Our readings today are about waiting, and it almost seems as if we’ve lost a month and are already in the season of Advent. But maybe Advent shouldn’t have such a monopoly on the theme of waiting, because even Advent reminds us that, in fact, we spend our whole lives waiting—waiting to be old enough to go to school, waiting to graduate, waiting for our vacations, for our children, for the right job, or for the day when everything seems to fall into place just perfectly. And through it all, we are ultimately waiting for God.
Waiting of any kind, especially waiting for God, is no easy matter as we see in our readings. The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is thought to be the oldest book in the New Testament; it was probably written in about the year 51 CE The church at Thessalonica believes Jesus will return in the near future. But as they wait, some of their members die. And the community wonders what will happen to those who have already died when the Lord comes. And so Paul consoles the Thessalonians, saying: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…. [So don’t] grieve as others who have no hope.” Waiting is hard for the Thessalonians—it even seems to threaten their hope.
Waiting is also hard for the church in Matthew’s community. The Gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written between 80 and 90 CE, thirty to forty years after First Thessalonians. By then it had become clear that the Church will have to wait even longer for the coming of the Lord. The parable we read today is one in a series about the kingdom of heaven and it’s unique to the Gospel of Matthew. In today’s parable Jesus warns the disciples to stay focused, to stay ready.
It’s a difficult parable, in part because of its archaic imagery and cultural norms. The job of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom and bride home after the wedding. So Jesus tells this story of ten bridesmaids who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom. But the bridegroom is delayed, and only five of the bridesmaids have brought flasks of extra oil with them to replenish their lamps. When the bridegroom finally arrives, the five without extra oil find that their lamps are going out.
Now, some of us might be bothered about the unwillingness of the “wise” bridesmaids to share their oil with the others; but “oil” in this parable isn’t really about “oil.” A lamp lit by oil is a sign of the Torah; in Psalm 119, we read “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In fact, the Talmud says that when a person sees oil in a dream, that person can expect a greater understanding of the Torah. So the “wise” bridesmaids are those who are wise to the ways of God, those who live the ways of the kingdom of heaven even in the here and now.
Still, I confess to having a soft spot for the foolish bridesmaids. After all, the parable doesn’t say they were lazy or uncaring. Perhaps they didn’t go to the store and get more oil because they were busy taking care of a million other things—trips to the dry cleaners, meals to cook, appointments at work so they could get ahead and make more money for their family, taxes to be filed, kids to be chauffeured to school and music lessons and ballgames, Habitat for Humanity workdays. Truth be told, maybe they were doing wonderful and compassionate things, some of which needed to be done that very afternoon and couldn’t be put off. But like so many of us, they were inundated with “urgent” things and so never got around to the things that were most important. When the time that they had been waiting for actually came, they missed it.
Being awake and ready for the kingdom of heaven to meet us requires intentionality. Because if we let the busyness and expectations of our culture determine our “to do” lists, if the urgent demands of the world always end up taking precedence over what we know in our hearts to be more important, well then we make the world’s agenda our own purely by default. That’s why a Christian life takes this intentionality; we have to purposefully develop an open posture, a stance of readiness and waiting, an emptiness that can then be filled. And we do that through intentional practices such as worship, prayer, acts of service, and generous giving. We give of our time, our wealth, and our very selves. And in the process, we shape our lives in such a way that we are ready to receive the kingdom of heaven when and where it meets us.
Our tradition tells us that Jesus will come again. And nearly two thousand years after the church in Thessalonica waited, some denominations today actively wait for that one decisive day in history when Jesus will physically return and gather us up into the heavens. Many Episcopalians are a little uncomfortable with this. We’ve heard about the Left Behind book series. Some of us grew up in evangelical traditions and have what can be called “rapture anxiety”—that panic when you can’t get in touch with relatives and friends and are momentarily convinced that the rapture has come, there’s been a mistake, and somehow you weren’t taken up. To be honest, I have no idea what the definitive coming of Jesus might look like. But scripture is clear about where we direct our attention while we wait.
In the last chapter of the gospel of Mark, three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—enter Jesus’ empty tomb and are met by a young man in a white robe. He says: “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here…But go and tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples are gathered around the risen Lord when he ascends into heaven. As the disciples stand staring at the last place they saw him, two men in white robes appear beside them and say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Scripture tells us that we don’t wait for Jesus by looking for him in the last places we saw him, by staring into an empty tomb or a blank sky. Instead, we are sent back into the world and it is here that we will meet Jesus, again and again. We don’t wait with all of our attention focused on finding God in a future life. Like the Benedictine vow of stability, of being rooted to a particular place, reminds us: If we can’t find Jesus where we are, we can’t expect to find him anywhere else either. Or as Teresa of Avila said: “The whole way to heaven is heaven itself.”
But like the church in Thessalonica and the church in Matthew’s community, we need to be reminded of the reality of Jesus in our midst. It’s part of the beauty of sharing our faith with a community like this one. We wait and watch with others; we help one another be intentional about living in a way that makes us open to Jesus; we help each other recognize God in ways both extraordinary and ordinary; we fill our lamps with oil together; and we open our hearts and invite others to fill their lamps as well.
We proclaim the sacredness that always lies beyond our own prediction and control. It’s the truth of the parable of the ten bridesmaids: Christ may show up in our lives the very moment we least expect it—in the quick smile of a child, in the startling flash of judgment at an injustice in our midst, in the hungry person asking for food. And when the kingdom of heaven does come to us in these ways, will we dare to miss it?
 Rabbi David Wachs, http://www.etzchaimcenter.org/index.php/etz-chaim-blog/78-musings-on-olive-oil.