There was a song I learned in camp, a song that probably came right out of the Gospel
lesson we heard this morning. Give me oil in my lamp; keep me burning, burning, burning;
give me oil in my lamp I pray; give oil my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning; keep
me burning to the judgement day. A plea to God that there will always be enough oil within
us, so we don't end up like the five foolish maidens. A plea that we will be ready when
the Bridegroom comes. A plea that we will be a part of the Kingdom.
The Gospel lesson is a warning to be prepared for Christ's coming. The scene is an
ordinary wedding celebration, a time of joy for the whole community. Everyone is waiting
in anticipation. Ten Bridesmaids are ready; they have lamps lit so they can lead the way
for the Bridegroom as he goes to the wedding feast. Then the Bridegroom is delayed, but
the word is that he is still coming. Be patient. Just wait. So the Bridesmaids begin to
wait. The hours pass by slowly and the waiting is hard and eventually all the bridesmaids
fell asleep. Then suddenly at midnight a cry in the streets wakes them up. Look! Here
comes the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him! As the bridesmaids got up to trim their lamps,
five of them notice that their lamps are going out, and they don't have any extra oil.
They ask the other five bridesmaids, who brought extra oil, for some oil and the answer is
no. So the five foolish bridesmaids go off to find some oil. While they are searching for
a shopkeeper, who will sell them some oil the Bridegroom comes. The wedding party parades
to the banquet, and the doors are shut. When the five foolish maidens arrive at the feast
they bang on the door Lord, Lord, open to us. But the Bridegroom would not open the door,
he says, Truly I tell you I do not know you.
There is a harshness to this parable that doesn't sit well with us. We wonder why the
five wise bridesmaids couldn't share bit of their oil? And what did the five foolish
bridesmaids do that was so bad they were not allowed into the feast? All the bridesmaids
fell asleep, no one stayed alert. The worst fault of the five foolish bridesmaids is that
they didn't plan ahead. I'm not a person who can fault anybody for that.
This is a parable about being prepared for the second coming of Christ. Matthew tells
us that Christ's coming will be unexpected, like a bridegroom delayed. Luke says that he
will come like a thief in the night. The parable warns us that we must be prepared; we
must be ready for Christ's coming into our world and our life. We prepare for God's
presence in that future as we wait for God's presence in the present.
[Being a Christian is not following a set of rules so that someday you get to live
forever in an angel soft eternity. We pray--Thy Kingdom come. This is about Christ's
coming, not our going--and when Christ does come there will be peace and joy and love and
celebration! There will be a final coming when we are all together, but I don't know much
about that coming except that it will be.]
God grace and presence happens whether or not we are aware of it. Frederick Buechner,
borrowing a phrase from Paul Tillich, tells us--We only want to show you something we have
seen and tell you something we have heard . . . here and there in the world and now and
then in ourselves is a New Creation. God speaks to us, God calls us, Beauchner tells us,
through the events of our lives. We see and hear God faintly, we catch a glimpse of God
here and there . . . now and then. Sometimes it is in a kind word from a friend, or coming
through a complicated surgery, or enduring a failure in your life, or a word of
forgiveness from someone you care about very much and whom you hurt deeply, or hearing a
friend or spouse say for the fortieth time--Why don't you come to church with me on
Sunday? These moments could be life transforming. These are the moments when the Holy
Spirit could be opening your heart to the presence of God.
To be aware of these moments when God comes into our lives, here and there, now and
then, requires preparation. What's the difference between the five foolish and the five
wise bridesmaids? Both fell asleep, both had lamps, both let their lamps go out. The only
difference is that the five wise bridesmaids brought along an extra flask of oil. The five
foolish bridesmaids prepared only for the wedding procession. While the five wise
bridesmaids prepared not only for the wedding procession, but also for the time of
waiting--the in between time.
The interpretation of today's gospel depends a lot on what we make of the word wise or
sensible. The wise bridesmaids are ready for the bridegroom when he comes; the others are
not. The word in Greek means to think, or to set one's heart on.
To set one's heart on---what a wonderful phrase. Did you ever set your heart on
something? Buying or building a house. The birth of child. Graduation from high school or
college. Retirement and the freedom to travel. The care of a parent or spouse who is ill.
The arrival of a child after a semester away at college. Set our hearts on. That phrase
means that we order our lives around some expected event or some promise, or someone's
arrival. I had my heart set on it . . . A couple wants to build their first house. They
begin by looking for land, making drawings and plans. They might imagine what each room in
their house will look like--what the view will be from the master bedroom; how the dining
room will be furnished; what kind of plants will be around the house. Then they start to
work and to save. Once they get a loan, almost all of their free time goes into building
this dream house. All of their life revolves around the fact that one day, they will live
in a house they designed and built. That's what it means to set one's heart on something.
We care so much about a future event that we order our lives around it now.
Scripture tells us that our God loves us more than anyone else can ever love us.
Scripture also tells us that we can trust our God to be with us and to watch over us no
matter what is going on in our lives. Scripture also tells us as we commit ourselves to
God we will know a life of freedom, a life of service, and a life of joy. And Scripture
tells us that God has given each and every one of us very important gifts for the building
up of the church of Jesus Christ, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture
also tells us that God is present in our lives through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This year our theme for stewardship is--Stewardship--heart work. Today the question for
us is--Do we set our hearts on these promises of Scripture? Do we order our lives around
these promises? Are we prepared to experience Christ in our lives? These are questions we
need to ask ourselves as Christians--questions that have to do with stewardship. That's
what the letters you received in the mail are all about. They are not just about
committing a portion of your income to the budget of this church. Rather they are about
committing your lives to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They are about setting your
hearts on God and the promises God gives to you and this congregation. They are about
trusting God to do what God says God will do. They are about being open to the fact that
God could be calling you to serve in this congregation--even though you are already busy,
or you already put in your time. They are about giving your time, your gifts, yourself, so
that the body of Christ will be built up. They are about bringing oil for the in between
When we set our hearts on the promises of Scripture, we are able to share our income
with the church, because we know that God will see us through. When we set our hearts on
the promises of Scripture, we can say yes when called to serve the church, because we know
that God will give us what is necessary to teach, to plan, to visit, to share our faith
with another. When our starting point is a heart set upon the promises of God, stewardship
becomes an act of joy and an occasion to offer our gratitude and service, rather than this
wrenching decision each and every November.
Christ has promised to come again into our lives. Wee need to be prepared for that
coming, to set our hearts on it, so that when Christ comes to us in moments of here and
there and now and then, we will know the joy of that presence. Giving of ourselves is
absolutely necessary for us to prepare ourselves for God just as bringing extra oil was
absolutely necessary for the bridesmaids to prepare themselves for the bridegroom.