Matthew 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
If the world ended, do you think you’d notice? Most of us probably assume we would. There’d be some war or catastrophic event and we’d find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic wasteland running from zombies or mutant cockroaches or our new octopus overlords. We assume the end of the world would be obvious.
But what if it wasn’t? What if it was slow and creeping, instead of a single explosion? What if it looked like a printing press or a computer or a smart phone that end one way of being human and begin another? What if instead of a super-volcano covering half the world in ash, the tides rose slowly and elsewhere fertile land over 30 years slowly became desert and every couple years the temperature went up a few degrees. Maybe wealthy nations like America wouldn’t notice as much at first, but those kind of subtle changes in climate could drive millions of people from the coasts of Southeast Asia, or the ever dryer climate of Syria, in search of new homes. That would be the end of a world. We might only notice that coffee costs a couple dollars more than it used to but in Colombia, the higher temperatures mean that they grow less coffee which further devastates the economy, forcing people into other, less reputable forms of employment or on the move to seek opportunities elsewhere. That would be the end of a world and we might not feel the ripples but they would be reshaping everything whether we know it or not. Or maybe, again over 30 years, even in wealthy places, the costs of living and education skyrocket, while wages remain the same, so you have a whole generation moving every couple of years in search of work, paying off debts instead of saving, asking “Can I make rent?” instead of “How soon can I retire?” That would be the end of a world.
Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, world’s end gradually, by the boring erosion of time, the slow accumulation of harsh realities. Sometimes new worlds come not with kings riding in on horses, dropping the biggest bombs, but with a refugee baby sleeping in a manger because there was no room in the inn. Sometimes, new realities emerge and it happens so quietly that our world ended and we didn’t even notice.
If there’s anything the Bible teaches us about the “end of the world,” it’s that “no one knows the day or the hour” when such things will occur, not even Jesus. But in the New Testament, the early church lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. This means that Christians are called to look high and low, in every unexpected place, for signs of God’s Kingdom. Instead of clinging to old worlds, Christians are called to learn how to live and move and breathe, using the wisdom we’ve received from worlds that have ended to look forward to what’s coming next. Jesus’ call to the disciples is to “be ready” because worlds end all the time and in the flux of those moments are opportunities to build a different kind of world.
Over the next 3 weeks, we’ll be ending the church year by reading Matthew 25 together. In Matthew 25, Jesus is about to go to be crucified, and he’s giving the disciples instructions for how to live together after the end of the world. Their world is going to end, more than once, but Jesus wants them to make a community that is ready for a different kind of world, that is beginning to build a different kind of world even now. To help shape them into this kind of community he tells a series of 3 parables that are all variations on a single theme: be ready! Keep watch! The old is passing away and the new is coming, but it’s not going to happen the way you expect, and if you don’t recognize what’s happening you’ll miss an opportunity to build something different!
In the first parable Jesus’ tells, there are 10 bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. We are told that 5 are foolish and 5 are wise. They all go to sleep, but the foolish forget to fill their lamps, while the wise, they are prepared. They live “as if” the bridegroom is coming and so they’re ready for whatever happens. When the bridegroom does come, the foolish realize their mistake and ask the wise to help them, but the wise refuse them their oil. “There’s not enough,” they say. While the foolish are trying to fix their mistake, they are shut out from the wedding banquet and cannot get in.
Maybe you hear this and you think this is mean to the 5 who forgot. Why couldn’t the other 5 just lend them some oil? Not having oil doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Dorisanne Cooper, my pastor at Watts Street, had a brilliant observation about this scene. In a sermon I heard her preach, she observed that there are some things we can share, like material goods, and the Gospel teaches us to share them, which is why this story makes some of us uncomfortable. We think they should be able to share their oil. But this is a parable, which means that things aren’t always what they seem. The oil here is a symbol. It’s a symbol for the kinds of things we can’t get from others.
