“Lightbearers.” A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost. Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, Diocese of Toronto, 8 November, 2020.
Readings for this Sunday: Joshua 24.1-3a,14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Mathew 25.1-13
6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
From my first day of Basic Training, the Army taught me to be ready and on time. Preparedness, or readiness, as the military calls it, is taken to sometimes comical lengths. If the Major wants the troops ready to board the trucks at 06:00 with all their gear, the Captain will order them to form up at 05:30, and the Sergeant will have them up for a gear check at 04:30 and then out and waiting for the trucks at 05:00, because sergeants believe you can never be too ready or too early.
Today’s gospel reading, the parable of the bridesmaids, is about being ready and prepared, but ready and prepared for what? How do we interpret this parable?
We can start with context, noting that this parable occurs in the middle of two chapters (Mt 24 and 25) where Jesus speaks about his death and his return. He warns repeatedly that the timing of his return will be unexpected and unpredictable: “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24.44).
He also warns that his return will be a time of judgement, when he will hold his followers accountable for their actions. He makes this point implicitly in the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25.14-30) and explicitly at the end of Mt 25 when he says that he will judge people by whether they treated others well or poorly (Mt 25.31-46).
In this context, the parable seems to warn us, don’t be like the foolish bridesmaids. Don’t be unprepared for Christ’s return, because then you’ll be punished. You’ll be shut out of the banquet, you won’t get into heaven, which is the punishment in this section of Matthew’s gospel for those who aren’t found worthy on Christ’s return (Mt 24.51, 25.46).
The problem with this sort of reading, other than inspiring anxiety and fear of judgement in those who hear sermons of this type, is that it doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do? What does it mean to have be a wise bridesmaid? What does the lamp in the parable signify, and what am I supposed to do with it?
So if you’re hearing this and worrying that you might be found wanting when Jesus returns, that you might be locked out of the banquet, well don’t be. The gospel shouldn’t inspire fear.
Following a long tradition of seeing the church as the bride of Christ (Eph 5.22-23, Rev 21.2.9-10), we might see ourselves as bridesmaids, and we might see the lamps as our vocations as disciples and followed of Jesus, as his light bearers in the world. That light was symbolized in the candle that we give to parents and godparents at baptism., when we quote Jesus words at the end of the Beatitudes:
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
We, the baptized, are all wise bridesmaids. So what is a wise bridesmaid to do? We are to be lightbearers. We show the light of Christ to a world that knows too much darkness. We become a beacon of hope in a dark Covid winter (though winter is decidedly late this year!). We shed light on injustice.
As lightbearers, our good works give glory to God. As lightbearers we feed the hungry, care for the lost, clothe the poor. We use gentle speech, we model a kindness and love for others that the world needs to hear more often. We explain as best we can who we are and what we believe, for those who need to hear it (1 Pet 3.15). We bear our trials with patience, like this pandemic, and we help others with the same trials. That’s what we do as wise bridesmaids and lighbearers.
This winter you’ll hear me talk a lot about light and about our role as lightbearers. We as church have been entrusted with showing the light of Christ to the world, a light that will be sorely needed in this Covid winter of cold and isolation.
As church, we need never worry about this light going out. All we need to do as church is hold that light as high as we can, and let the bridegroom do the rest.