Saturday, March 18, 2023

“The Oil We Carry With Us” - March 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

With the possible exception of the NCAA Tournament, there is nothing like a wedding.  Weddings can be wonderful, joyful occasions.  And because there is often a large gathering of friends and family and there is a lot of emotion involved, weddings can provide for drama – all sorts of drama.  It is interesting how many Biblical stories have to do with weddings – Jesus attending a wedding, even turning water into wine, or Jesus telling a story about a wedding.  We had one such story last week, about guests who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet, and now again this morning, we have another parable about a wedding.

I remember officiating for a wedding a number of years ago.  The bride and groom were from Nigeria, just a delightful couple.  It was the day of the wedding, and past time to start the ceremony, and the bride had not arrived.  The pianist was an acquaintance of the couple with a limited repertoire.  She had run out of music for the prelude and I told her to just put it on a loop – go back and play what she had over again, and again after that if need be.

About 30 minutes after the announced time of the ceremony, the bride arrived.  This turned out to be a tradition in her culture that the Nigerian guests knew about but some of us did not.  It is not a good look for a bride to arrive early for the ceremony – it looks like she is too eager to get married.  So the bride arrives late.  Kind of a cool tradition that I wish I had known about.

In the story Jesus tells, it is the groom who is late in arriving.   We are not told the reason why, but it is apparently unexpected.

There are ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom’s arrival.  These are not necessarily the equivalent of today’s bridesmaids.  The Greek word means virgin or young woman.  These young women seem to play an unofficial if not official function at the wedding.  Their job is to greet and welcome the bridegroom.  He is kind of like “king for a day” and part of the celebration is for him to be welcomed with fanfare.

It is apparently in the evening, as they have lamps.  And it takes a while for the bridegroom to arrive, longer than they expect.  The pianist has played that same set of songs like 20 times by now and she is still playing.  This is not a planned late entrance, or the bridesmaids would have been expecting it.  He is just plain late.   

It takes so long, in fact, that after a while the bridesmaids fall asleep, all ten of them.  Finally, around midnight, they awake to shouting and commotion.  The bridegroom was arriving.  So they trimmed their lamps and prepared to go meet the bridegroom.  But he is so late that the oil in the lamps is running out.  Five of the ten bridesmaids have brought extra oil, just in case.  Those without extra oil asked the others if they could have some oil.  But the bridesmaids who had prepared said, “No, there’s not enough to go around.  You need to go to the oil dealers and buy some more oil.”

And so the foolish bridesmaids go looking for oil at midnight while the five wise bridesmaids meet the bridegroom and go with him into the wedding banquet.  

The five foolish bridesmaids somehow find an oil dealer willing to sell them oil at midnight, or maybe they had a 24 hour Wal-Mart.  Those bridesmaids eventually returned with oil in their lamps.  Good for them.

Except that by then, the door to the banquet is shut and they will not be let in.  They cry, “Lord, Lord, let us in,” but the reply is “Truly, I do not know you.”

This just seems so petty.  “I do not know you?”  And it seems so out of character, so unlike Jesus.  What if Jesus followed this kind of thinking throughout his ministry?

So much for the feeding of the 5000.  Instead, it would be the story of the boy who ate lunch while 4,999 unprepared slackers watched.  So much for “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We would have to revise Matthew 7:7-8 to read “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers the door, in which case you are out of luck.”  
This parable seems to fly in the face of some of the key teachings of Jesus, and ignoring others in need is really not what we want to teach our children about God.  

What is up with this?  Why wouldn’t the so-called wise bridesmaids share?  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  It doesn’t make heaven a very hospitable place, does it?

Why didn’t the wise ones just say, “Here, you can share my lamp with me”?  Five lamps would provide more than enough light.  That seems like a reasonable solution.  And what about being locked out when they come back late with their oil?  It seems way too harsh.  

Just a few weeks ago, we read the story in Matthew 20 of the workers hired at the end of the work day who get paid the same as the early morning hires.  Locking out the latecomers seems to be exactly the opposite of what we read just a few chapters ago.

The Moral of the Prepared Yet Selfish Bridesmaids is not what we want to teach about Christian living.  Following Jesus is not about holding on tightly to what I have because sorry, there just isn’t enough to go around.

Although - I do have to admit that this story has some appeal to me because I do like to be prepared.  I remember a mission trip years ago, when we were in Illinois.  Four churches in our small town joined together for a youth mission trip to the Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City (where some of you have been).  