There are some things we can’t borrow. I cannot borrow Jerry’s ability to play the organ. That is a skill I would have to work very hard to learn for myself (and even then it wouldn’t be pretty). I cannot borrow wisdom when I have a hard decision to make (I can seek advice but if I don’t already have the wisdom to know what to do with it, then even that is no good). I cannot borrow compassion when a panhandler asks me for money. I cannot borrow empathy when someone comes to me with a hard story about their suffering.
There are certain things that can’t be borrowed, gifts, anointings, traits of character that have to be cultivated, practiced, grown up in us over time. And if we’re not prepared when we need them, there’s nowhere else to get them. Abraham can’t borrow the hospitality to let those 3 strangers into his camp, but it’s a good thing he had it because it turns out they were angels; Joseph can’t borrow the wisdom to interpret dreams; Isaiah can’t borrow visions from another prophet; the disciples can’t borrow the faith and mercy that let them heal and do wonders. You either have it or you don’t. You’ve either cultivated it, or you haven’t. When the moment comes to do what you’re called to do, you’ve either practiced or you haven’t. But there are some things you just can’t borrow, and they might be the most important things of all.
So Jesus tells this story as a way of saying, “Stay ready. Keep watch. You might think this is just a normal day, but any day could be the day everything changes. You might think it’s just a random day like any other, but maybe something will happen, someone will cross your path, an opportunity will present itself and it turns out your whole life, the whole life of this church, has been moving toward this moment. Will we be ready?”
And, of course, the only way to get ready is to practice, to prepare. When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain. The bridesmaids trim their wicks before the bridegroom comes. The things we cannot borrow have to be prepared before we need them. If we want to be just in crisis, we have to practice justice; if we want to be compassionate when someone really needs us, we have to practice compassion (you can’t give benevolence to someone if there’s no money in the benevolence fund); if we want to be a hospitable church, then we have to show hospitality to whomever walks through these doors now. [A friend who works in a church told me a story about how a church he was working at had a wonderful opportunity to feed and house a homeless man, but they sent him away when he used some rough language. My friend was dumbfounded by this, but then he remembered that he’s spent a lot of time with people who happen to be homeless and so he’s not surprised by language that is pretty common when you live under a bridge. He’d been in that situation before, and so he wasn’t surprised by anything, he was ready when someone needed help. ] There are some things that can’t be borrowed.
Part of what this means is that we can’t minister by reaction, which is a bad habit a lot of churches and pastors have. So when something racist happens we talk about racism, when allegations of sexual assault come out against a celebrity we talk about sexism (maybe), when a shooting happens we talk about violence. As one friend put it, we stand up and say that the bad thing that happened is indeed very bad and feel good about ourselves for being so enlightened. But honestly, that’s just trying to borrow what we don’t really have. Instead of just making statements, maybe we need to be asking what we can be doing every day to practice racial justice; every day to teach young boys being too rough and old men making suggestive jokes that women are not objects to be exploited; every day instead of waiting the 5 minutes till the next shooting to say that the gun is this country’s golden calf, the object made by our hands that we believe gives us safety, security, and freedom. We can’t borrow justice; we can’t borrow equality; we can’t borrow peace. If we want those things, we need to practice being that kind of community now, every day. There are some things that can’t be borrowed. You have to practice being the kind of Christian you want to be; we have to perform the kind of church we want Ephesus to be.
Be ready, my friends. Worlds are ending every day. Witnesses to the End, survivors of little apocalypses are at our borders and being released from jail and sleeping in these woods and praying for jobs all around us. Will we have the humility to listen to them and follow their lead? Don’t be lulled to sleep by the monotony of your normal life: by the constant circulation of waking and sleeping and working. Some of us might be lucky enough to think those cycles are never ending because they repeat so reliably, but life is far more precarious than that. Some of you in this room know it, as do many of our neighbors. So collect your oil: practice justice and mercy, patience and compassion. Keep watch, as God does, with those who weep and watch and mourn this night. Be ready: you’re calling might come to you like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom in the dark, and we’ll want our lamps to be full of the things that can’t be borrowed. Amen.
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