Bring Something to the Table Matthew 25:1-13 November 12, 2017
A couple of weeks ago we received an invite to a Halloween party hosted by my son’s new Scout Troop. “Please bring beverages or food to share,” the invitation read. I was immediately overwhelmed, imagining the epic offerings everyone else would bring to the table. For a few months now we have been living in a nation full of people that judge bigger as better. When kids at the high school in our neighborhood coordinate Super Bowl-worthy halftime shows for their weekly football games complete with singing, dancing and costumes, imagine what they (and their parents) might whip up for a pot luck!
As the kind of person whose go-to contribution for a pot luck is usually a platter of veggies I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having to contribute something epic. And since I didn’t believe epic was possible for me I told myself that nobody at the Scout party would miss whatever I was likely to bring to the table. I talked myself out of making a contribution. I told myself that I didn’t have time, that I was already committed to other causes, that I should really just get out and enjoy life and head to the beach and before I knew it the party had started and I was stuck in traffic and there was no possibility of bringing anything to the table. I had been so good at talking myself down from contributing anything meaningful that I was now in the bind of not being unable to contribute anything at all. Honestly, I said to my son, it will be fine to show up empty-handed; nobody will miss our contribution.
I wonder if that same thought crossed the mind of those “foolish” bridesmaids: nobody will miss our contribution. I don’t know what their schedules were like in the days leading up to the party but I don’t think there has ever been a time in human history where people haven’t felt overwhelmed by all that is asked of them. Perhaps these bridesmaids felt that if they couldn’t bring an epic offering to the wedding party – enough oil for every person in attendance, for example – then it really didn’t matter if they brought anything at all. Counting on the likelihood that others would make an extraordinary effort I wonder if the foolish bridesmaids reasoned that nobody would miss their contribution. And, like me, they didn’t think they would be judged.
Matthew’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids confronts us with one of the central tenets of the Christian faith: the belief that God calls us to contribute, that God calls us to bring something to the table. And in the stories of our faith it seems as though God when God expects an epic offering – to go big. God called Abraham to “leave [his] country, [his] people and [his] father’s household,” to leave the life that he knew and his comfortable existence. Come and follow Me, God says, bring something to the table, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God called Moses saying, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt;” get going and bring something to the table, you have something to contribute. God called Esther through Mordecai, “who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this,” he says. A whole people are in peril so bring something to the table.
I think it’s fitting that Matthew’s story of the Ten Bridesmaids takes place in the middle of the night. In the middle of the night there is no light unless one generates it – like the bridesmaids with the oil and the lamps – and generating light in the middle of the night can feel like an epic task. At times it feels as though huge parts of our world and even aspects of our personal lives are stuck in the middle of a long night. A pastor in Texas who is a part of my program met with local police this past week to talk about how to keep her congregation safe from gun violence at church. As Christians we believe we are called to step in and step up, but when we judge the power of our own two hands against the vast levels of need it can feel as though we’ve been handed a toothpick and asked to move all the sand on the beach. It is easy to talk ourselves out of trying to bring anything to the table if we are uncertain whether our contribution will make much of a difference.
“How much oil will you need?” the vendor asked the group of bridesmaids, “When is the bridegroom expected?” I imagine the first bridesmaid frowned, she didn’t know – later today, tomorrow, the next day – they might be waiting all night. And that’s when the other bridesmaids piped up, “Are we really expected to bring enough oil to last the whole night?” “How will we carry it?” “How will we pay for it?” And so the first bridesmaid started to second-guess the wisdom of the effort; it wasn’t as though the extra light would make the dawn appear any sooner. So why go big? The bridesmaids come across as distracted and unprepared, but I wonder if their trouble isn’t a deeper cynicism. I wonder if the foolish bridesmaids don’t bring extra oil because they truly believe that any light they could contribute won’t actually make the world any brighter, that they can’t bring anything more than what has already been brought, and so their recourse is to talk themselves out of contributing at all.
