First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence
November 12, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
Sermon: “Oil Crisis”
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look ! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
Imagine the church ready for a wedding. That’s not hard for some of us to imagine; it happens about a dozen times a year. It happened just yesterday. Typically, the wedding party gets here about three hours before the wedding start time. That gives time for dresses, hair, makeup, photos, decorations all placed just so.
The flowers and candles are lit a half-hour before the start time of 7:00 as people are gathering for the celebration. The bridesmaids have flowing pink dresses and hair braided up. The bride is in the church parlor down the hall so the groom won’t see her. She’s looking gorgeous in her form-fitted beaded gown. Everything is perfect. Only one problem arises. There is no groom to be seen. Seven o’clock turns to 7:30 which turns to 8:00. The candles are hanging their heads in sad disappointment as wax trickles down the stands. The flowers have lost their perk, bowing faces as well. The flower girls are asleep on the front pew. By 9:00, the bridesmaids have shed their glittery high heels and slipped back into their flip-flops. By 10:00, the bridesmaids are sprawled out on the pews snoring. Strangest thing is no one leaves. They are sure the groom will arrive, but the clock keeps ticking and fatigue sets in; eventually sleep conquers all. Even the bride’s tears have dried as she slumbers spent from crying. By 11:00 only the church mice are still awake. At midnight, someone yells, “here he comes!” Sleepy bridesmaids stretch and yawn, perching up-do hairdos back on top. They rub their eyes and jump into place as the organist begins “Cannon in D.” Anger and fatigue melt away at his joyous arrival. And they lived happily ever after.
You know that’s not a true story. Someone’s got some explaining to do, and I guarantee the preacher and organist aren’t hanging around five hours past a wedding start time.
It is not a literal story; it’s a parable told in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is addressing a problem in his faith community. The stories that were shared about Jesus in the early church include Jesus saying, “I shall return before this generation passes away.” Problem is Jesus didn’t come right back – not like they expected. The kids have been left behind, home alone, for a long, long time. The generation that witnessed Jesus in person did pass away. There’s no one left forty years after the crucifixion who saw it happen, and there’s still no Jesus to be seen. The Jesus converts had spread his message with great urgency and hope- “get ready for God’s kingdom will break through any minute, when Jesus returns,” they told people. The church and others they told about Jesus’ return are getting restless and impatient waiting, and some turn to scoffing, Where is Jesus? Was he not the Messiah? Was he just another martyred victim of the Roman Empire? Is nothing really, ever going to change?
The early church needed an answer- for themselves and their critics. Various writers tried to explain it. 2 Peter addresses the problem “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” The author writes, God isn’t slow. Jesus didn’t lie, and we didn’t either. They talked about God’s time different from our sundial shadows and our Timex ticks. Jesus wasn’t wrong, we just didn’t understand. Each voice of scripture addresses the apparent delay in the groom in its own way.
Matthew does it through stories, allegories, and parables. Matthew’s story doesn’t end with the bridegroom appearance and everyone processing down the aisle to “Cannon in D.”
Matthew continues, “at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
What in the world can the Spirit be saying to the church when another twist is added to the parable puzzle?
What Paul Tillich called a “broken symbol,” is important here. Symbols point to something beyond them. We have to be careful because sometimes we mistake the symbol for the object of worship or loyalty. We’ve seen that lately in national arenas. So It’s good that a symbol is “broken,” so that the meaning of the symbol is no longer imprisoned in the symbol. When open, we see again what lies beyond it.1 For example, it is not a national song that is sacred; it is the freedoms, including the freedom of speech, which it symbolizes that must be guarded- not the song.
Matthew’s community hears a story that must be broken open or else it might be taken literally and banquet doors slammed in the face of those arriving late to the celebration. The early Jesus followers have grown weary of waiting, and they are uncertain of their message. They are falling asleep by failing to live out the faith that some now doubt as truth. If we read the story carefully, the problem in the text is not falling asleep, for everyone in the story does that. The “wise” and the “foolish” bridesmaids both sleep. Resting does not pose an insurmountable problem; the problem in the story is running out of oil. It’s an oil crisis.
Do we ever have an oil crisis? You bet. For those who have been working and waiting for equality and working for full inclusion and acceptance of all people for a long, long time, lamps may be running low and oil may be scarce. For folks getting weary of this rode of oppression trod for centuries and for people working for shared value and resources for all people fuel to keep the light moving forward may feel low. We are tired waiting to live in safety and peace instead of violence and blood-shed each day. For all those tired of waiting and exhausted from working, our “oil” can run low.
What’s the “oil” that keeps our faith alive? “Hearts that burn with prayer, eyes that study God’s word or recognize God’s work in the world, ears that hear the crying of God’s children, hands that reach out to those in need, and feet that find those who have been lost…”2
What does it look like “to be prepared for the returning master is to be found living faithfully and full of faith? It looks like embracing the countercultural standards of Jesus’ teachings, living by the heart of the law instead of its legalistic fringe, breaking the spiral of violence by loving enemies and showing mercy, and practicing inward devotion over and against outward piety. It is trusting in God’s provision by being anxious for nothing and supplanting judgmentalism with graciousness.” 3 That’s the message of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.
What can we do, when the road is long and our light seems dim, and oil seems to be in short supply? We can walk alongside one another. When the oil of our own lamp gets scarce, we can walk in the light of another until ours are filled again. We need not wander off into the darkness, we can stay in community walking beside one another, lighting the pathway for each other, singing, praying, praising in one another’s company. That’s the church burning brightly. That’s the church at its best.
When a couple tragically lost their daughter in a freak, unexpected accident in their home, friends later asked how they survived. They said, “We went to church, but we could not sing. We let others sing for us, and we listened until we could sing again.” We all face our oil crisis at one time or another. When our lamps are full and faithful we shine, pray, serve, and care. When our oil gets low, as it sometimes will, we pray and sit in the light of others amidst our own darkness trusting God to refuel our soul, trusting Christ will come again. We pray and live and move, through the days of bright shining and through the oil crises and the silky void of darkness, and in praying we proclaim our faith- God, you are there. You are there. You are here.
May it be so.
1 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith. 1958. Chapter 3
2 Robert McClellan, Feasting on the Gospels. Matthew, Vol 2. p. 258
3 Paul Anderson, Ibid. p. 259