Sermon for Year A Proper 27
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
My friends, the past couple of months spent here in Tahoe have been such a blessing for me and for my family. Everyday I feel abundantly grateful to live in this beautiful place—enjoying early snow showers skimming the nearby peaks; loving the serenity of our lake at sunset; relishing in the shade of the redwoods and pines along my walk to work. And I feel abundantly grateful to serve this amazing community—finding exponential joy in a rambunctious All Saints’ day celebration; discovering camaraderie in congregants as if we were long lost friends; learning to listen to where the Spirit is taking us along this pilgrimage together.
Yet although I have felt so blessed in my time here, it also has been a rough few months, hasn’t it? I mean, everyday I turn on the news, and it seems like another tragedy has struck, another catastrophe has erupted, another cataclysmic event that leaves us reeling and asking, “When will it stop?” In the past few months we as a country have experienced three disastrous hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria. We have experienced one of the most devastating wildfires on record—42 dead, 8,400 structures burned, more than $1 billion in damage. We have experienced two mass shootings—60 lives lost in Las Vegas, and (only shortly over a month later) 27 individuals massacred as they worshipped the Lord in the beauty of holiness, as we are doing here in this very moment.
It has been a trying time, my friends. It seems like the darkness has been creeping in. And in all honesty, over this past week some hopelessness has settled in my soul. The news from this shooting in Texas this past Sunday has been debilitating, exhausting, paralyzing my prayers before they can even surface to my lips. In such depths of despair, no words or actions seem like enough. I have know idea what to say or do. It feels like all hope is lost.
Yet throughout this week, as I have been ruminating over these past events and over our Scripture passages for today (worried about finding the right words), music has been a ray of hope that kept surfacing in my soul. I’ve had that old Sunday school song stuck in my head: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning./ Give me oil in my lamp, I pray…” And I’ve been reflecting upon the hymn we just sang during our Gospel procession:
I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God sent the stars to give light to the world;
The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all;
The night and the day are both alike.
The lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
For me this particular hymn is a reminder that no matter how despondent we become, no matter how dark it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation seems, that Jesus, our light, is still shining forth and showing us the way out of even while we are immersed by the encroaching darkness. And because we as Christians have chosen to become children of light, we are called to spread that very same divine light. We are called to carry our torch for Christ. We are called to bear our oil lamps as we wait patiently for the bridegroom.
That is exactly what is happening in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. There is prolonged period waiting in multiple contexts. First, in the early Christian community for which this Gospel was written, believing that the Jesus who had suffered, died, and risen would be back in their lifetimes to bring about the kingdom of God. But they are soon struck with the reality that this will not occur within their generation. Second, in the trajectory of Matthew’s narrative, in this particular moment in the Gospel message, Jesus is teaching his twelve disciples and closest friends on the Mount of Olives. He is warning them about the end, that the time is near, that something dramatic and tragic and catastrophic is about to occur. In reality all of their confidence in this holy man, in this Messiah, in this Savior is about to be extinguished as Jesus will soon be dead and all hope seemingly lost. Yet Jesus urges these disciples to wait, “For they know neither they day nor the hour,” when the darkness will dissipate and the divine light will break back into their lives.
And Jesus communicates the importance of this waiting in a third context: in the form of a story, in the parable of the ten bridesmaids. In this allegory we find a group of young women standing by in expectant anticipation for the coming of the bridegroom, for the procession to the wedding banquet to begin. And the only difference, the only differentiation in this group of young women—between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids—is that five of these individuals know they must be prepared to wait. So they bring extra oil for their lamps to get them through the night. They refuse to let the light go out. They refuse to let the darkness overcome them. They refuse to let the hope be lost. No matter how long they have to wait for the bridegroom, for God to enter in, their expectant anticipation never turns to anxious anticipation. They rest. They sleep when needed. They experience a serenity of the soul. For these bridesmaids, they are prepared. They possess a reservoir. They have kept enough oil on hand to keep the light burning throughout the darkest moments of the night.
However, for the other five women who forgot to bring extra oil for their lamps, upon waking from their rest they are ill-prepared and are thrown into a fury of anxiety. They demand the other women to share their oil. They run out into the dead of the night. They miss the bridegroom and the procession to the party in its entirety. What if they had asked forgiveness for forgetting to bring enough oil, forgetting to hold the torch? What if they had relied upon their sisters’ lamps for light and joined the procession anyway? What if they had responded to the bridegroom’s coming with excitement instead of anxiety? Then they could have easily joined in on the festivities.
The expectant anticipation of the five wise women does not mean doing nothing. But it means coming prepared to meet the Divine. It means bearing the light to all of God’s children—laboring towards love and mercy in our midst; rolling up our sleeves to do the work of discipleship. It means knowing that the kingdom of God is not yet in this world of destructive hurricanes and devastating wildfires and mass shootings, but that the kingdom of God is also just around the corner, coming in from the night air, ready to greet its guests and lead all to the heavenly celebration.
As disciples of Christ we are called to prepare to wait. We are called to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other that there is a reservoir of God’s love even when it seems like all hope is lost. As disciples of Christ we are called to remember our past when we thought the darkness would never end, to read and recall the stories of Scripture—as our Old Testament reading for today reminds us:
For it is the LORD our God
Who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt,
Out of the house of slavery,
And who did those great signs in our sight.
He protected us along all the way that we went.
No matter how long we resided in the throws of slavery; no matter how long we wandered in the wilderness without a home; no matter how many days we questioned the Divine providence; God never left us alone in the darkness. For as the hymn so artfully communicates Psalm 139: “In [God] there is no darkness at all;/ The night and the day are both alike.” As disciples of Christ we are called to walk as children of light, children of resilience, children of hope for a world that cannot see any flicker of a flame shining forth from the darkness of this day. Our lifework, our mission, our calling is to keep the light on: to draw upon our reservoir of oil—our community, our sacraments, our sacred scriptures, our music—during the hardest of times. Our calling is to keep the light on: to care for and ease the pain and suffering in this world, to work towards justice and peace for all people, to contribute to keeping the hope alive for those who don’t have the power (or the patience) to hope for themselves. Our calling is to keep the light on: to direct that flickering flame to the God moments still present in the middle of chaos and devastation, in the midst of hurricanes and wildfires and mass shootings. Our calling is to keep the light on.
We don’t have to bring about the kingdom of God by ourselves. We don’t have to host the banquet. We don’t even have to try to be the bridegroom. We just gotta carry our lamps and keep the blaze burning in our heart. Keep the darkness at bay. Keep the hope alive. Keep awake. Keep the light on.