First Congregational Church
November 12, 2017
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Oil For Our Lamps”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In honor of our recent holiday, How do you get the most apples at Halloween? Take a snorkel. What is the left side of an apple? The part that you don't eat. Why didn’t the two worms go into Noah’s ark in an apple? Because everyone had to go in pairs! What did the worm want to do when he grew up? He wanted to join the Apple Core (Corps).
Apparently someone asked the great Martin Luther, “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow?” And apparently his answer was, “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.” Not necessarily the answer any one of us might have guessed.
Our gospel passage today has nothing to do with apples, but the longer you look at it, the more questions bob to the surface. The passage is part of a larger sermon Jesus delivered two days before his final Passover, that starts way back in chapter 24, as Jesus is taking leave of a long day, teaching in the temple that started three chapters before that - according to Matthew’s accounting. He had to have been exhausted, dealing with the crowds that wanted a revolution and the plotting of the Pharisees and friends to get rid of him - and probably knowing something about his time on earth ending. So it’s no wonder that this parable is a little on the dark side.
Before Linda comes up to read the passages, I will encourage you all to pick up those pew Bibles and turn to page 1540, so you can read along, because I’d like to discover the holes your brains see in it.
While you’re doing that, and as for the second passage from today’s lectionary, it continues the letter written to the Thessalonians; a letter of encouragement to the church Paul had planted that seemed to be doing the best in balancing their lives in light of their new faith - as compared to other churches Paul had planted. It may seem odd, Paul reminding those early Christians about Christ’s return, but then, it was a letter written approximately 19 years after Christ’s death. I don’t know about any of you, but about all I can remember from 19 years ago is that it was my first year here, getting to know about this beautiful place, this delightful little church and the precious folks that have hung together while walking their - your - walks of faith. I am sure that I have forgotten a few things that happened in those early months, as I’m sure all the rest of you have forgotten a few things from 19 years ago.
“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.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Thank you, Linda. As I mentioned earlier, I am curious to see what some of you see - or don’t see - in the passage from Matthew. So go ahead, raise your ponderences.
Thank you all for your insights. It’s so tempting to assign roles in parables. The bridegroom would be Jesus, the ten virgins would be the people in the church, the oil for the lamps would be faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival would be the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment. Rev. Hoezee also asked a great question, “Where is the bride, and who or what would she represent?”
Weren’t we taught - at least in Kindergarten if not before - that we’re supposed to share with others? And didn’t Jesus say, ““If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”?
Steve Garnaas-Holmes had a great take on this parable. “Everybody in the story fails to be there for each other. The “wise” maidens could have shared. It wouldn't have killed them. But they make their sisters go shopping at midnight— and are happy to go to the party without them. They're not willing to be there for the others.
And the groom—in what way is he not a jerk? He won't let his friends come to the party—because they're late? After he himself has made them wait all night??And on top of that he insults them, saying, “I don't know you!” He vaporizes his friendship over
tardiness? Wow. What a prince of selfishness.”
Rev. Hoezee goes on. “So what's Jesus up to in this story? I think he's setting us up. We're so anxious to “get” the story, to believe something pious about it, to judge between wise and foolish, we miss the actual relationships—like the maidens out buying moral-of-the-story oil instead of just being there. Sometimes we're obsessed with our lamps instead of with each other. It really doesn't matter what we think, or how much “oil in our lamps” we have, or how well others meet our expectations. What matters is that we're there for each other.”
And Rev. Garnaas-Holmes final point is to “Pray that you might run out of oil, having given it away to be there for someone in need. Trust the Bridegroom will be happy for you to be there.“ Now that’s just one way to look at it.
Rev. Janet Hunt is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois, and her comments were a little closer to home - likening the passage to having a fully stocked pantry, but in the midst of the old family recipe, realizing that you are out of the one ingredient that makes the banana icebox dessert as sinful as it really is. So off to the store you go. Or having all the other sized sockets but the one you need to fix the bathtub. So off to the store you go. It’s not really about being foolish or wise, but about realizing that sometimes we forget that we need extra oil - or to check our oil containers.
Rev. Hunt talked about a particularly difficult week, one of those weeks that are as heartbreaking as they are dry, sprinkled with a measure of brokenness and unable to do anything but pray. She said she was surprised that she actually slept that night, because the week was wrapped in preparations for a weekend presentation she was to give and the next day was her annual physical.
Rev. Hunt said she was surprised that as she sat in her doctor’s office that afternoon, that the tears kept threatening to come. And she was even more surprised when the doctor asked how she was - and she told him. She said that, “in the next moments, for just an instance, my doctor became my pastor. Truly. For he spoke then of John 4 and urged me to return to the ‘fresh water’ which is always mine, always ours. In the image before us now, he held out the promise that the oil is always there for our lamps. All we have to do is receive it.
And isn’t this so? For today’s parable does not speak of there being a shortage of ‘oil for our lamps.’ It speaks only of those five bridesmaids forgetting that they would need it. As I sometimes do. As too often I do as well.”
“We have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return,’ she said. We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.”
Then Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga. pointed out that “the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach…. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed.”
And then there is the Rev. Dinah Haag’s thought that combined with someone else’s thought that she couldn’t remember - of remembering how Jesus started the parable. “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like”…. Maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about the short view, but the long view, the view that Paul alludes to in 1 Thessalonians. The short view is the one that sees the imminent end of everything, so there is no need to worry about taking care of the environment, working on long-term peace strategies among the nations and/or nurturing faith to deal with issues that may crop up in the future.
The long view isn’t the one that simply gazes at the horizon, waiting for Jesus to ride up on a nice piece of horse-flesh, either. It is the understanding that keeping our oil lamps trimmed and burning is about keeping “our lights shining as signs of promise and hope.” There is, I suppose, a great allure to think that this promise and hope stuff is not very practical. But what if, instead of it being the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas it was the First Congregational Church of Frankfort, MI?
Please understand, I’m not going for fear and paranoia here. But if we were in their steads, how much would we pay for hope and light? Or what if it were another sort of issue that would threaten the connection of the brothers and sisters we call our church family? We would, I’m sure, appreciate all the “oil” we could get from others, but maybe our passage reminds us to top off our own oil cans.
Maybe we need to remember that until Christ comes again, there are people to visit - in nursing homes and at home - not just by me - but by all of us - perhaps most especially to people we don’t really know well. Maybe you could use the introduction of “Dinah said we were supposed to find someone to visit, so I chose you.” Maybe we, like Martin Luther, need to do some seed planting for the future - regardless of whose future it might be.
Or maybe we need to not just think about other people that come to mind, but whoever comes to mind, that we lift up a real prayer for him or her. The thing is that while the prayer may be about the other person, it is also about us, about keeping our hearts supple and robust - oil cans filled and all. So let us start the refilling with some of that very prayer.
God of hearts and souls, we thank you for those individuals who have shared their oils of faith and light with us in the past, especially for those we may never realize had a part in who we are today. We pray for hope and promise for those you send our way, whether through our ears or our eyes or our hands, that we can help those people fill or refill their faith vessels. And we pray, too, that you remind us to lift our heads to see the further goal, of that life that will not require oil cans or lamp trimming or tear drying or worry or any of the other stones that can trip us in this life. Bless the oil of faith you have given each of us, that we can do more for you than we may ever anticipate. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.