Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten young women take their lamps and go to meet a bridegroom. Five bring back-up flasks of oil. Five do not. Unfortunately, the groom is late — very late — so late that everybody falls asleep and the lamps begin to go out. Finally, at midnight, the groom shows up, ready to start the party. Five young women refill their lamps with their back-up flasks. Since these women refuse to share their oil, the other five women are forced to leave and seek oil elsewhere. When the women return from their errand, the door has been closed against them. The groom will not let them in.
I confess that this story is not one that I like very much. A whole group of young women, or virgins, or bridesmaids, waiting for the arrival of a tardy groom: It seems like the set-up for a cliché and sexist romantic comedy.
I also have practical questions. Why would failing to bring an extra oil flask to a wedding get you kicked out? And who would actually be available at midnight to sell supplemental oil to desperate guests?
My biggest question, however, is: what are we supposed to learn here? It is challenging to draw any sound moral lesson from this tale. Consider the heroes we have to choose from. The five supposedly wise women refuse to share. The breathlessly awaited bridegroom is so late his guests fall asleep waiting for him. This is rude enough, but then he bars the door and denies ever knowing the five women who take a few minutes to purchase more oil. Talk about a double standard.
Thankfully, Jesus ends this story by dropping a big hint to let us know what it is really about. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Keep awake. These two words are like a code that tells us that this whole thing isn’t really about a human wedding at all. It is about the second coming of Christ. Keep awake: this is the phrase our Advent scriptures use to instruct us to be alert as we wait, not only for the birth of Christ at Christmas, but for Jesus’ post-resurrection return, and the arrival of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Jesus is on the way, this story teaches us. He is like a bridegroom who will someday be united with his bride, the church, at a wonderful wedding when all things will be set right. However, the gospel writers who recorded this story knew that Jesus did not arrive right away. Contrary to the expectations of the first Christians, Jesus did not show up in the generations after his resurrection. Therefore, they put into the mouth of Jesus a warning for all believers: hang on. Be ready to wait for Jesus’ return. Don’t let your faith be extinguished. Don’t let the light of your hope be snuffed out. On your journey of faith, bring along extra spiritual supplies. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for however long it takes.
It was on a trip to Northern Minnesota with other freshman about to begin college that I first found out that I wanted to be a pastor. An upperclassman who was leading our group said casually on the hiking trail, “so what do you want to do with your life?” Everyday conversation for 18-year-olds. Without thinking about it at all, I opened my mouth and out came the words, “I want to be a pastor.” It was a shocking answer, even to me. I thought to myself, “Did I just LIE? Why did I say that?”
The years that followed affirmed my impulsive words. After a teenage rebellion against attending our family’s Episcopal church, I spend my four years at college immersed in faith. I became a religion major. I found a job working for the college chaplain. I discovered a UCC church one block from my Freshman dorm and began attending regularly. I even spent a spring break at a Benedictine monastery. This was all deeply uncool at my college, where Buddhism was the only acceptable religious inclination. I didn’t care. I was hooked: fascinated by the ideas and utterly caught up by the experience of God. It became clearer and clearer that I was a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and that I felt called to be a leader in the church.
There was one problem, though. I knew – deep, in my bones – I knew that being a Christian, and being a pastor, would change me. I knew it would challenge me in just about every way I could imagine, and probably other ways that I hadn’t thought of yet. I wondered what was in store for me. I wondered how painful the process would be. Still, I felt clear that this transformation was part of the call itself. God was calling me not only to a particular form of service, but to become the person who I could become as that service changed my heart.
Ordination means several things in the UCC. For some of our source churches, ordination is a mystical thing: a call from God which changes a person forever. For others, ordination is much more practical: a recognition of a particular role in a particular time and a particular setting.
When I was ordained ten years ago, I was full of a sense of spiritual calling. But I have to tell you: it has been the churches I have served that have made me a pastor. Particularly, this church. Through your example, you have helped me to learn more deeply what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be in Christian community. I have made so many mistakes, and I have hurt you, in what I have done and left undone. I am so sorry for that. The role of pastor has humbled me countless times, and I am all too well aware of how imperfectly I fill it. And yet, the honor and privilege of trying to serve you well, and the excitement of the ministry that we share together, has brought me back to try again, and again. It’s just about the best thing I can ever imagine doing, to work to bring glory to God together, and have some fun along the way.
I can’t tell you how much I love this church. You are honest and grounded, wise and funny, messy and beautiful – and scrappy, as Martha Livingston told me, while I was interviewing for the job. The longer I am here, the more I love you, and the more honest that love gets: stripped of illusions, more tender, more true.
And there keep being new reasons to rejoice in what happens here. Even tragic events bring about breathtaking things, like the gathering that happened here after Dennis’ death. Family members and Sunday Fellowship folks, and people who knew Dennis from the train, and folks who went to high school with him: all of us were here in this sanctuary giving thanks for his life and taking care of each other. Then there is the incredible grace with which so many people are responding to the changes and challenges in our building, showing up early and late to figure out how to make it all work. We’re still trying to improve everything, and trying new solutions to new problems. We’re still trying to figure out how to make the project come to an end. Somehow, we’ll get there.
For me, church is the place where I find the best oil to fill my lamp, and also where I become aware of the need to trim it. Here I am directed towards the source of our strength, to God’s love, and to the love of my neighbors in Christ, and I fill up. Here, I am reminded of the demands of justice and compassion, and I keep at the work of trimming and changing my heart. This is why, as our family finances change this year, I am grateful to be able to once again give 10% of my income to this church. I hope you will also give a portion of what you have, according to the movement of your heart, to help this place keep doing our important work.
Life is a long journey. The news every week brings fresh tragedies and trials. Our lives continue to change and challenge us. God’s kingdom is a long time in coming.
The story from the gospel today reminds u: to seek out what we will need to keep working and waiting for the kingdom. Don’t exhaust your resources in constant vigilance. If you need to, take a nap. Remember to stop and gather a good quantity of high-quality back-up oil for your lamp. Do what you need to do, to keep that lamp trimmed, and burning.
For God tells us there is good reason to be hopeful. Even if it takes until midnight, we will eventually find ourselves together at that feast where justice and mercy reign, and the food never runs out, and the music lifts every heart. In the meantime, we get to hold that place in our hearts, and hold one another’s hands, and travel together. Thanks be to God.