But the wise know that capacity need not limit contribution. One of the most nourishing meals I have ever had was at the home of a newcomer who had come to Canada as a refugee from Syria. I was part of a group that was helping to sponsor his partner. He had asked me to come over for lunch as a gesture of thanks, but I had agreed to go in order to check up on him, to see how he was doing. I wasn’t expecting him to bring much to the table; I’m embarrassed to say I considered his capacity limited, because he was new to Canada and didn’t have the means. But on a grey day in January and I was invited into a kitchen that was warm and smelled like comfort. As we talked he pulled out the food – kefte and spicy pickled vegetables and salad and hummus and fresh bread. At the time my husband had been away for a number of months and so we talked about surviving without our loved ones and we talked about France (where we’d both spent some time). We ended the meal with a miniature cup of the richest Arabic coffee and a honey and pistachio-filled pastry for dessert.
One of the symbols we use in the Christian faith to imagine the realm of God is the symbol of a party to which everyone is invited; the realm of God is like a feast, we say, and it’s for the whole world. As Christians we believe God calls us to join in and to eat, but we also believe that God calls us to bring something to table. I’m throwing a party, God says, bring beverages and food to share. The mistake we make is in thinking our contribution needs to be epic in order to be considered worthwhile. Of course we are overwhelmed if we think the entire effort rests on our shoulders and so we need to remember: God’s feast is a pot luck. We are not called to plan the whole feast, just to bring something – one thing! – to the table. Though it may feel at times as though we have been tasked with feeding the whole world, in fact we’ve just been asked to bring a little something to the Scout party or to that sad and lonely looking woman who is a part of your refugee sponsor group whose husband is currently out of town. What our world doesn’t need in these violent times, as the epidemics of racism and sexism continue to sicken, as our climate continues to change more quickly than we can adapt to it are whole groups of people who talk themselves out of bringing something to the table. When you’re stuck in the middle of a night as long as this one it is vital that people bring some light.
God didn’t overwhelm Abraham right away with a call to bless all the people of the earth, God called Abraham to walk with God, to take just one step. God didn’t call Moses to get the people of Israel to the Promised Land tomorrow, God called Moses to go to the Pharaoh. God didn’t call Esther to overturn the entire Babylonian empire, God called her to protect one person, her uncle Mordecai. Capacity does not determine the value of a contribution, in fact, the biggest and most meaningful contributions often start small. I wandered out to the backyard and over to the food table when I dropped my son off at the Scout party, late and empty-handed. I didn’t see any cakes worthy of a post on Pinterest or a complicated casserole or homemade dips; I saw a few bags of chips and some pop and an empty space that would have been just the right size for my platter of veggies.
Fools, though they have all kinds of capital and power look at the world and can’t see what more they could possibly contribute. Fools believe that any light they might add in the middle of the night won’t make the dawn come any sooner. Fools hear God’s call to bring something to the table and think nobody will miss their contribution. But how deep the wisdom of those who, when they hear that same call, believe that their contribution has an effect beyond their capacity. It is a courageous wisdom – the boldest conviction – to believe that even with our limits we have something to give, something for which we couldn’t bear the world to miss, a light to tend, an offering to bring to the table. It takes wisdom to understand that each one of us – despite age, despite ability, despite circumstance – has so much to bring to the table as to be irreplaceable at the feast God has planned. The foolish say it won’t be big enough so why bother, but the wise wonder how they could possibly deny the world all that they have to give?
Over the next few weeks as we move closer to the end of the church year the theme of judgement comes up in every one of our weekly readings. I hope we can reclaim this word, to steer it away from notions of punishment and to hear judgement as sound reasoning, healthy perspective, deep discernment. The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids doesn’t want to judge us so much as it wants to encourage us to judge our capabilities wisely. Jesus brought bread and wine, shared what he had, passed it around. God invites us to a feast and it’s a pot luck – let’s bring our whole selves to the table.