A Sacred Fire

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Matthew 25: 1-13

The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, Jesus says. And then he tells three vivid stories, which we find collected in the 25th chapter of Matthew: next Sunday we will focus on the parable of the talents. In a mid week conversation we will reflect on the parable of the great judgment. The one story has to do with our gifts: do we take a risk and share them, or do we bury them in the ground? The other story has to do with our actions: have we been compassionate?

In each story we are given opportunities, for a time, and then the door closes, and there is an accounting, a spiritual audit, a final answer to the really big questions: what did I do with my money, with my time? How was I in a relationship with the poor, with the stranger, with the prisoner, with the sick?

Deeply embedded within these two parables there is the presence of Jesus, himself. What if Jesus is the treasure that we share with others, what if the good news cannot be suppressed, what if the gospel is the gift that is multiplied? What if Jesus is the woman who is sick or the man who is homeless or the young adult who is in prison? What if Jesus is there, in plain sight, waiting to be noticed? “When did we see you?”, he is asked, at the great judgment. “We were not quite prepared for your coming!” What if Jesus is the One to whom we are accountable?

Well, there is another story in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it is less known, and yet it too is about time that is drawing to a close, the kingdom of heaven impinging on life. It is, most scholars believe, more allegory than parable. Parables have one meaning, one point, but allegories have multiple meanings, each facet of the story representing something else, something visible pointing to something beneath the surface.

The teaching of Jesus is set in the context of a marriage in first century Palestine. We are not sure about all of the customs of a wedding in that context, but we can draw some parallels with weddings in our own time and place. In the congregation that I serve weddings tend to be sprinkled throughout the late spring, summer, and sometimes into fall. All sorts of customs and questions surround these weddings: Who will light the candles, will the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom? Who took care of which preparations? Did anyone forget something? The marriage license? The rings?

In the story there is a bridegroom, who is Jesus. There are ten bridesmaids who take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish and five are wise. Here the bridesmaids represent the church, which is always a gathering of the wise and the foolish, of, as the movie title had it, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Jesus seemed to grasp this: the church is always weeds and wheat, growing up together; or imagine building one house on a rock, and another on sand.

Jesus was a realist. The church was always a mixed bag of motives, pure and impure intentions, true and false beliefs. How could you tell them apart, the wise from the foolish? Well, that is what makes it all so interesting! You can’t really. They all purchased the bridesmaids dresses at the same shop. Externally, on the surface, it is all going according to plan, everyone following the same playbook.

Years ago I was helping a couple to prepare for their wedding. They were fine young adults, having benefited from the advantages made possible by their parents, having spent some time passing through higher education, I don’t recall how much or where, good people, in love with each other, but something was not quite right. I could not put my finger on it, and even though we had two wide-ranging discussions, it never emerged. It was just beneath the surface.

The day of the wedding came. The service began. The father gave the daughter away, he kissed her, walked
to the first pew, sat beside her mother. The couple joined hands, walked to the altar area with me. They said the vows, they exchanged rings, they knelt in prayer, they stood up, a soloist sang the “
Lord’s Prayer
”, and I pronounced them husband and wife. They walked down the aisle, arm in arm. There was a tension there, but I chalked it up to a nervousness that is natural in a large gathering of people.

Later I stopped by the reception, and it was almost a different world. Everyone seemed so happy, so joyous, so relieved! I gave it a brief thought but went about my business, mingling, saying hello to friends. Finally someone in conversation, as an aside, spilled the beans. It seems that this was the third (and gladly successful) take on the couple’s plans for a wedding. The first time the bride had called the wedding off three months before the date; the second time, one week prior. All along, things had been fine, externally. But internally, something was happening, something was missing. Weddings can be that way. We are caught up in the externals! But what was going on inside of the bride and the groom, just beneath the surface? What is going on inside of us?

In the gospel everyone is making plans for the great wedding feast, and in the tradition of Jesus, this was a sign of the coming Messiah. A wedding was a significant event—it still is—but there was more going on than a promise between two human beings. It was all about the union of God and the people of God.

On the guest list there is this cast of characters. How is it that some are wise and some are foolish? In the story, this has to do with whether there is oil is in the lamp or not. In the Old Testament oil can represent deeds of love and mercy, it can point to the scripture, and it can symbolize the Holy Spirit.

The problem in the gospel for today is not that the bridesmaids fall asleep in anticipation of the coming of the groom. They all sleep, the wise and the foolish. The issue is in their readiness, and externally they are indeed all prepared—every detail has been cared for, with one great exception.

