24 Pentecost, Proper 27 – November 12, 2023
This parable reminds me of dragonflies. I know that sounds odd, but are you aware of the life of a dragonfly?
It may surprise you to know that dragonflies spend most of their lives underwater. Before they are born as the adult dragonflies we know and recognize, they spend anywhere from two months to five years and even more developing as larvae in the water.
Only after this lengthy process do they emerge as the dragonflies we’re familiar with, but then they only live around six months. That is a short lifespan considering the time they can spend in utero, if you will! Because of their short but fulfilling lifespan – they manage to fly millions of miles in their short life – dragonflies are a symbol of living in the moment and making the most of the time given to us.
And while people generally don’t embrace times of change, dragonflies molt or shed their outer coverings about eight to seventeen times during their lifespans and are therefore also considered a symbol of growth and maturity.
So what does that have to do with our gospel story? Well, in her commentary on Working Preacher, Dr. Susan Hylen offers a really helpful insight: “the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach.
What is distinctive about this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed”.
It’s also helpful to know how weddings were actually handled back in the times when Jesus walked the earth. Life was hard. People worked from sunup to sundown. Weddings provided a much-needed break from the routine–a time to get together–to celebrate–to have fun. The bride and groom would throw a party that would last almost a week. There was food–and wine–and dancing.
Unlike our weddings that start with the ceremony, their weddings started in the evening when the bridegroom came to the bride’s house to escort her to their new home. Friends would line the route, lighting their way with burning torches. It was a grand and festive display.
It was a great honor to be invited to be a torchbearer for that procession–like being invited to be a bridesmaid today. The young women who agreed to serve as torchbearers were expected to be ready for the big day.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom…five of them were called foolish and five were called wise. This parable is a bit confusing…why was the bridegroom delayed? Why didn’t the bridesmaids share their oil? Why did the bridegroom turn away the bridesmaids when they came back? Notice again that all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to appear.
Are we all asleep now? Accustomed and indifferent to the absence of the groom? Are we tired of waiting for the celebration? The five wise bridesmaids came with extra oil just in case. They consider and take seriously the possibility of surprise, of delay, of hardship, of unpredictability. They don’t allow their preconceived ideas about the groom or the party to distract them from what’s actually in front of them. They remain open and adaptable to the circumstances they find themselves in.
Kind of like a dragonfly. But do we? Are we ready for the long haul? Do we have the flexibility to handle the unexpected? Or are we clinging to rigid, narrow notions of what God’s presence looks like, so much so that we miss God when God actually shows up? Can we bear an unpredictable bridegroom? A bridegroom who surprises us? If Jesus’s notion of time, faithfulness, fulfillment, and celebration look different from ours, will we still follow him into the wedding hall — or will we bail?
This parable also reminds us that there are some things we can’t borrow. The maidens wanted to borrow oil, but could not. We can go next door and borrow an egg or a cup of sugar. We can borrow a drill or a saw. But we cannot borrow Christian character or integrity. We cannot borrow wisdom or selfless service. And we cannot borrow a relationship with God.
The wise women of this story call us to attend to that which will deepen our relationship with God and hone our ability to receive God’s ever-present grace. To live in the moment, like that dragonfly. A dragonfly in mid-flight is amazing and beautiful. It can easily fly in all six directions while flapping its wings only about 30 times a minute, but still have 20 times the strength of other insects.
Jesus means for these light-bearing bridesmaids to inspire and model for us what it means to perceive the presence of Christ among us and to minister to him in the infinite and surprising variety of forms that he takes. This parable offers a powerful resonance with the gospel stories of the women who, seeing Jesus and recognizing who he is, anoint him with oil in a lavish fashion.
This parable is about waiting for something really wonderful. A wedding feast! A feast that we are all invited to. But, how do we wait? How do we spend our time waiting if we trust in God’s promises? Do we live our life as if we do trust in God’s promises?
Our parable today ends with a party, a celebration. Perhaps the lesson of this parable is: don’t allow your fear or your sense of inadequacy to keep you away from the party. Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and half-baked. The groom delights in you. Remember, God created light. God is light. And Jesus is the light of the world. Your half-empty flask of oil isn’t the point. You are.
The dragonfly lives it’s life in the moment. Live, truly live a life honoring our Creator God in Christian character and with integrity. Trust in God, be aware, be awake. Be the light God wants you to be in this world. Amen.