November 12, 2017
I can hardly hear today's gospel reading without remembering an Advent Sunday probably 5 years ago now. It wasn't a wedding, there were not bridesmaids hoarding their oil, but the persons responsible for filling the advent candles with oil had not done so. And so Arlyce was assigned the task of lighting the candles with no oil and no success—oil lamps, or candles, without oil will not light. The five foolish bridesmaids discovered that and so missed the party.
The 10 bridesmaids in today's story are divided into two camps—those that were wise and those who were foolish. The five wise maids brought extra oil for their lamps; the foolish did not. This morning I want to look into this story with a look at its meaning in Jesus' time and a lesson for us and our church today.
The immediate meaning of this parable was directed at the Jewish leaders. They were the foolish ones who weren't prepared. Here was the bridegroom, the Messiah, the Christ in their midst and they weren't ready. They were so unprepared that they didn't even recognize him as Messiah, and they missed out on the celebration.
Jesus called the bridesmaids without oil foolish, the Greek term is morai. We get our English word moron from it. He is making his point strongly. And we agree...if not that they were “morons” that they were unprepared. Like the Advent candles, we knew the lighting was coming, we even knew the exact time...but no oil. The bridesmaids didn't know the time and so had all the more reason to have extra oil. They needed to be prepared. I don't remember exactly what happened on that Advent morning, but I know neither Arlyce nor the committee in charge of oil were removed from the worship service. Those bridesmaids however were forced to miss the celebration.
I'm reading three books right now...not my preferred way to read. One is on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is written by John MacArthur. He makes an important point about studying the parables of Jesus, “when handling the symbolism of a parable, it is particularly important to keep the central point... in clear focus and resist flights of imaginative fancy.” Now with that warning in place, I'm about to invite you on a bit of imaginative fancy. Keep in mind the true point and the warnings for all of us—be prepared for the Lord at all times and all places. But I'm going to take a look at the wise bridesmaids and suggest that maybe they should not be emulated in our Christian walk today.
It is true that the wise women were prepared; they had extra oil. But they were also holding on to that excess with closed fists. It isn't hard to imagine a way they could have shared the oil and all ten would have been able to enjoy the feast. We live in a world that is often looked at as a dog eat dog system. Those that have the goods feel the need to hold on to what they have. Those without are left to get by the best they can. It's a zero sum game we play. If I give a share of what I have, then I risk missing out. And so we see the need to hold on to every bit we can. A non-zero sum game is one where all are winners. And that is a big part of what Jesus calls us to. Those wise bridesmaids did make the party, but it was at the cost of the others attending as well.
Our church is in the process of making plans for next year—we are working on the budget, the nominating committee is hard at work seeking God's leading for the leadership of the church, and you all have completed your pledge sheets for time, talent and money. As you consider your promises to the work of the church, have you treated your time, talent and money as something you need to carefully hold on to...like the “wise” bridesmaids? Did we carefully guard our goods for ourselves? It is important to be wise in how we commit ourselves, even to the work of the church. But is it possible that we have been so cautious with our “oil” that we may cause someone to miss out on the celebration?
I'm going to be painfully honest here. This is my least favorite time of the year as pastor. Nominating persons for leadership is a difficult process. The committee takes very seriously the opportunity being a leader in the church can bring. They also take into account the reality that there are many here who just are unable to serve anymore. But those who are able... it is a disappointment when I get the word from the committee that they get turned down so often. An excuse we often hear, “I'm not qualified”. Well, let me tell you the truth, none of us is really qualified to be God's workers. We all are fallible human beings. A quote I've used often with our leaders tells a critical truth: “God doesn't call the qualified, God qualifies the called.” I've seen it over and over, people grow into the responsibilities the church has given them. So please, no “I'm not qualified” excuses.
It is also budget time. I'm not one to give sermons on giving to the church. That is a conscience thing between you and God. But it is important to let you know that the session is seeing a financial situation arising... we have lost, through death and from moving away, some of our biggest contributors. We have been on solid footing for a long time, but the last few years has seen a steadily increasing drop in our bank balance. Are we distributing our “oil” to serve the needs of the church?
