(A sermon for Proper 27 November 9, 2008 Matthew 25:1-13)
We have a lot of books at our house, in part because I grew up in a house full of books and in part because after college I worked in children’s books and began a collection before I had any children of my own. The books I remembered checking out of the library now came to live on my own bookshelves: Curious George and Madeline and The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Caps for Sale and The Story about Ping, and most excitingly, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.
The Little Red Lighthouse, tucked against the shore of the Hudson River, worries that it is no longer useful in the shadow of the Great Gray Bridge. I turned the pages of the book over and over again as a little girl, long before I could read the book myself, remembering the way the librarian read it at story time. Oh! The anxiety when the little lighthouse is truly needed but cannot shine! The Great Gray Bridge calls out to him, “Little brother, where is your light?”
The lighthouse wonders, “Am I brother of yours, bridge? Your light was so bright that I thought mine was needed no more.”
We tried to see the little red lighthouse on a trip to New York City once. I was beyond picture books by then, but I knew we had plans to drive across the Great Gray Bridge, which is to say the George Washington Bridge, and I thought I would be able to see the lighthouse. Our local expert on lighthouses tells me that even lighthouse fans don’t often try to visit this one because the way the highway on and off ramps developed around it and the changes to its neighborhood make it both difficult to access and even a little dangerous to find. On that childhood visit, I caught only a glimpse of red through the car window, a little flicker of my lighthouse.
Sometimes it takes just a flicker to keep me burning.
Friday afternoon we had the Maine Council of Churches Annual Assembly here in the Sanctuary, and I had been invited to lead the opening worship. I came up early to light the candles and had a surprise when the Christ Candle went up like a rocket! The wick had frayed into a shape almost like a bouquet, which created a terrifyingly impressive flame. When I blew it out, quickly, without leaving it unattended to get the candle snuffer, soot flew all over the altar cloth. (Don’t worry. I cleaned it up!)
Sometimes a flame can leap high enough to worry us with its burning.
In the dark of a stormy night, I woke to realize the power had gone out in my family’s home. I was 22, living at home briefly before my wedding, and I thought immediately of my grandmother, who had a first-floor bedroom on the other side of my parents’ suburban house. We lived surrounded by tall pine trees, and a power outage in a storm meant some serious darkness. I didn’t know the time; my electric clock gave no help. But I knew my night owl grandmother might still be awake. In the dark, I felt my way across the upstairs hall, carefully down the stairs, took a left into our family room, right hand waving to identify the chair, the TV, the corner of the big, brick fireplace and finally, aha—the mantelpiece. I felt along the wide mantelpiece until my hand touched the familiar textures of cardboard, brass and wax. I struck a match and lit a candle.
By the light of the candle I made my way to the downstairs bedroom, where I found my grandmother, still sitting up in her armchair in front of a now-darkened TV screen, relieved to see my candle.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Give me a match for my candle, I pray. Let me see just a glimpse of that lighthouse. Keep me burning ‘til the break of day.
Truthfully, I like all my stories better than the one we just read in Matthew. If you had to give a first impression of the story, you might well respond as some did at Bible Study the other night: why would Jesus slam the door in people’s faces? That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me!
We do tend to hear these parables and treat them more like allegories, stories in which every character has an equivalent in real life. But let’s not hurry to label Jesus as the bridegroom. After all, that might be like saying, “The expansion of LL Bean and other stores slammed the door in the face of the church!!” You could probably make an extended comparison to our situation, one that blames church people or other people in the town for being unprepared, for snoozing while shops expanded. You might even have a point.
But I believe Jesus had something else in mind.
Yesterday I watched a bridesmaid, who grew up in this church, lacing up the back of her sister’s bridal gown, another child of this church. I stood in the parlor in the midst of excitement and confusion, laughter and tears, worry that someone had forgotten an important piece of paper, jubilation when we heard he found it. If you have ever been part of a wedding, you know how it is.
My Aunt Peggy loved collecting wedding disaster stories. I tell brides and grooms now, “Don’t worry if something goes wrong, it will just give people a funny story to tell someday.” Weddings do not run like clockwork. In the story Jesus tells, the bridegroom is SO late that the bridesmaids, whose job it is to keep the light on for him, fall asleep. When they hear him coming they get up and trim their lamps, which is to say they trim the wicks and refill their lamps with oil, to keep them burning.
Unless of course, they have no oil left.
Which leaves us with a troubling set of possibilities. Could they really go out to the oil dealers at midnight? Why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share? Was Jesus really warning that people would be shut out of the kingdom of heaven? He keeps talking this way in the next two parables in this chapter. He intended to give a shake of the shoulders to the complacent and the easy-going, I have no doubt. He intended to remind the people around him that the future might be unexpected, that delays and exhaustion might well be part of it. He warned them to be ready, whatever might happen. Be ready, no matter the chaos and confusion of everyday life. Be ready, and know what you need to stay that way.
Keep me burning ‘til the break of day.
Sometimes it feels like a long, long time. Sometimes the waiting seems unbearable. When will things be set right? When will we really see the kingdom of God?
And how will we keep ourselves ready?
The Little Red Lighthouse couldn’t shine without being switched on by the lighthouse keeper. He waited and waited and could not shine by his own will, although the Great Gray Bridge urged him.
The Christ candle here on our altar gave off too much flame because the wick needed trimming.
I knew how to get to my grandmother, but without the match and the candle, I could not help her find her bed.
In the long darkness of waiting, we need to be prepared. Just as we watch the gauge on the oil tank, we need to check in with ourselves to be sure we have the spiritual oil we need to keep burning in the meantime. That might be prayer time, or time for reading, or taking a walk in the woods or on the beach. It might mean time spent in fellowship with others, or as I like to say, “gal-ship.” For me, writing and knitting center my thoughts and nourish my spirit, though in very different ways. Whatever it might be, we need to know what keeps us ready and keep our lamps burning.
It’s important to consider, too, the spiritual health of the church. Are we ready for waiting? Do we have the oil, the spirit, of preparation? What might we need in our lives together?
Unexpected things may happen here. Oh, you can guess-timate some of what comes next in the life of this church: a search for a new pastor and continued hard work to make the budget. Other things we cannot imagine, but still we try to prepare for them, just in case. We try to be more like the wise bridesmaids, who also no doubt carried a needle and thread, than the foolish bridesmaids, who might have looked for scotch tape to repair a hem. Soon you will put your pledge cards in the offering plate, a promise to be part of the church’s life in that undetermined future. In this time of economic uncertainty, you will pledge to do your part to keep this church’s lamp trimmed and burning.
We may feel small in the face of so much commerce, a slim reminder of an older way of life. But here on Main Street, we still have shining to do. The Great Gray Bridge told the Little Red Lighthouse, “I call to the airplanes. I flash to the ships of the air. But you are still master of the river. Quick, let your light shine again. Each to his own place, little brother!”
Stores will come and go on Main Street. You have seen it happen. But you are still the lamp shining for something deeper. You are still the lamp shining for Jesus. With your gifts and with your lives, keep it burning. Amen.