Keep Awake

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.

March 31, 2019

Matthew 25:1-13

Let me start out by saying I’m opposed to the very premise of this parable, opposed to the idea that women should be sitting around in the dark, just waiting for some guy to show up.

I know, I know. That’s not the point of the story.

But some days it is for me.

Some days I need to question Matthew’s assumptions about the role of women, to wonder about his motives.

I routinely need to question my motives, of course.

Some days I need to question our country’s motives too.

Are we ‘keeping awake’ in the right way for God? Have we fallen asleep to the ways injustice happens right in front of us?

It’s easy to preach this text to say that everyone needs to take care of their own oil.

It’s easy to preach this text to say that everyone needs to do their own preparations.

And you’ve heard that sermon from me. It is not a wrong reading of the text. I liken the instruction in this parable to putting on your oxygen mask on the plane. They tell you to put on your own mask before helping others with theirs. It’s a legitimate spiritual, personal reading of the text.

I’m having a hard time focusing on a personal reading of the text when I look around at the world and see so many physical needs not being met. How are people who have to struggle for their literal ‘daily bread’ or physical safety, supposed to have the resources to be wise with their oil supply?

We live in a world where some of us have access to lots of oil and can fill up our lamps whenever we want to. We also live in a world where others do not have access to the same stores and stockpiles.

I can’t read this text without thinking about the ways I can casually explain away my privilege and opportunity while ignoring how difficult it is for other bridesmaids to have the same resources and opportunities to even allow them to make it to the party.

While some bridesmaids face racial prejudice when they go to buy oil for their lamps, with employees following them in the store because they don’t look like they belong, I waltz in and get what I need from courteous employees.

Other bridesmaids are so busy securing bottled water for their children in Flint, or in Louisiana, as I discovered a few weeks ago—how are they supposed to also remember to get oil for their lamp? That’s something I’ve never, once, had to spend time and worry about—whether the water in my tap was safe to drink.

There are lots of other situations that keep some of our neighbors from accessing resources, from being wise bridesmaids. I’ve used a few illustrations, but there are plenty more.

We could also talk about how LGBTQ people in Idaho have to worry about losing jobs or housing in a state without human rights protections.

Or the challenges elderly people face as they lose mobility and health.

We could talk about the 1 in 8 of Idahoans who are food insecure and aren’t sure where they will be fed this week. 72,000 Idaho children are included in this number.

The risk in reading this text as if it is ONLY about our spiritual life, is that we easily can read our material reality into the story too. For example, when we believe that we are the people who have prepared our souls, who have done the hard work to have what we need for our faith, we can read into it the ways we prosper materially, as if that too, were all because of only our own preparations, or because of our spiritual work. Or it can lead us to decide that having material needs provided for isn’t important because faith is what matters.

To be sure, our efforts, our preparations for our material needs are good and fine. It is good to work. It is fine to be proud of our success. At the same time, we can’t forget that we are all, every last one of us, recipients of help from others. We have all been foolish bridesmaids at some point in our lives, needing someone to help us with something.

So we cannot pretend WE were the ones who were wise enough to gather extra oil without acknowledging we live in a society that actively keeps other people from succeeding as we do.

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Image from Church Art Online subscription

We need to rewrite this entire parable in our country, a new parable where bridesmaids who have access to all the resources learn to share. We don’t need to hoard the oil. I want a new ending to the parable, where when other people’s lamps run low, we say, “here, I’ve got enough to share. I brought extra for you because I know your worries are not the same as mine”.

I don’t want to hear any more bridesmaids saying “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves” as Matthew’s bridesmaids say.

I also notice in this parable (the one Matthew wrote, not the Marci edited version) the real trouble for the foolish bridesmaids comes when they choose to belatedly go after some more lamp oil, and choose not to follow the bridegroom into the party.

In other words, they miss the party because their belated focus on material things keeps them from following Jesus.

If the kingdom of heaven is like the two wedding banquets described in this week’s and last week’s texts, it seems Matthew feels the emphasis is on being there, on showing up, no matter whether or not you knew you were on the guest list or not. We show up, whether or not we were wise enough, or lucky enough, to have enough oil in our lamps. And if we don’t need to hoard the oil we’ve got, then we can share it with others to make sure they can make it to the wedding banquet too. Who is being kept from God’s wedding banquet because some of the bridesmaids are hoarding all the oil?

What would have stopped the wise bridesmaids from saying to the ones who didn’t have oil—‘here sister, walk with me. The light from my lamp will be enough for us both. We can get you more oil tomorrow ’.

I want a parable where the foolish bridesmaids can know, deep in their hearts, that they don’t have to scramble for more because others will help them.

I want to edit the parable so all ten of the bridesmaids, accompany the bridegroom arm in arm, confident there is room enough for them all at the banquet, confident there is enough light between them to illuminate the path.

It’s interesting to me that the instruction at the end of this parable is to “keep awake, therefore”. All of the bridesmaids, the foolish and the wise, had fallen asleep in the parable. Falling asleep isn’t what kept some from the banquet. So maybe we are called to keep awake about things other than late night waiting for some guy to show up.

Maybe we are called to keep awake to the ways we treat our fellow travelers on this life’s journey.

Maybe we are called to keep awake to the systemic ways injustice, racism, and fear of the other can harm some people and benefit others.

We have enough to share. We are called to do so.

We worship a God who fed the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years with manna and quail.

We serve a savior who fed the crowds on the hillsides with a few loaves and fish.

We follow a shepherd who fills our cup so it overfloweth.

Do we think for a minute God needs us to hoard what we’ve got when so many people are without oil for their lamps?

No, we do not. Let’s share the light from our lamps, so everyone can see the path more clearly and walk with us toward God’s banquet, where there is room for all.

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