By Jenny Andison
Good morning. I have been looking forward to joining you today to celebrate Confirmation and to get to know you better as a community of people who are learning how to follow Jesus Christ, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and reaching out in service to your neighborhood and the world. If you are new or visiting this morning, welcome. You are in good company, because I too am new ― your new bishop.
The bishop is an ancient office and has been around almost as long as people have been learning how to follow Jesus, and my role is to help Christian communities grow in their love for God and love for neighbor. A bishop is also there to keep the Christian family together, or as Archbishop Rowan Williams once said, to “interpret the strangeness of one community to the strangeness of the next community.”
C.S. Lewis, that great English professor, famously said, “If you are looking for a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” This morning we heard a most uncomfortable passage of Scripture, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. What are we to make of it? What does it have to say to those being confirmed this morning? How can it shape our daily lives, regardless of where we are on our journey of faith? And how can it shape our daily lives — where bills need to paid, children need to be raised, and chemo endured — in hopeful and life-giving ways?
Have you ever noticed that when you are waiting for something important, your brain has a way of phasing everything else out? Say, for instance, you are waiting for a certain car to pull into your driveway. It is midnight, and your 16-year-old daughter is not yet home. You are not going to pay a whole lot of attention to the clang of the heating pipes in the basement or the sound of raccoons in the neighbor’s garbage. Your ears are tuned to one frequency alone, namely the hum of the Honda Civic swooshing into the driveway.
Waiting is hard. What are you waiting for? Condo prices to come down? Your brother to finally give you a call? Or the doctor to call with the test results? While all of us are waiting for something, I will make an educated guess that few of us are straining our ears for the first whisper of the Second Coming. And yet, as we see the first flakes of snow and with Advent round the corner, our Scriptures this morning draw our eyes above the horizon to that incredible day when we are promised that the Lord Jesus Christ will actually return to earth.
For those of you who have been counting, Christians have been waiting for the Second Coming for a very long time — roughly 2,000 years. Jesus has been coming back for so long that plenty of people have given up. Before he died, Jesus told his followers that he would be coming back at the end of time to take his followers into eternity with him. We heard this in our reading from Thessalonians. And so none of those first disciples made any long-range plans.
Then a decade passed, then another, and another. The people who had actually known Jesus began to die off, and the only reason that we have the historical record of the gospels at all is because someone finally worked up the nerve to say, “You know what, there aren’t all that many eyewitnesses left and he hasn’t returned yet. We really should get this stuff down on paper.” So, how do we keep waiting, painfully aware that God is not concerned with our calendars or even our linear concept of time? How do we wait in life-giving and hopeful ways?
Well, our passage from Matthew this morning gives us a picture of two different ways of waiting and, as I already said, this is an uncomfortable passage. People are being excluded, and some doors close for good. Jesus could have told a story about friends who were going to a concert at Koerner Hall together. Some of the friends had a little too much to drink before dinner, and so while waiting in line to get into the sold-out concert, they nipped into the washroom. While they were gone, the doors opened and the rest of the friends, who had paced themselves through dinner, went right on in and took their seats. When the others arrived back late from the bathroom, they found themselves locked out.
But Jesus didn’t tell that story because obviously it wouldn’t have made any sense to his original audience. Instead he told a story about a wedding. Jewish weddings 2,000 years ago were not only full of fun, wine and dancing, they were also protracted affairs. The couple would not go away on a honeymoon, no trips to the Maldives or Quebec City for them, but rather, they would stay at home and welcome visitors.
There was no set time when the bridegroom would come to the house of the bride to eat the wedding feast. The bridesmaids waited to escort the bridegroom into the house of the bride, and once he arrived, the door would be shut with no possibility of late access. To those who first heard the story, it would have been a stark warning to not miss Jesus (clearly the bridegroom of the tale), when he did actually come back.
But does this passage mean the same thing for us, 2,000 years later, when the promise of the second coming has lost much of its vitality and edge? How can this story of waiting and exclusion be life-giving? Well, this is a parable about choices, choices that human beings, then and now, need to make every day, and we are going to witness a life-giving choice this morning with those being presented for Confirmation. We have a choice, as people who live in the in-between times between the first coming of Jesus (which we celebrate at Christmas) and his eventual return. We have choice as people in the in-between times. How will we wait for his return? Will we be prepared or will we be caught in the lineup in the concert hall bathroom?
