First Congregational Church
November 9, 2014
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“At That Time - At This Time”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
While I was trolling across the internet for some church appropriate jokes about light, I came across one person’s snarky thought. He or she said, “When I was young, I was afraid of the dark. Now, when I get my electric bill, I am afraid of the light.” There was another individual that talked about the economy being so bad that Motel 6 won’t leave the light on anymore. A bumper sticker I saw said, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ Electricians make it happen.”
Our scripture passage this morning is recorded only in the book of Matthew, and is paired with a couple other parables that Jesus perhaps gave to the disciples near the end of his life. We don’t know how much Jesus “knew” about what was coming, but there was at least a sense that his time on the earth was limited, because of all the references to “the kingdom of heaven will be like….” or “When the Son of Man comes in his glory….” So, Naomi, will you please share the one slated for today, please?
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Thank you, Naomi. On one level, this parable can be pretty straightforward, the major elements of the story lending themselves readily to allegory. It is easy to match up each character and event of this story with a real life person or event. That being so easy, we assume that the meaning of the whole story is likewise easy to understand. The bridegroom is Jesus, the ten virgins are people in the church, the oil for the lamps is faith, and the bridegroom's arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of history.
Bat I wonder how this parable sits with all of you, because it’s not very comfortable to me. Didn’t Jesus also say - at one point - that if someone asks you for your coat, to offer your shirt, also? It doesn’t seem very inclusive, or very fair - one arbitrary, permanent solution to a temporary problem. Except that that is life, that some things cannot be undone, no matter how much we wish them to be.
Except that the women are separated by a label: five wise and five foolish, all other factors seem the same. They arrive on time. They wait. They tire and fall asleep. Awakened, they all trim their lamps. But when the bridegroom arrives, five find their oil running out. Were ten lit lamps necessary? Could they have gotten by with just five lit at one time? Then they’d have had three times what was necessary. What made five women bring extra oil to begin with?
Interesting that there is all this mention of a bridegroom, but where was the bride? Perhaps Jesus was implying the often symbolized church as being the bride of Christ. But that gets all complicated if the “virgins” symbolized people in the church. Maybe the passage was more for those early Christians that would carry on after Christ’s death and resurrection. In that generation or so that scanned the skies - setting their sights and hopes on Christ’s quick return - needed to remember - that there is yet more than we are aware - that not even Christ knew the day or time of his return.
I don’t know how I got there, but oliveoilsource.com said that olive trees are some of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world - being grown before written language was invented. Baring disease or physical destruction, an olive tree may live forever - having no known life span. Greek mythology portrayed olive trees and oil to be a greater gift than power or might. Perhaps the light that the lamps brought represented the heat, food, medicine and perfume that also come from such a tree.
It’s interesting how Jesus ended this parable. He didn’t say that one sister had to share her oil with another sister, and there was no guilting about woulda, coulda and shoulda. Interesting that Jesus’ last words - in this parable - were not about light, but about keeping watch. “Therefore - not just those with a little, not just those with much, but everyone - keep watch.” Interesting correlation between these women and the disciples that couldn’t stay awake during Jesus’ last night in the garden. It is interesting that his words seem to be for all of us - foolish and wise - labeled and unlabeled alike.
It was Steve Garnaas-Holmes that provided an interesting path to this passage. He writes poems, many based on the lectionary passages of the week. So the one he wrote for this week went like this.
The wise maidens went in,
and reveled in the party, the noise,
the light and warmth, the joy
of the bride and groom...
looked around, and half of their friends
half the party gone,
the feast of faithful love undone,
the marriage gutted—
and only then they knew:
they could have shared their light
and then had more.
In times of darkness
neither folly nor wisdom
is worth light, worth mercy,
It was at that point that I looked at how this parable began “At That Time” and realized that there is also “at this time” - our time. And then I remembered that this is a parable - not a regaling of an event or moment in Jesus’ life. “At that time” the people had only that much sight. “At this time,” we have a greater breadth of vision, so we have a greater ability to be, as Bailey and Zolton sang for us, lights that can shine and give hope to those who need it. Even when our lights have been temporarily darkened, we have Christ’s resurrection hope to strengthen us and help us, to shine on us so that we are not ever in the dark. “There’s work to be done, So you’ve got to shine on” were the last of the lyrics that our guests sang today.
We always do well to pay mind to the idea of being prepared spiritually: from prayer and acts of charity to giving of our resources. When we do those things, conscious of the fact that we do those things as acts of worship, because they mean something to us, we can better appreciate what we receive - now, in the past and in the future.
How much richer are we, that we can read these holy words, adding layers of history and time and experience to them, that these words are not simply locked in time, but span time? How rich are we that we live in a place where we can question God, not necessarily because of doubt, but to increase faith, and we don’t have to fear imprisonment or death because of our questions? What comfort, that eternity won’t require anything of us, except to be - most especially in God’s presence. For such gifts and grace, so shall we thank God.
We are most grateful, gracious God, for the largesse of life, from light to freedom, seeking of knowledge to appreciation of faith. Help us to be aware of those “extra oil” moments, when we can take up extra faith or grace or life, to fill our lamps of life, so that others may join us in joy and peace. Reveal ways in which we can provide oil to those around us, that they can do the same for the wave of people beyond them. Thank you, most importantly, for your son, who came to be our light and life. In his light, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.