In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi,*
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
‘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.
It’s hard to fathom sometimes that I have only been in ministry here for a year and nine months, and that just before that I was a student at UTC. Seeing that people I love like Sun and Liam Miller (one of the chaplains at Macquarie University) are about to embark on the same journey has caused me to reminisce about the three years of formation I undertook before taking this placement. And the more I talk to other ministers fresh out of college, the more I realise that my time there was fairly stereotypical. My first year, part of which was a student placement here, was generally intense – I felt like a deer in front of headlights, as I was forced to confront some hard realities around not just what I am good at, but what I am not good at, and what I am not proud of. I had to un-learn and deconstruct a lot of things. I then got married at the beginning of my second year – quite a nice experience really – but after that massive high, and coming into my second of three years, I felt absolutely deflated and exhausted. I no longer knew what I believed in, let alone what I was called to. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like I had nothing inside me – that I was running on an empty fuel tank.
In the Old Testament reading we just heard, a widow named Naomi has been running on empty for quite a while. First, famine forces her family to leave their homeland of Bethlehem, to become aliens in a land called Moab – Jewish refugees in an Arab state. Far from home, Naomi buries first her husband, and then both of her married sons. So we picture this old widow covered head to toe in the traditional black mourning dress, making the long journey back home. As she arrives at the city gate, she tells her old friends, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
Here’s the thing though; she has by no means been alone. All the way home, all the way across a barren landscape, her daughter-in-law Ruth has matched Naomi step-for-tired step. Ruth is equally as lost as her mother-in-law. After a childless marriage, Ruth’s husband is dead. Dead, too, are her brother-in-law and father-in-law, the two men who under Hebrew custom would have been required to provide for this young widow. In those days, a widow would not just go out and get a job and start dating again. So Ruth is also running on empty. And instead of betting on the chance that someone might notice her on her own as a marriageable prospect, she follows her mother-in-law, Naomi. Stubborn Ruth makes one of the most remarkable – and insensible – pledges of loyalty on record. These verses are often heard at weddings – in fact, it was one of our readings – but the original context is woman-to-woman, widow-to-widow: “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Ruth is nuts; there is no place in Israel for her. She is a woman (strike 1), a widow (strike 2), and a foreigner (strike 3). She has in effect thrown her life away for her mother-in-law in this memorable proclamation. What an example of devotion, with no expectation of any sort of return! This is about as Godly as statement as was ever made in the Old Testament, and it was made by a foreign, non-Jewish woman. Ruth models, by word and deed, what God means when God promises to God’s people: “I will never leave you, never forsake you.”
Unfortunately, old Naomi cannot see it. She is too bitter, too wrapped up in her own inconsolable, aching grief. Blind to the continued presence of her loyal daughter-in-law, Naomi announces, “I went away full, but now the Lord has brought me back empty.” Can you imagine how Ruth might have felt about that statement? There she stands, side by side with Naomi at the city gate, having left her own homeland, her family and friends, her religious tradition, having faithfully accompanied Naomi across the desert. And now Ruth doesn’t even get a mention. “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
Naomi, Naomi, this is simply not true. God has not brought you back home empty, not by the proverbial long shot. God has provided you with your daughter-in-law Ruth – your faithful, loyal, and resourceful companion who will not leave you. God is providing for you. And dear Naomi, this is not the end of your story. We read on that you and Ruth reach Bethlehem at the beginning of harvest season – a season of opportunity and optimism. Through your wisdom – or some might say cunning – you secure a new husband for Ruth, thus providing yourself with security, and the marriage brings forth a child who is the ancestor of King David. Your empty world will become full again. Your God provides manna in the desert, provides leaders and shepherds and prophets when we lose our way, provides not just scraps but an abundant banquet for everyone, provides even God’s self in Christ, who stands beside us as Ruth stands beside you. Naomi, great is God’s faithfulness; morning by morning, new mercies you will see.
We then turn to the Gospel passage for this morning, which to be honest does not sit well with me. I feel like this parable doesn’t fit well with other things Jesus says in Matthew about not judging the splinter in your brother’s eye, or how if we knock the door will be opened, or how we should forgive seventy seven times. It doesn’t fit well with the story of Jesus sharing a small amount of food with thousands of people until all were satisfied. It doesn’t fit well with Jesus blessing children or searching for the lost lamb. As the Sesame Street song goes, one of these things is not like the others.
Except that we’ve read some passages from Matthew that do fit with the difficulty of this reading: the narrow gate, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the wheat and chaff, and that other parable about the guy getting tossed out of a wedding for being improperly dressed. This too, is the gospel of our Lord.
