Staying Awake

Psalm 78:1–7, Matthew 25:1–13, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on November 12, 2023

I have a confession to make. I suspect that I would be labeled foolish by the writer of the gospel of Matthew. Because if I were one of the bridesmaids from today’s reading, I can almost guarantee that I would have forgotten my oil. Several people in this room can attest to my forgetfulness: Brad has rescued my iPad and water bottle from various places around the church, for example. Jane bailed me out last week when I forgot my charging cable. And when we go out with our dog, Mochi, my wife Johanna is constantly asking if I remembered the dog bags, for good reason! More times than I’d like to admit, mid-walk I realize I haven’t remembered the bags and then had to make an extra loop to take care of business.

In my defense, and maybe you can relate, I forget because I have other things on my mind. School assignments, grocery lists, urgent errands that I’m rushing to get to. I can only imagine that those bridesmaids had other things on their minds, too.

It’s a problem, this distraction. Think of all the money thrown away on lost sunglasses, travel mugs, and mittens! It’s a problem on Jesus’ mind in this parable of the ten bridesmaids, as told by the gospel writer. We hear that Jesus compares the kingdom of God to an impending wedding banquet. The ten bridesmaids are ready to go, but the bridegroom is delayed. Five “wise” bridesmaids make sure their oil supply is solid, but that thought doesn’t occur to the five “foolish” bridesmaids. Then the wedding party is delayed—so delayed that all the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish, fall asleep. Finally, at midnight, the bridegroom shows up ready to party and all ten spring to action. But, oh no! The foolish five slap their foreheads, realizing that they were too busy getting water for their family, or mending a rip in their best clothes, to remember the oil! As they light their own lamps, the wise five reply, Huh! Guess you should’ve gotten some oil! They send the foolish off to buy some oil, which I’m sure was easy to get at midnight. The wise five go off happily to the banquet, and the foolish five spend so long procuring oil that nobody even remembers who they are by the time they get to the banquet, and the door is slammed shut in their faces. For shame, foolish bridesmaids. For shame, forgetters of dog bags, cell phones, and keys. The kingdom of heaven is not for unprepared loafers. At least, that’s what my unprepared, loafing 21st-century ears hear this parable telling me.

This parable appears in the middle of a larger, three-chapter dialogue given by Jesus on the topic of preparedness. He laments Jerusalem’s spiritual state, critiques the Saducees and Pharisees and the quality of their adherence to Jewish law, and points to a time of judgement: the Coming of the Son of Man, who will pluck the righteous away to their heavenly reward at any moment and leave the unrighteous to a different fate. So be ready, the gospel writer tells us. Vigilance is called for; we have no idea when Jesus, the Son of Man, will return and pass judgement on us all.

It’s worth noting that scholars believe that the book of Matthew was written around the end of the first century, as the writer’s community struggled to maintain their relevance and cohesion. Jesus was gone, and Jerusalem’s temple, the center of Jewish life, had been destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Through the gospel telling, the writer tells his community, Jesus warned us to be ready for his return. The writer wanted to impress upon the community that there were dire consequences for not following Jesus’ teachings at every moment.

With this in mind, the parable’s last line becomes more important: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (25.13)” Keep awake. Not, Keep your oil container full, which is where I expect the moral to land. Keep awake. So how do we keep awake?

In his book Dancing in the Darkness, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III tells a story about another middle-of-the-night encounter. It was 2008, and Rev. Moss had recently arrived at then Senator Obama’s church. The press had gotten hold of some footage of Moss’s predecessor saying some things that one might call prophetic or inflammatory depending on one’s perspective, and now Moss found himself in the literal and figurative cross hairs. Hundreds of threats were directed at Moss and the church, and in the midst of the maelstrom, Moss woke up one night to the sound of a person in his house. He got up, arming himself with a baseball bat. The noise, he writes, was “Coming from upstairs, clearly now, in the direction of my little girl’s room – the last thing a father wants to imagine. I climbed the stairs, clutching that baseball bat. My thoughts were focused on one thing only: self-defense, that raw, pragmatic form of justice.[1]

What he found was not an intruder, but his six-year-old daughter, Makayla, twirling, pigtails flying, dancing joyfully around her room. Can you imagine it? The parents among us might also imagine what Moss’s first reaction was: an exasperated, What’re you doing out of bed? It’s three in the morning! And you scared the bejeezus out of me!

But then, somehow, he was able to quiet his stern father mind and see the prophetic joy of his daughter. In the eye of a national political you-know-what-storm, Makayla was listening to her spirit’s need to express her joy. Which made her father realize that his spirit had been caught in the worry, caught in the fear, caught in the threats to his family and his church. The forces of empire, the forces that say that there’s something wrong with the Black church worshipping God in a way that’s authentic to their lived experience, those forces had distracted him from the joy of his community and the hope of his ministry.

And, to be clear, our culture would label that protective response of retribution the wise one, just like how making sure you have a supply of oil is wise. Just like maintaining a country’s right to defend itself but killing civilians in the process is wise. But the gospel writer, and Moss, show us a way past distinctions between wise and foolish to a place of wholeness and awakeness.

Moss writes, “To practice spiritual resistance in the face of fear,” which, by the way, is exactly what Jesus was up to, “we must remain connected, even in times of fearful threat, to what we love, those activities and people that bring us joy and feed our souls.”[2] In this way, the pledges that we dedicate today are spiritual resistance to the forces of fear in our world today—an affirmation that we are rooted together in love and by choice, and that connectedness is our antidote to the pain in this world. It is an offering that we give each other daily. Through our connectedness we remain awake.

I don’t know if this was exactly intentional, but it is fitting that on the day we dedicate our pledges for the coming year, we also discuss our work with Flourish of finding ways to share the gifts of our space more widely. It’s fitting because it’s a challenge that has faced the church since its founding: how to create a sustainable structure for community, but to not let that structure distract the community from being God’s agents of healing and transformation to those outside the walls of the structure. Historically, the Christian church has been really good at storing up its oil and shutting the church door in the face of those without oil.

Let us hold this tension as we enter this work, my friends. In the face of fear, let us invest in our connections to each other and to this place through our shared love and through our pledging. And let us, as Rev. Moss writes, “cultivate what we love like a garden,”[3] not by fencing it off and obsessing over only the plants that have already been planted, but by planting new seeds to see what is well-suited to the soil. Those new seeds keep us awake.

There is much to distract us. Thoughts of scarcity, thoughts of the enormity of the task, thoughts of not being enough. Thoughts of guilt. But when we are awake to the love that binds us and to the voices of those outside our walls, God’s Spirit will accompany us in and through the fear. May it be so.

[1] Moss, Otis, and Michael Eric Dyson. Dancing in the darkness: Spiritual lessons for thriving in turbulent times. Simon & Schuster, 2023.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid