‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today, I feel a lot like a foolish bridesmaid who is fresh out of oil. I don’t even know for sure what the oil is meant to represent in this parable, but I’ve come to appreciate more and more that these are not straight allegories, but stories meant to draw us in, stories meant to be held in our hand like a jewel that refracts the light a bit differently each time we turn it for another view. And today, this week, as I read it, I feel deep in my bones that I am out of fuel and I don’t know how to light my own lamp.
Part of it is that, like the foolish bridesmaids, I didn’t think ahead. I didn’t plan for the long haul. I have been a reactionary social justice warrior who often waits until there’s another crisis to respond with my attention and energy. Because until injustice makes a headline, I’ve kept it at the bottom of my to-do list. I have failed in so many ways to do the long hard work of unpacking my prejudices and biases, of listening to the voices of marginalized people as a regular practice in my everyday life. So when another Black person is killed at the hands of the police (which happened last Friday in Vancouver), when immigrant children are detained in our own county by ICE (which is happening right now in Cowlitz County’s own juvenile detention center), when I realize that I’ve gotten swept up in the myth of white American exceptionalism and I feel shock that our democracy could indeed crumble with modern threats of fascism, I confess that I am not prepared to meet this moment. I come up empty. Out of oil. Woefully underprepared as the shout comes in the night that the bridegroom has arrived.
But I also feel like I’m out of oil in the sense that my soul energy is low. We have been doing this pandemic thing for so long and it is hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, I am caring for myself in all the usual ways I know how. And still. Perhaps you feel it too. I wonder if you feel it as you log into the trillionth Zoom call of your week, desperately thankful for the connection but aware that it doesn’t come close to giving you the feeling of community you long for. I wonder if you feel it as you look at your holiday plans and realize that there may be no way to safely refresh in the physical presence of your family. I wonder if sleeping soundly feels like a faint memory while dragging yourself out of bed is the new normal. I wonder if you feel it as election results reveal once again just how far white voters will go to cling to the machinations of white supremacy. Coming up empty. Out of oil. Not even a flicker left in our lamps to catch a glimpse of the bridegroom’s face.
And so I get why those 5 bridesmaids started frantically looking for an oil-dealer when they came up short. I wonder if they were embarrassed about how unprepared they were to meet the moment, so they thrust themselves into activities to try and save face. Debie Thomas, who I’m sure you’re sick of me quoting so often these days, says it well: “I get how hard it is to stick around when my “light” is fading and my reserves are low. I get what it’s like to scramble for perfection, to insist on having my ducks in a row before I show up in front of God, or the church, or the world. After all, it’s scary and vulnerable-making to linger in the dark when my pitiful little lamp is flickering, my once-robust faith is evaporating, and my measly, leaky flask is filled with nothing but doubt and pain and grief and weariness.” (Debie Thomas, JOURNEY WITH JESUS A WEEKLY WEBZINE FOR THE GLOBAL CHURCH, SINCE 2004)
But there is good news. In the midst of our failures, our exhaustion, and our flickering lamps, we can rewrite the ending of this parable. Perhaps one of the invitations in this text is to refuse to leave, to disengage, or to hide in a search for face-saving oil when we find ourselves completely unprepared for the present moment. What if what our God wants from us is not the oil that proves we did things right before, but instead our presence, as unprepared and tired and woefully lacking as we are?
It’s interesting to me that when the shout comes out at midnight that the bridegroom has suddenly arrived, the command is not to make sure you’ve got enough oil. The command is to come out and meet the bridegroom. And at the end of the parable, the lesson is not “rush off to get some oil to prove what a good person you’ve been this whole time,” but instead “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keep awake so that you can show up in whatever state you find yourself in. Keep awake so that you can get in on this party before the door closes. Because the bridegroom Jesus invited you to this party of liberation, and whether you are ready or not, what he wants the most is his whole family with him at the feasting table. And that includes you. Don’t let any of the feelings you have about failing to be ready in this moment stop you from joining the celebration that is about to ensue.
The reckless grace of God is an open door to an all-out celebration, but with flickering lamps, we’re going to need a way to get through this night to find it if we want to be on time. As anti-racism activist Marie Beecham shared recently online, this present moment is not a finish line, it is a starting point. And if you are like me, with no oil in your lamp, the next right thing to do is follow in the way of the ones who did plan for the long haul and packed oil for the journey.
Who are those people? They are the ones Jesus called “blessed” earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness. In short, the ones to follow are the ones closest to the pain in our society, those whose beloveds are killed in disproportionate numbers by the police, those who have no stable place to lay their heads, those whose basic rights can be taken away by the highest courts in our land, those whose lives were under attack prior to 2016, when deportations were at an all-time high, when Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Michael Brown and so many more Black siblings were murdered at the hands of white supremacy, when the waters of Flint, Michigan were poisoned. The ones to follow are people like the countless Black women organizers who have been working for decades to make sure non-white voters have access to their basic rights as Americans, because they have known that the beast of voter suppression has been mighty from day one in this country. Because they have always known that this work is a long road where much oil will be required.
You might know you’ve found that voice to listen to if it tells you to challenge the white supremacist foundations of an institution that has always served your interests. You might know you’ve found that voice to listen to if you feel defensiveness in your body when the way your privilege is called out makes you uncomfortable. You might know you’ve found that voice to listen to if it sounds like a modern version of the prophets witnessing throughout our holy scriptures about how our love of wealth and power has caused us to trample on the poor. Step into that pool of light from their lanterns, even and especially when the pain of seeing your failures hits hard. For these voices are closest to the pain, they are closest to the cross, and they are closest to the way forward that leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to resurrection life at the Bridegroom’s table.
And if you’re like me, showing up late and unprepared, don’t demand that their oil become your own by forcing them to do things on your schedule or according to your level of comfort. Instead, approach with listening humility. Find ways to follow in their footsteps on the path to liberation.
The kin-dom of heaven is like a party where the most important thing to the bridegroom is that you show up to celebrate, disheveled and empty as you may be. Keep awake, dear friends. Come greet our Jesus who has shown up at this midnight hour. Because his light is more than enough for you. Amen.