Just before worship started, I was talking with someone about the modern understanding of the word, “Gospel.” Oftentimes today it is interpreted as “good news” and it is, and yet that good news is seen as being words that affirm and uplift us and tell us we’re ok. Yet sometimes, the other function of the gospel is to speak truth- a truth perhaps we need to hear, spoken in love but not comforting. If you came to church today expecting warmth and comfort from the lessons- Sorry.
This past Wednesday I asked the folks at Table Church to sit and wait for a minute. I’d like us to do that as well.
You all did pretty well, but the truth is many of us don’t like to wait. Including your pastor who as you noticed checked her watch pretty often. On Wednesday, about halfway through many were starting to fidget, and at the end of the minute a couple kids commented on how hard waiting is, especially without Xbox or something. And I suspect a couple adults were wondering what would happen to that hot food if the pastor was going to make us wait. That minute felt long. Waiting can be hard.
"What will we do while we wait?” is the question Matthew’s gospel is addressing today. We’re waiting for Jesus to return- much longer than Matthew's original hearers.
SO what should we learn today? HAVE ENOUGH OIL.
While that seems like something to do, I want to suggest that it is not just about cornering the market on something. The oil is not the kind we watch the news to see if prices are up or down. Literally it’s Olive oil. Perhaps you hadn’t thought this but, literally, the answer to, "What shall we do while we wait?" is "Make sure you have enough oil for your lamps."
In an age of electricity, where we no longer need to put oil in lamps, what can that mean?
The five foolish bridesmaids ran out of it and the five wise ones had enough to go the distance. But what does the oil represent?
Martin Luther thought it represented faith- don’t run out of faith. I don’t agree with Luther. Because Faith comes from God- can you run out of faith if God is the provider?
Others think that the oil represents good works. Don’t stop doing good works. But then what of grace? Imagine the frenzy of last minute good deeds- that seems to suggest if we do enough, we earn it. I’m not sure good works is quite right. Which speaks a word to lots of people today focused upon community service, especially young adults. Good works are good-and we all could use all we can get. At the same time, when the project is done, what is beyond it? What is the sustaining presence for all the other moments? The ones without projects?
Still someone else suggested the oil seems to be a generic reference to faithful and obedient discipleship as defined by the whole gospel. To be like the slave who elsewhere actively, faithfully, and obediently carries out what he has been instructed to do. It’s about trust. But where do we buy more trust?
Obviously there is something to being active in waiting, and in trusting, but maybe it’s not about doing those things as much as its about not running out of the power to do them.* We who are told to tend the light are also told to go and be light for the world. We need a power that produces good deeds- the power needed to produce light. Maybe this parable is using "oil" to be our relationship with God, who is the source and power behind our good deeds and our trusting.
And then maybe we can ask- how full is our lamp? Perhaps some of us are burning brightly this day, or perhaps some of us are sputtering out. But one thing is sure- the lamp needs to be tended. Like any relationship. Our relationship with God requires our attention.
To borrow yet another relationship phrase- does your relationship with God have a spark? If you walked into Jesus would you feel like you know each other? Or would you sense only a faintly distant connection?
When our girls were little they only saw my parents at holidays and the rest of the year we faced the challenge of helping them remember who these people who were so eager to see them and bring gifts were. We’d talk about how their grandparents were coming. We’d get the house ready for them. But it took other ways of being in touch while we were waiting to keep their relationship current. Phone calls, pictures, videos, telling those distant relatives what they’ve been doing. Even though those deeds weren’t the basis of the relationship, they were part of letting the grandparents know who their grandkids are and vice versa. To a certain degree as parents we mediated the relationship until it was strong on its own.
“If we understand "oil" as having a close relationship with God -- the power behind our lives -- the power that gives us a "glow" as shining witnesses in the world -- we must acknowledge that it is possible to let that relationship "run out". When the bridegroom comes, it (seems) too late to try and establish the relationship.” And in that context when we hear that those frenzied bridesmaids came back they found the door closed perhaps it’s important to note that although the door was closed, we don’t hear who closed it.
We just know it was closed. God gives us a relationship and faith and while God never closes the door, we can. And while our salvation is assured, we can in this life lose the power and strength we need and long for in this life. Our relationship with Jesus – being known by Jesus- can’t be mediated through other people who have it. I can’t do that for Jane, for example, nor she for me. This is why the other bridesmaids cannot share their oil. Our relationship with God needs us to keep glowing. And as we hear in Amos, it’s about more than just going through the motions of worship an hour a week.
It’s a relationship- God longs for and indeed kindles the spark of our faith for much more. Our deeds then are a response and even help fan the flame, but our works are not the relationship.
Being disciples in this way with God means we are tending that relationship and doing what God desires in an ongoing way. It doesn’t mean we cannot rest- after all , all the bridesmaids rested. But it does mean constantly tending our relationship with God so it has the power and meaning and support we need to avoid panic and chaos.
God wants to have a personal relationship- one where we share our hopes and fears, and where God invites us to share in a meal that reminds each of us- this is “for you.” And the door is open.
God is always striving to establish that personal relationship. One where today matters not just someday- for us and for the world. While we wait we can know the power of encountering Jesus, entering now, inviting us in to participate and celebrate the many comings of the Christ: Jesus' presence in the Word; in the Sacrament; in the gathering together; in our going out to make disciples; as we minister to the "least of these." This is what we are given to do and to experience. And it’s a lot.
Yet, these are also the connections with Jesus that keep our "lights" empowered for witness and service and keeps our relationship burning brightly. The truth is that we all at times are foolish, and we fail to tend those lamps as we should. What continually enables us is what God continually gives, summed up in this prayer from St Claude de Columbiere I invite you to join in now. Let us pray:
Jesus, I feel within me a great desire to please you but, at the same time, I feel totally incapable of doing this without your special light and help, which I can expect only from you. Accomplish your will within me-- even in spite of me. AMEN
* Brian Stoffregen, Crossmarks