How is your oil supply?
Matthew seems to be enjoying throwing us these tough parables, ones that demand more than just a superficial reading. In our lesson today, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a group of bridesmaids planning to join in the wedding celebration. In Jesus’ time, the whole village and their extended families would be part of the ceremony.
Since weddings would take place in the summer, they would often go on into the night to keep cool. The procession of the groom winds its way from house to house to meet the bride, picking up well-wishers along the way. At each stop, the crowd would gather and shout to those inside to wake up, come outside, and join the parade.
When this particular celebration arrives at the house in question, the five wise bridesmaids have their oil; the five foolish only their lamps. When they are shouted to attention, the foolish run off to find oil. The parade passes them by. They are shut out of the banquet and miss out on the celebration. The message seems to be relatively straightforward: when Jesus comes, you’d better be ready.
From there, though, it all starts to get messy: what’s the oil? Where do we get it? What is sleep? Is it contentment? Death? And Jesus says “stay awake”, not “have enough oil”. Even the five wise fell asleep. Does that mean that none of them were up to snuff? In short, how are we supposed to follow the advice of the parable when we’re not really sure what it means?
If we want to take it literally, then it’s time to stock up on coffee and get the Netflix cue lined up. It’s going to be a long night or two…but I’m convinced that it’s far more faithful to take Scripture seriously than literally. So where does that leave us?
I think we start with light. In much of Scripture, light stands for “wisdom”. It’s a reality we’re hard-pressed to connect with, surrounded by technology as we are. In the ancient Near East, when the sun went down, that was it. What was clear in the light of day became obscured in the dark of night. The only way to improve your chances of understanding was the flickering of a candle, a light that needs fuel to keep burning. As long as there’s oil, there’s light. And as long as there’s light, there’s vision.
Actually, I think there is an apt metaphor from 2015 for this. As much as many of us rely on our smart phones, they have become a kind of wisdom for us. We’ll never be lost, because maps will find us. We’ll never stumble around for obscure trivia, because the answer is always right there at our fingertips. We have lost the need to plan ahead. As long as we have our exterior brains handy, we’re good to go – as long as it’s charged…
Aha! A lamp without oil is like a phone without a charge. It is nothing more than an expensive paperweight. And in a society that’s more and more paperless, it becomes quite the relic.
When the phone dies, we become helpless. When the light goes out, we find ourselves in the dark. It is a message we need to heed: more than we think we know.
Let me put it this way: do you need church? That is, is being part of a community of faith crucial to that faith? Or is it possible to be a Christian, praying and reading Scripture alone, communing with God in nature? The answer in our society is a resounding “yes”. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has changed very little in the last fifty years while church attendance and membership continues to plummet. American Christianity seems confident that being a Christian has very little to do with Church.
I hope you don’t hear me as being overly critical here. I have been among that number myself, and I am sympathetic. When church Christians act self-righteous, when their personal behavior seems so much at odds with the humility and self-reflection of Christ himself, when their actions are driven more by social status than faith, then there seems to be little to recommend the church to those who would call Jesus Lord, or even friend. Those are the moments when folk unplug from the church, choosing to go it alone rather than be surrounded by hypocrites who fail to recognize their hypocrisy.
That said, you can only remain unplugged for so long before you run out of charge. A lit coal out of the fire can stay hot for a while, but it will grow cold much sooner than when it is surrounded by flame. A lamp will eventually run out of oil and grow dark.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s enough to “make peace” with the misbehavior of church. I think church should be a place where we are held accountable. The question, instead, is whether we are willing to work together to make the church look more and more like the kingdom of God that Jesus describes, a community that makes its life out in the open rather than hidden in the shadows.
Time and time again I am reminded how fortunate we are here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian to be connected to a larger body of the 100 or so churches in Atlanta that make up the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. We support and resource one another, and we also hold one another accountable. It’s why we work so hard to make sure that our decision-making processes and our finances are completely transparent. Truth becomes clear in the light of day.
And ultimately, this is all tied into what the parable is about: it’s a wedding! There’s a celebration, a banquet to which we are invited! When church becomes about only meetings and committees and how much can be wrung from membership, then it’s not church. Those things only matter when they can carve out the space, when they make room for the dance floor, so that everyone can get a turn to cut the rug with the bride and groom.
So what about you? Where is your light? How do you keep the oil from running out?
If you have been with us the past few weeks, you are well aware of our upcoming study series called “Engage”. If you haven’t yet had a chance to sign up for one of the groups getting ready to organize, then please do so today. You can fill out one of the inserts in your bulletin, or you can go on our website later today and let us know your preferences. The series focuses on faithful evangelism. Now, before you run screaming for the doors, let me say a word about it.
How many of you would say that, if the opportunity arose, you would feel 100% comfortable talking about what you believe with someone else? You see, at its core, that’s what evangelism is! Unfortunately, the word has become associated with those who have driven good Christians away from the church. It has become steeped in hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and an “in your face” approach that bears little resemblance to what the word actually means.
What Engage is designed to do is to build competencies for evangelism in its purest form. In other words, it is meant to help coach us in how to share our stories, our most closely held beliefs – to give them words, so that they might take flight. You see, the thing is that such opportunities to share with others what we believe don’t have to be forced. If we are living plugged-in lives, if our lamps are connected to a source of oil that never runs out, then these conversations will come about as a result of simply being in relationship with others. And the truth is that, as long as we remain uncomfortable in talking about our faith, we will continue to steer the conversation away from these things so that the opportunity never arises in the first place.
Then again, maybe you feel like you don’t need this, that you have more than enough oil, that you are plugged in enough to evangelize, to share. If that’s the case, then you have wisdom the rest of us can benefit from! We all have our lamps. It’s still daylight, so we can see just fine. But some of us don’t even know where to get oil in the first place. For you, the invitation is to share your wisdom so that the light can spread far and wide!
May it be so.