Sustaining the Light

H-81 Trinity 27 (Mt 25.1-13)

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13

Reading this parable about the Kingdom of God, it is easy to see why Jesus was difficult for his ancient contemporaries.  What, exactly, is he trying to say here? It would seem that the story of the ten virgins presents a problem for us—for whereas in much of the Gospel Jesus speaks of the virtues of kindness, and hospitality, extravagant welcome and sharing out of our abundance as that which bring God’s Kingdom, here in our parable Jesus seems to imply that keeping our oil to ourselves rather than sharing it is what will bring us dancing into God’s presence.

Rev. Anna Carter Florence, in reflecting on this text, poses the following thought experiment: what if we were to interpret Jesus’ other sayings in light of this parable? How might it change the way we read previous teachings from our Lord and Savior? And she came up with a few that I would like to share:

(Matthew 6:19ff) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. Or (Matthew 6:25ff) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem. Or (Matthew 7:7ff) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. Or (Matthew 7:12ff) In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you. In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like this message. It makes me uncomfortable. It appears to fly in the face of what I believe about God. It seems to contradict the core of so much of what Jesus taught about God’s generosity and abundance, and our call to extend hospitality to one another. It seems to imply that what matters isn’t mercy or hospitality or sacrifice for those who have less than us. Instead, it seems to imply that taking care of oneself, even hoarding resources in the name of Jesus is what matters most. And if that is true, then instead of “Feeding the Five Thousand” we may end up with “How A Few Prepared Followers Made it into Heaven.”

And if that is what the Gospel is about, then we honestly don’t need it, because that is a message we have already received loud and clear. We are literally surrounded by it. We live in a world where success is equated with being more prepared, where having more oil equals more power, more security, and, we hope, more happiness. Turn on the television and you are bombarded with the message that more oil will get you everything you ever desired. American culture teaches our children when we are young that having enough stuff is the most important thing. That being self-sufficient is what matters most. That a big paycheck makes you a better person. That having less or that unfortunate circumstances are somehow deserved.

That’s one reason why so many smart young people flocked to the financial sector in the early 2000s—rather than pursuing careers in medicine, or social work, or early education, our youth had gotten the message loud in clear that what mattered more was having more “oil” than everyone else—so they took jobs with big paychecks and little impact on the well-being of others. Jobs that encouraged them to take the kinds of risks that played a role in the economic crisis that we find ourselves in today.

But, we believe in the Gospel because we know there has to be more to it than that. We follow Jesus because he calls us to something better than looking out for number one. We already know how to care only about ourselves. But we want to follow the God who challenges us—to love our neighbor, and share our resources.   We want to believe in something bigger than me.

So I have to believe that this isn’t what Jesus is trying to tell us—this can’t merely be a parable about looking out for number one and hoarding your oil. And if that isn’t what this parable is about, then we have to ask ourselves—what is Jesus trying to say?

The key, I think, is right there in the text itself, although we may not notice it at first. The text, you see, is silent about so much—we don’t know, for example, how much oil each woman had to begin with. The text is silent. But we do know this: when these young women went out to meet the bridegroom, the wise ones took a flask of oil with them, and the foolish ones didn’t. And so, when the bridegroom was delayed, the wise women had enough oil to keep their lamps lit, and the foolish women found that they didn’t have enough with them to keep their light shining.

I wonder if this isn’t so much a parable about who has the most oil, as it is about those who remember bring their oil with them when they go out into the world. Perhaps this is a text about what we carry with us as we live our lives for Christ. Maybe, to be wise rather than foolish is to carry with you that which keeps your light shining for Jesus. For indeed each of us, if we follow Jesus, seeks to shine Christ’s light all around us. We say as much when we baptize new Christians, asking them to be a light that shines for Christ in the world.

But Lord knows our lights don’t shine on their own—even the brightest flame dies down to nothing if it has nothing to sustain it. And our faith is much the same. Each and every one of us must find ways to nourish and sustain the spark of divine light that flickers within us. And whatever those reserves are, we must use them. We must carry them with us, for if we do not, we risk letting our light die.

