Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-15; Matthew 25:1-13
The last time I preached on the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids was,
conveniently enough, the day a wedding.
My friend Renata, a law school classmate, is a Lutheran pastor’s kid.
When she got married, her dad officiated the service,
which was on a Saturday night;
she’d asked if, as a gift to her family, I’d be willing to preach the Sunday service at his church the next day, and I said, “sure!”
Which is how I found myself in the pulpit of
Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
in front of a congregation half composed of silver-haired, lifelong Lutherans
and half slightly hungover young lawyers from out of town
who hadn’t darkened the door of a church in decades.
I wasn’t sure what I would say about such a difficult parable to such a mixed crowd, but then, conveniently, life supplied an example.
The groom himself was right on time, but the dress was late—
the tailor was based in another city, and shipping was delayed—
–and when the dress arrived, the day before the wedding, it didn’t fit.
The bridesmaids sprung into action.
There was an emergency trip to Joann Fabrics for guidance and supplies,
where staff and even a few random shoppers weighed in on what to do.
And then a local friend with sewing skills swooped in
and set up shop in the warm light of the kitchen in the house where the bridesmaids were staying,
she was young, with flowing gray hair,
and she had the calm, no-nonsense twinkle of a fairy godmother,
giving firm yet cheery instructions to the assisting bridesmaids.
And it worked! Bippity boppity boo!
By the next morning, the dress was ready,
the wedding went off without a hitch,
and Renata and John are living happily ever after.
But of course, the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids isn’t a fairy tale—
–it’s a parable, and a somewhat dark and difficult one.
It comes in the context of the apocalyptic discourse at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, during the final week of Jeus’s earthly life in Jerusalem,
when he talks about the coming kingdom and the end of days.
And it’s not so much a story about a wedding as it is a story about waiting—
about what it’s like when the one you’re expecting had not yet arrived,
and what you can do, in the meantime, to prepare—
–about how to be a disciple in the midst of delay.
And so in that sense, the parable really is a fitting one for this moment,
for our congregation, on this day.
We’re not about to celebrate a wedding–
–we’re actually going to do the opposite of that—
–we’re going to have a congregational meeting,
to elect officers to lead and serve this congregation
and a pastor nominating committee to find our next Senior Pastor—
–but we are about to enter a season of waiting, a time of transition—
to repeat a phrase from Meghan’s sermon last week,
this is a liminal season, a time between, a crepuscular moment between darkness and dawn, a threshold between what has been and what will be.
We know the process—we’ve already been participating in it,
through the ministry and mission study conducted this summer,
in the celebrations to honor Tim’s ministry this fall—
–the good goodbye that was such an important part of this new beginning.
A subgroup of the personnel committee is seeking a transitional minister,
and today we’ll elect a Pastor Nominating Committee
to search for our next installed Senior Pastor.
They’ll follow a well-established procedure outlined in a color-coded flowchart
full of acronyms—it’s the most Presbyterian thing you can imagine.
But even though we know the process, we don’t know the timing,
and we don’t know the outcome—
we know how, but we don’t know who, and we don’t know when—
–which means that, like the bridesmaids, we’ll have to wait.
What makes waiting so unpleasant, so hard?
It in involves a certain passivity—which goes against our every instinct to active
and engaged, to take responsibility, to make things happen in the world.
It involves uncertainty—not knowing when something will happen—
and it involves an uncomfortable dependence—an acknowledgement
that the future is not entirely ours to control.
No wonder we don’t like to wait.
No wonder, too, that so much of modern life, so much of our technology,
is designed to increase our information, our agency, our efficiency—
to obviate our dependence, our uncertainty, our need to wait.
We know exactly where the Uber driver is,
and when our package will be delivered,
and which store has the item that we’re looking for in stock.
And on the increasingly rare occasions when we do find ourselves waiting,
that same technology is also geared toward filling our time–
when’s the last time you waited for someone at a restaurant
without pulling out your phone?
The whole premise of the parable of the bridesmaids
would be unimaginable if it took place today.
This is the problem that writers have in the age of cell phones:
nothing’s uncertain, there’s no element of surprise.
Today’s tardy bridegroom would just get out his phone and text the bridesmaids,
something like, “Hey, FYI, running late, sorry.”
and the bridesmaids would reply, “Cool, no big deal. Here’s our location.
Ping us when you’re 5 minutes out and we’ll come meet you”
and he would say, “Thx—will do”
and then the wise bridesmaids would take advantage of the downtime
to send some work emails or scroll through Instagram or play Wordle,
and the fools would say, “I’m almost out of battery! can I borrow your charger?”
But no, it’s the first century AD, and the bridesmaids don’t have cell phones,
they don’t have GPS, they don’t have a two-way radio.
No, each bridesmaid has just one tool: a lamp, and one task: tending it.
That, for them, is the work of waiting.
A lamp is a particular kind of tool, and it casts a particular kind of light:
a soft, warm, omnidirectional glow;
it only lets you see what is around you.
A searchlight would be better for seeing long distances,
fluorescent overheads to fill a room,
a desk light for reading fine print.