Now the bridesmaids who were prepared when the bridegroom finally did arrive were initially in the same boat as the foolish bridesmaids. They all fell asleep (it’s hard to wait) and they all had their lamps. On the outside, the bridesmaids all looked the same. But the foolish bridesmaids had not brought any extra oil with them.
In fact, a careful reading of the original Greek text will tell you that the foolish bridesmaids hadn’t brought any oil with them in the first place. The wicks of all ten bridesmaids must have been damp with oil from a previous night and burned out in a few seconds, which explains why their lamps all burned out at the same time. It’s not that the foolish bridesmaids had given up on the bridegroom. When they realized they needed oil, they dashed off to the corner store to buy more. But it was simply too late.
It is worth pointing out here that much of the story hinges on your understanding of what the oil represents. Different theories have been put forth by scholars, but my money is on the oil representing the Holy Spirit. Both the Old and New Testaments connect anointing with oil and the Spirit of God descending on people. And if the oil does represent the Spirit of Christ, then it makes sense of one of the most troubling parts of the parable: the apparent selfishness of the five wise bridesmaids who, in their seemingly moralistic and rather prim superiority, won’t share their oil with their fellow bridesmaids.
A relationship with God in Christ, which the Holy Spirit secures, is something you need to choose and claim for yourself. This is precisely what is happening today in Confirmation; we all have front-row seats as we see five adults reach out for the love and mercy of God found in Christ Jesus, and as the bishop I will pray that they will be filled and strengthened with God’s Holy Spirit, and I will then anoint their foreheads with oil. At least these five are going to have full lamps!
You see, God has no grandchildren. Each generation afresh needs to seek after meaning and purpose, for truth and hope, and in each generation there will be those who find that purpose, hope, and truth in Jesus Christ, but no one else can claim it for them. It has to be a personal response. This parable is a wonderful reminder that while all the bridesmaids were doing the same thing — keeping watch, sleeping — five of the bridesmaids had oil in their lamps. They had reached out for God’s Holy Spirit and they had responded to God’s gracious invitation to us in Christ. This response is open and available to all here today, whether you are here for your first time and spiritually searching or if your weathered hands will be reaching out for the thousandth time to receive the sacrament.
We all have choices: a choice to respond to God’s love and mercy extended to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (to put oil into our lamps now) or a choice to be busy by all means, but to not personally respond to the coming bridegroom. Since we have no more or less time than Mark Zuckerberg has or Mother Teresa did, how can these choices be hopeful and life-giving as we wait in the concert hall lineup? Thomas Long, a professor at Princeton, puts it like this:
If there is no God-shaped future at hand, if nothing, nothing really is about to happen, then there is only one more day to be endured in an endless string of days, a bottomless pit of human need, and a ceaseless line of the poor, who are always with us. All there is left for the church to be is another well-meaning institution, and all there is left for the church to do is to whistle its services in the dark, collect its weekly donations and keep the photocopiers humming. Because nothing is about to happen.
But if we think something is about to happen, that there is a God-shaped future waiting, knowing that Jesus could return at any moment, then we dare to reach out to those in great need and freely pour out our resources to the poor. We are willing to make sacrifices of time, comfort, and money, if we really believe that God has got the end game.
What do we have to lose? Nothing. So let’s sacrifice together. If we trust the God of the Pleiades and Orion, of Mozart and of mathematics, if we trust that God will care for us (both now and for eternity) and that the feasting table is being set, then we become people of great confidence in the future and in humble service now. This great confidence and humble service can shape how we navigate conflict in our friendships and marriages. We will be much more willing to forgive, knowing how much we have been forgiven by the bridegroom (after all, the wise bridesmaids fell asleep just like the foolish), and we will have an urgency about healing broken relationships, because there is no time to lose. The bridegroom could come in the middle of the night and welcome us into the great feast.
We are likewise motivated to engage as Christians in the political and economic sphere of our city of Toronto with great hope and purpose, because we know how the story ends and we want to work for peace and justice now, as the oil from our lamp overflows. This eternal perspective is a marvelous way to have our daily lives shaped in life-giving and hopeful ways. As you enter the season of Advent here at St. Thomas’s, I urge you to wait expectantly, with confidence and humility, because something is about to happen here in this parish, as you enter an exciting new season, and something is about to happen in that manger. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is a bishop suffragan in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Toronto.