March 19, 2023
Matthew 25: 1-13
In the first half of the 1800s, an elaborate system of safehouses, hidden rooms and even caves traced routes from the southern United States to the northern states and Canada helped slaves escape to freedom.
People known as conductors would shuttle escaped slaves between points along the route … taking them to one point … handing them off to another conductor … and then returning to get the next set of passengers.
Owen Sound was one of the terminuses of this system. Each summer, the city marks its place within the history of the Underground Railroad.
What’s interesting is the important role music played in the operation of the Railroad.
Slaves would sing to help pass the tedium of working the fields. They would sing spirituals, songs that were so commonplace that the overseers wouldn’t take notice of them. Some of the songs provided navigation aids for escaping slaves who were hidden nearby.
Sometimes these songs would alert workers to the presence of a conductor in the area or directions or timing for an escape attempt.
There was no set schedule for these escapes. People had to be ready to move with little notice.
Some of these spirituals have made their way into the hymnals of modern denominations. One spiritual that was part of the system was “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” The words remind the fieldworkers and other slaves on the property to always be prepared.
The hymn is based on today’s reading from Matthew.
Matthew presents us with a story of ten bridesmaids.
Jesus is on the Mount of Olives and has been telling the disciples about the coming kingdom. Jesus tells the gathering that “…the kingdom of heaven will be like this…”
In the parable, there are ten bridesmaids … five of who are called “wise” and five who are called “foolish.”
The bridesmaids are waiting for the groom to show up … and he’s late. We’re not told why he is delayed or how long he will be delayed and … truth be told … it doesn’t matter … we’re supposed to be focus on the women as they wait.
During Jesus’ time, these bridesmaids would be part of a procession that would include the groom and his attendants. The procession would go from the bride’s parents’ home to the groom’s home where the wedding would be held.
The bridesmaids would be carrying ceremonial lamps that are expected to remain lit during the entire procession.
Half of the bridesmaids plan ahead and they have enough oil to keep their lamps lit … if they kept the wicks properly trimmed.
The other half do an awful job of planning … they show up without any extra oil.
The first audiences that heard this story must have been wondering what were these women thinking? There might even have been a smattering of giggles and laughter at the foolishness of the bridesmaids.
The delay is so long, that all the bridesmaids … wise and foolish alike … fall asleep.
At midnight, they are awakened by news that the groom is on the way.
The foolish bridesmaids ask the wise bridesmaids to share the oil that they brought … only to be told “no” and to go to an oil dealer to get the oil they need. If they divvy up the oil, all the lamps would go out during the procession,
The bridesmaids run off to find a 24-hour oil dealer. You can almost hear the audience snickering as they consider the image of bridesmaids … decked out in their wedding attire … running through the dark streets … looking for oil for their lamps.
Meanwhile the wise bridesmaids join the groom and the reduced procession goes to the wedding banquet … and the door to the celebration closes.
The foolish bridesmaids find the needed oil and rush back and knock on the door … only to have the groom refuse to let them in and tell them “… I do not know you.”
The story isn’t funny anymore … it has taken a tragic turn as the five are left alone outside in the dark.
The parable can create problems for some who hear or read it.
The five wise bridesmaids hardly seem gracious when the five foolish bridesmaids ask for some oil. Their response seems to go against the idea of sharing our bounty with those less fortunate. Maybe it’s best if we consider a different aspect of the story.
During our Lenten journey this passage invites us to consider how prepared we are … how we are living in this in-between time … the time between crucifixion and the return.
How well have we prepared?
The spiritual that I mentioned a few moments ago, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” was a reminder to the fieldworkers to always be prepared because there would be little advance notice when the conductor would appear to take them on to the first waystation in the Underground Railway.
The chorus of this spiritual doesn’t mention Christ’s return, but rather focuses on what to do during the waiting period.
The song provides reminders that aim to help us navigate life in this in-between time.
It tells children not to be weary … not to be distracted … to be attentive. The five foolish bridesmaids were distracted by other concerns and ended up missing the groom and the celebration.
The passages that lead into today’s story instruct the disciples … and us … about the necessity to be watchful … to be vigilant … and about the dangers of living like a hypocrite.
Today’s gospel story calls on people to consider how they spend the time before that inbreaking comes to our reality … about how they have prepared for the kingdom … have they really lived a grace-filled life.
Have we brought peace and love into the lives of others?
After hearing the other parables during our Lenten journey, we can realize that this right life includes being generous … forgiving … being clothed in righteousness and love … and working toward reconciliation.
These grace-filled acts are ones that mark a wise use of the time we have as wait for God’s in-breaking. These are acts that prepare our hearts and are the acts that truly mark our journey toward the cross and the life to come.
These are the acts that require us to be attentive to the needs of others.
In this in-between time … with pain, suffering and uncertainty around us … we can find ourselves looking for God in the world … wanting God’s grace and peace to be known.
In this time of reflection, perhaps we can consider if we have just been going through our days distracted by what the world values … self-interest … the drive for wealth and possessions? Or are we focused on our calls as disciples? To be generous … to forgive … to work for justice … to love abundantly?
Have we shared grace … raised those around us … brought people in from the margins … or simply let love guide our steps?
Have we kept the lamps of love trimmed and burning?
Have we prepared our hearts and our lives for the celebration of the new life to come?
Because it is through such acts that we are truly known.