Sermon for November 9, 2014
22A Pentecost, Proper 27
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; Ps. 70; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13
Ok let’s call a spade a spade. This is one tough gospel. First there are those weird (to us) first century wedding customs. (If you want to know more about that come see me.) And there are these “wise” bridesmaids who refuse to share. And then there is this harsh judgment language, doors shut in the face because they didn’t have enough oil. What’s going on?
The context is the in-between time. Jesus of Nazareth has come and gone, and we’re awaiting his coming again. In the life of faith, especially to the community of Jesus followers in the years after his death, this time was acute and dangerous. They had to worry about poseurs pretending to be Jesus followers who were trying to infiltrate their community. They were worried about survival, and struggling to be faithful as a community in the midst of it. Matthew is speaking from within this community. Matthew is also reminding his hearers of that other in-between time, as Jesus of Nazareth is approaching his last days and counseling his followers about how they are to live faithfully after he is gone, in preparation for when he will come again.
Living in the “in-between” time
Our faith challenge in this regard has a different cast to it, but it is very much a way of being in an in-between time. It is an “is and is-not-yet” kind of time. We get glimpses of the kingdom — that is, things as God intends — but clearly it is not yet fulfilled. In the kingdom of God all are fed. But today there are many people who go hungry. There are children killed by guns. We scapegoat the other out of fear. We have plenty of reminders that we are not yet living in the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. And yet the kingdom of God is very near to us, and we get glimpses.
So the question of how to live in this in-between time is what this parable is speaking to. It is not the first, last and only word on this subject! We might understand the entire Gospel as speaking to how we are to live in this in-between time, and I suggest the best place to go for the basics are the beatitudes in Matthew 5, which we heard last week. But today’s gospel has some particulars to it that are helpful, if we can avoid getting bogged down in perplexing first-century wedding customs and not be too readily put off by the heavy judgment language. We’ve heard it several times in recent weeks — certain characters in the Gospel of Matthew run into serious problems. They are cast out to where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” locked out of a banquet by the one who presumably invited them in the first place, they are tossed into “outer darkness,” or punished in “eternal fire.” What is it that is so serious as to warrant such dire warnings?
Only our life. The life that only you can live.
The text tells us that there are 10 bridesmaids, and that 5 are wise and 5 are foolish. What makes the wise wise and the foolish foolish? We have to draw inferences, because we note that in many ways the two groups are the same. They all go to meet the bridegroom. They all wait. They all get drowsy and fall asleep when he is delayed. But there are two critical differences. The first is of course is that the foolish aren’t prepared for delay and don’t bring extra oil. So when the bridegroom comes they realize their lamps will go out, so they ask the wise bridesmaids to share with them. And they say no. Now this not-sharing doesn’t sound very Christian, and is one of the reasons why this is one of the thorniest of parables. It simply can’t be shoehorned into some tidy ethical teaching about being nice. But I suggest that the reason they don’t share the oil is that they can’t share the oil; the oil is unsharable. So this oil is clearly a metaphor for something that you and only you can do, that someone else can’t do for you and can’t give you.
On one level we can understand this “oil” as living in readiness. The entire Gospel of Matthew talks about what this looks like. Our baptismal covenant talks about what this looks like. We have talked before about how the Kingdom of God is both already in our midst and is not yet. To live in readiness is to live as though the kingdom is already here. A kingdom where we are all beloved and we act as though we know it. And I don’t know about you, but I need my faith community to help me with this. We rely upon one another and upon the best of our traditions to sustain us when doubt and fatigue prove overwhelming. We forgive each other, study holy scripture, baptize people into a new identity, and share a meal to recognize the sustenance God provides. On one level this is all sharable, and is the means by which we bless each other, but we each enter into it deliberately, intentionally. We can’t share our intention, we can’t share our experience. We each have to live into it.
