The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: November 12, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
If you pay attention to your lectionary and you know your church themes, you can tell by the gospel reading today that we’re starting to head towards Advent. There are two more Sundays after this before the season of Advent begins – does that not freak you out? Advent, meaning the season that leads up to Christmas? In two weeks? – and as the countdown begins, we start hearing in the lectionary parables and warnings about the last judgment and the end times. Getting us ready for the season of getting ready, I suppose.
If you don’t pay attention to the lectionary, wonder ‘what’s a lectionary?’ and aren’t so sure what this Advent thing is about, here’s a quick teaching. Advent is the time we focus on preparing for the coming – and second coming – of Jesus. So Christians spend November and December a little differently than others. Yes, we might be buying cranberries, thinking about turkeys, booking flights, and starting to ponder about gifts and cards – or we might be procrastinating on all of that as the case may be – but in church, we’re tilting toward contemplation of the end times. It’s always an odd juxtaposition, seeing Santa at the mall and meeting John the Baptist in church. But there it is. It keeps us sober. And since 2017 seems to be a year when everyone is talking about the end times, maybe we’re even in vogue at last.
I don’t know about you, but this year I’m all too ready to hear a message of Jesus coming to clean up the mess we’re in. I’ve just about had it with human beings. Human beings are at the root of every problem we have these days. Human beings take guns and shoot children in church. Human beings are too committed to power and ideology to stop others from shooting people. Human beings destroy the creation we’re meant to care for. Human beings are ravaged by mental illness and substance abuse and trauma, and then work all that out on other human beings, in wars, violence, emotional damage. Human beings were made good, but we don’t seem to be much good for the earth or good for each other. Let’s get this over with, and bring about the new kingdom. I’m ready. Maybe you are too.
But then again, maybe I’m not so ready. The parable we heard today suggests otherwise. Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids – a big wedding, all in matching burgundy satin dresses, you can picture it – but these ten bridesmaids are not all equally ready for the wedding. The wise bridesmaids are those who plan ahead with extra oil for their lamps; the foolish ones are those who do not. And there won’t be any second chance for the foolish ones. Which one are you? I’m not so sure that I’ve got my good-bridesmaid seal of approval all sewn up.
The story has always reminded me of one of Aesop’s fables, the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant, just to remind you, works hard all summer long gathering food while the grasshopper plays hard all summer long. When winter comes and the grasshopper is starving, he begs the ant for some food. The ant refuses, self-righteous and snotty, and says, ‘You should have been working over the summer, lazybones. This is your own fault!’ Rather the same response the wise bridesmaids give the foolish ones – we can’t give you any of our oil, because then there won’t be enough for us. Go buy your own!
The stories aren’t about the same thing, of course. The ant and grasshopper story is all about the virtues of hard work, that each one of us needs to pull our own weight and not be lazy and rely on others to take care of us. It’s a truly American story – the Protestant work ethic put to narrative. The parable, on the other hand, is about what will happen at the last day: the bridesmaids are the followers of Christ, the bridegroom, who is taking a while in coming to the feast. When he comes, will we have enough oil in our lamps?: will we be ready for salvation, showing sufficient good works, living righteously and faithfully? The wise bridesmaids refuse to offer extra oil to their unprepared friends because readiness for the kingdom isn’t something you can just pass on to another who needs it – it’s something each of us has to work out for ourselves.
But either way, these tales are pretty darn anxiety-producing, aren’t they? Stories guaranteed to get right under the skin of every achievement-oriented New Yorker. I’m pedaling as fast as I can – and here you are, even in church, telling me I’m not doing it fast enough. Yet another way I’m not measuring up.
I think this is where the story of the ant and the grasshopper may have infected our understanding of the parable. The American virtues of hard work and doing it ourselves are pretty strong. Grown-ups in our culture are supposed to be able to take care of ourselves and our families, and anything that strikes a blow against that is not only frightening but humiliating. So we hear this parable through that filter, as if hard work and industriousness are somehow the keys to salvation – ‘Jesus is coming – look busy,’ as the bumper sticker says. Wisdom is in preparing for the future, stocking up enough to last, making sure there’s enough oil to last through the long dark night ahead.
Wisdom in Aesop’s fables is usually the wisdom of common sense. But the wisdom in the gospels is often the opposite of common sense: sell all you have and follow me; leave the 99 sheep and look for the one that is lost; eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners, for they are going into heaven ahead of the righteous; die, and you will live. So if we’re talking about wise bridesmaids, I don’t think the message we’re supposed to take away is simply that they were like the industrious ant and accumulated enough oil for themselves ahead of time, and too bad for the foolish ones. There is more to the idea of having enough than that.
Garrison Keillor once told a story in his radio show of a church in the dead of winter, running low on fuel for the oil furnace. The order was made in due time, but then the blizzard hit – snow piled up several feet thick, roads were blocked, no delivery truck could get through. And Christmas Eve was coming, when folks from the surrounding town would come to gather for the traditional service – but with a dead furnace, it would be too bitterly cold to worship. But the pastor decided to go ahead, not to cancel the service – and the oil furnace kept running, keeping the place warm, running long after the fuel should have given out, running through Christmas Eve and on to the day when the delivery truck could finally get through and restock. It’s a story like the one celebrated at Hanukkah, remembering the oil lamp in the newly rededicated Temple that kept burning for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one day. Sometimes lamps keep burning even when we don’t have enough ourselves to keep them so.
For I don’t know about you, but I know that were I to do my best to be ready at any moment for Christ’s coming, I would fail. Rarely am I anything like ready. I might wish Jesus could come right now and clean up the mess we’re in, but I’m not really ready myself. I’m too busy and caught up in my own stuff; I’m too preoccupied with the daily worries of life; I’m too despairing about the state we’re in. If I depend on myself to keep that lamp burning, it will go out. But faith is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps story. It’s not an SAT test. Faith and hope in God isn’t something we manufacture all on our own. God’s light burns steadily, not ours – God’s anointing oil flows in abundance, not ours. We need help.
So unlike the ants, I don’t believe that our call is ultimately to gather up as much for our storehouses as we can. The wisdom this parable speaks of is that of accepting God’s readiness for us, God’s willingness to pour into us the oil that we need. And sometimes, we have to see just how empty we are before we can allow the Spirit to do that work in us. The call to be faithful is to wait there by the door of the feast, to wait for the God who will come, even in the midst of utter emptiness. It is to take our empty lamps of personal worry and terror, of fear for ourselves and our children and our world, and to hold them up to God to be filled. To hold them up to the abundance of God’s love that overflows in this community, that fills us in prayer and quiet, that embraces us when we don’t know where else to turn. What is foolish is to think we can do it on our own. Wisdom is in knowing what God must do for us.
When our tradition speaks of Christ’s coming, it means multiple things: the end of time, the end of the world as we know it; our own death; or even just moments in our lives when we recognize particularly clearly God’s presence with us. And with all of those comings, we do not know when they will happen. We don’t really know what we should be doing or whether we will be or have enough when God comes to us. But what we do know is that God has promised to be faithful to us, that God loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves, that God in Jesus gave up everything for love of us, to make us enough.
So yes, keep awake – keep your eyes peeled, keep your hearts open and your hope alive for what God can do beyond all expectation. Because even in the darkest of dark times, God is there – God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. Amen.