Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2014 || Proper 27A || Joshua 24:14-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Last Wednesday, I was visiting Gene and Judy Roure at home as Judy continues recovering from surgery. I arrived right after lunch and we were having a pleasant conversation when something unforeseen happened. My eyes started to close. I couldn’t help it. I made a conscious effort to keep them open as we talked, but you know if you ever try that tactic, your body just assumes you’re using reverse psychology. I knew the lack of sleep Leah and I have been experiencing would catch up to me eventually, but I sure didn’t want it to happen during a pastoral visit! So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked Gene and Judy if it would be okay to close my eyes for five minutes while sitting in the terribly comfortable rocking chair in their living room. Being the lovely and gracious people they are, they readily said, “Yes.” I put my head back and let my eyes do what they desperately wanted to do. I shut them and slept for five glorious minutes.
So when I read the end of today’s Gospel lesson, all I can do is chuckle half-heartedly. Jesus sums up the rather strange parable of the ten bridesmaids by saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Keep awake, he says. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months since the twins were born, it’s this: trying to keep awake makes you really sleepy.
Even the bridesmaids in the story don’t keep awake. All ten of them — the wise and the foolish — get drowsy and fall asleep when the bridegroom is delayed. They all wake up at midnight, but only the five wise ones have enough oil in their lamps to see the bridegroom coming. These details of the parable make Jesus’ summary sound a little off. Rather than “keep awake” shouldn’t he say, “tend your light” or “keep your lamp lit?” If this parable were one of those stories on a standardized test, one of the questions might be, “Which title best describes this story?” If my choices included both “keep awake” and “tend you light” I think I’d choose the latter. But Jesus chooses the former.
(As an aside, I don’t think Jesus would have been a very good standardized test taker, what with his penchant for answering people’s questions in wildly creative and unexpected ways.)
Whether or not the testing board would accept Jesus’ answer of “keep awake,” that’s the one he gives. This leaves us in the position of reconciling the content of the parable with Jesus’ odd summary. What about tending our lights leads to “keeping awake?”
First of all, we mustn’t take Jesus’ summary literally. Obviously, we can’t survive if we stay awake all the time. If we don’t sleep, eventually we go insane. (There’s a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about that, by the way.) So if we can’t literally keep awake all the time, how do we live into Jesus’ instruction? At Wednesday’s visit with Gene and Judy, my eyes started closing of their own accord because of my physical exhaustion. But there are plenty other types of exhaustion that lead us to close our eyes and ignore our part in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of heaven.
There’s emotional exhaustion. You carry the burdens of so many others on your heart. You worry. You fret. You can’t help vicariously feeling their pain, and it overwhelms you. There’s the exhaustion of crises. Everything in this world seems to be going haywire. Famine, poverty, war, discrimination, disease. You can’t even watch the news anymore because the compounding crises overwhelm you. There’s the exhaustion of resources. You give and you give, and there’s always more need. It never stops and the direness of the need overwhelms you. You start to see a pattern here. When we feel overwhelmed, we get tired. We just want to close our eyes and enter the blissful ignorance of sleep. So we disengage. We fail to keep awake.
And this is where tending our lights comes into play – because there’s another term for disengagement and failure to keep awake. It’s called “burn out.” Show of hands: how many of us have used the phrase, “I feel so burned out right now,” at some point in our lives? Being like the wise bridesmaids in the parable means keeping oil in our lamps so they don’t burn out. After all, it’s a whole lot easier keeping a fire burning than it is to light a new one.
Burn out happens when we exhaust our supply of oil and have no way to replenish it. You take on too many responsibilities and pretty soon juggling all of them is the biggest responsibility you have. You start to wonder if there’s any way for a day to be more than twenty-four hours. To stick with our metaphor, you’re burning the candle at both ends and your fuel ain’t gonna last much longer. Burn out is inevitable. And when it comes, you don’t necessarily stop. You might continue your breakneck pace with no fuel until you enter freefall and crash land in the desert.
So tending our lights means making good choices about what to spend our oil on, so we don’t exhaust it. If we choose everything, then nothing gets the attention it deserves, we never achieve the excellence that focus instills, and, more to the point, we burn out. But by carefully and intentionally choosing where to place our energy, we keep the oil burning in the lamp longer, and, in a happy coincidence, our choices can lead to replenishment of the oil.
Let’s take Joshua’s speech to the people of Israel for example. At long last they have occupied the Promised Land, and now Joshua puts a choice before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are the Lord, the God of their ancestors or the false gods of their neighbors in their new home. Joshua makes his choice clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
This is the first choice Joshua puts before the people. And it is the first choice that confronts us each morning when we wake up. Who will you serve today? The Lord, who calls us to be lamps shining with the light of the kingdom, or the false gods that litter our lives with the junk of the world and scream in our ears words like “more” and “now.” When we wake up in the morning and answer “The Lord,” then all the other choices we make that day will be built on the sure foundation of the God who yearns for us to be shining versions of ourselves. This yearning leads to us burning bright, not burning out.
When we tend our lights to burn brightly, we first choose to serve God each morning. Then, with God’s help, we decide how best to move through the day so that our own personal flourishing contributes to the flourishing of the world and the coming of the kingdom. Rather than taking on too much, we focus on those passions, which God gives us the gifts to pursue. Rather than being overwhelmed by crises and need and emotional entanglement, we say, “I can make a difference,” and then we shine our lights into particular dark corners of this world that we can, in fact, help to brighten.
Today, I invite you, I urge you, to make the active, conscious, and intentional choice to serve the Lord. With this choice made, see how God helps guide your other choices so that your lamp stays lit and so that you keep awake to the coming kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been burned out before. Some of us might be on the edge of burn out right now. When you feel yourself approaching that edge, just stop. Stop and focus on your own light. How much oil is left? Can you really sustain the pace you’ve set or will the fuel run out before the race is run? Tend you light by overhauling your choices. First choose the Lord. Then ask God to guide you to make choices that will replenish your oil so your light will grow all the brighter. And with this fierce conflagration shining inside you, you will awaken to the coming kingdom of heaven.