The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - November 12, 2017
Scripture Reading:
Matthew 25:1-13 
Sermon Title: ďLate for the wedding?Ē

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     In my discussions this week with ministers about this text the first question raised was ďWhat the heck is this about?Ē  I remember my marriage clearly.  I arrived on time, there were no virgin bridesmaids to welcome me, with or without lamp oil.  We all met at the church, got married, took pictures and went off for our reception.  We had a small group of people show up at the reception late, they had been to a different wedding earlier in the day, but wanted to come by and celebrate with us also.  It was held in a tent, on some historic grounds with a big old house.  No gate to keep people out, and honestly since we both invited a lot of people the other did not know, if someone showed up and joined us that we didnít know, we probably would have just assumed that they were a friend of the other family. 

     I think it in order to understand this parable, we have to look at the tradition of marriage in Jesus time.  A man and a woman were betrothed.  Now in this time, put romance and love out of your mind.  Really, your parents found a good person to be your spouse.  If youíre the woman in this relationship, your parents worked to find you a rich husband.  It was to their benefit.  The groomís family would be required to pay a dowry to the brideís family, really because the brideís family was losing a worker.  It was also understood that some of that dowry would be put away in case the husband died before the wife.  If you were the groomís family, a well-off family would make for a good wife, as maybe they would not need as large a dowry. 

     These negotiations sometimes took a while between the families.  I donít have a daughter, but if I did, I would want top dollar for her.  If this payment were required today, I would be looking for a family where Glenn and Collin could get a good strong wife for a value price.  This negotiation went on for about a year.  Also during this time the groom is setting up the house.  Probably working a little extra to help raise money for the dowry, and if all goes well hopefully getting to know this woman who would become his wife.  This was where we think Mary and Joseph were in their relationship when Jesus was born. 

     After about a year, the groom would come into his wifeís town, usually at night, dressed fancy with his groomsmen.  They would be met by these bridesmaids and together they would go to the brideís house.  They would get her and bring her back to the groomís home, where there would be a big feast.  The marriage was consummated, in a tent, near the wedding feast, while everyone waited outside the tent to celebrate more.  No pressure there.  Then they would come out of the tent as husband and wife, eat and drink and celebrate a few more days, then hopefully live happily ever after. 

     In this parable, the couple is betrothed, they are going to get married, and the date is known.  The groom and his groomsmen will arrive that evening, and the bridesmaids go out to wait for him.  Five of them bring enough oil for their lamps to burn well into the night, and five of them go out and get a little extra,  just in case.  They wait, and wait, and wait, and pretty soon they are all asleep.  Long after they expected him, the groom arrives.  Five of them fill up their lamps with their spare oil, light the lamps and bring the groom to meet his bride.  The other five donít have any oil to light their lamps, and have to go and find some extra oil in the middle of the night.  They miss the procession to the groomís town, and when they finally show up, the party is already well underway, the gate is locked, they cannot get in. 

     I will be honest; this parable has always bothered me.  If I were a prepared Bridesmaid, and had extra oil, shouldnít I share it?  Are those who hoard going to be rewarded?  Shouldnít we, as a church and individuals, share all that we have?  Perhaps we are reading too far into this parable.   

     This parable is found in the book of Matthew, which was written probably between 80 and 90 CE.  Jesus was clear that he would return, and there are many stories telling us to stay awake, donít rest, be prepared.  Paul really thought this return was going to happen any day, ďdonít worry if you are married or not, does not really matter because Jesus is coming back any day now.Ē  So even if you are reading a first copy of Matthewís gospel, it has been 50 or 60 years since Jesus was killed.  Your grandparents maybe remember seeing Jesus, but that was a long time ago.  Any day has become any month, has become any year.  And here we are in 2017, almost 2,000 years later.  There are plenty of predictions about the end of the world.  Do you remember Y2K?  Everything with a computer chip was going to die at midnight, no electricity, no banks, no gas, car would not start, many were really worried.  The Mayan calendar ended pretty recently, and nothing happened.  Just a few weeks ago, something was going to happen on a Saturday, but I wrote a sermon for Sunday just in case the world did not end.  Of course we donít even know if Jesus returning and the end of the world will be the same event.  I am hopeful that both our government and the North Korean government have some common sense.  Even if North Korean warheads may not be able to reach us in New Hampshire, our hitting North Korea would also spill into China, which could retaliate.  The end of the world could very well be caused by us, without Jesus ever coming back.  But we believe that Jesus will return, someday. 