And we cannot let the light of Christ that is within us burn out, for it is that light that sustains us as we walk the road of discipleship. To carry your lamp is to live the life Christ has called us to.   It is that light which encourages us as we do the work of God. It is that light, for example, that sustained Amos as he raged against the injustice around him, calling his brothers and sisters to care not just for themselves but for the poor, and the helpless, and the outcast. It was the light within him that gave him courage to speak when he knew that speech could mean the end of him. It was the light that he tended which pierced the darkness of his age and brought the people back to God.

We too can burn our lamps for the sake of Jesus, who promises that we pierce the darkness when we feed the hungry and the thirsty, tend to the sick, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, pray for the hopeless, welcome the stranger, speak for those who have no voice, and walk in the way of the cross. And if we keep oil in the lamp, if we take care of our spiritual lives and tend to them carefully, then we too will be able to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord.

The Sin of Omission

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Three Servants
“At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there was a man who was about to leave home on a trip; he called his servants and put them in charge of his property. He gave to each one according to his ability: to one he gave five thousand gold coins, to another he gave two thousand, and to another he gave one thousand. Then he left on his trip. The servant who had received five thousand coins went at once and invested his money and earned another five thousand. In the same way the servant who had received two thousand coins earned another two thousand. But the servant who had received one thousand coins went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The servant who had received five thousand coins came in and handed over the other five thousand. ‘You gave me five thousand coins, sir,’ he said. ‘Look! Here are another five thousand that I have earned.’ ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant!’ said his master. ‘You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!’ Then the servant who had been given two thousand coins came in and said, ‘You gave me two thousand coins, sir. Look! Here are another two thousand that I have earned.’ ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant!’ said his master. ‘You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!’ Then the servant who had received one thousand coins came in and said, ‘Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed. I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look! Here is what belongs to you.’ ‘You bad and lazy servant!’ his master said. ‘You knew, did you, that I reap harvests where I did not plant, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed? Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned. Now, take the money away from him and give it to the one who has ten thousand coins. For to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him. As for this useless servant—throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth.’

Gregory-window-croppedAll he ever wanted was somewhere that was quiet. Somewhere he could be alone with his thoughts, where he could tend to his prayers and his education as he meditated on the wisdom of those who had come before him. A place where he could love God, preferably alone.

The boy had grown up with every advantage. His parents were wealthy, well-educated and generous. They loved the church, and raised the boy with a love for God.   Life was good for the boy and his family.

But then the war came—invaders who killed and stole and made life difficult. The boy never recovered from the sadness that the wars of his youth brought him. He carried the scars with him. But he survived. Survived and grew into a man who became a top ranking civil official in his home city. It would seem he had it all: wealthy family, connections, the power to make a difference and make a name for himself.

But he gave it all up for a place that was quiet. One day, he turned in his fine robes and gave up his land and his money and became a monk. He walked away from enough wealth to build six monasteries, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to live quietly, simply, in communion with God and his brothers. He was finally happy.

But God had other plans for him. The man who had finally found peace in the monastery woke up one morning to find himself tapped to be ordained as a deacon of a great city, a position of political and religious authority. But that was not all. He was chosen to serve as an ambassador to another land, a post that took him far away from the monastery and the quiet that he craved.

All this he was willing to take, for the God that he loved. Until one morning he awoke to the news that the pope had died. Before he knew what was happening, his brothers and fellow priests had elected him pope. Faced with the reality that he would never have his quiet monastery to himself, he attempted to flee, but was apprehended and ordained as pope against his will.flee(1)And this is how it happened to be that Gregory the Great, revered by the Catholic and Orthodox churches as a saint of epic proportions, came to be what John Calvin called “the last good pope” of the catholic church.

How interesting is it, that someone so incredibly gifted, someone whose zeal for God was oozing out of the pores, someone whose whole life had been dedicated to the church, would be so intent to avoid being named pope that he would quite literally run away from it?

