“You know not the day or the hour.”
Was Jesus just trolling 2020? “You know not the day or the hour.” This may have been one of the longest weeks in my memory. Yesterday, when the news came out about Biden’s win, I was standing right here. We were in the last moments of an online Memorial Service for Pete Dean.
At the reception afterward on Zoom, his grandson told me: “The news broke as the service was ending. You said ‘the peace of the Lord be always with you,’ and I got a message on my phone that Biden had won.” One of Pete’s lifelong friends chimed in, “As a lifelong Democrat, Pete would have thought that exactly right.” You do not know the day or the hour.
The wait this week was long. Feels like Tuesday night was a month ago. And today we encounter a story from Jesus about time.
Jesus tells a seemingly simple story about wise and foolish bridesmaids. Some come prepared for the wait, others are left out in the dark. Be like the wise bridesmaids, Jesus exhorts his disciples. Keep awake.
Except the story Jesus told wasn’t literally about staying awake. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep in the parable. The bridesmaids who make it into the banquet also slept. Wisdom it turns out, is not about sleeplessness.
We know about sleeplessness in this country. We know about worry. I wonder how many cumulative hours many of us slept this week. I know I was restless.
But faith tells us “being awake” has another dimension. I want play for a moment with these wise bridesmaids. I want to ask, what is spiritual about their seemingly small decision to bring the extra oil? Why does this small act matter? To dig in, we have to talk for a moment about first century weddings.
The definition of marriage has shifted a great deal in the last two millennia, thank God. But in the time of Jesus, brides were usually purchased. Women were the property of men. Wedding parties were elaborate multi-day festivities, but they began with a negotiation. Before the feast, before the bridegroom processed to the banquet hall, there was bargaining to be done. The price for the bride needed to be set.
Scholars tell us that the parable’s “bridesmaids” were most likely members of the bridegroom’s family. They would have waited outside until the deal was settled to follow their relative into the banquet and greet his new wife. Knowing this background, the wise bridesmaid interaction reads differently.
Some of these particular women know their kinsman well enough to think through the evening’s likely events: “With this guy we might want to have some extra midnight oil. He doesn’t value women; he’ll have to be brought around to a higher price. The negotiation might drag on. Better bring the backup.” (This reading might also explain why the jerk won’t let the other women into the banquet later.)
Could we read this Gospel less as some arbitrary final judgement? I’ve told you before, I think we jump to read stories like this looking for who Jesus condemns. I understand why. The church has been quick to condemn all sorts of people.
This morning I would encourage you, let go of the anxiety about who is cast out. Jesus didn’t share our ideas of heaven and hell, that’s something the church invented later. Let’s focus on the exhortation, “be like the wise women.”
The wise bridesmaids have not simply prepared ahead, they’ve thought about their context. These women are awake in a specific way to their time. They are conscious of the power dynamics in their society, and in their own family. The idea of women as chattel for sale in marriage should make your skin crawl. As I said, our idea of marriage has changed. But The women in Jesus’ story lived with that reality if power. They were awake to the reality they faced. They knew the dynamics well.
Jesus seems to be advocating a specific kind of awareness. Jesus encouraged his followers to develop cultivated consciousness toward the dynamics of economics, gender, and power. Here in our day, in our city, we would add race, class, immigration status, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation…
Be awake, awake to the systems of power. Know the structures of injustice.
If you are celebrating yesterday’s news, if yesterday you breathed one giant sigh of relief, if you feel you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, Jesus would invite you, stay awake. Stay awake to the coalition of people who worked together. Stay awake to the black women leaders whose votes carried us here. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment, recognizing the right of black men to vote. This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, recognizing the votes of women. Black women in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, in Detroit and Milwaukee, overwhelmed voter suppression and carried our president and vice-president elect home.
If you are celebrating what WE have done this election, if you are celebrating that WE have made a statement, that WE have stood up for science, and compassion, and democracy, don’t let go of that WE. Wake up. Remember that WE depended on the votes of black women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled people, and immigrants. The next time you hear a community activist in North City St. Louis say WE need you to stand with us for police reform, WE need more funding for schools, remember whose votes you depended on this week. Remember this WE.
You know what, remember this WE, even if you voted the other way. These last four years have been full of emboldened hate. The way to healing is paved by listening to those who have been hurt. The way of love is the way of accompanying those who suffer. No matter how you voted, you can learn to take the votes and voices of the marginalized more seriously. Start today.
I told you last week, no matter who wins the election, we will have would to do. Friends, we still have work to do. Especially in Missouri, especially in Missouri, we have work to do.
But this is a sermon, not a political speech. We claim to follow Jesus. This parable tells us about the kingdom of God, the reign of love, the beloved community. Jesus asks us to be like the wise bridesmaids, awake to systems of power, and Jesus always invites us to be awake to God’s presence.
Dr. Howard Thurman was a mentor to Dr. King, and he was known as the mystic of the Civil Rights movement. He told activists young and old to “find the sound of the genuine” in themselves. Find the sound of the genuine. Pastor Otis Moss of Chicago, interprets Thurman’s phrase this way: “discover what makes you come alive and the encounter with the spirit, the encounter with silence, the encounter with God, and that God is a God of justice.”
Jesus says, “keep awake,” Thurman might translate, “come alive. Stay attuned to the sound of the genuine.”
We are a people of faith, and let me tell you a secret: Spirituality is not about accumulating hours of prayer for the sake of appearing holy. Spirituality isn’t just about Sunday morning. Spirituality is about deepening. Spirituality is about deepening your listening to the world, to your neighbor, deepening your examination of structures of power. Spirituality is about deepening your listening for the voice of God, for the voice of the Spirit, for the “sound of the genuine” in your life.
That deepening of listening, to the world, to the Spirit, produces another deepening. It deepens our commitments. Keep those lamps trimmed. Keep the oil filled to the brim, because the world needs you. The world needs you to be alive, awake, prepared. Your neighbor needs you to be grounded, ready to love, and ready to put love into action by working for justice.
Jesus was looking for followers who were willing to love God through loving their neighbors. Jesus was looking for folks who were willing to stand sentinel for the coming of the reign of love.
This week, Tuesday, a number of folks from our congregation stood guard for their neighbor, they brought chairs to the polls, to help folks wait. They brought water for voters standing in long lines in the sun. They concretely loved on their neighbors this week. You made your rector proud. We’ve got work to do in the months ahead to expand this kind of work.
Today let me say: friends, it has been a long week. I’m tired. You’re tired.
Jesus isn’t saying not to rest. Jesus wants you to rest. Because Jesus is challenging us all to grow deeper, deeper in our listening, deeper in our spirituality, deeper in our commitment to the work of loving our neighbor. May God grant us depth to meet this moment.