The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 12, 2017 – Proper 27, Year A: Matthew 25:1-13
This gospel passage has a special place in my heart because of the role it played in my own spiritual journey and ultimately growth. Some of you have heard me talk about this before, and so I’m only going to just touch it as we begin this morning, but I am going to touch it because it still plays a role in how I hear this story.
When I was in college I was asked to leave a Bible study group and it was over this parable. More on that in a minute. For now a quick recap:
There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. The foolish brought no oil along to keep their lamps burning; but the wise did take flasks of oil along with their lamps so that the lamps would be able to continue to burn. The bridegroom got delayed and so all of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Then at midnight when the bridegroom finally arrived there was a shout and the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you’d better go get some for yourselves.” Now when when I heard that read in our Bible study group, I was immediately devastated by the gospel of Matthew and felt like there were some legitimate questions that needed to be asked at that very moment – and I still walk through those questions whenever this story is told.
Why didn’t they share the oil!? Right? I’m not the only one that occurs to EVERY time I hear this parable. It comes off pretty harsh there at the end if you’re listening for something else. It’s almost thirty years later and my heart still breaks a little when the maidens say to the other maidens, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” As if we need one more lesson in every man for himself. What about community? What about sacrifice? Is that really what wisdom looks like? What about caring for the least of these my brothers and sisters?
And so in college I went on official record (my own inner official record, my own righteous inner official record that is) as passionately and outspokenly disagreeing with this parable – which brought an end to my college Christian Fellowship career. And to make that long story short, that’s how I ended up rather firmly re-planted in the Episcopal Church.
But here’s what’s sort of lovely about all of that. I get it now. At least better than I did. And “they” the leaders of that group were right, at least in part, which is generally how it works if we’re willing to listen that way. We tend to be right “in part.” There are plenty of gospel passages about there being plenty for everyone, stories where sharing what we have been given in order to care for all of God’s children is the point or at least a major part of the message. We hear that Jesus offered abundant forgiveness, we see that he opened tables to all who would come; we hear that he fed all five thousand people one afternoon even though presumably only one of them had brought food enough for himself. Those stories of abundance and sharing and multiplying on the spot are gospel too.
However, truth is, there are some things that we can’t give to someone else, things we can’t just borrow from another person, and I think that’s what the parable of the bridesmaids tells us. There are some things that each of us has to discover for ourselves, cultivate or claim for ourselves. There are things you can’t do for me and things I can’t do for you, no matter how much our hearts would like to.
And I think that you who are parents probably know this best of all, but anyone who loves deeply knows this too. Parenting is full of moments when you’d like to take that lamp and fill it for your child forever, or keep refilling it whenever they spill it or waste it because they do, we all do on a regular basis. You’d like to fill their lamps with faith, and insight, and self-confidence, and kindness; you’d like to fill it with good decision making skills, basic common sense – there are some years when that in itself would be enough; you’d like to fill their lamps with loads of hope, self-discipline, health, and good friends! And when it comes right down to it, you’d pour out your own lamp if it would help them fill theirs. You’ve probably tried that approach more than once. But in the end, sometimes what happens is you just empty your own lamp. It doesn’t work. Because even our kids, youth and young adults need to know where to find that oil for themselves. They need to know how to work the lamp, and take responsibility for keeping it filled.
And so maybe that’s what we give each other, we can’t give away our own oil but we can be a place that fosters the tending of the lamps. We can be a people who teach ways of filling them, and a people that encourages each of us to care for our own light. Maybe we aren’t waiting at the banquet door in this story with a clear division among us between foolish and wise. Maybe as church we are that place where the all of the maidens come for more oil. And so this isn’t the place where we find out if we have enough. It’s the place where we refill because we need it, we all do.
Truth is I can’t fill you with hope; the other truth is I will probably never stop telling you stories about why I have it, and why I need it, and how I long for you to have hope too. And maybe in that kind of sharing some oil comes to be. And here’s the grace: it comes not as a depletion of my own, in fact mine grows in the telling. And you can’t give me common sense for example, Lord knows some of you have tried, but you can model it for me, you can share the risks of living without it, the benefits of using it. And maybe in that kind of sharing some oil comes to be. Again, not as a depletion of your own but a strengthening, an expanding of it. In that Bible study group many years ago, I wanted to fill their lamps with questions because I knew they needed it for their own spiritual health and I was sure they needed it that very minute! And they wanted to fill my lamp with certainty and maybe even a bit of self-preservation while I was sitting there in that room that very minute. But it just doesn’t work that way.
What can happen is that when we gather, I can see your lamp and I can notice what keeps it burning if you’re willing to share that with me. And I can learn from you. And you can see my light too, listen to what fuels it, learn about what keeps it shining and tell me when you see it running low. And somehow in that kind of offering, more oil comes to be for us all. It’s not every man for himself but everyone does have a light that needs to shine. So do what you need to do to help that happen. And practice, refuel yourself here.
Which makes us all just a bunch of foolish maidens seeking wisdom in all of its various shapes and forms. Or a bunch of people with different kinds of wisdoms making light, tending light. And maybe knowing who we are in this story, is in itself a step in the right direction.
We are a people who long to recognize Christ at his coming and that longing is the attentiveness to which we have been called. And in that very longing to see, we remember the source of the oil. And the oil itself is in endless supply and it’s always close by. And the beauty? The One who is oil is also light, the light of the world. And that One wants nothing more than for our lamps to shine – to shine with joy, with mercy, with compassion and love for one another and with love for ourselves too. May it be so.