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Sermon: Oil in the Flask

November 8, 2011

Matthew 25:1-13

I have presided over at least 200 weddings in my career as an ordained minister. I do not believe that any one of those weddings began exactly on time. A few years ago, I went to perform a wedding ceremony at a hotel in Newport Beach. I always arrive early, but as I approached the 22 freeway, every lane was nearly at a dead stop. Traffic was moving slower than a crawl. I experienced one of those moments where my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach and stayed down there for a while.

I called Desiree on the cell phone—this was before the hands free law—and asked her to search out a better route. She told me there had been a major accident, and there was no better route. So I thought, Aha! Surface streets. It took me 20 minutes to get to the next exit, and nearly as long to get through the exit. Everybody else was abandoning the freeway just like I was.

Finally, I was off. I raced this way and that, trying to keep heading in the general direction of Newport Beach. I had a vision in my head of all the guests sitting nervously, the groom pacing at the altar, the bride panicking in her powder room, everybody waiting for me, the bumbling clergyman who couldn’t make it to a simple wedding on time.

Because I had given myself a head start, I managed to make it to the hotel just a few minutes after the scheduled time. When I rushed up to the area where the altar and chairs had been set up, there was almost nobody there. I found the wedding coordinator and she seemed happy to see me, not in a fit of rage. You see, almost everybody was coming from the northwest, and they all got caught up in the same traffic. The groom hadn’t even arrived. The only reason the bride was present was that she stayed in the hotel the previous night. I was early. We started the ceremony about 90 minutes late, but we got ‘em married and everybody had a good time. That’s an extreme example, but a wedding never starts on time.

The cliché is that it is the bride who is forever late to the wedding ceremony, but in the case of my wedding in Newport Beach, it was the groom who was delayed. That is also the situation in our scripture lesson. Matthew told us the story from the perspective of the bridesmaids. In an ancient Palestinian wedding, the bride and her entourage would have a grand procession to the site of the wedding feast, and the groom and his men would process from a different location to the site. Once everybody had arrived, there would be feasting that would last for up to a week.

In the world of the First Century, the scheduled time for an event would have been rather vague according to our standards. Nobody had watches; nobody had cars. People would get to any event by walking, nobody expecting that all the guests would arrive at about the same hour. In the case of a wedding, the invitation might say that the wedding would be Saturday, and the expectation would be that people would arrive anytime between sunup and sundown.

Even then, there could be delays. In our wedding from Matthew’s gospel, the groom was much delayed. Maybe the lambs were giving birth. Maybe a neighbor needed help getting his oxcart out of a ditch. Maybe the three-mile walk simply took longer than expected. Whatever the reason, the feast could not begin until both bride and groom had arrived.

The ten bridesmaids went out to meet the groom on the way. It was getting dark, and they took their lamps. The wise bridesmaids took oil in their lamps. It was the reasonable thing to do, to be prepared. It’s what we do. If we’re going to a special event, we make sure to have plenty of film and fresh batteries for our cameras. The other five, however, were not so wise. They didn’t think to take oil for their lamps.

The ten reached the place where they would wait for the groom, and they waited, and they waited. It was dark, they were tired, and so they fell asleep. They were snoring away when at about midnight, there was a shout: “Look! Here’s the bridegroom!”

The young women all got their lamps ready, and the foolish ones then realized they had forgotten the most important ingredient for their lamps. “Ah, Susie, funny thing…would you be so kind as to let me have some of your oil?”

And Susie said, “You know what? No. There won’t be enough for both of us. Go to the lamp shop and buy some.” The lamp shop. At midnight. But the five foolish bridesmaids had no other choice, and so they ran off into the night to find oil for their lamps.

Meanwhile, the groom, the wise bridesmaids and the rest marched off to the wedding feast. They arrived, full of excitement and ready for the feast. They shut the door and locked it behind them.
When the foolish bridesmaids returned to the place of the feast, they pounded on the door. “We’re back…we’re back. Lord, lord, open to us.”

“Truly I tell you. I do not know you.”

* * * * *

The wise and the foolish were not so different. They were all friends of the bride and groom. They all went out into the dark of the night to meet the groom. They all fell asleep when the groom was delayed. The difference between the wise and foolish was that the wise had oil. The oil was all the difference.

What do you suppose Matthew means to tell us about the oil? What do you think it represents?
Even in the First Century, just a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, people thought that Jesus’ second coming in glory was taking a little too long. The groom was delayed. So the question was, “What do we do now?” Some people just gave up waiting. “He’s never coming back. The promise was false.” This story is Matthew’s answer to “what do we do now?”

It seems evident that the oil represents what it is that we do while we wait for the arrival of the bridegroom. We do not sit on our hands or just gaze out the window. Our faith leads us to some action in this between time. Jesus’ delay gives us time to act, time to live, time to love. The oil represents the character of our waiting for the return of the Christ.

Scholars have looked through Matthew’s gospel to find clues about what precisely the oil represents. Is it evangelism, preaching the good news? Is it martyrdom, laying down our lives for the sake of our faith? It is clear that Matthew thinks we should be doing something, but what?
In a couple of weeks, we will read Matthew’s vision of the final judgment. In that story, much like our story today, there are two groups. One group is admitted to the kingdom of heaven, and the other group is not allowed to enter. The only difference between the two groups is that one performed good works and acts of mercy, particularly toward those who are the lost and the least, the most vulnerable—those who are hungry, those who are strangers, those who are naked, those who are sick and in prison. Could that be the oil in the flask?

Could it be that as we are merciful and loving to our neighbors, as we do justice to those who are most vulnerable, we are keeping the fires of our lamps burning until the Messiah comes again? To the degree that we share a helping hand, that we give away our time, talents and gifts to the world, we are filling up our own lamps with pure oil.

Could this mean that when you pick up bread for Sunday Nite Supper, you are not only burning gasoline in your automobile, but putting precious oil into your lamp of life? Could it be that when you take your neighbor to her doctor’s appointment, you are pouring oil into your lamp? When you send money to help the families of wounded veterans, you are storing up oil. When you volunteer in the school library, that’s oil.

We do this because we are friends of the bridegroom. We want to accompany him to the feast he has graciously prepared for us. But the feast is not yet. We still wait. The bridegroom is delayed another week. In the meantime, we have a representation of that feast today, prepared by loving hands. It is a preview of that heavenly banquet, and you are all invited to bring your oil and share in the feast of the bridegroom.

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