November 12, 2017, A Warning and a Promise – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000050
If the average human being is anything like me, it is a normal human tendency to let things creep up and take you by surprise, no matter how long you’ve had to prepare. This happened to me this week, when I opened a notebook to do some work on today’s sermon, and out fell the bulletins from the Community Thanksgiving services of the past few years – put there by myself, of course, so I would remember to plan and prepare well ahead of time. And yet, BOOM! Here I am, a week and a half from the service itself. The foolish virgins of today’s parable have my sympathy.
It’s normal to procrastinate, and it’s normal to lose track of things, and it’s normal for time to seem to speed up sometimes so that things seem to come rushing at us – and at other times, to drag along as if the clock had stopped moving altogether. All that is normal, but the purpose of Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins isn’t about criticizing our normal human tendencies. It’s not about recognizing ourselves in the Foolish Virgins and feeling bad about that, or trying to do better, nothing like that. The message of the parable is much more urgent than all of that.
The gospels are full of parables, which were Jesus’ primary way of teaching. He told vivid stories, made up of familiar, everyday things and people and events, stories that drove home a point so strongly that they become part of how we think. When we think of God’s forgiveness, we see in our mind’s eye the Prodigal Son, slouching home in disgrace, and the Father running out to meet him, with open arms. That is such a perfect picture of how God receives us, sinners that we are, that we will never forget it. When we think of the command to love our neighbor, we see in our mind’s eye the Samaritan man riding along the highway and dropping everything to help a stranger in need – a stranger who would have considered the Samaritan his enemy, even, if he weren’t half dead. With that story, Jesus drew us a perfect picture of how we are to love our neighbor, no matter who he or she is.
The story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, like those other parables of Jesus, draws a picture for us, something Jesus doesn’t want us to forget. And for me, one picture that stays in my mind when I have read this parable, once and twice and twenty and a hundred times, is the picture of the closed door, and the five foolish virgins arriving with their oil and their newly-replenished lamps – but too late. The urgent message is this: there will come a time when it is too late to get ready. We don’t know when that will be; Jesus said that over and over and over again. “You don’t know when the end will come. You don’t know when I will return. I don’t even know when all that will happen – only the Father knows. So be ready. Be ready NOW. Stay awake. Don’t grow weary. Watch.”
Episcopalians don’t spend a lot of time preaching and thinking about the end times – we leave that to the Pentecostals, mostly. And for the most part, that’s wise of us, because it is a fruitless thing to try to figure out what Jesus already told us we can’t know. All that decoding of the signs and the reading of the times are just so much human nonsense, really, in the end. All we do know absolutely is this: that the end will come for each of us – and eventually the end will come for all of us – and it will come on a day and at a time we have no way of knowing. Whether it is the end of all the ages, or our own individual death, there will come a time for each and every one of us when there is no more time for preparation. There exists a “too late”. And the picture of the five foolish virgins standing and knocking at the door that will not open to them is the image of that “too late”.
But what we have to ask – what we always have to ask – is how is this “good news” for us? How does that scary image show us the love of God? Because the truth is that within every teaching of Jesus, and within the message of Scripture as a whole, is always the good news of God’s love for you. So, look first at what Jesus says about these ten young women, waiting for the arrival of the Bridegroom so the wedding feast can begin. Five of them are foolish and five of them are wise, but none of them are perfect. Jesus said, “The Bridegroom was delayed, and they ALL became drowsy and slept” until finally at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
And that’s when the wisdom of the wise virgins was revealed, because when the cry woke them all up, and they all found that the oil in their lamps was running out, the wise virgins got out their flasks of oil to refill their lamps. But the foolish virgins were out of oil, and out of luck. The difference was this: that the wise virgins were prepared to keep watch, to wait until the bridegroom arrived, whenever that might be, however long he might delay.
The good news of the parable is revealed in the arrival of the Bridegroom. Because Jesus is talking about waiting for him, about watching for his return. He gives us a picture that reminds us to keep watching even when we grow weary with the long delay – and in our human weakness, we do grow weary. Even the wise virgins became drowsy and fell asleep. But the good news is that he will surely come. This parable is a stern warning, but it is also a glorious promise. We will see him. The bridegroom will come for his bride, and his word to us is this: “Watch! Wait! Don’t give up! No one knows the day or the hour, but I will come.”
And we know that we don’t only watch for him to come at the very end of all things. We know that Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from us until the day he returns in glory. We watch for him now in the people around us. We watch for him in the sharing of the wine and bread at Communion. We listen for him all the time in the quiet of our own hearts. We watch for him especially in the faces of the poor and the sick and the stranger. In all the people and places and situations where we least expect him, there we hear the cry, if we are listening, if we are watching, that the bridegroom is near.
The warning, and the promise, of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is that there will surely come a time for every one of us when all of our watching will be finished, when all of our waiting will finally be at an end, a time when you will at last see him face to face. So don’t let the light of your faith grow dim – don’t give up watching and waiting, even when you grow weary, even when it feels like he will never show up – because sometimes it does feel like that, no matter how wise or faithful you are. Wisdom tells us to watch, and never stop watching. You don’t know the when, the day or the time, but you have his promise: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”