by Suzannah Porter
Re-written in the quiet of the dark of night while I await the tally of the election, this piece evolved and grew under the weight of waiting. In the early morning hours, it grew from one of my least favorite scriptures to the one that carried me through the next morning, guiding my path as I struggled with what the faithful are called to do while we wait, and what we are called to sacrifice for peace.
Matthew 25:1-13 indeed used to be one of my least favorite verses. It was one of those verses that ended up with a lot of doodles in my bulletin. Usually accompanied by the message of "Look Busy, Jesus is Coming," it follows scripture full of similar sounding bottom lines of preparedness. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable and wiggly in my seat. I am not clergy. My context for uncomfortable scripture is most usually without conversation about theology, and more commonly the experience of sitting in a service riding along with liturgy and prayers about grace and love, suddenly punctuated with readings like this that are conspicuously without either.
So let us set the scene. Tradition held that once the groom makes an appearance, the wedding festivities are supposed to begin with the bridesmaids processing forward with their lamps and torches. Everyone is waiting for the collective big entrance to begin, a light show blazing through the shadows. But in this parable, the groom is delayed. Apparently hella delayed, because everyone had basically fallen asleep waiting for the groom to show. After this incredibly long period of time, the participants are alerted that the long awaited VIP member of the party has finally arrived. Now, after waiting an eternity to the point of taking a long nap, half of the participants face a quandary: they are not actually prepared. These "foolish bridesmaids" are meant to carry burning lamps, but they didn't bring any oil. The other half of the bridesmaids, identified as "wise," brought oil for their lamps.
Like most of the kids in every group work session of every class I have ever taken, the "foolish" ones (who had plenty of time to remedy the situation and do their homework) demand some of the resources from their wiser counterparts. Those of us who have been denied a place at God's table are rather familiar with this scenario. Queer folks, BIPOC folks, disabled folks, and often women in general, each of us clear that we were never assured a place at God's table by our less marginalized siblings, have followed the rules and prepared ourselves to the letter. Once there, someone nearby has taken the rules far less seriously than we, and they turn to us and demand accommodation. There's pressure to bend and keep afloat the ones who didn't do the work in order to keep the peace, and let the party go off without a hitch.
And this is the point where I start to doodle in my bulletin because I have become uncomfortable. There's a couple bits of scripture that make me pretty uncomfortable, but this one seems particularly unloving. I remember no one talking about what I perceived to be biblical mean girls that wouldn't share. As a lay person in a conflict-avoidant denomination, we are given the constant overall themes about Jesus bringing Peace and Grace, and not a lot of conversation breaking down the scripture that seems to contradict this saccharine simplicity. This parable shocks me the way that Matthew 10:34-36 shocks me - to be sitting in a service with liturgy about peace and love and be hit with the diddy, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'" The truth is Peace doesn't come without conflict, and it wasn't until family gathered around Thanksgiving of 2016 that many of us white, progressive people came to understand how the family upheaval of Matthew 10:34-36 might be a part of the process of ensuring that the promises of the Gospel were extended to more vulnerable people. The more we vocalized our concern for those on the margins - ostracized for their queerness, shot down by police for the color of their skin, left without healthcare when sick - the more conflict we felt in our own families.
Likewise, while we wait for the election results to trickle in, Matthew 25:1-13 calls me to the same uncomfortable conflict that comes after we have prepared ourselves for the Gospel, the same uncomfortable conflict that simultaneously opposes all the saccharine versions of "Peace and Grace" my church has sold me in its quest for theology for the lowest common denominator. And deep inside my internalized misogyny that has always demanded I provide 100% free labor to anyone who demands it, the next part still shocks me: The wise bridesmaids don't hand over their oil. They suggest instead that the others go find some of their own.
I mean, it goes against everything I have ever been taught about church, being a woman (and the eldest female child), and the exponential sum of combining those two things together. My church teaches forgiveness and Grace, and commonly covers all the uncomfortable parts of Scripture with a topcoat of these two things that is less like sugarcoating and more like aspartame. At first taste it is sweet, but the aftertaste reveals its lack of authenticity; I am left wanting and with an exhausting headache. My femaleness has had "sharing is caring" drilled into it ever since birth, and the world has demanded that "sharing is caring" mantra at every turn, regardless of what it cost me. It's been the universal foundation of all free labor I have exerted in church. The more I give it, the more it is expected. The less I draw attention to what it costs me, the more I am lauded. This scripture turns everything about the traditional expectations of my role in the church upside down.
