Lighting the way
There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that tells us this:
If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.
I love to read ancient wisdom, and it doesn’t matter the source as much as the relevance.
Just a caveat: While I agree strongly with the ideas of napping, fishing and helping others, I as strongly disagree with the whole inheriting a fortune bit, but that’s another sermon for another day…
However, we all want a lifetime of happiness, don’t we?
So it makes sense then that in order to have an eternity of happiness, we help ourselves to that happiness by helping others to that happiness.
Those words “help someone” used to rattle around in my heart and soul when I served as the editor at prestigious business journal not quite a decade ago.
As editor, I was charged with giving business owners and entrepreneurs information they could use to make them more successful.
But so much of the dominant culture at the journal seemed to be make the wealthy wealthier, while doing nothing to help the poor.
And for the three years I worked at this journal, I would find ways to begin conversations of how the wealth of a company could elevate the socioeconomic status of those who are without.
And in so doing, make a more stable economy at the ground level and, thus, a more profitable and more sustainable company at the top.
I proposed investing more in education, in back-to-work programs — after all, this was right at the end of the Great Recession — and in community reinvestment.
If we could help people renovate their homes in these urban blighted areas, their property values would rise, businesses would move into those areas, and we would have a larger tax base.
My message to those business owners who weren’t community-minded, but more focused on their own wealth and maintaining and growing it was “Do Something!”
A four-part series ran over the course of four weeks, but much of our readership did not resonate with the message to “Do Something.”
The reporters loved working on the project.
And because of our work that year, the National Association of Business Journals named us Business Journal of the Year and the staff was highly rewarded.
However, despite the accolades and attention, my editorial direction and my philanthropic bent were not well-received. And soon after, I left that publication due to what we might call irreconcilable differences.
I wanted to share the light.
You see, the Christian philosophy — and the writer of the Chinese proverb’s philosophy, too — is that we are created to help one another.
That is our purpose and responsibility to one another.
And so I would like to talk today about how sharing the light makes makes not only God happy with us, and not only those whom we’re helping, but it also makes us happy too.
Matthew tells us to be the light of the world and to share that light (Matt. 5.14-16, if you're curious).
Jesus demonstrates time and time again that we are to be like him — light in places of darkness.
Healing the sick, helping the poor, visiting the imprisoned, clothing, feeding, loving, and fighting for justice for those without.
And throughout this whole time here on Sundays since Pentecost — twenty-three weeks, so far, and counting since we read about the Holy Spirit being breathed into the disciples to share the light of the world — we have watched the examples and learned how to be this light from Jesus Christ himself.
What we call Ordinary Time in the church year; there’s nothing ordinary about it.
We signal Ordinary Time with the color green in the paraments on the altar.
That green is not the brilliant purple we use to show God’s royalty, the white to show Christ’s purity, or red to show the fire of the Holy Spirit;
but the green signifies growth — like plant, a tree or the grasses.
It’s a growing season for us.
A learning season
And all this time — if you can recall any of the ordinary Sundays here since just after Easter — we have been learning how to be the light for one another and for the world.
Again, healing the blind, the deaf, the infirm — no matter if they’re like us or not.
Standing in solidarity with those who have no voice in this world.
Working against a culture that tells us money and appearance and power are everything in this world.
Instead, disarming those voices with love, mercy, charity and grace.
Twenty-three weeks and counting, until we soon begin to slip into Advent in December when we are once again reminded why we do all this.
Watch and wait…
Today is no different.
This ordinary lesson about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that we just read in Matthew 25 is no different.
Yet once again, if we simply take the lesson at face value and never dig into the deeper meaning of how it fits into all that Jesus is teaching us especially these last twenty-three weeks, then we are taking Jesus’s words out of context.
That’s a dangerous thing, and that’s why it’s so important to understand the Bible.
By studying it, by reading it, and by praying it.
It’s dangerous because when we take a verse away from the context in which it was written, we are at risk of it losing its meaning — or worse, contorting the meaning that could hurt or oppress others
Historically, we’ve seen that in our culture of male dominance — “wives, be obedient to your husbands,” right? No!
We’ve seen it to condone American slavery — “Slaves, obey your masters,” right? No!
We see hate groups quote scripture out of context, and thus contorting the meaning to fuel their own evil agendas.
There is nothing new here…
So when we look to this passage on the wise and foolish bridesmaids, I ask you again to proceed with caution, lest we miss a very critical point in the context of who is the character of God.
Nothing, my friends, must be removed from God’s character.
What do we see here in this reading?
Matthew records Jesus telling this parable of how there were ten bridesmaids all waiting for the bridegroom to take them to the wedding.
They wait and wait, and when it grows dark, they each light their oil lamps.
But it gets very late, and they grow tired, and thus, they fall asleep with their lamps burning.
When they are awakened to hear that the groom is coming, they quickly grab their lamps, but only half of them have enough oil in their lamps to stay lit.
Their job is not so they can be seen by the groom as much as it is to help light the way for him and them to the great wedding banquet.
Jesus tells us the wise bridesmaids brought enough oil, while the foolish ones did not.
And when those without ask to borrow some oil from the women who have extra, they are turned away for not being prepared, and they miss the groom altogether.
Now, in our culture, we love these stories.
See, this is our contorted view of justice…
We like to say, “Well, serves them right — they should know better.”
And the context in which we proclaim it is reduced simply to this: “Be prepared.”
Be prepared for what?
Well, the bridegroom is none other than Jesus Christ himself, who tells us that no one knows the hour of the return of the Messiah — Mark 13.35, another Advent text about being watchful.
We are the bridesmaids, and we are to be wedded to Christ, the bridegroom.
And at Christ’s return, if we’re not prepared, we’ll be left in the dark just like the bridesmaids without any oil.