But then again, all he wanted was quiet. Gregory just wanted to live out his days quietly in a monastery, and being the pope was possibly the furthest thing from that. Even though he was gifted, even though he would make a great leader and guide to the faithful, this quiet saint hoped to bury his talents for leadership because he would rather pray out his days in a monk’s cell.

I wonder if perhaps this is the sort of message that Jesus was getting at in the Gospels when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a wealthy Landowner who left his possessions in the care of three servants.

According to the story, three servants are given three amounts of wealth according to their ability. The first receives 5 talents, the next servant is given 3, and the final servant gets 1. At this point you may be wondering how much a talent is. Doesn’t sound like much. Well, it turns out that a Talent is roughly equivalent to 10,000 denarius, which equaled a days wage. So I did the math. Based on my ‘daily wage’, a talent would be somewhere between 660,000 and 800,000 dollars. The point here is that we aren’t talking about a paltry sum of money. We are talking about an abundance of wealth here.

So what happens to that wealth in the story? The first servant takes the 3.5 MILLION that he was given and doubles it. The second takes his 2.1 MILLION and doubles it. The final servant takes his 700,000 or so and buries it.

When the master returns, he commends both of the first two servants for their hard work, and welcomes them back to himself. But when he hears the story of the final servant, the master is angry—“what have you done?” He cries. The bank would have at least given interest, and here this servant has left his talent in the ground, where it can do nothing but sit and wait to be found.

In interpreting this parable, faithful Christians have had all sorts of ideas about what it means. Some have argued that the talents correspond to different groups—Jews who accepted Jesus, Gentiles, and Jews who denied Jesus. Others have said that the talents refer to spiritual levels of understanding. But St. Gregory, who once tried to bury his own gifts, has the heart of it, I think. After reading this parable, he reflected that, when it comes to God, to whom much is given, much is required, and that the greater the gift, the greater the reckoning.

John Calvin reflected that perhaps Jesus is trying to tell us that our gifts have value, that they are not unlike currency, and that we can use them to enrich one another.

But here is the point: the talents, whatever they may be, are meant to be used.

The greatest sin turns out to be the sin of omission—of seeking to opt out of using our talents altogether. These last few weeks we have been reminded that biblical stewardship consists largely in the reminder that whatever we have, we hold in trust—in other words, we have been given life and breath, abilities and vocations and blessings by God, and that we are called to put them to work in God’s service. That means we can’t afford to bury them out of fear that we might lose them. To fail to use our gifts is the greater sin. God would rather we lose them in the attempt than to not use them at all.

Instead, we are called to be like the first two servants, who joyfully invest what they have been given in the hopes of a great return. We are called to be like the Macedonians whom Paul praises in 1 Corinthians, who, though they have little, give joyfully to support Paul’s ministry in the world. Consider the fact that these poor Macedonians’ generosity helped ensure that the Christian faith would reach as far as Rome. Consider that, without Paul, perhaps none of us would ever have known about Jesus at all. Consider that perhaps WE owe our faith to generous Macedonians who gave out of their poverty thousands of years ago because they could do nothing less.

What seeds might we sow with the talents we have been given? How different might the world look in 5, 10, 2000 years because we were generous with what God has given us?

I leave you with some words from Gregory, the quiet saint who preferred the abbey but accepted the papacy because God would not let him bury his gifts:

“Let him then who has understanding look that he hold not his peace; let him who has affluence not be dead to mercy; let him who has the art of guiding life communicate its use with his neighbour; and him who has the faculty of eloquence intercede with the rich for the poor. For the very least endowment will be reckoned as a talent entrusted for use.”

Discipleship and Haiti

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Matthew 25: 31-40

Last week I was driving into town and I noticed a church sign that said the following “ Even the demons tremble and believe.”  Now, I thought to myself, that must be one exciting church… I could just imagine the potential for hell-fire and brimstone on that sign-post, and I lost myself in visions of what sort of sermon that sign might be speaking of.

