Ready or Not
I grew up in a pretty messy home. I am not sure how it compared to other homes, though I wondered about this a lot, and felt a sneaking suspicion we were outstandingly untidy, like, maybe worse than everyone I knew. When you came over to our house for dinner, what you didn’t know is that several grueling hours of family scrambling went into getting things ready for you. Cleaning (which often meant stuffing things into drawers and cupboards where they couldn’t be seen), was frenzied and fraught, so that by the time you were casually welcomed in, we were exhausted and a little raw from the arguing. But you would never know it, because everything would look very nice, as long as you didn’t peek in my bedroom closet.
When we would visit other people’s houses, I would peek sometimes, in closets and cupboards, wondering if they had done the same thing we did before guests arrived, or if they lived in this state of order all the time. It was easy to tell the houses that did - I had one friend who freaked out if you set one toe on his mother’s bright white living room carpet because you might mess up the vacuum lines and she would know you had been in there. And imagining living in a house like that, in a family like that, was as foreign and fascinating as imagining living on the moon.
And so, even though we were super social and pretty spontaneous people, the very worst thing you could do to my family in the whole world was a drop in. If you stopped by unannounced, we’d open the door and invite you in, and meanwhile the hot shame would creep up into my mother’s face, and I would feel it mirrored in my own, my heart pounding hard, both of us with smiles plastered on, awkwardly acting glad to see you, but after you’d leave my mother would sometimes break down and cry, and I would feel utter humiliation– What did they think of us, seeing the house this way? And then we’d fight, and clean, and swear that next time we’d be ready.
It never once occurred to me that how things looked might not be as important to other people as it was to us, or that they might have grace for the situation, or that they were really there to see us, and not to inspect our house and how well or poorly it was kept.
All that mattered was that we felt embarrassed and lesser, unworthy of having a guest, and desperately disheartened- if only we’d had a little lead time so we could’ve been prepared!
In the parable before us today, there are foolish bridesmaids and there are wise ones. The wise ones plan ahead, they expect the unexpected – they bring along extra oil just in case the groom is delayed. The foolish bridesmaids, (somewhat ironically), take the bridegroom at his word, prepare only for what is expected, and as a result, run out of oil. They are foolish, evidently because they didn’t go above and beyond.
Lucky wise ones! Good thing for them that the bridegroom was only delayed as long as he was and not very much longer, or they would’ve been fools too! Oh, how we don’t want to be foolish! Even the very thought of being seen as foolish makes my skin crawl! I want to be wise. I want to be respected, included, worthy. How terrible to be a fool!
But, wait a minute; something is off here. Wise and foolish, smart and stupid, better and worse, where do we hear that language? That’s not Way of God language. Those categories and labels do not translate in the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom of God it’s about God’s generosity and God’s forgiveness and God’s ability to reconcile us and restore us and transform us, and never about how well we earn, or how much we deserve, what God provides.
So here they are- these fools and wise ones, and it’s their job to bring the light, to greet the groom when he comes, and to lead the way to the party. And some of them feel pretty darn proud of themselves, pretty darn wise, and others feel like total, utter fools; they’ve failed the job. Sure, he was delayed, but they were not ready for him when he came, and now their lamps have no oil. Worthless! Can’t even do the job that was given them to do! Is there anything more humiliating than being caught looking so stupid?
So they ask the others to share with them. But the others say no – because if we know one thing in this life its that there is only so much to go around, and if we don’t look out for ourselves we will be screwed, so they did what was only smart and they kept their own oil. Go buy some for yourselves! They say.
And, hang on… this too, sounds exactly like the Way of Fear and not at all like the Way of God! The way of God is abundance and not scarcity; it’s forgiveness, contribution and welcome, not judgment, competition and score-keeping.
So, those foolish bridesmaids without enough oil head to a deserted market at midnight in desperate hopes of finding some for sale somewhere, and in the process, they miss the bridegroom when he comes. And when they finally do return – (we aren’t even told if it’s with oil or empty-handed, because, spoiler alert, it’s not about the oil), the groom says, I don’t know you, and they are dismissed.
So keep awake- the parable says.
If I were to hear this parable through the filter of my childhood shame, it would say, Be ready for the drop in at any moment. Never let your guard down for a second. Keep things immaculate at all times, don’t step foot on the living room carpet, go above and beyond, because you never know when the guest of honor could show up. And what if if he caught you with a sink full of dishes and laundry piled all over the couch?
This is the first parable we’ve heard where instead of saying the kingdom of heaven is like…, it says the kingdom of heaven will be like... Instead of revealing what God is doing in and among us at this moment, it comes in a section of Matthew that groups Jesus’ teaching about the very end, about Christ’s return, about the end of the age. All the messages in the verses leading up to this parable carry a similar refrain – you don’t know when it will be over, you don’t know when the end will come. Watch for God; be ready. Pay attention. Stay awake. Be alert. It’s going to happen when you are not expecting it. Jesus is going to show up – right here in your living room, whether your house is clean or not.
But interestingly, the directive is not – so expect him when you don’t expect him, keep your house always clean so you make a good impression no matter when he comes… it’s watch for him. Be ready to welcome the bridegroom.