That’s all true…
But I remember these Bible stories growing up.
I remember being terrified that I won’t be prepared when Jesus returns for us.
That it’s really hard sometimes to keep those lamps full of oil and well lit as I wait.
And to a large extent, this is what we teach our children and one another.
It’s what the parable is about.
But again, what is the character of God?
If we don’t know this, then we won’t understand what Jesus is telling us.
Does God want us beloved children to be left in the dark?
Our human response has concluded “Why, yes: God must want only a few of us children to spend eternal life with…”
I don’t think there’s a loving human parent in the world in his or her right mind who wants that.
Neither does God, and this is why God sent Jesus.
Imagine how much more, then, for God — who does not play by human-made rules — but is PERFECT in love.
I can’t imagine God not wanting to welcome us all back home.
God, who even suffers the pain of burying his own son, Jesus, so that we all will be back home together.
That’s the goal.
That’s the story from Exodus on up through the ages.
Our story is a love affair with a parent who would do, and has done, and will continue to do ANYTHING just to have us back together again.
It’s what the entire story of the Bible is about — Old and New Testaments both.
Be vigilant, yes. Be watchful, absolutely. Be prepared, of course!
But consider this:
What is Jesus expecting of his bridesmaids?
Is it to be seen in the light or is it to help light the way to the wedding?
To light the way for him and for all of us, to the wedding banquet.
That is, into heaven. Eternity. The new Jerusalem.
The so-called wise bridesmaids could have just said, “We don’t have enough oil to share with you, but walk beside us, and we will light the way for you.”
Instead, what did they do?
They told them to leave them.
And go on some impossible task of trying to find lamp oil in the middle of the night.
How impossible would that be?
Right — impossible!
They send them away, with no chance of getting to the wedding banquet destination.
Living in Christ’s context
Brothers and sisters, we do this, too.
We follow Christ’s words, but we take them out of context.
We read our Bibles, we come to church and we are given the light.
We can say that we restock our lamps with oil.
And we burn the lamps and keep them ready.
We carry the light with us so that we’re prepared.
But like the wise bridesmaids, we don’t offer to share the light with those who have no oil for their lights.
The oil is Christ’s love.
And I see coming to church here on Sundays as gathering with all those who have full lamps burning.
Which is wonderful.
But then we leave here, and some of those lamps run out.
And we’re caught unprepared, sometimes in complete darkness.
Do we say “Oh, well, that’s their problem?! That’s their fault?!…”
Of course not.
We go and light the way for them, too. Keep them on that path.
And what of those who never had oil in their lamps, or maybe they did at one time, but it’s all gone now, and they’re in the dark.
“It’s their problem..”
Well, if we’re truly created in the image of God — and we most certainly are —
and we know God as the One whose love is perfect — and it is —-
and that God wants nothing more that to have God’s children together in all of eternity — and it is —
Then how could we say “It’s their problem?”
In the dark
Today, all around the world — in places like Africa, Syria, the Middle East, the Far West, throughout the Americas and right outside the walls of this very church building —
there are thousands — tens of millions — of bridesmaids shivering in the dark.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not here admonishing anyone.
We see the proof of the light that we share right here each Sunday:
We blessed 200 boxes of toys and supplies that will be given to 200 children who otherwise might not know the love of Christmas.
We’ve collected boxes and boxes of food for holiday meals.
We’ve given to the United Methodist Women here today, and those offerings will change lives!
We do a lot of sharing the light here.
But, how much of that light do we share if we’re waiting for the bridesmaids to come and ask for oil?
In other words,
* when there’s not a huge box awaiting your food donation;
* when there’s not a packing party during fellowship;
* and when there’s not a special offering;
In other words, when we’re outside the safety and comfort of this well-lit place?
I’ll tell you, when we don’t go out and look for the lost bridesmaids wandering aimlessly in the dark places…
… or worse, when we send them off into the darkness to try to find the light…
then we’re far out of the context of Christ’s love for us.
We’re far out of the context of the character of God.
The wedding is the goal
* The most important thing isn’t the wedding procession; it’s the wedding itself.
* It’s not the presence of oil; it’s the presence of Christ.
The foolish bridesmaids went off in the night, wandering around in the dark, looking for something they couldn’t get themselves.
The wise bridesmaids waited for the bridegroom.
But they all could have gone to the wedding together.
There was enough light in five lamps to light the way for 10 bridesmaids and the groom.
They had the foresight to bring extra oil, but they did’t have the vision of what the kingdom of God is.
They lost that context.
The Chinese proverb says If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.
Imagine the happiness if everyone is at the wedding, not just a few who had only enough light for themselves.
Soon, we’ll be heading into the Advent season — just three weeks away.
We will prepare. We will watch. We will wait — with great expectation.
We will begin to light the way with our Advent candles, in anticipation of Christ.
But let us not wait alone with more than enough light to share with those who sit in darkness.
Light is not a trickle-down economy kind of love.
It’s a full and equal partnership, a relationship in which we give all the light we have to show just how bright and plentiful it is.
And that the light that we carry is not of our own doing.
It’s not of our own resources.
It is given to us.
It’s nothing less than the invitation to the wedding itself.
We’re the bridesmaids being invited to a wedding we have nothing to do with.
We didn’t organize, plan or pay for it.
We did nothing to deserve it…
And yet there is the invitation for us.
Yet there is the groom — Jesus — wanting us to enter that celebration with him.
That’s love, people.
That’s true light.
And that’s why we don’t just simply gather here in this well-lit place, with people who have oil in their lamps;
No, we share the light with the world, with those who don’t deserve it because neither do we deserve it.
We share the light with the world because God wants one-hundred percent participation.
We share the light with the world because Jesus asks for a glorious celebration with all of God’s children, not just some of God’s children.
We share the light with the world because we are the light for the world.