to walk to the feast. The bridesmaids have one job: be ready to welcome the bridegroom. That’s it: be ready. Be ready to welcome him when he arrives, because that’s when the party is going to start and you don’t want to miss it.
Starting from the earliest days of the Church, the bridegroom was a symbol for Christ and the bridegroom’s arrival, a symbol for the second coming of Christ, when he will welcome all the faithful to the heavenly banquet, a great feast, a party that will last not just for a week, but for eternity. As we all know, because we’re all still here, Christ did not come again as quickly as many thought he would. Many of his disciples may have expected him to come again in glory during their lifetimes. He did not. So, what does that mean? Get drowsy, ignore the oil, wander off? No, be readIf he’s not coming to us in power and majesty anytime soon, we are all certainly going to him, and most likely in vulnerability and weakness and emptiness as we all do in death. So how do we get ready to welcome him, in either way, with great joy and readiness?y.
Here’s one way: cultivate faith, not excuses. If you look at your faith, or your life as a spiritual person, a person made to have a good relationship with God and your neighbor, and you find it lacking, don’t make excuses. If the oil of your faith is running low, fill it up, don’t put it off. Don’t put off growing closer to Christ. Don’t put off allowing God to come closer to you.
Late night talk show host David Letterman has a feature on his show called his top ten list. One of his top ten lists was things to say if you’re caught sleeping at your desk. I won’t tell you all of them, but Excuse #10 was, “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.” Excuse #5 was, “Darn, why did you interrupt me? I had almost figured out a solution to our biggest problem.” The #1 best thing to say if you get caught napping at your desk is, “in the name of Jesus, Amen.”
We all know how to make excuses. The bridesmaids in this parable had their excuses too. “The Bridegroom was late.” “The lamps burned more oil than they were supposed to.” “The lamps are defective.” “The other bridesmaids wouldn’t share.” “Have you seen the price of oil lately?”
Rather than coming up with excuses for why our Christian life isn’t all we would wish it to be, we can do things that help us accept the gift of faith and help it grow. Waiting for a better time to help someone in need? Don’t wait. Waiting for a better time to start a prayer life, read the Bible, come to church regularly, help with some church project? Don’t. There are so many ways to nurture your faith. Fill up your oil lamp.
By the way, do you see why the bridesmaids didn’t share? We can help one another grow in faith, we can support one another in our life in faith. Being an active part of a faith community is crucial to our faith life and health. But no one can have faith for you. No one else can make your faith grow. No one else can have your relationship with God for you. It’s yours alone, uniquely yours. Yet you are made to be part of community. So if you don’t have your own vibrant faith life, it does affect us all. We are all diminished if we don’t all prepare together.
Prepare for the coming of Christ, at the end of time, or at the end of your life, by living in the presence of Christ now. Live as if Christ is present now, because Christ is. We believe that Christ is present in Word and Sacrament, in our brothers and sisters in need, in the Church, Christ’s body whose members are all the baptized. Christ is present now, inviting us to live each day as if each day matters; to do in each day what we believe God would have us do.
John Wesley, the great Anglican clergyman and theologian, better known as the founder of Methodism, was asked what he would do if he knew his Lord would return at that time the next day. His answer way, “I would go to bed and go to sleep; wake up in the morning, and go on with my work, for I would want him to find me doing what he had appointed.” Wesley was confident that he was doing what God wanted of him.
Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus is coming again. Look busy.” How would you like Christ to find you on his return? We know that God is with us every day, knows our thoughts and hearts and minds. But think about it. If Christ were to come today, what would you want him to find you doing? What kind of work? What kind of play? What kind of worship? Whether or not Christ returns during our lifetimes, it’s a good question to ask. How can you live every day, so that when you meet Christ, you will be doing what he has asked you to do?
Christ wants to be our light, our joy, to enlighten our hearts and minds our whole life long. The foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they let their lamps run out. We are all given light and oil, of a sort, when we are baptized. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. We take Christ’s light into our hearts, and we are to spend the rest of our lives letting that light shine.
And throughout our lives, if we allow it, Christ gives us all the oil for our lamps we need. Through Word and sacrament, prayer, study, acts of charity and love for our neighbor, our lamps can be filled and refilled by the light of Christ, so we won’t ever run out. The foolish bridesmaids have not allowed Christ to fill their lamps. They haven’t allowed Christ to nurture the light that was theirs to let shine.
Today we are invited to prepare, for a time we do not know, when the bridegroom will come to meet us. He wants to bring us to his home for an ending party, a celebration to last forever. When Christ comes for us, may he find us with our lamps burning bright, ready to welcome him with great joy.