United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"The Waiting Game"
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Sunday, November 8, 2020 

        *Sometimes I do not appreciate God’s sense of humor.  To be preaching on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids this week seems both uncanny and deeply pointed.  For the Bridesmaids story is about waiting.  Of course, Jesus intended us to hear it as a story of the kingdom of heaven:  “Now the kingdom of heaven will be like this…”  But this week, it has been the story of our lives.

        *We all know what it is like to wait for the results of medical testing, or to wait for an important phone call, to wait for Christmas morning, or to wait to find out who is going to be President of the United States.  And no doubt about it, waiting is hard.  Especially, say the psychologists, for us as Americans.  We are wired to expect everything right away.  And so, the idea of having to be in a state of suspended animation makes us anxious, and reaching for something to calm us (pick your favorite).

        So let’s hear what this parable might have to say to us today.

        *The first thing I noticed, (I remembered), is that “waiting” isn’t just found in this parable.  In fact, the first part of Advent every year has us reading passages that talk about watching and waiting, about longing while waiting (“Come Thou Long-expected Jesus”), about life in between the coming of Jesus and his coming again. 

        *So even though we rail at any forced waiting—if we were really honest, waiting is normal, even expected.  You get pregnant, but have to wait to have the baby and become parents.  You have to wait to be a certain age to drive, to vote, to drink, to run for federal office, to retire, to go on MediCare.  In pre-pandemic times we had to wait in grocery lines, traffic jams, and doctor’s offices.  Sometimes that waiting was with excited anticipation, like New Year’s Eve.  Sometimes it is filled with irritation and dread, like waiting for this pandemic to be over.  I guess what this musing has led me to, is to underscore that waiting is part of human life.  We should stop complaining about the fact that we need to wait, and figure out the more important factor:  How we wait.  

        *Reading this parable in the wake of the 2020 Election made me see it in a slightly different light.  This is not a story of wide margins—like the story where Jesus heals ten lepers and only 1 comes back to thank him (and Jesus wonders “Where are the other 9?”).  This is a story split right down the middle, kind of like a divided country.

        *So, whatever camp you find yourself in—“wise” or “foolish” is the way the story defines the camps—you will not be alone.  This is at least comforting to those who think they are in the solitary game of being “wise”—not so, there are others!  And in this technologically advanced world, there are ways of finding and being connected to those others.  Yet, the story also warns that just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean that it is the “wise” thing to do.

        *And so what is it that we are “to do?”  How do we translate the bridesmaids experience into our own world?  I noticed everyone is invited to the banquet.  We are in the world of the invited guests, even the bridal party.  There are no haves and have nots here.  There is no wall keeping some out and some in (at the beginning of the story).  All are invited, all are given a place of honor, all have lamps, and all have to wait.

        *But the wise bridesmaids took extra oil with them, along with their lamps.  Extra oil.  To get extra oil means that you have to have thought ahead.  You had to have planned for the unexpected, and make time in your schedule to go to the store to buy extra oil, and made sure you had a flask to carry it in, and even though you were dressed up for a banquet, you had to carry your lamp, and your extra oil with you.

        *I know that when I’ve preached on this passage before it’s been with a personal thrust.  How are we prepared for the banquet?  What does that require of us personally—might the oil be a life of prayer, a life doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God?  Today, I’m widening my perspective.  What does this story tell us about how to play the waiting game as a church right here and now?

        *I have to admit that I have had a hard time this week.  I’ve been close to being elated, I’ve been down in the dumps, I’ve felt nauseous, I’ve prepared to “gird my loins for battle,” I’ve been impatient, I’ve been exhausted, I’ve prayed and yelled at God, I have cried with joy, and relief, I’m not sure I’ve been a “wise” bridesmaid.   

        *Because I thought we were in a 1 in 10 situation when it really is 50/50.  I was struck by a comment I read in the Washington Post by an African-American woman about the stark divide in our country.  She said something to the effect, (and if I could find the story I would quote her by name), “The country is starting to understand what we (African-Americans) have known for a long time.  This country has a lot of work to do.”

        *As I pondered Jesus’ story earlier this week, I came to terms with the fact that even though the waiting for who won this election will soon be over (and now is!), there will be other waitings to come.  Not the least of these, the waiting for the completion of the kingdom in our world.

