Caught Up in the Clouds – Rev. Amanda Wagner
November 9, 2014 (Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Last year I had the opportunity to participate in a ride-along with an officer from the Concord Police Department. It was a mostly uneventful evening, but there was one traffic stop that I won’t soon forget. After we pulled over a car that rolled through a stop sign, I sat in the squad car while the officer went to talk to the driver of the vehicle.
A few minutes later, the officer returned, chuckling to himself. As he filled out the paperwork, he explained that we had just pulled over a groom and his groomsmen, all decked out in kilts. They were lost and overdue at the church. “I won’t ruin his wedding day with a ticket,” the officer told me, “but at least we’ve given them a good story.”
In Jesus’ time, it was customary for the wedding party and all the guests to gather with the bride at her parents’ house, awaiting the arrival of the groom. When the groom arrived, he and his bride would lead the procession, and everyone would walk to the groom’s house for the wedding. Everyone would then stick around for an extended celebration that would last for days.
Most likely, the ten bridesmaids in today’s reading were from the groom’s household, sent ahead of him to wait with the bride and keep her company until the groom arrived. And, just like modern day, there were times when the groom, for one reason or another, would show up late.
It’s nearly midnight when the groom finally makes his way to the bride’s house, and by this time everyone in the wedding party has fallen asleep. But when word comes that the groom has arrived, everyone leaps into action. The bridesmaids trim their lamps, preparing to light the way for a late-night procession to the site of the ceremony and subsequent party.
Unfortunately, Jesus explains, only five of the ten bridesmaids had planned ahead for such an incident, and had brought along enough oil to keep their lamps going for a late-night wedding march. The other five were forced to run out and buy more oil. By the time they found a 24-hour Quickie Mart, filled their lamps, and made their way to the groom’s house, the parade was over, the guests were all inside, and the bridesmaids were locked out.
“So keep awake,” Jesus concludes, “because you never know when the groom will finally show up.” Jesus introduces the parable by explaining that this is what the kingdom of God will be like, implying that we can either be prepared for the groom’s arrival, or caught off guard and out of luck when the time comes.
Preying on this kind of fear has kept some preachers and theologians – not to mention authors and movie producers – in business for years. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have made a fortune instilling terror in their readers and producing nightmares for those who read their “Left Behind” novels or watched the accompanying movies.
Even now, there’s a remake of the original “Left Behind” movie in theaters, starring none other than Nicholas Cage. Now, I apologize to any Nicholas Cage fans out there, but I’m going to advise you to skip this movie. Unless you’re a die-hard Nick Cage fan or enjoy being frightened or guilted into behaving a certain way. Then by all means, go ahead and watch it.
But I want to tell you something: LaHaye and Jenkins have built their empire around proclaiming that Jesus is coming back ANY SECOND NOW! And they’ve caused unnecessary fear and worry by convincing folks that you’re going to be locked out of the party unless you straighten out your life and make sure you’ve got enough oil to last until the groom comes.
Now I’m not claiming that LaHaye and Jenkins are trying to deliberately deceive anyone. They may fully believe what they’re saying and think that they’re doing good by warning others. The problem is that Paul believed some of the very same things.
Paul told members of the church in Corinth that they shouldn’t even bother to get married because he was convinced that Christ was returning in his lifetime. In his letter to the Thessalonians Paul included himself as part of “those who are alive who will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” But Paul’s been dead for two thousand years and we’re no closer to Christ’s return now than Paul was then.
Here’s the thing. The parable of the ten bridesmaids isn’t about being scared into preparedness. It’s not even about running around with our eyes on the sky watching and waiting for Christ to return at any moment. In the parable, all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep, but that was ok because they were all still doing their job of keeping the bride company.
Jesus said that the wise ones were the bridesmaids who were in it for the long haul. They had brought extra oil just in case the groom was late. And when the groom finally did arrive, they were ready. They poured their extra oil into their lamps and started the procession to the wedding banquet.
The church is often referred to as the bride of Christ. And we as the bridesmaids are called to accompany the bride through this long period of waiting for the groom to arrive. We are called to be prepared and attentive to the needs of the church, whether that is an individual or collective need.
That’s why we work to reach out to the larger community to care for the needs of others. The church is bigger than just the few of us who are gathered here on Sunday morning. The church, the bride of Christ, is this community as a whole and each of us as individuals.
You know the saying, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Well that doesn’t pertain here. In the church, sometimes we’re the bridesmaids and sometimes we’re the bride. And after two thousand years of waiting for a groom to arrive, not knowing if he’s been pulled over by the police or got lost on the way or is just taking his good old time, it’s ok to fall asleep, to take a nap, to rest up during our time of waiting.
But when the groom arrives, or if the bride needs our help, we’d better have enough oil in our lamps to deal with whatever situation arises. Folks, we cannot afford to get so caught up in looking at the clouds that we neglect the needs of those around us. Conversely we cannot be so inwardly focused that we forget why we have gathered together in the first place.
The church sprang up as a response to the teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. As much as Jesus talked about the coming of the kingdom of God, he worked every day to bring it about through his care and compassion for those around him.
As the bride as well as the bridesmaids, we are called to model the behavior of Jesus, reaching out to others, and taking care of those around us. When we lose that vision, when there is a need within our congregation that goes unaddressed, then it’s just like we’ve been caught in the middle of the night with no oil in our lamps.
Now the great thing about the groom is that he didn’t send just one bridesmaid out to care for the bride. He sent ten. And in our church we have a hundred bridesmaids with a hundred lamps ready to shine in the darkness. In theory, that sounds like a really good thing, that there are a hundred people ready and waiting in case someone in our congregation is in need.
But sometimes, that just makes it easy to assume that one of the other bridesmaids will come to the bride’s aid, (perhaps so we won’t have to this time). And if we all assume the same thing at the same time, then that’s a problem. The thing is, even after the wedding party had fallen asleep waiting for the groom to arrive, someone was keeping watch. Someone saw him coming and shouted loud enough to wake everyone else up.
I understand that sometimes our oil lamps are running low. When we’re sick, stressed, under pressure at work or home, maybe we have nothing left to give to our church community. But even at those times, when we see a need, we need to alert the rest of the community to that need so that it doesn’t go unnoticed, or worse yet, ignored.
I’m including myself in that point. Because after my recent extended illness, I’ve come to realize that I can’t do it all alone. That sometimes I need to ask for help. And that we all need to be working together to make this ministry work.
We all need to be prepared to respond to the needs of our community. But either way, whether you can respond with the light of an overflowing lamp, or your lamp is running low, please, by all means, give a shout. That way those with full lamps can wake up and attend to the bride. Amen.