Sermon: Pentecost 23A
We'll keep the lights on
It doesn’t matter who you are. These are trying times.
If you are fortunate, you have a sort of bubble in which you move about freely and that keeps you protected from the cruelty, hatred and vitriol that surrounds us. If you are fortunate and blessed you are part of a network of relationships that connects you to other human beings in ways that are loving, supportive, caring, in which you know in very real and concrete ways that you are loved and into which you can act with compassion, love and grace.
One of the daily rituals of our lives has been the assembling of personal protective equipment, especially face coverings, and venturing out into a world with a sense of foreboding, not know where or how this pernicious virus will re-emerge, not knowing when or if it will attack you, and when or if it does, the severity of the disease it will unleash on your body.
But perhaps the only thing that is worse than this daily gearing up, covering up and guarding up, is the growing sense that the ritual or personal protective equipment is really just a larger symbol of a greater and deeper spiritual sickness that has infected us at a higher rate than COVID-19. That the anger, hatred, selfishness and violence that comes spewing out of peoples’ minds and mouths has infected us all, and our love — our love for God and for our neighbor — has grown cold.
These are trying times.
Just before he was arrested, tried and crucified, Jesus gathered his disciples around them and told them of the trying times that lay ahead for disciples: not just the times of trial that awaited in the garden, in the courtyard, at the foot of the cross or in the upper room before Easter, but the trying times that were to be the common experience of Jesus’ disciples of every generation between Jesus’ ascension and his coming again. He told his disciples, "because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). Now don’t be led astray by any election-year sloganeering about anarchy or lawlessness … what Jesus is talking about is lawlessness in its most basic form — a people who neither fear, love or trust in God, a people who neither love nor respect their neighbors. Jesus is describing a kind of downward, self-feeding spiral of anger and hatred and violence that attacks our hearts in such a way as to paralyze our ability to love. It’s a spiritual infection that goes to work replacing faith with fear, love with anger, and hope with reckless despair.
In these trying times it can feel as if the light is slowing going out. Not in one great puff that extinguishes the candle, but by the slow burning that consumes all our spiritual reserves and denies all sources of replenishment.
I think that is what Jesus is telling us this parable of the bridesmaids, the lamps and the oil.
It is isn’t about lamps or oil at all — otherwise, the seeming selfish behavior of the bridesmaids who refused to share their oil would have to be called out. It’s not just about being prepared for the long wait or for Jesus’ unexpected coming, which could happen at any hour. It’s about knowing that these times will strain us to the breaking point, and if we do not take the time right now to change the focus, purpose and direction of our daily lives, our lamps too will certainly go out … our love, too, will grow cold.
What separates the wise from the foolish in this parable is the simple fact that five of the bridesmaids packed reserves of oil to fuel their lamps even after a long wait through the dark of night. These five were just as ready to meet the Lord at midnight as they were at sunset, just as ready to let their light shine late in the night as they were early in the evening.
This is a cautionary story.
At this point … we are neither the wise nor the foolish in the story, but what happens going forward will put us on one of those paths, but for now Jesus asks us to take stock. And these trying times are just the kind of stress that reveals whether we are well provisioned to love as Christ loves or whether we are running on empty, our love slowing dying, growing cold. These trying times reveal our hearts and whether we are able to love our enemies, whether we are able to concretely and truly love those who seem to hate us, whether we can love those who say all kinds of evil things about us, whether we can match anger with compassion; hatred with love …
And if we cannot …
Well, the dimly burning wick is about to go out.
But the good news … in all this stress and strain .. the good news is that there is still time and the promise of Jesus is a promise that a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish, but he will instead renew our strength and make us to shine like the sun. But how? How?
It’s not like we can just run out to the lamp oil dealers and have our faith renewed, our hope sustained and our love rekindled.
So what are we to do?
Perhaps this is the time to return to our baptism.
That is, of course, how we begin each of our worship services, with a return to our baptism --
And return … not to just rededicate ourselves to our baptismal promise and not to just redouble our efforts to live them from our hearts.
But to return to that place where God claimed us God’s own children, to the place where the old, angry, hate-filled, violent and sin-filled creature was drowned in the flood and a new-born child emerged, filled with the Holy Spirit … and that child of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, seems to look a lot like Jesus … who is the light of the world. In God’s great love for us, God made us new so that we might have fellowship with him through Jesus Christ. And it is that fellowship, that connection to God, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit that is the source of the light that shines within us, that demands to be uncovered and placed on a lamp stand so that it can give light to the whole world. God loves this dark and troubled world so much that God sent the Son. God loves this dark and troubled world so much that he made us to be light for the world in Christ.
And maybe that’s what this parable asks us to do: Jesus tells a dramatic story that invites us to remain in fellowship with him … in worship, in prayer, in study, in service and in generous giving of ourselves, even as the Spirit renews us in our faith, our hope and our love.
That is one of the reasons we have been given to each other.
That is one of the reasons we have been knit together into this network of relationships that connects us to each other human beings in ways that are loving, supportive, caring, in which you know in very real and concrete ways that you are loved and into which you can act with compassion, love and grace. And more than that, it is this community of disciples that Jesus gathers and leads into the world — so that the light does not go out, so that the love of many might be sustained by the oil of peace, forgiveness and mercy that we make the hallmark of our service.
And filled with the Spirit, we will discover that this daily ritual -- answering health questionnaires, gathering up and putting on personal protective equipment -- becomes a ritual that renews our fear, love and trust in God and our love and respect for our neighbor, a deep desire to protect them from all harm and danger.
So let your light shine.
There is oil enough to keep us burning till the bridegroom comes at last … simply come and get your fill … then mask up, go out and shine ...
In Jesus’ name.
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