Oil

The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27
November 12th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

Some things cannot be bought, some things cannot be destroyed.

During this week’s Wednesday within the Walls book study, I found myself smiling when Merritt likened the fruits of contemplative prayer to the extra oil that the 5 wise bridesmaids brought with them to the wedding banquet.

“You know that’s Sunday’s gospel reading” I asked, and we marveled at how fitting the parable seemed for us this week.

The parable of the 10 bridesmaids can present difficulties to us, because from a certain perspective, it can seem so unfair.

Why can’t the “wise” bridesmaids share their oil with the “foolish” ones?

Why can’t the door be opened to let the foolish bridesmaids back in?

Is the kingdom of heaven really like this?!?

This parable from Matthew 25 is part of a section that talks about the coming of the end of the age, and what servants do when their master is away (do they rightly care for the master’s household or abuse others during the master’s delay?).

Jesus is explicit with his disciples that they are to prepare for the coming of the kingdom through watching, waiting, and through right actions that serve as a foretaste of the way things will ultimately be when God’s never-ending reign is fully established, on earth as it is in heaven.

Later in Matthew’s 25th chapter we get the famous “Sheep and the Goats” passage, in which only a thin, but very important, distinction exists between those who enter into their rest as sheep of the Good Shepherd, and the goats who go on to eternal punishment.

In that passage, as well as today’s, the dividing line between sheep and goat…between wise and foolish is defined by what they do or do not do.

Some things cannot be bought, some things cannot be destroyed.

It bears saying that all 10 bridesmaids were invited to the wedding banquet.

All 10 bridesmaids wearied with waiting for the bridegroom to appear and fell asleep.

The difference is that when the festal shout went up at midnight, jarring all 10 from their sleep and announcing the arrival of the bridegroom, the wise bridesmaids had extra oil to trim their lamps and head out into the darkness to meet him, while the foolish ones left to look for oil and subsequently missed his arrival.

The message is clear…if we want to be wise and meet the delayed bridegroom whenever he eventually arrives, then we better prepare ourselves by bringing enough extra oil to outlast any ensuing delay.

But HOW do we do that as 21st century Christians who have been waiting almost two millennia for the return of the bridegroom?

I am encouraged by the fact that “falling asleep” is not something held against the bridesmaids.

Waiting and watching for the kingdom isn’t the spiritual equivalent of drinking tons of caffeine and propping our eyelids open so that we “won’t miss a thing.”

We are a sabbath people after all, and in returning and rest shall we be saved.

But preparedness for the coming of the kingdom means investing in the very thing which allows us to see into the darkness and discern the difference between the ominous shades and shadows haunting the fringes of our vision and the distinctive shape of the bridegroom calling us to join in the wedding banquet.

Jesus is the light of the world, and as such, it is God’s grace and gift that lights the lamp of our life in the first place.

But keeping that flame burning…making sure there is fuel for the fire…is the responsibility of each of us.

It doesn’t matter what social class we belong to, what country we come from, or in what generation and age we have spent our days.

According to kingdom ethics, we are responsible for gathering enough spiritual oil to keep the lamp of our souls aflame.

This spiritual oil cannot be shared because it is not a commodity, but rather an internal disposition developed over time…an ever-flowing wellspring generated through daily efforts and actions which accumulate over time.

Just like a concert pianist cannot instantaneously transfer her skillset to a beginner, nor a seasoned sage completely impart his wisdom to a neophyte, the extra oil the wise bridesmaids have brought along is something that is impossible to share quickly.

With time, both the pianist and the sage could guide their disciples in the skills and practice that allow this expertise and wisdom to take hold in, and flourish within, the student.

But in the moment of decision…in the unspecified time in which the bridegroom arrives…the oil in each of our lamps is completely non-transferable.

If that sounds harsh, the flip side is that while one’s spiritual oil is their own, and not something we can give another, it is also something which cannot be taken away from us once it’s been developed.

Earlier, Matthew’s gospel refers to this process of lamp oil generation as storing up treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“For where your treasure is,” the rest of the passage goes, “there your heart will be also.”

Some things cannot be bought, some things cannot be destroyed.

We live in a world in which the darkness continually threatens to overcome us—a world where nations war against nations, where the powerful still advance at the expense of the weak, and where each day, the weight of societal and personal despair is palpable in both city streets and the avenues of social media.

As followers of Jesus Christ…as those who have been called to herald the coming of the kingdom, to announce the year of the Lord’s favor and proclaim the good news that we have seen and experienced through the resurrection to all those that remain captive to this world’s lesser dominions and realities…we must attend to the daily work of oil generation.

We do so by entering daily into the depths of prayer, and encountering God in the silence and in the speaking there.

We do so by living each day according the wisdom of the kingdom…by welcoming strangers as honored guests, by seeing enemies transformed into brothers and sisters, by going the extra mile, by constantly looking for the resurrection of the dead and by LIVING the life of the world to come right here and now.

We generate sufficient oil reserves when we draw close to the feet of the master, Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, and learn from him…and learn to recognize the festal shout that announces his return.

For while indeed, one day, this present age will come to an end, and the Son of Man will then judge the living from the dead…the kingdom we seek, and the Christ who has called us, are already breaking into this world of ours.

We just need eyes trained to see and to recognize it, voices and hearts shaped and tuned to proclaim it, and enough extra lamp oil to cut through the prevailing darkness and lead us to the bridegroom and into the banquet hall.

Some things cannot be bought, some things cannot be destroyed.

But some things can be cultivated.

See to your oil reserves this week my sisters and brothers, and find ways to support each other while you do.

For then, when the bridegroom comes, we won’t be distracted by lesser tasks and pursuits, but will instead be prepared to arise, meet him, and celebrate the feast together.

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