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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
March 19, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, this week’s reading is another tough parable. On the surface, it creates more questions than it answers, and it leaves many people wrestling and wondering what Jesus is talking about here. Because it seems to go against everything he taught concerning loving your neighbor and building community.
In Matthew’s gospel, we’re still in Holy Week – probably Wednesday or even early Thursday. The religious leaders and the disciples, and most likely a few other people, are listening to Jesus as he tells a series of parables about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
As he does this, the religious leaders are getting more upset because they either don’t believe him, or they don’t like what he’s saying. But what Jesus’ disciples hear, will carry them through that Thursday night all the way to Sunday and into the rest of their lives.
And when we remember that Matthew wrote all of this 50-60 years afterwards, as his own faith community was wrestling with their identity as Jesus-followers, we see parallels between what Jesus said near the end of his life and what they needed to hear as they lived theirs.
For us today, this parable is typically read near the end of the church year in connection with preparing for Jesus to return. And Matthew’s community was waiting for that, too. And it’s tempting to lift this parable out of context and hear only that interpretation.
But hearing it within the timeline of Jesus’ life as we approach the end of Lent, going into Holy Week, shifts things a little bit. Hearing it within the context of the rest of Matthew’s story – with everything between the Sermon on the Mount and “just as you did it to the least of these” – helps us remember who Jesus is.
And what we come to understand is that, instead of only encouraging preparation for the end times and Jesus’ return, this parable encouraged Jesus’ followers to continue in their day-to-day faith practices no matter what might happen. It encouraged them to practice their faith in God, so that they wouldn’t be tempted to put it in someone or something else if they were caught off guard.
In other words, this parable encouraged Jesus’ followers to ground themselves in community, scripture, prayer, worship, loving their neighbor as themselves. It encouraged them to continue following Jesus’ teachings and living his way so that they could recognize the Kingdom of God in their midst, and not as something that happens later.
And to recognize that having faith in Jesus, in God, is for the long haul. To recognize that they each held a lamp that is their faith, and to trust that Jesus would give them the oil they needed to fill it throughout their lives.
When we carry this image forward for ourselves, it opens up a new understanding of this parable. One that helps us remember who Jesus is and what he’s about. One that helps us understand the importance of our day-to-day faith practices.
Our society tends to put a lot of emphasis and value and importance on the mountaintop experiences we have in our lives and anticipating those. The breakthroughs in our relationship with God, and the bigger moments of transformation that happen. And that’s understandable because they’re exciting and they make us feel good.
But we spend most of our lives in the day-to-day. Engaging in faith practices – like praying, studying God’s word, worshiping, being part of a faith community. It’s through these practices that we build relationship with Jesus and get to know him and realize that we can trust him.
These things don’t seem like much, but they are what nourish and sustain us because our daily faith isn’t a series of mountaintop experiences. Instead, it’s mostly repetition. And I don’t mean going through the motions, but rather every day living in the way God calls us to live. Because these practices lead us to –
– love our neighbor as ourselves, visit people when they’re sick or in prison, clothe them when they’re naked, give them food and clean water when they’re hungry or thirsty. Give them shelter when they’re unhoused.
They lead us to welcome in the person who reaches out for help. To engage in conversation with people who are different from us so that we can learn and understand one another. To speak out against unjust legislation. And to advocate on behalf of others.
As people who follow Jesus, we do these things not to get anything out of it, but because of who Jesus is and the way he calls us to live. Daily engaging in these faith practices helps us live the values of God’s kingdom. That’s where we get our “oil”. That’s how we keep our lamps filled and trimmed and ready, and how our hearts and our lives are ultimately transformed.
Because practicing our faith isn’t about filling our lamps up all at once with one mountaintop experience and letting that carry us to the next one. It’s about keeping our lamps filled, keeping the wick trimmed so that the flame burns steady all the time.
Not out of fear, and not to gain any reward, but because it’s how God calls us to live.
And the best thing about these practices is that they don’t only shape us as individuals, they also shape our community – our congregation – because we practice them together. We teach one another, love one another, encourage one another, pray for one another.
And when we do these things, we not only receive oil for our own lamps, in a manner of speaking we also share our oil with one another because we all know what it’s like to run low from time to time. We see the abundance of who God is and we aren’t afraid to share it because we know it will never run out.
On the flip side of that, we see the abundance of who God is and we aren’t afraid to ask for a portion of someone’s oil when we’ve run low, and we aren’t as prepared as we ought to be. Because we remember who Jesus is.
As I prepared for today, the song “Keep your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” was referenced in several of the commentaries that I read, and it’s based on this parable. I will not sing it for you here, but the refrain is “Children, don’t grow weary.”
It isn’t a warning but, rather, encouragement to keep faith in God especially when it’s hard – to keep practicing your faith especially when you’re tired. Because that’s what sustains us and helps us be prepared for whatever might come, whether we’re expecting it or not.
In this parable, all of the bridesmaids fell asleep. All of them. None of them were awake when the bridegroom showed up. Jesus knows that we all have moments when we’re not paying attention, when we fall short, when we fail to live into God’s intentions for us.
But when we’re grounded in our faith, when we’re rooted in Jesus, we know who we can turn to for guidance and help. We know who we can count on and trust. And – we can also be that person for someone else. We can be the one who practices grace, mercy, and forgiveness for someone who is struggling.
And when we are that community for one another, we build a community in which all may enter the reign of God today. We build a community that is transformed and through which God works to transform others.
It’s a community that recognizes that the lamp of faith each person holds is precious and needs tending. And it’s a community that helps one another recognize that Jesus gives us the oil we need to keep it filled throughout our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.