More important than serving as an officer or your contributions to the church; the giving of ourselves to one another in service, in prayer, in support, in listening, in sharing. We have all heard of the terrible, tragic shooting in the church down in Texas. And we could discuss the meaning of evil acts in our world of faith. And we have and will. But today's message deals with how wise we are with our oil of faith. The pastor of that church said that the victims were not just members or parishioners; they were family. And I think that is how many of us look at our church. And that is why we need to consciously consider just how we might be there for one another. Those church members who survived are called to support one another in love. Here, when Wade was struck down by a 600 lb roll of packing material...we were there with prayers, with cards of support, with donations, facebook messages. All of these were ways many reached out. When a death occurs, we send cards, we pray, we bring food and serve for a funeral. A medical issue arises, we can offer rides to the Dr., send food, pray. I know specific examples of all these things. And yet I see in our parable today, in the flight of my imaginative fancy, the warning against being unprepared---not only unprepared for the appearance of Jesus but unprepared to be Jesus for someone in need. And the hoarding of the oil by the wise bridesmaids I see as a warning against being so consumed with our own needs, our own desires for the party, the prize, that we fail to share. It is a call to examine our lives. None of us has unlimited resources, I understand that. But our willingness to put the needs of others first, our being prepared to be Jesus in times of need is the call of the gospel.
The parable ends with the exhortation to keep awake... to be ready at any time. Our executive Presbyter goes simply by her first name, SanDawna. Concerning the church shootings and the idea to watch and pray that Jesus called for, she wrote this in this week's Valley Bridge, “Watch and pray because the days of judgment are near. These Eschatological beliefs pointed to End Time Theology. Considering today when basic decencies seem to have escaped humanity, watch and pray is a call to stay alert in modern times. We cannot ignore that something is happening. Why the evil? Why this level of violence? Is anything sacred anymore? Life is uncertain, but God's love for us is not. People bring their troubles to church figuratively and literally. How does the church address the multiplicity of these issues? Watch and pray, know the people in your community, build relationships with civil authorities, health care workers and school officials. Be discerning and aware of what's happening around you. Pray with your eyes wide open is a saying that means to seek God while being aware of everyday happenings
These are wise words, reminding us that the admonition to be awake, stay alert, watch and pray is not just a call to be ready for when Jesus comes again. They are words that guide us in our daily walk as a Christian. We are not promised that evil will not touch us in this life...even church is not a refuge from evil. Sadly, our church has been led to work on the evil of child abuse and the evil associated with domestic violences. But this is what the call to be prepared includes; it includes be prepared for evil to raise its ugly head, be prepared to step into the mess and muck of the world of wickedness.
Those “wise” bridesmaids, by hoarding their oil, ended up making the celebration a little less joyful. It had to be hard to be inside while the foolish bridesmaids were at the door, calling out, seeking to be included. Professor Audrey West points out, “Five lamps at full strength provide no more light than ten lamps at half strength. But five extra people at the party would almost surely result in a more substantial celebration.” She points out that neither the wise nor the foolish bridesmaids behaved in a manner worthy of our own calling as servants of Christ. The wise were selfish, the foolish ran off just when they should have been present. “All of them operated on the mistaken belief that the most important thing is the oil, instead of the celebration itself. All ten of them could have walked through the door together. Imagine the celebration that could have been.”1
And so our messages from this parable, two I want to stress: 1. Always be prepared to meet Jesus whenever and however he presents himself to you. 2. Don't hoard your gifts or talents but share in such a way that the celebration of worship, our fellowship is enhanced. We are called to be wise. We are called to be generous. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to share our oil... our time, our gifts, our talents, our prayers, ourselves. Keep awake, be alert for the needs of those around us. Let's live so we all get to celebrate now and for eternity. Amen.
Hymn: Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us 387
1Christian Century October 25, 2017 Living The Word by Audrey West, pg 21