Craig Lemming, Associate Rector, Sunday, November 12, 2023
In the name of God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The foolish bridesmaids move my heart to pity. I feel sorry for them because I know what it feels like to be caught lacking. To not have enough. To have run out of oil. To have run out of time. To be told there isn’t enough. To have missed the bridegroom. To be locked out and forgotten. My pity for the foolish ones also comes from knowing what it feels like to experience what Blanche DuBois hallows with her heartbreaking line from A Streetcar Named Desire, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” In fact, the story of how I became an Episcopalian begins with the kindness of a stranger who pitied me when I, like one of the foolish bridesmaids, was found lacking at the last minute.
It was a frantic morning at Indiana University: my first week as a graduate student in the prestigious Jacobs School of Music. I had an audition to get to. I was in the photocopying room furiously making copies of an aria I was due to sing in a few minutes, and as I got to the final page, I completely ran out of money. I was panicked and desperate for ten cents that refused to appear in any of my pockets, in my satchel, or even under the photocopying machine. By God’s grace, in walked a stranger, who smiled calmly, and handed me the change I needed. I thanked him profusely, finished my photocopying, and sprinted to the audition before I could learn his name. That 24-year-old Craig Lemming was an overworked, underpaid, anxious, exhausted, and unprepared fool! He’s probably the reason why I care so much about young adults. After a successful audition I couldn’t find and thank that kind stranger who helped me. Later that afternoon, I arrived at Trinity Episcopal Church for another audition; this time for the tenor position in the Church Choir. After overlooking my “creative re-imaginings” of the sight-singing exercises, the beloved Dr. Marilyn Keiser graciously offered me the tenor position and invited me to come to her choir rehearsal that very evening. So, when I returned to the Church later, I followed the sound of the piano to the choir room. As I walked in, there he was at the keyboard: the kind stranger from the photocopying room earlier that morning who turned out to be Dr. Keiser’s Organ Scholar. The kind stranger whose pity helped me to win the audition that would help me to thrive during my two years at Indiana University. The kind stranger who invited me to Trinity every Thursday for Evening Prayer, Holy Eucharist, and Dinner with the Episcopal Campus Ministry’s young adult group, and rides to Trinity every Sunday morning to sing the two services. The kind stranger who went on the be the former Organist of the Washington National Cathedral, whose gifts continue to bless countless others today as the Rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. The Reverend Benjamin Straley’s kindness, when I was caught lacking at the eleventh hour, is the beginning of how I became an Episcopalian.
The problem with today’s parable: an allegory of the Parousia – the longed-for arrival of the presence of Christ which makes all things new – is that the wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish ones. We might be tempted to think of them as selfish. Are the wise bridesmaids selfish? Perhaps there is another way to interpret their wisdom. In his book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm writes:
The idea expressed in the Biblical “Love thy neighbor as thyself!” implies that respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparably connected with the love for any other being.
In her book, All About Love, bell hooks echoes Fromm when she states:
We need to rid ourselves of misguided notions about self-love. We need to stop fearfully equating [self-love] with self-centeredness and selfishness… We can give ourselves the unconditional love that is the grounding for sustained acceptance and affirmation. When we give this precious gift to ourselves, we are able to reach out to others from a place of fulfillment and not from a place of lack.
If the wise bridesmaids shared their oil with the foolish ones, they would have all been found lacking. All of their lamps would have burned out. All of them would have missed the wedding banquet. The wise bridesmaids knew that an act of love borne from a place of lack results in burn-out for everyone involved. For the foolish bridesmaids, this wisdom is hard won. Perhaps this is hard-won wisdom that the wise bridesmaids had already suffered to learn in their own foolish past. A wisdom the foolish bridesmaids wake up to discover and learn the hard way.
I believe the best teachers, artists, and clergy have powerful stories behind their own hard-won wisdom. They accompany us through life’s painful lessons and only after we arrive at the other side of hard-won wisdom, can teachers, artists, and clergy help us to fill our own flasks with the oil of that hard-won wisdom. It may take generations of heartbreak before our foolish bridesmaids finally learn the wisdom of bringing flasks of this hard-won oil to keep their souls ablaze with love.
We are waking up to an abundance of hard-won wisdom in our own time today. Wise and foolish bridesmaids are everywhere. When we’re paying attention, we recognize the wise ones, doing faithful, daily, quiet, inner work to replenish their spiritual fuel. The broken relationships; addictions; mental illnesses; burn out; ennui; and fatigue that threaten to overwhelm us will never have the final word because wise bridesmaids are often hidden in plain sight. If you look for it, their lamp light never fails to illuminate the presence of God; the Wisdom of Christ; and the Creativity of the Holy Spirit. Their voices, their words, and their wisdom echo deeply within us; clearly and quietly calling us back into the goodness, truth, and beauty of God. In this eleventh-hour world we live in, J.S. Bach’s timeless Cantata 140 beautifully insists:
This is the hour of midnight,
Calling us with a clear voice:
Where are your wise bridesmaids?
Prepare! The bridegroom is coming;
Arise and take up your lamps!
Darlings, we have a wedding banquet to attend! It’s time to prepare! But how?
My clergy and staff colleagues and Circle of the Beloved young adults often tease me about the words I’m about to preach. I repeatedly say these words which come from my inner community of wise bridesmaids, including Dr. Marilyn Kaiser, who remind me on this journey to:
Drink your water.
Take a nap.
Eat a healthy snack.
Go and walk in God’s Creation.
Study the best poetry, scripture, and prose.
Commune silently with art.
Listen to sublime music.
Connect with your loved ones.
Serve others in community.
The wise bridesmaids’ lamps are lit and they are waiting for us to join them. Christ the bridegroom, both Host and Guest, is always arriving. Will we do the work of love to prepare for God’s continuous arrival? May our flasks of Holy Wisdom be full. May our lamplight illuminate Christ’s presence with those suffering through bleak eleventh hours. May we be prepared for God’s love to be manifested by us, and with us, and in us, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, so that no one is lacking, or locked out, and all people can journey together into Christ’s wedding feast. Amen.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (New York: New Directions, 2004), 178.
 Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, touchstone ed. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 174-76.
 Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Fiftieth Anniversary Ed., Harper Perennial Modern Classics (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 54-55.
 bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: Perennial, 2001), 66-67.
 Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantatas: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 and Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, with The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, and John Eliot Gardiner, Archiv Produktion, Deutsche Grammophon, 431 809-2, CD, 1992.