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Sun, Nov 19, 2017

Keeping Our Lamps Lit

Duration:16 mins 18 secs

“Keeping Our Lamps Lit”

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

            The car I drive, a 2002 VW Jetta, is a voracious consumer of motor oil. When the car was newer and under warranty, I took it to the dealer twice about this problem, but no one was ever able to explain why the car used so much oil or to fix it. So I don’t go anywhere without some 10W30 in the trunk. Through bitter experience - having my oil light go on the interstate -I’ve learned to be like the five bridesmaids who brought the extra flask of oil for their lamps.

          To be honest, though, I find the well-prepared bridesmaids a little irritating. It sounds like they are being commended for looking out only for themselves, heartlessly turning their backs on the girls who didn’t plan for every contingency. On the surface, this parable just sounds like conventional wisdom: plan ahead, buy insurance, get your medical checkups, keep your car tuned up, and so forth. But, of course, this is a parable, and the preparation it’s talking about is preparation for the coming of Christ.

          For the Christian communities that first heard this parable, the burning question of the day was What has happened to Jesus? The early Christians thought they were living at the end of history, and that it was only a matter of time before Christ would return to defeat evil forever and usher in a new order of love, peace, and justice. So they lived in a state of eager anticipation, prepared for the inauguration of this new order. They were confident that God’s purposes were being worked out in the world, and that these purposes would be fully revealed in their lifetime. As you can imagine, that expectation had profound effects on the way they lived. If you think that Judgment Day is going to be next week, you are not going to waste your time on trivialities. You are going to make every moment count.

          As time went on, and the world continued in its usual way, disappointment set in. It was all too clear that the world had not been fully redeemed -- that there was still just as much stupidity, indifference, greed, and plain old cruelty in the world as there had ever been. There must have been a tremendous sense of frustration over the bridegroom’s delay. He was taking his sweet time about it, and it was hard to keep up the effort to be ready for him, day after day. So while the bridegroom, Jesus, was delayed, some of those in the bridal party, the church, began to get restless and inattentive.

          That is the context of the parable, and the wedding customs of ancient Palestine are the background. Weddings then were not at all like our weddings, in which the bride’s parents send out invitations several weeks in advance, telling everybody to be at the church at 4:00 on Saturday on such-and-such a date. Wedding times were more approximate - the bridal party would have a general ballpark idea of the day or evening, but the groom was supposed to surprise them. When he and his entourage started out for the bride’s house, a messenger would run ahead of him to let the bride’s family know that the groom was on the way! At that, there would be much excitement and bustling about, as they put the finishing touches on their preparations for the groom’s arrival.

          That is the context for the ten girls with the lamps. They were not necessarily bridal attendants, just a bunch of young girls who were invited to the wedding. It was to be an evening of pure fun for them. They had to bring lamps with them in case the groom decided not to show up until the wee hours of the morning, which is exactly what this groom did. The girls must have waited up quite late, laughing and whispering and talking about boys, but eventually they got sleepy and sacked out on the floor. When they heard the excited shouts announcing the bridegroom’s arrival, they had to wake up quickly, straighten out their clothes and comb their hair, and light their lamps to go into the wedding celebration. But this, according to the parable, was where the women were separated from the girls: only five had had the foresight to bring along some extra oil in case the night grew long and the lamps went out. The girls who had to make an oil run at the last minute got back only to find the door shut, and access to the celebration denied.

There is a tragic quality to the “foolish” girls’ situation. It seems so unfair! The foolish girls were not bad or evil, they were just careless. We might say they were disorganized, and failed to plan ahead. What teenager hasn’t ever failed to plan ahead? There wasn’t really that big a difference between the wise girls and the foolish girls - they all fell asleep! And now here is the bridegroom, the Lord of life, shutting the door in their faces.

          A lot of the commentary I’ve read on this parable tends to be very moralistic in one of two ways. More conservative interpreters tend to condemn the “foolish” bridesmaids for being the kind of people who never have any thought for the future, while more liberal-progressive interpreters condemn the “wise” bridesmaids for their lack of compassion. Both of these approaches miss the point of the parable, which is not to tell us how we should be or what we should do. The point is to tell us that the Bridegroom Christ might be delayed.

          How well we know. Are any of us seriously waiting for Christ to return any day now? For most of us here in the 21st century, this parable has lost its original sense of urgency.

          Even now, though, the parable does its work by stunning us out of complacency. The girls who didn’t bother to bring the oil were not prepared for an unforeseen turn of events. Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t need extra oil, but then circumstances turned out not to be normal. There was a moment of decision, a time to act, and they missed it.

          That is what many of the tragedies of life are all about, isn’t it? It’s in those missed opportunities to speak or act. It’s letting the crucial moment pass: Not saying “I love you” or “I forgive you” to the one person who absolutely needed to hear those words at a certain moment. Working late through a child’s ball game or recital, telling yourself that you’ll make it up to them, and then the chance to make it up never comes. Turning aside from the homeless person who approached you on the street because she just made you feel so uncomfortable. Some of these moments seem inconsequential, there’s just the feeling that you made a mistake, you want a do-over, but the moment is gone. We’ve all had these experiences. Sometimes our failures to act truly are tragic, with consequences that we feel for years; more often, we’re aware of an accumulation of small opportunities we missed.

          A writer named Meghan O’Gieblyn has written about witnessing a mass baptism in Lake Michigan on a late-summer evening. People lined up on the shore in dozens to wait their turn, and you could hear the pastors’ voices repeating again and again, “Buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in fullness of life.” Every time someone emerged from the water, everyone on the beach cheered and clapped. O’Gieblyn, no longer a believer herself, was struck by the beauty of the scene, and of the expressions on the faces of the newly baptized as they rose from the water. And this former Christian made what I think is a profoundly theological observation: She writes of “a conviction that lies beneath the doctrine and theology [of Christianity], a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming; that He has always been coming, which is the same as saying that He will never come; that each of us must find a way to live with this absence and our own, earthly limitations.”

This is the paradox of Christian life: to go forward with faith and hope in the presence of the never-coming, always-coming Lord, to live in a way that reflects our confidence in his presence even as we acknowledge his absence. Another way to say this is that we are always waiting, and probably will always be waiting, but our waiting isn’t empty. That’s because every day gives us opportunities to meet the risen Christ.

Where will we see him? He told us to look for him in the faces of the poor and the hungry, the stranger and the outsider, the broken-hearted and rejected ones, the ones who hunger and thirst for justice. It is among these that we will find him, again and again. And we are to look for him in the faces of each other, as we share each other’s sorrows and bear each other’s burdens.

That’s what it means to be the church: to wait for the One who is never coming and always coming, keeping our lamps lit as we minister to each other and to the world in his name.

Having our lamps lit means being ready for the unexpected arrival of the Bridegroom Christ, whenever and wherever he decides to show up among us. He is coming for one purpose only, for the joy of those who know him and are ready for him.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

November 19, 2017

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