Being the Light
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Sermon Being the Light
Good morning. I have to confess that I’m a little superstitious when it comes to writing sermons. I’m always a little nervous if I finish my sermon earlier in the week. I’m afraid that there will be some calamity, some disaster in the world, and I’ll need to rewrite my sermon to speak a word of peace in the wake of whatever awfulness might have happened.
A lot of my clergy friends have this superstition, too. I don’t want speak for my friends, but I’m always afraid that a sermon that sounded good on Wednesday might sound trite or superficial if there’s a national tragedy on Friday or Saturday.
I’ll admit, I tend to be a procrastinator. So, this superstition plays into my existing habits—of course I can’t write my sermon until Saturday morning! Something could happen!
But this is 2020!
Everything is weird!
In this new reality, I have to finish my sermon by Thursday, so that I can record on Friday, and then hand it off to John to edit the video. Besides, it’s 2020. How much worse could things get if I finish early?
I offer all of this because I waited until Friday morning to write this sermon and we still don’t know, with absolute certainty, the final outcome of the election. Yes, one candidate appears to have a lead in several swing states, but there will certainly be lawsuits and recounts after the states announce their results.
I had hoped there would be some certainty before I wrote the sermon, because I thought that would make it easier to speak a word of peace, a word of grace into these uncertain times. But I suppose we’re all anxious, no matter which candidate we voted for. We’re all seeking peace.
Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t make it any easier to find the peace—not for me. I don’t particularly like this parable. On the surface, it seems ungracious. There are ten bridesmaids. Five are wise; each one carries an extra flask of oil. The other five are foolish; not one of them has carried extra oil. And the oil that was in their lamps at the beginning of the evening has run out. The foolish bridesmaids ask for help, but the wise bridesmaids won’t give it to them. So, the foolish ones go off in search of oil. Then the wise bridesmaids meet the bridegroom and they’re taken into the wedding banquet. The door is shut behind them. The foolish bridesmaids are shut out from the heavenly banquet.
In the traditional reading of this parable, Jesus is the bridegroom, the wise bridesmaids are the ones who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and are ready for his return, and the foolish bridesmaids are those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah or they’re simply not ready for his return. In some interpretations, the oil in the lamps is faith; in others, it’s good works.
I have a lot of problems with these interpretations.
First, if the oil in the lamps is good works, it assumes that we can earn our way into salvation by doing good works. That’s called works righteousness. We don’t believe in that in the Presbyterian tradition. We believe that no human can be good enough or righteous enough to earn salvation. Rather, we believe in grace. We believe that we are only saved through God’s grace, not through our own good deeds, which will always fall short.
Second, it seems as if the wise bridesmaids are being rewarded for their refusal to share their oil. That seems ungracious to me. It’s at odds with all of those parables in the Gospel of Luke, where people give graciously to those who are in need of great help. It seems unkind, at least on the surface.
Finally, if the oil in the lamps is faith, then why on Earth can’t the wise bridesmaids share that with the foolish bridesmaids? Is faith a finite quantity? Is there only so much of it that it can’t be shared?
One of our problems is that we often think of faith as something that happens in our minds. Having faith is believing in the right things. Having faith is saying “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.” As if that’s all we have to do. But faith is about so much more than what goes on in our heads.
Matthew’s Gospel is all about ethics—Jewish ethics. It’s steeped in covenant theology. Let me break that down a little bit. Ethics is about doing the right things for the right reasons.
With Jesus, that reason begins with love and relationship. God created us in love, so we are to return that love to God and neighbor. That comes straight out of the Hebrew scriptures and the covenant between God and humanity. That covenant will always be there, even if we turn away from God, God welcomes us back when we choose to return to a right relationship. Jesus constantly reaffirms that covenant.
To remain in that covenant, we must be vigilant, we must be watchful, and above all, we must practice our faith through relationship. We must remember that faith is relationship. That’s the key to understanding this parable.
If we think of faith as relationship, rather than belief, rather than information about God or Jesus, then the wise bridesmaids cannot give away some of their oil. They can’t transfer some of their relationship with Jesus to the other bridesmaids. Each one of the wise bridesmaids has a unique relationship with Jesus. All they can do is let their light shine, and then hope that the foolish ones will see the light and return to relationship.
That’s all we can hope for, too. We are all sinners. We all turn away from that relationship with God—and with our neighbors—from time to time. Sometimes we are like the wise bridesmaids and other times we are like the foolish. Yet I can only know how much oil is in my lamp. I know nothing about anyone else’s lamp.
And that’s okay! Frankly, it’s exhausting to try to faith for someone else. It can’t be done. I can’t save anyone and neither can any of you. But we can all shine our light. We can all reach out to those people who are struggling with faith and relationships. We can work to mend the breaches in our human relationships.
That’s particularly important in this season after the election. As I said last Sunday, it’s clear that there are lots of relationships to be restored. Our bonds to one another have been strained and I hear a lot of people speaking without love. We need to remember what the Apostle Paul told us last Sunday:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
We can’t do faith for other people, nor can we transplant our faith into anyone else. Yet we can’t do faith alone, either. We have to follow Jesus into dark places, and then form relationships. We have to listen to the people we disagree with and acknowledge their humanity, acknowledge their reality, and be willing to be changed through the relationship. As we work to do this, we must not lead with knowledge. We must lead with love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, shine with God’s love. Rebuild and repair relationships. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!