Oil that can’t be shared
And there is another – and I think, deeper – reading of this text, something that we each must do on our own, that can’t be shared. This oil is symbolic of something that only you can consciously do, that can’t be given to you or taken from you. I have said before that Jesus came as a wisdom teacher, a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. Recall that Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” The “oil” in this parable is about inner transformation. Richard Rohr calls it a ripening, growing into Christ consciousness. It comes on its own time, but we each make a decision to seek it. Cynthia Bourgeault says this: “The oil [in this parable] stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately it’s impossible to become conscious unconsciously, through a donation from somebody else.” This transformed consciousness reveals itself, at its full development, in what Richard Rohr and others call “nondual consciousness,” or the awareness that all that divides us is ultimately an illusion. It necessarily expresses itself in compassion, the awareness that we are all deeply connected. Most of us are somewhere along this path. This is the wisdom that our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon is talking about. It is an orientation to the world that tries to be open to God’s revelation, in each other, in the here and now of this moment, in the breaking in of the kingdom.
And this is where the foolish bridesmaids really blew it. They realized they didn’t have any oil and so — they left. They turned away from God. Yes they were running out of oil. Yes, they would have stumbled along in the dark. Yes, they would have looked foolish. For all those reasons, and perhaps because they apparently preferred to look good and in control and prepared and to meet the bridegroom in their own way and on their own schedule, and maybe they were annoyed or affronted or disillusioned because he was late, or maybe they just felt unworthy. They. Left. And they lost the moment. And put their trust in oil dealers!
What I think this looks like is that we are given chances moment by moment to live in a state of openness to God’s grace and mercy and revelation. And we can choose to live into it, or turn aside. Preparedness helps us see these moments, and recognize them for what they are. We get them unearned, and we have a choice about how to respond.
You can’t prepare for grace
An example of a time when I was awake (there are plenty of times when I am not). I was attending a UCC church in Portland. And one Sunday, catching nearly everyone by surprise, the minister, the Rev. Bill Gregory, invited each person to come forward to be baptized. Now most of us had been baptized once. I had been baptized as an infant. But he invited us to come forward anyway, and he would pour water on our head and baptize us in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I sat there in my pew, musing: “why didn’t he tell us he was going to do this? I could have prepared. I could have at least thought about it! I’m not ready!” It felt disrespectful, almost, to do something so spur-of-the-moment. But what that really meant was that it wasn’t what I expected and it threw me. And then of course the next words out of his mouth were “you may be saying to yourselves ‘I’m not ready.’ Come up anyway.” And so, after a few more moments of hesitation, and seeing others go up (that always helps, doesn’t it?) I did. And I received, unearned, unprepared, an abundance of sacramental grace and blessing.
And if I had just sat there, that opportunity would have passed me by. I don’t think the consequence would have been eternal damnation, but that one grace-filled chance in that moment to say yes came. And that time at least, I trusted it and to walked into it. Rather than holding back in wait for what I decide is a more opportune time. As if I know anything about it. There is only, ever, now. Everything else is a product of the mind.
So that time I said yes. Other times not so much. Plenty of other times I said “no, I’m not ready, I’m not worthy. Id rather spectate. I’d rather stew in my own juices and nurse my little resentments.” What in us holds back? What causes us to turn aside from that offering of grace and abundance?
It will be harder without the oil to light your way. It will be harder without the the work of the spirit that opens your life to the presence and the grace of God. You’ll stumble around in the dark. But don’t leave!
Jesus is calling us to persistent openness to God’s dramatic future. To imagine intentionally, deliberately living our lives with the expectation that God is going to show up. That God will reveal Godself in a way that we hadn’t anticipated or expected.
I suggest this practice: take some time in prayer at the end of the day to reflect back on your day and ask God to show you where you responded to God’s invitation and when you turned aside. When you said “I’m not ready. I’m not worthy. I’m tired. I don’t want to see the beauty, thank you. I’d rather stew in my own juices. I’d rather nurse my resentments. Go away.” Some days you’ll realize you sleep-walked through the entire day. You just were too much into your own head to notice. And you might recall some moment like this: “You know, now that I think about it, she didn’t look good. I need to call her.” This practice is not an invitation to be flooded with remorse, but to get in the disciplined habit of noticing. And then, pray in the morning for God to open your heart and your eyes. Pray in confidence that the kingdom of God is very near to you, you just need to notice. You just need to be awake, and then walk toward it.
Remember that while God is with us in our sorrow and pain, when God comes, God brings a celebration with him. It’s a party! Alleluia! Amen.