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. To be 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 in A Streetcar Named Desire, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”[1] 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 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. Yes, that 24-year-old version of Craig Lemming was an adorable, confused, sweaty, hot mess! After a successful audition that morning I couldn’t find and thank the 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 complementing my “creative re-imaginings” of the music in the sight singing exercises, beloved Dr. Marilyn Keiser very 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 and I as 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 auditions that would allow me to thrive during my two years at Indiana University. The kind stranger who would give me rides to Trinity every Thursday for Evening Prayer, Holy Eucharist, and Dinner with the Canterbury Fellowship of Indiana University’s Episcopal Campus Ministry, and rides to Trinity every Sunday morning to sing the two services. The kind stranger whose gifts continue to bless countless others today as the Organist and Associate Director of Music at The Washington National Cathedral.[2] The Rev. Benjamin Straley’s kindness, when I was caught lacking, 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 transforms existence and makes all things new[3] – is that the wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish ones. We might even 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.[4]

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.[5]

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 bridegroom’s arrival. The wise bridesmaids knew that an act of love borne from a place or lack results in burn-out for everyone involved. For the foolish bridesmaids, this wisdom is hard won. Perhaps this is the hard-won wisdom that the wise bridesmaids suffered to learn in their own foolish past. A wisdom the foolish bridesmaids wake up to discover the hard way.

I believe that we are waking up to hard-won wisdom in our own time today. Just as the wise and foolish bridesmaids “became drowsy and slept” (Matthew 25:5), too many people in this country keep hitting the snooze button while the ubiquity of mass killings and gun violence increases exponentially. Too many of us have been sleeping through countless alarms as cases of sexual harassment multiply. Far too few of us are only just waking up to this country’s apathy, inertia, and lack of conviction to condemn the idolatry of guns and gun violence and the idolatry of toxic masculinity once and for all. Hundreds of human lives are being sacrificed to these idols of White Supremacy[6] and we need to wake up and tell the truth. As the opening chorus of J.S. Bach’s 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![7]

We must trim our lamps and replenish them with the oil of Wisdom. As a sacred act of resistance, we must cultivate the wise bridesmaids’ hard-won Wisdom through a daily discipline of love: love of God, love of our neighbors, love of ourselves, and love of Creation. The light of Christ which burns in each of us can only be fueled with the oil of Wisdom. In these woeful days when we are tempted to burn out, let us remember today’s Old Testament Lesson, which tells us that:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. (Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16)

Let us continue discerning, seeking out, and fixing our thoughts on Holy Wisdom. Let us carry flasks of Holy Wisdom with us to fuel the lamps we need to reveal the arrival of the presence of Christ which transforms existence and makes all things new. The hour has come and now is. Amen.

[1] Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (New York: New Directions, 2004), 178.

 

[2] https://cathedral.org/staff/benjamin-straley/
[3] Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, touchstone ed. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 174-76.

 

[4] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Fiftieth Anniversary Ed., Harper Perennial Modern Classics (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 54-55.

 

[5] bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: Perennial, 2001), 66-67.

 

[6] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/the-origins-of-public-carry-jurisprudence-in-the-slave-south/407809/

 

[7] 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.