But for all my fascination and surprise—Presbyterians don’t often get the demons into their sermons, much less their church signs—I also found that, over the course of this week, my mind has gone back again and again to those words… “even the demons tremble and believe.”  The quote is from the book of James, and the author’s main agenda is to remind his readers that there is so much more to faith than what a person says with his tongue—what she says with her feet, and her hands, and her hearts, is equally important, if not more so, because it is with hands and feet and hearts that Christians demonstrate the character of belief in God.

And it was as I entertained these thoughts in my mind that the news began to filter in about the earthquake in Haiti.  News reports and images of overwhelming devastation flooded international and local news service, stories of thousands dead and more injured, of families torn apart and of the glaring need for a concerted response to the tragedy.

I began to wonder, what is it that we are called to be when things like this happen?  And so I turned to scripture, and to the church for answers.  I turned to Matthew 25 and it was there that I began to find an answer to my question.  In this story, Christ, is speaking to his disciples when he tells them a story about sheep and goats.  The word disciple is a latin translation of the word μαθητεύω, which means to follow.  The book of Matthew, then, could be understood as the book of “following,” of discipleship, for that is what the name Matthew means.

The story of the sheep and the goats, then, is a story about discipleship to disciples, people like us who have committed their lives to Christ and who are trying to learn how to live faithfully in to that commitment.  In it, Christ tells a parable about sheep and goats in order to illustrate a central point of discipleship;  That our actions matter.

He says:  when God comes, how you LIVED your faith will matter.  Your membership in God’s Kingdom will in some way depend on how you responded to God’s grace.  And in case there are questions about the nature of response, Jesus makes it simple:  he says, when I was hungry, you fed me, when was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was homeless you gave me room, when I was shivering you gave me clothes, when I was sick you visited, and when I was in prison you offered companionship. And that you did this when you acted in such a way to those around you, the overlooked and ignored.”

There is a story about a desert monk who once posed a question  to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.

Do you see what I am getting at here?  Christ offers us in this parable of the sheep and the goats something critical about what it means to have faith.  He says, If you believe, you will respond to suffering in others.  In fact, he says even more.  He says, your salvation, your citizenship in the Kingdom of God, depends in some way on the nature of our response to God.

Now, some of you may be wondering, doesn’t our faith teach us that it is by grace alone that we are saved?  Certainly, it is true that Calvin observed long ago that nothing we can do will overcome the chasm that separates us from God, and that Christ alone provides a means to salvation.  But even Christ teaches us that he did not die for nothing… As Paul says, do we sin so that Grace may abound?  By no means!  Rather, we are justified by grace THROUGH faith… in other words, we respond with compassion and with action BECAUSE we are saved, and that is one way by which God’s Kingdom is made manifest in the world.

Now, I don’t need to tell you for you to know that there are hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned people suffering in Haiti right now.  Thousands are homeless because their homes have collapsed in Port-au-Prince.  Drinking quality water has and continues to be a problem in Haiti.  They have NEVER had enough food.  Hospitals cannot handle the need, and there are still people imprisoned in the rubble and trapped by conditions of poverty on that tiny island.

And friends, our faith demands that we respond.  Ours is a faith that finds its center in a  yearning for justice, a yearning that is not our own but is shared by God in the figure of Christ who suffered and continues to suffer that all might be made well in this world.  Our Lord suffers with the people of Haiti, and is grieved when we choose to turn a blind eye to the suffering that lies before us.

I saw a billboard on my way up to Belvidere this week—it was for the Marines and had a picture of a well-dressed young man, very clean-cut, saluting off to the front of him and next him were the following words:  ‘Commitment to something greater than oneself.’  That is what faith in God is like.  Many churches have chosen to downplay songs and hymns that imply militaristic images with respect to our relationship with God, but in this case the analogy is apt.  Discipleship to God demands that we commit ourselves to something greater than us:  we commit ourselves to God, and to God’s plan for the world.  This means that we are sometimes called to respond with love and compassion to the tragedies that beset the world, whether they happen in our back yard or not.