And when it comes to things that are faraway,
a lamp works better as a signal than source—
the person in the distance can see you long before you see them.
But a lamp does something, else, too—something those other types of light do not-
a lamp creates a space around itself—
–not a well-defined spotlight that isolates one player on the stage,
but an aura, a glow—
the kind of light that blurs boundaries, that softens, warms, transforms—
the kind of light around which to sing, or pray, or tell stories, or be silent—
the kind of light that invites togetherness, that welcomes in.
There is a time for the evening under starlight, TS Eliot writes,
A time for evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
A week or so after learning the date of Tim’s retirement,
I was out at lunch with a friend and mentor of mine
who has spent his career as an interim.
I had a question for him.
I said, “I’ve been through pastoral transitions before, but always as a solo pastor—
–I’ve the one entering or leaving—
–but I’ve never done this as an associate, being present in a supporting role.
“What’s my job here?” I asked.
“How do I navigate this a member of staff?
How do I best support the congregation?”
His answer surprised me.
I’d expected him to say something programmatic—
–some new initiative we could launch as a congregation,
something to keep up our momentum, to keep people busy, occupied, engaged—
but instead, his response was deeply relational:
“Get close to your colleagues,” he said.
He didn’t just mean collaborate together on projects
—although there’s plenty of that at Westminster—
–he meant get to know each other personally,
spend time together, enjoy each other.
And right around that time, Meghan, our senior associate pastor,
began to lead us this way—
to gather us for regular, relational meals,
lunches, as a clergy team, most often without agenda,
sometimes we’d talk about work, sometimes not—
when we have David with us, we usually talk about food—
and while there’s been nothing particularly efficient or instrumental
about this time together, it’s been incredibly important;
I can only speak for myself here,
but I’ve noticed a shift in my own sense of comfort and connectedness
as the newest member of this team—
–an ability to respond to what is put before us, whether a crisis or a minor kerfuffle
–if you were here last week, and had your eyes open during communion,
you might have noticed that I accidentally positioned myself on the wrong side of the table,
and while I was praying the great prayer of thanksgiving,
Alanna and David were quietly shuffling the bread in my direction,
so that I would have something to break when the words of institution came
–I didn’t need to ask for help, it just arrived: they were noticing, paying attention,
responding as a need arose—
–not something that we planned, just something that they did.
And so I want to suggest, as we enter this liminal season, this lamplight time,
that this might be sage advice to all of us—
–to those of you who are to be elected today for positions of leadership—
–but also for all of us—
that my friend’s words, “get close to your colleagues—
–your pew-mates, your fellow committee members,
the other caregivers in the FYC lounge,
the people you serve with on ministry teams—
–that this might be something worth doing for all of us—working on our relationships, getting to know each other.
We tend to reach for programmatic answers in an institution the size of Westminster, but this might be a matter of culture as much as program—
–which is to say, it’s the work of all of us to do.
Each bridesmaid has a lamp, after all—
and one of the strange morals of the parable
is that no one else can tend it for you—
which means each of us has a role to play.
What might this look like? What does this mean?
Well, we’re in Minnesota, and this is not a particularly prophetic sermon,
so don’t worry, I’m not going to go so far as to say
you should have someone over to your house for dinner.
But there are concrete things we can do, things that we’re already doing,
to work on this.
The other day I was talking to an elder who mentioned that she’d recently gone out
for a glass of wine with someone she’d served on a ministry team with for years—
–they had worked side by side for a long time,
but never actually paused for conversation.
Maybe next time you’re planning to attend a church event—
Beyond Sunday, a Christmas dinner, something from the performing arts series–
–call a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and invite them to come along.
Then there’s that person whose face you know but whose name you’ve
you see them during coffee hour, you greet them,
you may have even had whole conversations with them—
–and at this point it just feels far too late to ask their name–
–you know who I’m talking about, right? we all know that person,
we all have that person, we all actually probably ARE that person for someone else—
–maybe it’s as simple as asking their name
–it’s always so daunting to need to ask, but I’ve never received anything but grace.
If you’ve got a profile on realm, upload your picture—make it easier for others
to get to know you.
We had twenty new members join the same month our senior pastor retired
–that’s a good sign, it means that something right is happening here,
something’s working in this congregation—
and so when you see someone new, say hi, invite them into conversation.
And if you’re an introvert, and everything I’ve said sounds like your worst
well, then perhaps you’ve got the most important job of all,
which is to pray,
for those whose names you know, and those whose names you don’t
–all of whom are known to God,
both within and beyond the walls of this congregation.
One more thing to say.
We are, at Westminster, waiting for a senior pastor—
–but that’s not really, ultimately, who we’re waiting for—
–the bridegroom, in this story, is not a minister, it’s Christ–
and we’re waiting, during this pastoral transition, as a congregation,
but we’re also waiting, in a much larger season, with the church universal–
for the return of God incarnate, the One who makes all things new.
And so in this way, our waiting is a kind of attending,
like the bridesmaids in the bridal party, which is to say,
not just waiting for something to happen.
To attend is to show up, to care, to pay attention,
to sense that, while we’re waiting,
even when the events of the world are beyond ourselves,
there is ministry for us to do.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh.