‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
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Let me tell you, sermon writing was tough this week. I sat down to start writing on Tuesday and after a couple sentences, it hit me—there is no way I’ll be able to write anything at this point. Everything was so tenuous, so up in the air. I gave up that day. I sat down to write on Wednesday. Things felt somehow more tenuous and stranger that morning, if that was possible. Didn’t write at all that day either. As the week progressed, as things about our nation’s situation became slowly, incrementally clearer, I wrote it fits and spurts.
Now church, this is not my usual style. I like my routines; I like a schedule. Generally speaking, I get chunks of it done in the mornings early in the week, so I was very much out of my comfort zone this week. I think though, that I was in good company. I think we were probably all a little out of our comfort zones over the past few days. The waiting, the giving up, the getting excited, the getting disappointed—the emotional roller coaster that makes time feel like nothing, that makes time feel like everything.
One theological cliché I’ve always actually really loved is “God’s time is not our time.” It’s always made me feel more at peace, more able to take a deep breath, and recognize that the timeline that God works with is something we’ll never understand. It’s something over which we have no control. In my note to the congregation a few weeks back, I wrote about how I’m thankful to have a laid-back Southern Californian husband who balances my sometimes tightly wound Northeast anxiety, who helps me to take deep breaths about things we have no control over—which, in turn, helps me to accept God’s time. It can sometimes make me feel a little powerless, but also very humbled; and it makes me feel strangely at ease…
…but not too at ease. I don’t want to end up be locked out of the wedding party in the dark.
When I was researching for this sermon this week, flipping through all my different books on the parables I was reminded of the fact that these stories are often a mix of this mystical sounding ambiguous language combined with earthly, common events or items—in this case, lamps, light, oil, the basics they needed in Jesus’ day to make their way through life. The theologian Dan O. Via says that this helps us change our thinking, by helping us realize that though we cannot fully know God, we can still experience God in our everyday lives, be more aware of God in our everyday lives. That, and this is a quote from Via’s book, “these images, placed in their new configurations of meaning, call us out of our chronological preoccupations.” Isn’t that a great statement? The parables are ‘calling out of our chronological preoccupations.’
I don’t know about you all, but lately, I have been bogged down with my chronological preoccupations. And not just around the elections. This whole pandemic time—doesn’t it just feel like time doesn’t make sense anymore? There are so many scandals and news stories happening in the span of a week, it makes the week feel so much longer, and yet, at the same time, the months just seem to be flying by with no time to take a step back and breath! It’s disorienting, and therefore so easy to get overwhelmed by so much happening in our time. I woke up Thursday morning this week and immediately texted my friends, ‘How did I wake up to no new news?!’ I reloaded my Twitter feed constantly all week, hoping for a hint of certainty, thinking that surely something momentous has happened in the 3 minutes since I last reloaded.
I wonder what I was missing when I was so preoccupied. I wonder what I’ve missed while staring at this screen and that screen. What do we miss when we’re distracted with day-to-day inanities? When we become consumed by these distractions, by these daily societal stressors, we’re left with limited capacity to do good. We’re left feeling empty and burnt out. Maybe we sometimes feel a little helpless. When we’re feeling like this, we forget. We forget our oil and we’re left in the dark.
There were times over this past week when I was overwhelmed with numbers. Distressed at the fact that this many more people voted for that, this group of people voted for this guy, these counties went this way, this percentage voted in favor of that… and with so much happening this week, I definitely wasn’t on my A-game. I was functional enough, sure, but I was tired, distracted. Had I been in that wedding party described in today’s scripture passage, I’m not sure I would’ve thought to bring the extra oil. I might have just shrugged, done the bare minimum, and hoped it’d all work out, hoped I could make my way through the dark.
Church, this world doesn’t make it easy. The constant deluge of information and news and scandals makes it near impossible to make sure we’re paying attention to the world immediately around us, a world not on our screens; a world in which we are aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters; this world makes it so hard to be truly prepared. Every time my phone buzzed, every time I opened my computer to some kind of news update, I felt nervous. I felt caught off guard. I lost track of the days this week, I was forgetting appointment and meeting dates and times… truly, I felt unprepared.
But unprepared for what? I’m not sure, but that’s kind of the whole point. This parable begins with “…the kingdom of Heaven will be like this…” But then we’re given a story set in the mortal realm, set in our world. Because church, maybe we can’t truly know God, as I talked about in my sermon a couple weeks ago. And maybe we won’t know when Jesus will come again or what it will be like, but Jesus tells the parables this way so that we know that as we wait for the time, Jesus is with us. Jesus is guiding us. God’s time might not make a lot of sense to us, but we’re along for the ride, accepting the timeline we’re given, and working with what we got.
And as this country begins a time of transition, we have to remain prepared. Some of us may feel relieved, some of us may be upset. But regardless of where our feelings lie, there is always work to be done. For those of us who are relieved, we cannot be complacent, we cannot lose sight of the problems that are deeply entrenched in this country that take more than a few votes in one direction to fix. I’ve seen a lot of memes and “jokes,” saying things like, “I want Biden to win so we can go to brunch again.” I don’t mean to be a killjoy (I love a good eggs benedict and strong bloody Mary as much as the next person), but I really dislike this kind of joke, I just don’t find it funny. If this election has shown us anything, it’s that there is so much work to be done. There is so much division in this country. When this pandemic is over, sure let’s enjoy a good brunch out once in a while, but let’s not lose sight of the healing that absolutely needs to happen, and that will take a lot of effort. And for those who are upset, we can’t lose sight of the fact that even in the midst of heartache or frustration or anger, we have to overcome that, to put it aside when we can to continue to help those around us, to continue to do the work Jesus wants us to do.
By continuing to do the work Jesus asks of us—by not letting complacency and brunch or anger and exhaustion take over and leave us unprepared for what comes next, we will not be left in the dark.
I know I’ve really been trying to fight this overwhelm and exhaustion from beating me down. A few weeks ago, I read an amazing memoir called The Undying by the poet Anne Boyer—the book is a cancer memoir, about Boyer’s diagnosis of a very aggressive breast cancer and her harrowing experience of intensive chemo. She writes extensively of the fatigue and exhaustion caused by her treatment, and despite her deeply personal and unique experience, she describes exhaustion in a way that really spoke to me, and I would wager a guess that a lot of us can relate right now. Boyer writes, “Exhaustion is boring, requires no genius, is democratic in practice, lacks fans.”
None of us are fans of exhaustion. None of us want to be tired, exhausted, overwhelmed. None of us want to be experiencing continued pandemic fatigue, election fatigue. But I think we’re all feeling it a little bit. I think we’re all susceptible to this kind of all encompassing, democratic exhaustion right now.
And when we are consumed by this exhaustion—this thing, this entity that affects us all, that is everywhere right now—we can become foolish. We lose sight of what we need to be doing to prepare for a better world, and to bring Christ’s love and peace to this world. Maybe this exhaustion comes out of relief and complacency, or sadness and anger, but as Boyer writes, this exhaustion is democratic, it does not discriminate. And when we let the negative distractions of the world overtake us, we get lost, and we won’t be ready to do the work when Jesus calls us. We’ll be caught off guard, and we’ll be shut out. Now I don’t necessarily believe that this means we won’t ultimately be welcomed into Heaven when the time comes—talk about the salvation and the second coming of Jesus is a whole can of worms I’m not going to get into right now.
What I do believe though, is that while we’re here on this earth, while we’re dealing with all the stressors and distractions that take us away from the works we should be doing, we have to work so hard to be present. I don’t know if any of you watched the tv show the Good Place (it’s a comedy about the afterlife), but one of the plot points of that sitcom is that things on earth have just gotten so complicated and horrible that it is literally impossible for people to get into the Good Place when they die, no matter how many good deeds they may have done in their lives—the system is broken. I think about that a lot—think of how broken and divided right now, with so many distractions and so many temptations, and so much to be angry at. It sometimes feels impossible that anyone could be good enough—that anyone would be as ready and on top of things as one of those wise bridesmaids who is welcomed into this metaphorical wedding banquet.
But Church—the good news is, we have each other. We can hold each other accountable; we need to hold each other accountable. Divided and alone, there’s no way we can prepare enough for the future. Distracted and exhausted, there’s no way we can be ready when that day or the hour comes. I’m so tired. I’m tired of being taken aback, of not feeling ready for what’s next. This world makes it hard to keep awake and be aware of God’s presence that is around us always.
No, God’s time is not our time. But we can get a glimpse of what God’s time in paradise will be like. We can get a taste of Godly time through Jesus and through doing the good works Jesus teaches us of continuing to love our neighbors, of continuing the build up all those around us. We do this when we’re able to step away from our chronological preoccupations, when we’re able to wake up from the exhaustion and overwhelm that can consume us in this world. And we will never be left in the dark. We will always have our extra oil. Because we have Jesus, and we have each other. And together, we will heal.