So as much as I want to rewrite the ending of this parable, I cannot – because this is no ordinary wedding party, not is this ordinary lamp oil. As much as the wise bridesmaids may want to share, they actually can’t. Why? Because, as many who have studied this parable closely realise, this kind of spiritual fuel you cannot get from anyone else. Just as you can copy a friend’s maths homework, but not the hours of studying he put in understanding all the steps in the process. Just as a surgeon may successfully transplant a heart from one body to another, but can never transfer its original recipient’s love for her children, or her passion for crossword puzzles and gardening. There are some kinds of preparation we can only do for ourselves, spiritual reserves that no one else can build up for us. It’s something we each have to receive, cherish, and deepen in our own souls for ourselves.
So this parable, and the story of Ruth, impresses upon us the importance and the urgency of spiritual fuel. As all ten bridesmaids awaken to realize, the time for acquiring oil and building reserves will run out suddenly and unexpectedly. Dark times come into every life, and it’s in the darkness that we most need the sustenance of the kind of oil Jesus is talking about–assurance of the abundant promises of God, peace that passes understanding, and a depth of hope that can sustain us through the darkness of disappointments and failures, devastating loss and grief–closed doors of all kinds. We will need hope urgently when our child is sick or parent helpless. We will need peace urgently when we realize there may not be enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month. We will need love urgently when we wonder whether a relationship will last or we fear how long it must be endured. We will need joy urgently when the pain of loss and grief seems never-ending.
Dark times come to every generation. Today’s young adults are as worried about their future as are the older generations who hand it off to them. Our present reality presages a grim future for emerging generations. The context into which young adults are coming of age is characterized by the unrest of terrorist attacks, unrelenting war, economic instability, and environmental destruction. So they turn to dystopian novels, video games and stories about zombies and apocalyptic end-times to help them imagine worst case scenarios and begin to deal with the terrifying crises that lie ahead, hoping reality will not be as horrifying as what we imagine.
Polls tells us that young adults trend toward having no religious affiliation, self-identifying as spiritual but not religious. In a time when deeply spiritual experiences are hard to discern among social media and instant everything, young adults seek spiritual fuel from experiences like enjoying time with pets, family, and friends, preparing and sharing food, and finding God in the beauty of nature. Others might seek spiritual fuel with a good book, or needlework, or exercise, or alcohol. But the parable speaks of a source of sustaining hope and spiritual sustenance beyond what any of these can provide. Because while we each have to seek our own spiritual sustenance, the irony is that we usually discover what we need in community with others, seeking spiritual fuel together.
Jesus emphasizes the importance of faithful community throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and he tells us that life in Christ happens when two or more are gathered in his name. That is when Christ promises to be with us, and we can be assured the Holy Spirit is among us as we are gathered together, each replenishing our spiritual reserves.
Given everything Jesus tells us about community in the Gospel of Matthew, he cannot be satisfied with such a fractured community as these ten bridesmaids. And neither should we ignore our discomfort with its ending. Thank goodness we hear this parable while the bridegroom delays and the door to the party is still open. Here at West Epping, we have the blessing of being ten bridesmaids together, each individually seeking deeply satisfying spiritual sustenance, and together receiving the nurture of a spirit-filling community of faith. Beside one another, we receive assurance from Word and sacrament that sin and death do not have the last word. Beside one another, prayer rises up without ceasing, even if in silence or sighs too deep for words. Beside one another, we study God’s Word and share experiences of that Word living in the world. Beside one another, we serve a world in need and witness God’s constant work of resurrection and transformation. Beside one another, we sing and the songs of faith imprint deeply with enduring reserves of grace and joy. Beside one another, God’s spirit moves to meet the reality of human suffering with the mystery of hope. Beside one another, in the community of faith is where the love of God continues to appear in surprising and unexpected ways.
We’re calling next Sunday Thanksgiving Sunday, where we’ll hear the testimonies of four congregants talking about what God has been doing in their lives over the last year. If we were celebrating American Thanksgiving, which is around this time, one thing we might do is cast our minds back over the year that has passed, and everything that has happened in it. It will be easy to remember all the stresses, hurts, disappointments, difficult decisions you had to make – and suddenly the prospect of naming something in your life you are grateful for becomes more difficult. And it is true – sometimes, holidays like those are really difficult – like the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one, or a lonely birthday.
But my sisters and brothers in the living, present Christ, open your eyes, take those grey-tinted glasses off, and see those people and things in your life through which God’s love has been made known to you. Look around. Look to the refreshing waters of baptism. Look to the gift of Scripture set before you. Look around this church, and see the members of this sacred community around you. And look at the cross: a reminder of Christ who promised us: “Lo, I am with you always.” Amen.