Love the Guest
“Love the Guest”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
May 14, 2023
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In June of 1992, our daughter Zoe was born very early in the morning. Kathy gave birth at Helene Fuld Hospital in Trenton. There was a midwife and during her labor I distinctly remember feeling like I was in the wrong smoke lodge. I also remember the television in the recovery room was chained down and you put money in a slot to make it work. Yet of all the memories of that day the one that comes to mind is what our eldest son said when he heard the news of his new sister, a second sister.
Josh had just turned five and he stared at me with groggy eyes when I woke him to share the news. He said, “that means Grandma Jean is coming.” “Yes,” I told him, “She’s coming.” And then he said, “this means you have to pay for two weddings.” With that he laid his head down and went back to sleep.
Whenever I read the parable of the bridesmaids, I remember his declaration. It was as if I needed fair warning to plan, to prepare, to be ready.
Although it would be decades before my children would get married, I must confess I was unprepared. When I realized this, I was quite taken aback. Here I was a pastor for nearly 20 years when our children started to get married and thus had performed a hundred or so ceremonies, yet what I realized was how little of the actual wedding I encountered as the clergy. There was a lot going on I didn’t see.
Part of my lack of exposure was great organists and wedding coordinators. They did all the work and I showed up, did my part, and quietly faded to the shadows. From time to time, I would attend a rehearsal dinner or stay for a reception, but not often. I have found that the presence of clergy is a bit of a wet blanket once the DJ and the wine take over.
But the real miss was a matter of focus. I focused on the couple getting married. It was their day, and I did everything to make it match their intent. For many years I have asked couples to write out what they hope for the other. Not their marriage or their life, but what do you hope the other will find in life. The answer to this question went a long way toward crafting remarks that matched their heart, what it meant for them to enter the covenant of marriage.
It’s not a bad thing to focus on the couple as it is “their day.” But in my myopic view I missed the wild scene going on, unfolding around them. The in-laws and outlaws, the power broker mothers and mischievous best man, the truces declared, and the warnings issued.
I was quite surprised when my kids got married and suddenly there was a whole other world to discover. I saw the wedding from the other side. What I saw before was the carefully scripted and choreographed twenty-minutes of ceremony. Then, I began to see the months of crazy coming to a head before and after the ceremony. It was as if I lived in the eye of a storm never realizing the hurricanes.
Before this, I was worried about saying the wrong names or misspeaking like in the movie, Father, Son, and Holy Goat. Now I feel compelled to make such guffaws just to lighten the mood or let folks breathe a bit. Now don’t get me wrong. I love weddings. Enjoyed my children’s weddings. In fact, I love weddings more now that I know what is going on. This is the stuff of high drama and comedy, a wonderful look on life.
I must thank my wife for this epiphany. When we learned that our eldest was going to get married, she told me I was not allowed to perform the ceremony. Her reasoning was this: I sit alone each Sunday; we should sit together when our children get married. Had she not insisted on this, I may never have seen all that was unfolding around the ceremony; I may have missed the challenge of bringing families together, of accommodating so many expectations, of preparing my heart for the moment.
That is the great need, the opportunity of the day: preparing your heart for joy. You would think that joy doesn’t need a lot of preparation, a lot of planning. You might imagine that the guest of love needs no work at all. But love is a wily guest. It turns out that happiness and satisfaction and peace and joy and well just about all the fruits of the spirit, they catch us quite unaware, unprepared for their appearance. Love and peace and joy, they are like the bridegroom who comes late. When love finally shows up, some people are ready, and some people are not.
In the parable of the bridesmaids, we can see this truth. There is a need to prepare for joy, there is a risk of missing what is beautiful in life. And with this truth there is an incredibly potent question, a great clue for a good life. The question at the heart of our parable is: are you ready for joy? Are you prepared for happiness?
It’s funny that in all the years I have done marriage ceremonies I have never read or preached on this parable at a wedding. And I am not sure if I have read the Wedding Feast at Cana. I don’t think so. Just this week was the first time I connected the dots, they are both about a lack of preparation. One didn’t have enough oil, the other didn’t buy enough wine.
