Let Your Light Shine!
Last night I was reading about a new business practice (this is a glimpse into the preacher life the night before the sermon). Many companies are shifting away from focusing on the product alone to a more experience-based strategy. They are selling projects, not products. For example, a shoe company exists to sell shoes, right? But this new strategy builds the experience around the shoe. Set a goal: run in the Boston Marathon. The shoes may come with coaching to help you reach the goal. Or a membership in a local running club. Projects, not products.
So I began to strategize about starting my own biblical-era lamp business. These are not the brighter than the sun flashlights we see on sale today. They are fashioned from clay, each with its own individuality. In the middle of the lamp there is a small reservoir to hold the oil. On one end of the lamp a wick extends upward. It's not the most efficient design-- you'll need to carry around a stash of oil and matches. It's also certainly not great for traveling. Nothing can ruin a day like spilt oil in one's handbag. So we'll work on that. But anyway, back to the model: projects, not products. Buy one of my lamps and you can participate in the wedding party of complete strangers. Hang out at the reception, drink their wine, eat their cake, dance to the DJ music until 2:00 a.m. All for buying my lamp!
There is a catch, however: weddings in Israel, in Jesus' time and even today, can be a little flexible when it comes to the start time. The invitation may say the festivities begin at 6:00 p.m., but the wedding party may not arrive until 8:00. Or later. I read an article this week about wedding planning in Jerusalem. It's common for the bride and groom to serve drinks and appetizers to their guests before the wedding because who knows when the event will actually start. So just keep this in mind. Buying a lamp gets you in to the party, but you have to be ready and very patient.
Ten bridesmaids are waiting outside the gate of the spot for a wedding. They've got their lamps, oil, matches, and wicks. Their responsibility is to form two lines, lamps blazing, when the wedding party arrives to usher them into the venue. The bridesmaids arrived early, even though they know the wedding party will be late. And so they wait. And wait. An hour passes. Three hours pass. Six hours pass. Where are these people??
They've waited so long that they become exhausted and fall asleep. Right there at the gate. Then the lightest sleeper hears the sound of the carriage approaching and wakes everyone up. They pull out their lamps, fill them with oil, and trim their wicks. They are ready. Well, half of them are ready. They brought extra stashes of oil just in case the party was delayed. The other half brought only enough oil to get them through a couple of hours of waiting. The ask the bridesmaids with the abundance of oil to borrow some. They refuse. They will not risk being out of oil when the party finally arrives. So the other bridesmaids run off to buy more oil. The best venues, knowing these wedding traditions, are surrounded by late-night oil supply shops just in case.
By the time they return to the wedding venue, the party has arrived and they are locked out. They bang on the doors, but are not allowed in. "No," a voice says from the other said of the door. "I don't know you." "Keep awake, therefore," Jesus says, "because you do not know the day or the hour."
This parable is a stumbling block to many, because it seems to contradict many aspects of Christian living. Shouldn't the wise bridesmaids share their abundance of oil? Isn't it better to give than receive? Doesn't God love a cheerful giver? "If you see a brother or sister in need and do not help the love of God doesn't reside in you?" I get it. There's a reason no one preaches on this text for stewardship lessons. But this isn't a parable about generosity. It's about preparedness. The wise women were prepared to do their duty, even if it meant going to Sam's and buying oil in bulk. The foolish brides have been to many weddings, and they always start late, but never more than an hour or two at the most. They are foolish because they are not ready for the worst. And remember: all ten, wise and foolish, fell asleep while waiting. So when Jesus says, "Keep awake," he's not criticizing their snoozing.
Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness during the Exodus. Joshua led the Hebrews into the Promised Land and the subsequent battles against the Canaanites. At the end of the book, and near the end of his life, Joshua called together the entire congregation of the Israelites for an assembly. He recounts the story of God liberating them from slavery in Egypt and warns the people not to adopt the Canaanite practice of worshipping false gods. He utters the words you'll find emblazoned on wall hangings sold wherever Christian-themed products are sold: "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Everyone else says they'll do the same. They will not abandon God. Joshua lays a stone to memorialize the renewal of the covenant. As the years passed, a few remembered their commitment to God, but most did not. Some bridesmaids bring enough oil to last the entire night; others bring only the minimum. Some are wise, others are foolish.
Following the shooting rampage at a Texas church last Sunday, a couple of members reached out to me. What kind of response could Grace offer in light of such a tragedy? How could we bear witness to our faith, while also expressing our grief and outrage at the loss of nearly thirty lives during a worship service? And all I can say right now is that we will respond somehow, but it will be in a thoughtful and meaningful way, the form or setting of which has not yet materialized. For the long term, we hope to build the kind of community of love and faith that looks right into the eyes of evil and does not blink. There was a great example of this kind of response a couple of years ago in Charleston, SC.
At a mid-week Bible study a young white man walked in to a black church, Emanuel AME church, and was invited to join in the discussion. A white supremacist, he killed all nine people present, including the church's pastor. This church, and thousands of other black churches across the South, had been targeted for many, many years. One was burned in Louisiana just last week. The response of the congregation to the terrible tragedy in Charleston was shocking to many. Not only did they forgive the murderer, they prayed for his family and for their city. And the doors were open for worship the following Sunday. One of the church's pastors, the Rev. John H. Gillison, said that while people were still asking why, “those of us who know Jesus, we can look through the window of our faith, and we see hope, we see light.”
In other words, the lamps were burning brightly against the darkness. This is the message of both the Joshua text and the parable in Matthew: Who are you going to be in the face of challenges to your faith? Are you going to be prepared for anything? Or are you going to hope to get by? Are we going to remember God's faithfulness today and forget tomorrow, or will we draw on our identity as children of God so much that every day is met by shining the light of Christ? Jesus said the foolish person builds a house on sand, and when the inevitable wind and storms arrive the house is swept away. The wise person builds on solid rock. The house endures the storms. He also said, "You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
We are selling not just the product, but the project-- a life of faith that endures and shines light on the darkness. So may our lamps burn brightly. May our storage of oil never run out. May we join the wedding party, ready to celebrate, our lamps glowing in a hurting world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!