The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

December 15, 2002
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

PRAYER "The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids" Mat 25:1-13

In this season of lights we are brought to remember to replenish our little lights at the Source of light, lest we burn out.

Our preparation for what life has in store for us need not be extensive, but basic. Let us remember to keep our inner lamps filled with the oil of gladness and faith, to make time for reflection and renewal, to do small things with great care, to be willing to see what is clearly illuminated for us, and always to be willing to change or respond as necessary.

We are life's lovers, bridesmaids wedded to wonder, bridesgrooms eager to take the world into our arms. May our lamps illuminate a peaceful center of being. Amen.

HOMILY "Keeping Oil In Our Lamps" Victoria Weinstein

I appreciate Bernadette Nadeau's passion in bringing the Bach Cantata to us this morning, and the choir's commitment in sharing this glorious music with us.

It occurs to me in this season how important it is to acknowledge the gifts we receive that are not material but are gifts of presence rather than presents: people willing to be present to each other in the sharing of beauty, warm and sustaining conversation and simple friendship. "Mein Freund is mein." Yesterday I spent some of the afternoon at the Wrentham Outlet mall shlepping around in the rain. I can't pretend that I felt much of a spirit of joy or grace happening there. Not much fun. Not much being in the moment. I bought a bunch of stuff and drove home, and then later that evening I had the pleasure of sitting in the James Library hearing Jacqueline Schwab play the piano and talk about the songs she so clearly loved and which she so cleverly and tenderly interpreted. What she gave us was not a thing but a moment; a gift of her love of music. As we know, we cannot take things with us into the recesses of our hearts. Moments we can. And do. This brings to mind one of my favorite lyrics from Stephen Sondheim:

"Best to take the moment present
As a present for the moment."

I had intended today's sermon to be an encouraging word to help us all put some brakes on the crazy holiday runaway train. I hope you will feel free to do that - feel that you can put some limits around what you expect of yourself emotionally and otherwise as the earth spins and moves back to longer days and shorter nights - can you believe that the winter solstice is this coming Saturday? The wheel turns.

I hope that as you prepare gifts for various people in your life, you will also consider "ungiving" them something. Perhaps you might ungive an old grudge or judgment against them. Perhaps you might ungive fond expectation you have for your relationship with someone dear to you and save yourself some future heartache by accepting them as they are. The spiritual discipline of "ungiving" is tough and I don't recommend you try it without serious consideration. However, you may just find that it will be the most cherished gift you ever gave.

Because it's such an important opportunity, though, I want to speak briefly about this intriguing parable which Johann Sebastian Bach has used for the setting of his cantata we are hearing today. This is a sexy little item, a wonderful example of how we can speak of love of the universe in erotic terms, and therefore in very human terms. As Mary Oliver wrote in a poem which I shared with you on All Souls Sunday, 'I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms." That's a beautiful expression of the way the mystics have always urged us to be in love with our existence and with creation.

Jesus uses the parable of the ten virgins/bridesmaids as a cautionary tale. How, he is asking. will you be prepared to meet the holiness in your life? Are you paying attention? Are you keeping oil in your lamp so that when life beckons you into intimate relationship, you will be able to see where you're going? Or are you stumbling in the dark and relying on your sisters to give you the oil they themselves will need for their own journey?

(Taken literally, I find this parable to be interesting for our times as it points out the dangers of depending on someone else's oil!)

Jesus's era was heavily populated with apocalyptic messengers and messiah wanna-bes preaching about the end times and claiming to be the prophet of the Judgment Day. So in the first century you would have understood that the parable of the ten bridesmaids was an effort to impress upon you the need for preparedness for the end of the world, which was really coming any minute. Eventually, when the end didn't come, Jesus' followers had to make a different kind of sense of these stories (except for those guys in Times Square, frothing at the mouth and shouting with megaphones -living out that first century apocalyptic tradition). No matter -- "Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour" is an admonition that makes sense all the time, not just in the end times.

I am sad today for two men who haven't been spiritually awake, although given their leadership roles they should have been -- and who very publicly haven't kept oil in their lamps in order to encounter life as the beloved bride encounters her bridegroom. I am thinking of Bernard Law more so than Trent Lott, although both men have had fairly spectacular falls from grace very recently.

Bernard Law's resignation will hopefully allow the Catholic church in America and particularly in the Boston archdiocese to move forward after this particularly horrible year that the revealed depravity and sinfulness of a small but terribly damaging minority of priests over many decades. Trent Lott can never undo the damage to his reputation and people's trust he caused himself by suggesting that racial segregation - apartheid - was and is a policy our nation should have embraced.

On one hand we can rejoice that there is such a thing as accountability and that we hope none are exempt from recognizing their responsibility in the network of relationships that makes claims upon us all. On the other hand I find it depressing and demoralizing to see how far from healthy, loving and responsible are some of those we need to be able to trust. I do grieve for these men - for everything thy carry on their conscience; we hope that they will find new ways of being in relationship with other human beings. We pray for them a an opportunity for true renewal.

The moral of this story for all our times is that we don't know the day or the hour that any of us might be caught unprepared just as the spirit of love and justice is moving among us, needing us to respond rather than to hide away in darkness of self-protection and delusion. I believe in human evolution and I believe that God is the impulse that moves us toward wholeness, goodness and mercy. This God will not be mocked. The instinct toward moral improvement has a life of its own and though it works through human institutions and through individuals, it is not and never shall be contained or controlled by any creed or any earthly power. Part of our responsibility as human beings is to remain attentive to this sacred force and to be able to respond to it. That is keeping oil in our lamps.

"The kingdom of heaven will be like this." so Jesus starts his story. In our tradition, we teach that the kingdom of heaven is not something that breaks through at one point in time, through a supernatural event. We teach that the kingdom of heaven is unfolding all the time, through each of us who is willing to help birth it. So keep awake, friends. Keep awake and attentive, for the kingdom of heaven is always in need of you.