The adult leaders were me, another pastor, a college student who was a summer youth director, and Frances Atteberry, a member of our church.  Frances was around 80 and she was like everybody’s grandma on this trip.  And she had everything with her.  If you needed a band-aid or Tylenol or Benadryl or Pepto-Bismol or if you needed a needle and thread or a deck of playing cards or you forgot your toothbrush, Frances had you covered.

Frances was as prepared as a person could be.  I mean, there is a lot to be said for being prepared.  The difference between Frances and these bridesmaids is that Frances brought all of this stuff to take care of others, while these Wise Bridesmaids were prepared to take care of themselves.

Is that the deep meaning of this story?  Be prepared?  Is this passage nothing that the Boy Scouts or our insurance agent couldn’t have told us?  Be prepared, along with Look Out For #1?  Hang on to your oil, only a fool gives it away?  

That would make the kingdom of heaven no different than the kingdoms of earth.  I can’t believe this is it.  There has to be more to it.

You know, we’ve all had our oil run out.  You know as well as I do what that looks like.  We’ve all felt spiritually drained at times.  

You are already feeling frazzled, down to your last nerve, and your kids ask what’s for dinner, and you say tuna casserole, and they roll their eyes, and you lose it.  You’re out of oil.  

Just when things can’t get any worse, they somehow do.  You feel like throwing in the towel – you are out of oil.

When the gauge in the car is on E, you know that you will soon run out of gas.  When a 2-year old doesn’t get her nap, she is going to be cranky – you can count on it.  If you have been working 60 or 70 hour weeks for weeks on end, relationships are going to suffer.  It’s just the way it is.  If you don’t keep in contact with a friend, the friendship will weaken.  These are all things we can count on.  And if you don’t keep oil in the lamp, the flame will go out.

We are called to be the light of the world, but we can’t light anything without oil in our lamp.

The oil is what keeps our spirits alive.  Our oil is our spiritual vitality.

And the thing is, this is oil that you cannot borrow from anyone else.  Some things cannot be given away.  Students might borrow somebody else’s homework, but you can’t borrow the hours they spent studying for the test.  You can’t borrow peace of mind or happiness or contentment.  You can’t see another’s joy and say, “Hey, can I have some of that?”  You can’t borrow another’s passion for God.  And you can’t just get by on the glow of another person’s spirit.

There comes a time when all you have is the oil you carry with you.  Just like the parable, time will run out.   Matthew wrote to Christians who expected Jesus’ imminent return, and it speaks to that need to be ready, but it says much more than that.  There are all sorts of events we face when life is suddenly turned upside-down and there is no time to prepare, and all we are left with is the oil we are carrying with us.

A tornado or earthquake or fire or flood comes with little warning, and life is suddenly turned upside-down.

A routine visit to the doctor’s office brings a diagnosis of a serious illness and things change in an instant.  

You go to work on an ordinary-enough day and learn that the company is filing chapter 11 and everyone is out of a job effective immediately.

You learn that someone close to you has been arrested for drugs and will probably spend the next 10 years in jail.  You didn’t have a clue.  

You suddenly learn the truth about a person you love, and find they are not the person you had thought.  The pain is sudden and deep.

These and a thousand other sudden changes in life are things we cannot see coming.  When they happen, you have to have oil in your lamp.

We prepare for sudden upheavals in life and we prepare to meet God face to face the same way God calls us to live each day.  By cultivating our relationship with God, we prepare ourselves for those things we cannot prepare for.  If we have never prayed, it is hard to learn in the midst of a crisis.  It is hard to find support and encouragement from a caring community of faith if that kind of community is not a part of our life.  We can’t call on our reserve of grace and peace and faith and hope if we don’t have such a reserve.  These are not things we can borrow from anybody else.    

It is the smaller, daily choices we make that really shape our lives.  Those daily choices are the ones that decide whether or not we will have oil in our lamps when the time comes.  

This text has been used and misused over the years.  Some church folks have used it as a way to scare folks straight – you better be ready or you’ll get locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I think that misses the point.  This is not about fear.  And you don’t stockpile oil so that you can look down on the poor saps who don’t have any.  We fill our lamps with anticipation and joy.

And when does the bridegroom arrive for us?  Where do we meet Jesus?  It’s right there for us in this same chapter of Matthew, just a few verses later.  In fact, we will look at this more next week:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

Ironically, we fill our spiritual tank by doing what those bridesmaids would not do: by sharing what we have and caring for those in need.  This is where we meet Jesus.  This is is where we fill our flasks of oil.  And this is where we gather the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Things we cannot borrow from our neighbor.  

Through faithful living, day by day, we fill our flasks of oil.

Give us oil in our lamps, keep it burning, burning, burning
Give us oil in our lamps we pray.

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