And so while I've sat through many a sermon addressing the questions "Who are the foolish bridesmaids," and "Who is the Groom," I am instead interested in, "What is the oil?" and "Why would giving up the oil be unwise?" Apparently, the lesson is that it is not wise to share in this instance, and I want to know why - what is the nature of the oil that we are actually called to not share?
When it comes to Thanksgiving, elections, or church, I am not a party person. This mostly is related to the intersection of my femaleness, queerness, and health conditions. While Thanksgiving conversations will include asking me about my health, they will also demand - in the name of peace and family unity - that I not talk about my anxiety over the recent election that affects whether or not I have healthcare. While elections will demand I turn out to vote, they will also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I accept police 'reform' instead of a complete reimagining of neighborhood safety, even though the police are murdering my siblings of color. While church demands my offerings, not only in money but in the free labor of technology and musical ministry, they also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I relinquish my call for them to become RIC congregations, a designation that comes with doing the hard work of preparing a congregation to be welcoming and affirming of our LGBTQIA+ siblings.
The last point strikes a particularly sharp dagger in my soul. I've learned to keep the edges of my mouth just slightly upturned in those conversations about LGBTQIA+ inclusion, because to let a frown leak out on my face would so incense the cult of respectability that demands my acquiescence. Without me handing over a smile during conversations that drain my soul of its fire, the other party will immediately jump to 'how angry' I am and shut off the conversation. While you tell me my queerness is an abomination but you 'love me anyway,' while you tell me the congregation isn't ready to even discuss the work, and while you tell me that welcoming LGBTQIA+ people doesn't require actually affirming their place in God's church, I am required to look as though I am thoughtfully entertaining the notion that my community is subpar. It takes all my strength to keep my 'respectable' smile on my face, as you remove half the oil from my lamp, and drain the fuel from the fire in my soul. All so church can do half of the work but still hold on to it's respectable place in the processional.
While waiting to get into the party, I am not unlike the bridesmaids: I'm asked to sacrifice a lot of the prep work that specifically is necessary for the kind of party Jesus is planning, and I am asked to do it so that many of the participants can appear to have done their job, when they in fact didn't think that their participation required work. So I would venture to say that if the bridesmaids had shared their oil, the party procession would have had to be a lot quicker. The light of the flames would have had to go out a lot sooner, or their intensity be a lot dimmer in order to last the length of time for which the processional was planned. And as I made those sacrifices in the past, waiting for a church to decide to embark on becoming RIC, waiting for the holiday meal to be served, I suddenly understand what is in that precious oil.
Last Sunday, I had the privilege of joining Rev. Carla Christopher and Rev. Brenda Bos in a brief All Saints Sunday service online for the queer community in the ELCA LGBTQ & Allies Facebook Group. It was unabashedly queer, thanks also in part to the most amazing prayers written by J Pace Warfield-May. We named our queer ancestors and ally ancestors who had lit fires, provided sanctuary, illuminated theology, and too often were gone too soon. We named our fears for the future, we mourned the losses of the past, we called each other family. No one there gave away an ounce of oil and I felt God's presence in worship more viscerally than ever. The fire that blazed in that worship for me was every ounce the fire Jesus intended in a processional of the Gospel into the world. And for once I knew what it was like to show up to worship with a lamp entirely full. The parable doesn't demand I not share oil, it demands I share the most blazing of lights for the longest period of time. I'm being asked to bring my full self to God's table. The sin was ever asking me to bring only half.
What is the point of a blazing processional that is half on fire? What is the point of an election with not all the votes counted? What is the point of a table where all are gathered if not all are welcome? What is the point of neighborhood safety if not all are safe? At some point, sacrificing our oil negates the whole point of the party.
In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids return to a groom who does not recognize them as participants of the party. They have missed the point about what participating means. Participation in God's Kin-dom never required some of us to be only half on fire for the Gospel.
May every vote be counted. May all be welcome to the table. May everyone bring their full selves with every ounce of oil. And may the processional of Jesus' Love and Grace blaze through all the shadows.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.