Revised Common Lectionary reflection, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 27
November 12, 2017
Lessons: Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people wait AND live faithfully and flexibly, carefully stewarding all of God’s abundance.
Key Scriptures: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Matthew 25:13
One of my colleagues has a saying that truly resonates with me: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” Oh to be as flexible as Gumby! This week’s gospel lesson, and even the Old Testament lesson from Amos, reminds me of the importance of flexibility in how we approach our stewardship of this thing we call life.
We just adore certainty, don’t we? We like to be in the know, to have an idea of what’s lurking around the next bend. More of us tend to be planners and doers and achievers rather than those who are content to simply “be” and experience all that life has to offer. Unfortunately, a rather rigid approach to life sets us up for disappointment in a world that is what futurist Bob Johansen describes as VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The same strategies and paradigms just aren’t working any more. In light of this week’s gospel lesson, a question might be, “How do we build a better bridesmaid?” How do we equip disciples to be ready but also to live and wait in a VUCA world?
In this week’s story from Matthew’s gospel, wise and foolish bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival for the big party. The wise women have extra oil for their lamps; the foolish women do not. All the bridesmaids become drowsy and fall asleep (after all, everyone needs rest), but the foolish women have to go in search of oil and miss the party.
How do we understand this parable? Does it address a future judgment of who will be “in” and who will be “out”? Is there a time to keep what is ours and not share with others? Is that Jesus’ point here? I must admit that I don’t particularly like this story. It hits a nerve because there have been many times when I have felt underprepared or ill-equipped for a task and must depend on the cooperative and collaborative efforts of others. The idea that I might be like one of the wise bridesmaids and not share my oil also causes me discomfort; after all, I like to think I’m a decent sort of person who will help those in need. And then there’s this bridegroom who says he doesn’t know the foolish bridesmaids and shuts them out of the party. How are we to understand that shunning in relation to eschatological judgment?
Perhaps the point is more about trying to remain alert and in the moment – even more than making sure we are prepared, right down to the last ounce of extra oil. The story also seems to have a thread of meaning about the stewardship not only of resources and time, but also of relationship and self-care. Stewardship matters; we need to pay attention to it.
And, if we stay awake, if we look around, if we’re intentional about discipleship and about making disciples, and if we take time to cultivate a holistic approach to stewardship, then maybe folks won’t be so prone to run around with insufficient oil in the first place. What if, right at the start, the wise bridesmaids had said to their foolish sisters something along the lines of “Hey, did you think to bring extra oil? Maybe you should go get some now so that you can be ready.” When they could have been about the business of cultivating relationships and making ready, instead everybody falls asleep waiting.
Things don’t always go as planned. Folks in the first century after Jesus’ resurrection were clearly anticipating Jesus’ imminent return. Well, we’re still waiting, but that doesn’t mean we fall asleep or say, “Hey, we have all that we need. We’re prepared for the day of the Lord. Who cares about the rest of the wedding party?” In the meantime, there’s work to be done. There’s a great big, beautiful, broken world out there, brimming with people who need to know about God’s love and filled with possibility for mission and ministry. So, yes, it’s good that we’re ready, that we’re prepared for the divine party to start; however, let’s not settle in for a long winter’s nap or fall prey to feeling smug about our readiness to greet our Lord. Let’s not forget about the call to carefully steward all God’s abundance. The stakes are far too high.
Maybe it’s time to talk about stewardship in your congregation, and the parable of the bridesmaids provides a good way to do so. What does it mean to be a good steward, one who is prepared and who has enough? What does it mean for our churches to have “extra oil for our lamps”? Do we simply float from budgetary crisis to crisis, relying on a few donors to carry the load? Does each family recognize how important it is to support the mission of the church financially, as well as with their time and presence in worship?
If your congregation is accustomed used to participatory sermons, invite them to consider what it means to remain alert both as individual disciples and as a congregation. What does it look like to have “extra oil” for the lamps? Invite each worshiper to come up with one way that they can provide “extra oil,” and have them write that idea on a cut-out of a paper oil lamp. Hang all the paper lamps on a wall in a visible spot under the heading of “Prepared to Be God’s People with Extra Oil for our Lamps.”
This week’s Old Testament reading from Amos would serve as a great conversation starter with youth and young adults. We often hear people say they are ready for the Lord’s return or the Day of the Lord. The prophet Amos invites us to think long and hard about that for which we are asking and hoping. It appears that God isn’t too happy with the religious ceremonies and services of the people. Instead, God wants to see justice and righteousness flow like a mountain stream, nourishing all of creation with goodness and justice. Invite the youth to consider what this might look like in a congregation? Are we called to advocate on behalf of those who are voiceless? Should we be more focused on taking the church out of the building or trying to get people to come in?
If you have an Eagle Scout or a Girl Scout working on an award, consider proposing they construct a fountain somewhere on your church property that will serve as a visual reminder of these verses from Amos.
Today’s gospel lesson talks about some smart bridesmaids and some not-so-smart bridesmaids. The smart ones had enough extra oil to keep their lamps burning while the not-so-smart ones didn’t bring extra oil at all. Today we take for granted that we can flip a switch and have light. If the power goes out, we have generators and flashlights. In Jesus’ day, there was no electricity or generators. If your lamps ran out of oil, you were left in the dark.
It’s always a good idea to be prepared, so today you can show the children how to make a simple lamp with a mason jar, some olive oil, some wire, and cotton cord for a wick (Note: Pure olive oil is best because it doesn’t smoke; other vegetable oils will smoke some). You can find instructions here and other places using an Internet search engine. You can talk about how this simple lamp is good stewardship because it provides a bright, safe light that doesn’t cost a lot and helps you always to be prepared. Give the children instructions to make their own lamp at home with the help of an adult. Remind them that it’s never OK to play with matches or to light a fire without an adult to help them.
Consider singing “This Little Light of Mine” if you have time in worship today. Offer a simple prayer for the gift of light and for the grace to be prepared in all circumstances. Pray for the children to be alert to God’s presence all around them. Give thanks for the children, too.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Just how flexible are you? The story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids provides a wonderful opportunity to consider this question—especially when it comes to stewardship of time, talent, resources, and relationships. Being too rigid may block the work of the Spirit and cause us to miss opportunities or sleep through precious minutes and experiences. Blessed are the flexible indeed!
Stewardship at Home
This week spend some time thinking about and discussing what it means to be prepared as a follower of Jesus. Can we spend too much time readying ourselves and miss the party in the process? Is it possible that not spending enough time cultivating our discipleship can prevent us from enjoying life with Jesus? What’s the right balance? How can we be both flexible and faithful.
If you’re looking for a hands-on activity, create a winter travel emergency kit to keep in your trunk. Click here for instructions. If you are able, make two and give one as a gift to someone else. Don’t live where there is winter weather? Click here for instructions for assembling an all-purpose travel emergency kit.
Photos: Ansel Edwards, Worker101, and Carlo Raso, Creative Commons. Thanks!