In my twenties I met a family whom I grew to love, who loved the drop in. They wanted people to stop by any time. And they were completely intriguing to me, because they didn’t need to have the house perfect in order to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee with you. They had young kids, and in fact, the house was often a mess, but it didn’t stop them for a second being present and hospitable, making you feel welcome and like the best part of their day whole day just may this moment when you dropped in. It was absolutely novel to me – I had never considered before that instead of being totally prepared, with the clutter hidden away, homemade muffins on the table, and the fresh vacuum lines in the rug, hospitality could mean encountering another, seeing and hearing and welcoming another, meeting them just as they are and just as you are- however that is in the moment.
Keep you lamps trimmed and burning, we say. Make sure you have it all together because you never know when God might drop in. But perhaps we’ve been reading this through the lens that these very parables are made to confront, and the church has fallen prey to the same anxiety that dictates everything in the way of fear, and we’ve spent centuries off and on, painting God with the brush of judgment and threat to fit our way of competition and scarcity, so we hear this message that way, and write hymns and anthems that present this message that way, until the good news of God’s grace gets buried underneath another layer of pressure and guilt and striving – do better, don’t mess up, get it right, try harder, go above and beyond, or you will be left out of the party altogether, and it will be as though God doesn’t even know you.
The truth is, the parable raises up all of these anxieties and then doesn’t say have it all together, doesn’t say, so don’t let your lamp go out, it says keep awake. Watch for Jesus, and let him see you when he comes.
It’s not about how together you’ve got it and how full your lamp is when the moment arrives. If it was about the oil, he would’ve said, Oh good, you found some oil after all. Come on in, then. Or, sorry, no oil, you substandard lamp-bearers. What inferior, inadequate bridesmaids you’ve turned out to be, not keeping your lamps lit properly. You are not worthy to be in this party. But instead he says, Who are you? I don’t know you. I came and you were not here. It’s not about the oil. It’s about the relationship. It’s about the bridegroom. It’s about being there to meet him.
So, hooray if you can be prepared when the drop in happens, when the bridegroom arrives. More points for you- if you’re keeping track of that sort of thing. But if you can’t be prepared, for whatever reason, show up anyway. Let him see you as you are. Be ready to welcome him whether you are “ready” or not.
We can only burn so long before we burn out. Can only wait so long before we get drowsy. We can only carry so much oil before we run out. None of us can go above and beyond in perpetuity, be prepared for company at every moment, be ready to impress and perform at the drop of a hat. And we have no idea, it says, when God will show up. In fact, the truth is, God shows up all the time, every day, and more often than not, we miss it.
And while some of us may have full lamps, may be in a position to share and give, may be able to light the way to the party for others, others of us will have planned poorly, or will be falling apart at the moment. And if that’s the case, the very worst thing we can do is go running off to frantically patch together some futile way of looking like we have it all together.
Stay put. The parable advises. Stay put, and watch for the bridegroom. And even if your lamp has gone out, greet him when he arrives, and come with him to the party. Meet him in the vulnerability of your reality – light or no light, stockpiled goodness, or bone dry and exhausted – come what may, be ready for Jesus when he shows up.
This is not a competition. And it’s not a solo act. There is no room for the way of fear when the way of God comes to be all in all. There is enough light to lead the way for each other; there is enough light to welcome the bridegroom all together. Even if all of our lamps went out – he is the light of the world! And we are all supposed to show up, just as we are; however we are.
This is an end times parable, a reminder of the promise that the bridegroom is coming and you can’t stop it from happening. And when the time comes for the everlasting party, some of us will be lucky enough to be in a good place at the moment, to have our stuff together, so much so that we’re able to pay attention to the job we’ve been given which is to raise our lantern and light the way.
But if that’s the case, God forbid we become too enamored with our own superiority at having brought more oil than the schmuck next to us. God help us, if instead of seeing our contribution in spreading light for all to walk by, we get consumed with how our oil supply stacks up against someone else’s, even going so far as to convince them they need to scramble, to get it together like us, in order to be acceptable to God. Lord have mercy if we were to send someone away instead of reminding them to stay put – reminding them who it is that we are meeting after all.
And when the time comes, some of us will be tapped out and spent, exposed messes and afraid that we are not worthy, and we’ll feel really foolish and stupid. And we’ll look at the ones who seem to have it together and think, along with them, that they are worthy, wise and smart and the only way to be welcomed in is if we figure out quickly how to be like them.
But hear this: both these things, wise and worthy, foolish and unworthy- are a lie. They are words of fear and not part of the new reality breaking in. Because, really, for all of us, it’s about Jesus. As we said on Transfiguration Sunday when the dust settles, it’s only Jesus. Jesus who brings healing, Jesus who lifts up the weak and comforts the despairing and one day will wipe every tear from our eye when death and sorrow and shame will be no more.
And he’s coming. All the time, every day, and one day for good, he is coming. So keep awake, watch for him. Let’s help each other watch for him. And let’s welcome him in; just as we are, and let him welcome us, ready or not.