Readings at weddings tend to be from the apostle Paul, not Jesus. I am sure during the first reading many of you had wedding flashbacks. The irony of this is that Paul was not a big fan of marriage. And what is read at weddings are instructions about how to be a church, not how to be married. But I get it. Paul's letters work in such moments, where Jesus might be a bit dicey. Paul talks about love; Jesus doesn't. Paul gives you the answers to faith; Jesus questions the answers you hold most dear. Reading 1Corinthians in a wedding ceremony is a moment of affirmation: we are not clanging symbol and we are not a child anymore. And there is a call to patience.
If I were to read the parable of the bridesmaids at a wedding, the natural conclusion would be to question the intent of the couple, not affirm it. In a wedding you want the couple to say, "I do" not, well now that you mention it, I am not sure if I am ready for joy. Am I prepared for happiness, am I honest about desire? That would be a rough ceremony. No. I think we can stick with the Apostle Paul at the occasion of weddings and leave each Sunday to Jesus.
I did a couple of Google searches this week. My searches were to test a hypothesis. The hypothesis was this: I bet there will be a lot of information about disaster preparation, planning and just about nothing about planning for joy. So, I typed "disaster planning manual". The result was a flood of sites and images. There were free planning manuals replete with graphics and step-by-step instructions. Many companies were there to help as a consultant; the federal government was there to say, "please, please do this."
The result to "joy planning manual" was quite limited. There were a few wedding planning manuals as it is the "day of joy." There were the random people and companies with the name Joy. My favorite was the "joy of planning." Not quite what I was looking for, but I like it. So, my hypothesis proved true. Hurricane, flood, and fire: we are ready, we can mitigate and prevent and recover. Here is a plan; follow the plan. Joy, peace, satisfaction, love? Pretty much on your own. If the sky is falling, we have a manual; if the clouds are parting and the sun is shining, well, good luck with that.
My intent in the searches, the testing of the hypothesis was to find the heart of the parable. There is a real possibility, fifty-fifty, that we are not ready for joy. We may want happiness. All the bridesmaids came to the celebration. But only half were able to enter the banquet. Is Jesus saying, the kingdom of God is being happy half the time? Or the kingdom of God is only for half the people? No. I am not sure parables and math are a good combination. But what if the parable is meant to convey the real possibility that we are not living our lives in a way that prepares for celebration.
The parable of the bridesmaids is a great question, "are we prepared for joy," but it also comes with the hint of an answer. The answer comes in two awkward moments: the plea of the unprepared, "give us some of your oil" and the dismissal of the groom, "I don't know you."
A parable is best understood if we keep the symbols general, not specific. By that I mean oil is oil. The powerful meaning is in the idea that someone can't give it to you. Hence, the preparation for joy is realizing you must do it; it is up to you.
How many of us expected someone or something or someplace to make us happy? A spouse, a child, a job, a level of income was supposed to bring contentment, fulfill us, but we're not. We struggle like the five without the oil. We were confused and thought others would prepare our heart; we expected someone else to do this for us. In this way the kingdom of God is realizing joy and satisfaction is being honest with yourself, being truthful about your own heart.
And the dismissal, as difficult and unfair as it seems, what if this is just the simple truth, that joy is found in being known. Without the oil, without the lamp, the bridesmaids at midnight are not recognized, they are unknown. We all know that if you do not reveal your heart, the chances are slim of being loved. Telepathic communication doesn't always work. You need to risk the revelation of desire if you are to find joy in life.
Maybe the reason this parable of Jesus is never read at weddings is that it is not about a marriage or a couple being wed. There is no ceremony or bride. In the end, the parable seems to be about being human, being honest, and taking the risk of sharing your heart. The kingdom of God, the community of faith, the eternal life lived here and how, this can be seen in the love shared by two people. True. But what it means to find joy in life is not bound by marriage, or defined by family, or by levels of achievement. It is within each of us; what we desire or do not.
In a sense that is what I tried to convey to couples by asking, what do you hope for the one you intend to marry? Not what you hope your marriage will be or what will happen in your life together, but what would it mean for a beloved to find what is good in life? What do you hope for his or her life?
These are good questions. To know what one desires, and that happiness must be born from within not supplied by others: this is good to know. Yet, let's hold on to the question at the heart of the parable: am I living in a way that prepares my heart for joy? Is this how I live? Am I ready for the wily guest of love? Amen
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
May 14, 2023
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Senior Pastor & Head of Staff
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