Stepping into the Wedding Hall (Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost)

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Can I just state the obvious: The last thing we need right now is an apocalyptic text in the middle of a pandemic and a highly contentious election cycle. I mean, seriously… the world seems to be hanging in the balances and we’ve got Jesus bullying us with this end of the world talk. Before I go on, and because I know anxiety levels are high, I want to say up front that today’s reading isn’t about the end of the world (at least not in the traditionally held understanding); it is not the end of the world (I believe tomorrow will come); and it is actually quite apropos for today (which seems to often be true with the teachings of Jesus). Once when I preached on this text I was set to get married a month later. Talk about some pointed words from Jesus to make me double-check my to-do list multiple times, so as to ensure my preparedness. Anyway… This parable often feels ironic and alarming. I think that’s part of what makes it fascinating. However, it often plagues me with questions that I cannot answer without contradiction.

  • Why do the bridesmaids have to bring their own light to a wedding reception? 
  • Why are the “wise” bridesmaids stingy and mean?  
  • Why doesn’t the groom show up for his own wedding until midnight?  
  • Why does the bride — whoever she is —  put up with such a ridiculous delay? 
  • Where even is the bride in this story?  
  • And why, after keeping the poor bridesmaids waiting for hours, does the groom blame them for lateness?

Those are just a few things that come to mind. Although most of my questions are based on the context in which we live today. I often have to lay aside my desire for Jesus to apologize to the bridesmaids (who were probably like 11 years old) that he left them outside just because they were trying to do the right thing. So, I remind myself that it is a parable and it’s important to recognize that this parable is told in a context where it was customary for the bridegroom to go to his wife’s family home and ceremoniously bring her into his home for the festivities to take place there. The young bride is not the focal point, nor does she have much of a voice, which is likely why we hear nothing of her in the parable. Additionally, who knows how long it would’ve taken for family to heap blessings upon her as she left with her new husband. It’s quite probable that it could take a long time for them to arrive. This wouldn’t have been unreasonable.

So, I can contextualize all of it, but regardless…

Jesus is a master storyteller and spins this parable for us knowing it’s rich in allegory, and fraught with contradictions, difficulties, and questions. Maybe the truths the parables reveal are various and infinite, which is why I often feel like there are a hundred different paths for preaching. Maybe we’re supposed to let the possible meanings open out, wider and wider and wider, so that Jesus becomes more visible to us. I think this ‘more visible’ aspect is especially true of this parable, since the tangible return of Jesus was not realized in Biblical times, and arguably has not been realized in our times.

Since I think you are probably expecting the typical ten minute sermon, and not a doctorate thesis defense on the parable, I’m going to zero us in on one aspect of the parable, and leave some of the other pieces hanging in the balances a bit for some other Sunday morning. 

The is going to be a wedding some day. Really, there is.

That is the whole premise upon which Jesus tells this parable.
Some day there will be a wedding.

Now, I go back and forth in my mind if it’s more accurate to say is the doors to the wedding hall are open and beckoning us in; or if I should say the doors to the wedding hall will be opened to us. I mean, it seems like if I was invited into a wedding party with the promise of boisterous jubilee, holy light, and intoxicating love that I would just step right in…

But, I suspect maybe that isn’t true. I suspect maybe I’d be off looking for more oil. Because, let’s face it, the bridesmaids didn’t need the oil in a material sense. Even if the ‘wise’ or ‘mean’ bridesmaids didn’t want to share their oil, it’s impossible to not share light once it starts to shine.

Everyone could’ve stepped in.

Everyone can step in.

It’s a question of whether we will.

And I think that question is tied to where we get our oil. Do we fill up our lamps externally or internally? I think the foolish bridesmaids traipsed off because they didn’t think they were good enough, didn’t think their faith was strong enough, didn’t think they belonged at the wedding, thought that they should’ve been better prepared, thought they needed to bring something other than themselves to the wedding.

I’m not sure what it will take for us to live fully into the marriage we are offered, but it seems clear that our assumptions about scarcity are killing us; we’re so worried about opening our doors too wide, we shut them tight; we are so bent on being right that we forget rightness without love is always wrong. We seem to think there won’t be enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough freedom, enough mercy.

The wise bridesmaids knew that what was needed for the party to get into full swing was themselves. The foolish bridesmaids didn’t think their presence was enough, even though the had what was needed to step into the wedding hall…

So, I guess the hard question is: Will you step into the wedding hall?

I feel like we are at a breaking moment in the life of the world – not an end of the world moment – but a breaking moment… One where the world as we know it could end, and not in a doom and gloom sense. But, rather, if we choose to step into joy, light, and love then the ways of this present age will cease to hold sway and power. If we choose to step into the wedding hall then a new day dawns; a new world is conceived; a marriage is consummated.

What if today is the day?

What if today is the day when God’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness and glory?

And if today is the day, then you know what that means?
Jesus is coming back!

And right now, I feel like most you quietly thought: Yeah… right. Have you looked around? Or, Please, God, No!

But let’s entertain it for a bit.
When I think about that possibility, I experience it with hope, doubt, and fear. But mostly, doubt. I mean, I’m a bit accustomed to the bridegroom’s absence and I’m not sure I’ve really been expecting there to be a wedding. For generations Jesus’ absence and delay are all we’ve known.

Additionally, the likelihood at this point that I would believe someone who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus is next to nothing. Which is where the fear piece comes in… Either, Jesus returns and I don’t believe it’s really him; or He returns and I’m left shaking in my boots because I’ve basically been living my life like he’s not returning.

So, here’s my theological conundrum…
To set aside the second coming of Jesus I have to do one of two things:

I either have to make Jesus into a liar, because just as surely as he said he would be crucified, die, and be raised up, he said he would return.

Or, I have to let go of hope. The second coming has long been God’s promised fulfillment of healing, justice, restoration, and reunion. Heaven and earth would become mirrors of one another and God’s dream would be fulfilled. Without the hope of wedding feast – when heaven and earth are joined as one – we have nothing to lean into and nothing to work towards. And that, frankly, is depressing and doesn’t coincide with any of the rest of the Bible.

The one thing that seems clear from the scripture today is no matter what we think, it may not go the way we think it will go. This seems true of weddings. There are always unexpected surprises.

Over and over again we are told that we are the body of Christ.
That today  – this very day – Jesus depends on our bodies to be his.
That we are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus.
That Jesus is here presently.

So, here’s my wedding surprise for the morning.
What if Jesus’ return looks a whole lot like you and me showing up?

What if that far-away day we’re all waiting for is as close as all of humanity stepping into love, light, and joy…

Wouldn’t that qualify as the return of Jesus?
Wouldn’t the wedding feast get rocking then?