     In addition to us and the earliest Christians waiting, Jesus wrote this during his time of waiting.  Each gospel is a full story of Jesus life, so in this gospel Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, Palm Sunday, and it will not be long before he is put to death.  He is waiting for his crucifixion.  That is probably my biggest problem with the lectionary, the document that has broken many passages into a 3 year cycle.  Here we are, just celebrated all Saintís day, and we are already starting to think about Advent and Christmas.  But in our lectionary year, this parable is told by Jesus just before he was killed.  Even though it appears in November, it happened just before the last supper, trial, and crucifixion. 

     I think the theme for this week is waiting.  It is hard to say ďBe prepared, Jesus is coming any time.Ē  Has not happened for almost 2,000 years.  Sure Jesus could come tomorrow, the end of the world could happen and it is always good to be prepared, but I am still planning to attend my meeting on Wednesday, I am still planning a Cub Scout pack meeting for Friday, I will still put together a bulletin and write a sermon for next Sunday.  Just statistically speaking, pretty good chance I will see you next week.

     Jesusí imminent return is difficult for most of us to entertain. Letís recognize that opportunities for waiting on Jesusí presence are all around us. Each time we work for justice, we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we bear each otherís burdens, we testify to Jesusí presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.

     We all know waiting, and we are good at it.  You are all waiting for the search committee to find a new settled pastor.  I am waiting to see where God will lead me next.  Both my parents have had medical tests recently, and we are waiting on the results.  Tonight my son is coming back from a confirmation trip to Atlanta and I will be waiting for his arrival at the airport. 

     And waiting is commonly associated with worrying. Will you get a good settled pastor, will I end up at a church that has serious problems, will my parentsí tests turn out OK, will my son arrive on the plane safely, having had a good time? 

     But our bridesmaids do not seem to be worried.  They all fall asleep.  Do you remember when you were really young, maybe 5, 6, 7 years old?  Christmas eve, you maybe get home from church, or dinner with family, the tree has lights on, the house is all decorated, and you donít want to go to bed.  Once you are in bed, you get up to get a drink of water.  Once you are back in bed, you get up to go to the bathroom.  Once you are back in bed, you think you hear a door, or maybe a thump on the roof, and you look out your window to see what is happening.  You are excited.  Maybe some years there was worry, maybe you were not as good as you should have been, and maybe Santa would not be bringing you anything.  But much more excitement than worry, but still you donít sleep.  And many of us do not sleep well when we are worried, or stressed or have something on our minds.  

     Maybe sleeping means that you are not worried or excited.  And really when Jesus might return, we donít know and we have no control over.  Might be this afternoon, might be next week, might be years from now. 

     What do we do in the waiting time?  I think that is where the church needs to be.  We already wait with people all the time.  Have you ever visited a hospital room?  I have spent a lot of time just sitting in waiting rooms with families.  You feel pretty helpless.  The doctors or nurses are doing their things, the medicines are doing their things, and it just takes time.  And we wait until something changes. 

     But waiting does not mean we have to be still.  The church should be active in telling others about this Jesus we follow, this God who loves us and calls us to be Godís own, and this Holy Spirt that guides us in all the way do.  But even in doing, we wait for more.

     Yes, that is our role as the church. We are those who wait for each other Ė wise and foolish alike. We are those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. Thatís what it means to be Christís followers, then and now. And thatís why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.

     Although marriage has certainly changed, and this passage seems very strange to us today, the church is still here, still active and still waiting.  It is important to be prepared for the coming of Christ, could happen right now, but as you wait, continue to join together, recalling all that Jesus told and taught us, and looking forward to the day when we all join at the heavenly banquet.