Oil for our lamps

I have Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey to thank for opening my eyes to a fuller appreciation of Jesus’ parable of the ten young women that we just heard in today’s gospel.

At the very center of this parable is the very certain and inevitable arrival of the bridegroom, but at a delayed and unpredictable moment. In Jesus’ day, the bride and groom exchanged their vows at the bride’s home. The groom would then return to his own home to prepare his home for his bride. When preparations were complete, including the arrangements for a banquet to which the entire community was invited, the groom would return to the bride’s home and the two of them, joined by family and friends, would joyfully parade up and down every street before finally arriving at the groom’s house.

In his parable, Jesus speaks of ten young women who have taking up a position near the end of the parade route. Because the bride and groom are delayed, as we can well imagine under these circumstances, with everybody cheering them on and joining in the procession, the young women fall asleep. When the cry goes up, “The bridegroom has arrived!” and the young women awake, five of them are prepared for the delay and five are not.

When hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, and Anna and I watched with mounting anxiety on the TV in the rectory of All Saints’ church in Linville, North Carolina, where we had recently arrived to preach that Sunday, Frank Driscoll, one of our parishioners who also owns a home in Linville, called on Friday to release us from our obligation and encouraged us to return home to batten down our hatches.

I also spoke on the phone with Lisa, who reported that gasoline was in very short supply down here, so we went to the local Lowe’s and bought the last three gasoline containers in the store and filled them up so that, if the worst happened, we would only need to secure one fill up on the road back home.

I also learned that the batteries for the lamp in our church hurricane supplies had slowly but surely died in the intervening years since Charley, Frances and Jean, and that there were no “C” size batteries to be found or purchased in Polk County, so we bought all the batteries at a Dollar General store in Linville that were available and headed south, taking the back roads rather than the Interstate, which was bumper to bumper with evacuees, streaming all the way from Florida past Columbia, South Carolina.

When I got home, I regretted my earlier decision to gamble that it would never be necessary to board up my windows, but it was too late anyway. All the plywood was now protecting other people’s homes. God, in his mercy, spared my windows from Irma’s wrath, but buying plywood for my large dining room window will be a priority for me before the arrival of next year’s hurricane season.

All my bluster about how we would never face anything like Charley, Frances and Jean again was just as foolish as the five young women who checked out how long it would take to go from the bride’s house to the groom’s house on their smartphone without considering the unusual circumstances of a wedding banquet procession.

When I was an undergraduate student, it dawned on me that if I was going to respond to God’s call on my life to become an ordained priest, I would not be able to rely on the oil for my lamp that my father, my Sunday school teachers, my camp counselors and others had provided for me. I would need to begin squeezing my own oil from the diligent study of the Scriptures and my sincere efforts to repent of my youthful pride and foolishness in my own strength in the face of the inevitable crises of life that can only be met by the oil of God’s grace and in the power of his Spirit.

It will undoubtedly take Duke Power longer to restore us to the grid than we may think or want. But we are not helpless. We can prepare for those delays no less than we can for the inevitable return of the bridegroom sooner or later.

One of the inconvenient realities that I am facing as I prepare for retirement is the fact that my wife and all women face a 77% chance of needing some form of long-term care, which can cost $80,000 a year in a skilled nursing care facility in Florida. A man’s odds of needing that care are rated at 36%. And so the question becomes, “Do I want to depend on Medicaid and what my fellow taxpayers are willing to provide, or on the significant sacrifice of my children, who will need all the oil they can secure for their own lamps, let alone sharing their oil with their parents, or will I provide enough oil for myself now, even as I look forward to burning some oil in others ways before then?”

This parable reminds us that the door to God’s kingdom, just like the door to a nursing home, or the cone of a hurricane’s path is real and that it will close or envelope us whether we are prepared for it or not.

And just like the rich man in another one of Jesus’ parables who vainly barked out orders to Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a cup of water to ease his torment in hell, we may be foolish enough to think we can strong arm our family and friends, “Give me some oil!” or even presume to pound on God’s door and demand of him, “Let me in!” Jesus is reminding us that this is not how life works, whether in relation to other people or to God himself. I believe we have a responsibility to extend the grace of God to everyone we meet because God has been gracious to us, but never to the extent that it threatens our own place at the banquet table.

Kenneth Bailey reminded me that the gospel has many examples of those who were wise and those who were foolish. Anna, Simeon and Nicodemus were wise, but the high priests, Jesus’ hometown and most of the Pharisees were not. The shepherds watching their flocks by night were wise; king Herod was not. The wise men were truly wise; the soldiers who obeyed Herod’s orders to slaughter the innocent children in Bethlehem were not.

Amos warns us that wanting God to come and rescue us is foolish if we believe, for example, as it was in his own day, that simply going through the motions on Sunday will magically produce the oil we need apart from what God may require of us as individuals and as fellow citizens the other six days of the week in the world outside of church.

Paul reassures the Thessalonians, however, that they are not without hope for their loved ones who have died before the Bridegroom returns. Even though they have fallen asleep, the fact that they have died in the hope of Christ’s return with oil to spare means that they will join the bridegroom first, and then those of us who are still alive with them, in that joyous parade into the heavenly banquet with Gabriel blowing his horn for those who want to be in the number of those who have provided themselves with enough oil for as long as it may take.

And for those who have been foolish, I dare to hope that they will repent of making demands on God’s grace, but wise up, and instead of demanding that God include them, confess their foolishness and plead for God’s mercy, an act that will squeeze some oil out of them and allow God to know them, reopen the door, and welcome them in. AMEN.