Is there oil in the lamp? Did theym do we find ourselves running on empty? We will most likely live through a series of energy crises, our consumer needs depleting the oil reserves as our collective automobile gauges move farther and farther toward “e”. We remember the anxiety of all of that, even as we anticipate it again.

And, of course, the obvious always points to the not-so-obvious. I heard a professor once speak of preaching by using the imagery of a lantern, the oil being used up, the flame getting dimmer. The speaker, from the African-American tradition, said it plainly: “you have to keep oil in your lamp”.

It helps to see the 25th chapter of Matthew as a whole, Jesus making one extended argument, you and I placed on this earth for a purpose: to love and work, to worship and play, to take care of the needs of our families and those beyond us. And there does seem to be a note of urgency in these three stories, the parable of the oil in the lamps, the parable of the talents, the parable of the sheep and the goats.

We convey this sense of urgency in the Great Thanksgiving, the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.

From a human point of view, the cliché has it right, “time is of the essence”; and so, John Wesley would say, “don’t trifle it away”. Be ready, be prepared. As a child, I understood this as being about having my life in order in case the Angry Judge came today. I heard this in more than one revival service. But today’s story has a different tone: pay attention, or you will miss the great celebration!

So whatever became of that couple? I did talk with them about it all later, and they laughed. This had been the right time for them. They had lived through their share of heartburn, on the way, their relationship had been the cause of sleepless nights for their families. Somehow the inner conviction had to catch up with the external event. And it did.

It was their time. These three stories of Jesus are very much about timing. They got passed around among the earliest Christian communities for a simple reason: Jesus had promised that he would return, but this did not seem to be happening. Where was Jesus? They remembered the word in Matthew 25. 5, “the bridegroom was delayed”. Was the bridegroom haggling with the bride’s family over some economic aspect of the wedding; more than one scholar sees this as likely. But the delay of the coming of Jesus was a crisis of faith. Is God trustworthy, is the word of God trustworthy?

We answer that question by learning to be patient, by persevering, by giving thanks even when the future is uncertain, by preparing ourselves to wait a very long time. And so we set aside that extra flask of oil, the reserve, so that our faith is able to carry us through the darkness. This teaching has echoes in almost all of the later writings to the first Christians: do not be weary in your well-doing, the author of Hebrews says; do not neglect to meet together. And the author of II Peter, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years”.

The church in its wisdom places these three stories in Matthew 25 just prior to the season of Advent, which seems far removed from us now, but for the Christian we are always living in Advent, we are always anticipating a new birth. They were stories about patience, but not a passive patience. In the meantime, while we are waiting, while Jesus has been delayed—- —and our patience becomes protest (!)–and on many days we ask, where are You?-in the meantime we consider the lamp that is our soul, that is our heart, that is the interior life. It is, Jesus reminded Martha once, the one thing that is necessary.

Along the way there are questions.

Is there a flame there? Are we running on empty? Is a fire burning? Are we burning out? And how do we keep that fire alive? And here, for me, the three stories in Matthew 25 merge into one. The oil is a burning desire to love God and neighbor, to worship God, to take risks, to share our gifts, to make our lives mean something, even if we do not have the future figured out, even if we are discouraged because something has not worked out as we had planned.

We cannot control the external circumstances, the markets rise and fall, the wars do not come to an end and peace is delayed, the creation groans amidst the degradation of the gulf coast, the church disappoints us, those we love struggle with chronic disease while we hope for an intervention, an outbreak of peace on earth, a scientific breakthrough, an awakening or a miracle.

It would be easy to give up, to despair, to become passive. And yet each of these parables in Matthew 25 is a call to do quite the opposite. Do not be weary in your well-doing. Keep the oil in your lamp burning. Do not bury your talents in the ground. Use them for the glory of your generous master. Do not withdraw from those who need your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service. In moving toward them, you may indeed meet Jesus. All of this may be your salvation.

And in doing all of this, the kingdom of heaven will come a little closer, the flame of justice will burn a little brighter, the sacred fire will be kept alive for yet another generation, the warmth of the lamp will remind us that God loves us, if we had forgotten, the Messiah, and the reign of justice and peace is not delayed forever.

So pay attention. Be prepared.

Keep the oil in your lamp burning.

~ The Reverend Dr. Ken Carter, Senior Pastor
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina

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