Check Your Oil

Matthew 25:1-13                                                                    November 8, 2020

Ten bridesmaids wait for the groom so the party may begin.  Five women were wise, and five were foolish.  It sounds like a metaphor for America after this last election.  Half of America is looking at the other half with incomprehension, thinking how utterly foolish and immoral the other side is. I’d like to think I am with the wise half, but no matter how certain, I’m disconcerted about where we are.  Do you have empathy for foolish people? The Greek word translated “foolish” is “morai.”  That’s right; they were morons. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says, “A very stupid person. A dated word, now offensive.” Moron -as in “What kind of moron doesn’t bring water on a hike, or sunscreen to the beach, oil for a lamp or votes for…” well, you get the picture.

Let’s probe a little deeper.  The five bridesmaids without oil are not foolish because of a lack of intellect or wrong beliefs; they are not prepared.  Unpreparedness strikes closer to home and my anxieties.  I tend to be a list maker and try to be well-prepared.  It also irks me when I have prepared with hard work, and others show up with no thought and expect things to work out. It’s the dreaded group project where you get a group grade. I’m stuck with the difficult choice of deciding whether to bail the group out or hold them accountable.  I don’t like either option.  

I hate being unprepared.  That keeps me awake at night.  Do you have the dream about an impending biology test, and you haven’t read the book?  Sometimes being unprepared isn’t from a lack of effort but a lack of energy.  I am more likely overwhelmed than careless when not ready.  What is the life situation for the foolish five?  Did they have burdens others don’t have to carry?  Are they caring for sick or aging relatives?  While experiencing the pandemic, we know the burdens of making like work.  Many have unmanageable responsibilities.  We need a lot of grace right now as our oil burns low most of the time. 

Christian Century magazine had an article this week wondering, “Wouldn’t it be great if the five wise bridesmaids shared their oil and everyone got to go to the feast together?  That would have been a real, inclusive party.  After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us if we have two coats, give one to your neighbor who has none?  When urged to help someone poor, we aren’t supposed to decide if they are worthy or not.  God calls us to give.  And what about the time you were foolish, and you received grace? Don’t be too quick to judge the other as foolish.  

That sounds compelling, but I must point out that the wise bridesmaids did not share their oil, and they were invited into the feast, while the foolish five had the door slammed in their face.  Is this pointing us towards tough love and letting others live with the consequences of their actions?  Nothing in this parable says the wise five were being greedy or selfish.  Even the “morons” didn’t argue and ran off to go buy oil.  (Where do they go in the middle of the night to buy oil before Seven-Eleven?).  The foolish bridesmaids are not poor or without the ability to get fuel.  They just weren’t prepared.  You can’t salvage some situations.  If you are on an expedition up Mt. Everest, you can’t just take a person along who is not prepared.  It is unsafe for the whole group.  Sometimes you miss out.

There is a tension in this parable that doesn’t lend to either/or thinking.  We live in this paradox.  Sometimes we have to set boundaries and tell people, “You didn’t bring enough oil, and I can’t bail you out.” Other times we offer grace and even make sacrifices for the other person, regardless of their mistakes.  Take some of my oil; God will get us all through. Isn’t that the miracle of Hannukah?  How do we sort this out?  The question I ask myself is, what am I protecting?  Am I protecting myself, my ego, my comfort, or my power?  Then share more.  Or am I defending the community’s integrity, my values, the person on the margins from harm?  Then set boundaries.   

I realize I’m not giving you straightforward answers this morning; this is not a time for easy answers.  I wonder how many of you are questioning what you thought you believed.  Are you wondering what to do now, after all the high voltage of the election has run through us?  Now that it is over, we have to breathe, rest, pause for a sabbath, and take stock of things.  What do we need to learn from all this before we rush headlong back into the tumult?  

I think this parable helps us take a longer view.  We can get lost in the debate over who is wise and who is foolish and who really should be at the party.  But one point of the parable leads us to focus on being prepared for the next party.  Who says there will be only one wedding, one party, one chance at getting it right?  

Context always helps.  The previous chapter, Matthew 24, begins with Jesus telling his disciples that the Temple in Jerusalem will be utterly destroyed, not a stone left upon a stone.  They want to know, “When will this happen? What are the signs?” Jesus preaches about a coming apocalypse, a great reckoning.  It will be a time when he returns with the sound of trumpets to set the world right. It sounds like the political fundraisers in my inbox. But be careful, Jesus says, because there will be earthquakes, wars, rumors, false prophets, and presidential press conferences.  Not every terrible time is the end of the world.   The wise bridesmaid parable is a follow up to this sermon.  The point is to be watchful and ready, pay attention, so we don’t miss Jesus’ drawing near.  Keep your eyes on the prize!  

What does it mean to be ready, to have extra oil, so my lamp burns through the night?  Here is what I think it doesn’t mean.  I am not an apocalypse watcher.  I have no interest in books setting times for the end of the world.   Or theology that says this world does not matter because it will all end soon.  If Jesus was born of Mary and made his home among us, this world is my home too, and I will love it.   Dystopian stories can warn us.  I like Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, the Handmaid’s Tale, or 1984.  It is crucial to know our collective actions have consequences, so we shouldn’t go there.  I think biblical prophecy serves as a similar cautionary tale.  Injustice, greed, and lies affect the social, spiritual, maybe even cosmic fabric.  But I don’t think Jesus is telling us to be preppers, fill our basement with beans and ammunition, to survive the apocalypse.  When he says, be prepared, this is not advice to store oil in your basement when the power grid goes out.  But be ready to shine your light and see Jesus in even the darkest hours.  

Friends, this feels like a dark hour. 

We have felt a long night of division and anger, mistrust and misinformation, 

a pandemic that pushes us inside and racism and injustice that pulls us out into the streets. 

We have spent our energies on an election, trying to educate our children, and figuring out how to be a community when we can’t get close enough to feel a more profound connection. 

All sides hoped for a decisive victory, a repudiation of the other.   We hoped for a chance to usher in a new sense of community, a celebrative feast like a wedding reception.

For all the tremendous heroic spent energy, we moved an inch.  

And here we sit, looking across the battle lines, incomprehensible of each other.  Many of us are still angry and frustrated and exhausted.  Instead of a historical moment, it seems like more of the same.  

Friends, it’s time to check your oil.  Do you have enough to get through the night?  Or are you near the bottom?  Stop.  Take a breath. Don’t run out of what you need.  I fear we are all in danger of becoming the foolish ones, running out of oil when it matters most.  

Yes, the struggles for justice, peace, and inclusion are urgent.  Your work is not in vain, even if the result is unsatisfying.  May we never be content with injustice and unnecessary suffering.  But this is long, long wrestling through centuries, and this was never going to be decided by one election, one war, one great moment.  

I love the dream Dr. King expressed – the Beloved Community.  That is what the Kingdom of God means to me.  Beloved community is not just the struggle for justice.  It is what it says- Love and Community.  To struggle for this Beloved Community in the world, we must be this for each other now.  Just as every athlete knows the cycle of competition and rest, so must we.  Hit the pause button.  Check your oil.  Renew your strength.  Let us have sacred conversations.  What must we learn before we move forward again?  Invite the still speaking God among us.  What new thing will God do among us now?

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