        *So, maybe it is not as important to try to delineate what the oil is in our lives, as to point to an attitude.  I think when I envision the “foolish” bridesmaids, I imagine people who are just willing to let the chips fall where they may.  I imagine people who think they have no need to look into the future, no need to put any extra effort into anything, no need to predict roadblocks and brainstorm alternatives and train to be fit mentally and physically and spiritually.  I guess I see the “foolish” bridesmaids as lazy, kind of like the grasshoppers in the famous Aesop fable.  Where during the summer the grasshoppers "ate, drank, and were merry” while the poor ants gathered food for the winter.

        *What I am hearing from this parable is that we need to stop focusing on how much waiting we are doing, and start planning how we are going to live during the waiting game.  Are we willing to plan for the future?  Are we willing to put in the work regardless of the immediate results?  I think of the steady “on the ground” presence and the long-game planning of politicians like Stacy Abrams and Jaime Harrison.  I think of *those haunting words from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s last speech, now 52 years ago “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” (April 3, 1968)

        *Now that we know who will be the next President, it does not solve all our problems.  It does not change the fact that the United States of America is far from the kingdom of heaven.  It does not make us too much closer to our Matthew 25 pledge—to be a vital congregation working to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty.  We are still “waiting” for the Bridegroom to come. 

        *I am glad to know that there are sisters and brothers to help us on our journey.  I am glad to know that it is alright for everyone to get some sleep.  I am glad to know that the Bridegroom does eventually come. 

        *But the last part of the parable is a warning.  There are consequences to our actions or non-actions.  This is hard to hear when we preach a gospel of grace and forgiveness.  This was something we wanted to stress to the young people at Bible *Palooza last week—a virtual Sunday School lesson on Prayer that UPC participated in, along with Bloomfield Church on the Green and Irvington Pres.  We wanted to make sure the point was made, every time we say we are sorry, God forgives us. 

        *And since I was working with the youngest break-out session, the 4-7 year olds, we had some fun with this—by making a gesture for “I’m sorry” leading into “Forgiveness.” (Do gesture, I’m sorry, and spring up, Forgiveness).  Let’s all try it.  Of course, we can’t think that this is a vending machine God.  God’s grace is not cheap, nor should we try to play God by just saying the words.

        *What our parable is trying to point out, is that, sometimes the “I’m sorry” can’t fix the problem.  The “foolish” bridesmaids can’t beg, borrow or steal oil once their own lamps go out.  The door at some point is shut, and some may not get in. 

        *Now we can argue about whether Jesus meant it to be quite so definitive.  The meaning is clear, in this parable, as well as the two that follow it—the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats—there comes a time when we will be judged, when the Bridegroom comes, and we need to be ready with our oil to light our lamps and go to the banquet.

        *I’ve always loved the spiritual that we started our service with today “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning”—it counsels us “Don’t grow weary (3x)…for the time is drawing nigh.”  Let us remember Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew from the Sermon on the Mount.  “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your “Father” in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16).

          *In today’s parable, placed towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, he seems to be adding something else to the image.  You are the light of the world.  You are the lamp of justice and mercy and humility.  You are the lamp of poverty of spirit, and grief, and meekness, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and being merciful, and pure in heart, and peacemakers, even to the point of being persecuted.  But to be a lamp, you need oil.

        *So make sure you go to the places where you can be filled up.  Make sure you hang out with others who are getting oil.  Make sure you use the waiting time to keep moving toward the kingdom.  Make sure you get your sleep.  Make sure you are ready when the time comes.

        I want to end with the words of another hymn, a favorite of mine, written by Arthur Campbell Ainger in 1894,





*God is working God’s purpose out, as year succeeds to year;

God is working God’s purpose out, and the time is drawing near;

nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.

*From utmost east to utmost west, wherever feet have trod,

By the mouth of many messengers goes forth the voice of God,

‘Give ear to me, ye continents, ye isles, give ear to me,

that the earth may be filled with the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.

        *What can we do to work God’s work, to prosper and increase

The love of God in humankind, the reign of the Prince of Peace?

What can we do to hasten the time, the time that shall surely be,

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.

        *March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,

That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world;

Fight we the fight with sorrow and sin, to set their captives free;

that the earth may be filled with the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.

        *All we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed;

Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;

Yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be;

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.


*You are the light of the world.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.  And take some extra oil.  This is a waiting game.

        May God be with us, Alleluia, Amen.