Use the Oil You’ve Got

(sermon 11/12/17)

lamp oil

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”


There’s an unassuming-looking man with an easy smile, a quick laugh, and an immense talent who lives in New York City named Sam Zygmontowicz. Sam is arguably the greatest violin maker living in the world today. He’s a colleague of George’s; we bump into him from time to time at violin functions, and George communicates with him via email on a somewhat routine basis. George considers it a real honor and a great help when he’s able to get one of his instruments in Sam’s hands, and have Sam check it out and offer him pointers on how it might be made even better. But when Sam does that, he never gives cut-and-dried “you need to do this and this and this” kind of advice. Instead, he just drops a trail of bread crumbs, as George puts it – giving him information bits that get him on the right track, but George still has to do the legwork – he has to use his own knowledge and intellect to really put the pieces together for himself and use the information in the way that works best for him. I suspect most of us can think of some teacher, professor, or boss who helped us to develop our own skills by giving us the same kind of help.

Most of the stories that Jesus told in order to teach us were similar to that. They’re trails of breadcrumbs that get us started on our way, but still leave us needing to go further. They leave us with at least as many questions as they answered. It’s a way of teaching that requires you to continue to engage your brain, to keep thinking about what’s being said, and asking questions, and maybe drawing new or different answers out of the same story at different times.

This story from Matthew’s gospel is certainly no exception to that.We’re all familiar with this particular story, and we’re all familiar with what we’ve generally considered its point: Jesus calls the five bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra lamp oil, and ran back to get more, foolish because they weren’t prepared when the bridegroom was delayed in arriving. So the moral of the story is that unlike those foolish bridesmaids, we need to be prepared, laying up enough spiritual stores, as it were, to sustain us until the Lord returns – we shouldn’t be found spiritually short-stocked when Jesus, the eternal bridegroom, returned.

I don’t mean to dismiss that meaning. It’s a valid moral to the story, a good spiritual lesson for us to hear. But at the same time, I always like to study a passage and try to see if there isn’t something other than the generally assumed, traditional understanding that we might also benefit from. I know that lots of people take the scriptures and twist them, often beyond the point of recognition, to say whatever they want, often crazy, ridiculous, even obscene things. People have done that over the ages, and they continue to do it; we just had an example of that in the national news this past week. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to look at a passage and see if there aren’t additional understandings we can draw out of it that’s still consistent with Christ’s teaching and the overall witness of the scriptures.

As I was researching this passage, and reading what other people have thought about it, I came across an article that someone had written that I thought had some real merit. In the article, the author questions the traditional understanding of this passage. She questioned the reason we’ve typically assumed Jesus was calling those five bridesmaids foolish. Was it because they’d fallen asleep before the bridegroom arrived? No, because all ten of them had done that. Was it really because they didn’t bring extra oil? Well, I don’t know, think about that for a moment. Would you consider yourself foolish if you left your house to go to a party with plenty of gas in your tank, but you didn’t also bring a few extra cans of gas in the trunk, just in case? Of course not; it wouldn’t be reasonable to think you’d need to do that. And what if the bridegroom had been delayed even longer than he was? If even the five bridesmaids who brought more oil ran out because they didn’t bring even more, would they have been foolish then, too? And if the bridegroom was delayed in getting where he was supposed to be at a certain time, wouldn’t *he* have been the foolish one for not leaving in time to account for traffic on the Gene Snyder at that hour, instead of the bridesmaids? Isn’t that typical – the guy screws up, and somehow it’s still the woman’s fault? Many Mormons have a practice of stockpiling a full year’s worth of food to tide them over in case of some extreme cataclysmic event. But would we consider them foolish if such a catastrophe really did happen, but the actual crisis ended up requiring *367* days’ worth of food? Probably not.

The author of this article suggested – and I think she’s correct – that maybe, what made the five bridesmaids foolish wasn’t that they didn’t have enough oil. Maybe it was that they missed out on the party because they ran back to get more oil. Maybe they were foolish because they didn’t just stay, and use the oil they had, trusting that the bridegroom would get there in time for them, even though their oil supply was running low. Instead, they used what little oil they had left to run back to buy more, buying into their own fears and worries rather than just staying put and trusting the bridegroom to come through. If they’d have done that, they’d have been fine, being there when he arrived.

I think that makes a lot of sense. And when Jesus says “stay awake!” at the end of the story, he’s saying to stay alert, and stay on focus, doing what God has called you to do, and faithfully using the resources God has given you to do it. Maybe, in this story, Jesus is saying to make sure that however much oil you may have, to remain focused, and to use the oil you’ve got faithfully to the very end, and trusting the rest to God.

And you know, that makes for a pretty good message for Stewardship Sunday, too – this culmination of the season when we’ve prayerfully considered how we’re supposed to use the financial resources – the “lamp oil” –  that God has given us, whether great or small – realizing that in a very real way, the way we use our oil, the way we use our financial resources, is itself our statement of faith.

So when we turn in our pledges this morning, let it be a sign to God, and to ourselves, that in gratitude to God, we’re joyfully committing to using the oil we’ve got, in the way that God intended when it was provided to us. That we aren’t going to give in to our worries and fears and turn away from where God is telling us to be, or to use our resources in ways other than the way God wants us to do. I promise you, if we all do that today, it will be like music to God’s ears – music more beautiful than even one of Sam’s violins could ever make.

Thanks be to God.


Being Rich toward God (sermon 8/4/13)

Luke 12:13-21

 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”



Pope Francis was making more news recently, this time with his trip to Brazil, meeting and speaking to throngs of the faithful – but not doing it in the way his recent predecessors have done, staying encased in a bullet-proof Popemobile and separated from the people. Instead, he rode through the city in an open vehicle and at various times inserted himself into the crowds, driving his security people crazy, and offering off-the-cuff interviews and comments, driving the Keepers of Dogma and Doctrine back in the Vatican crazy. Francis said his attitude about going to Brazil was to either do it right; being accessible and open with the people, or not do it at all – to leave it all on the field, as we might put it.

It seems that Francis is a different kind of Pope. When he needs to travel around Rome, he does it in a Ford Focus. He won’t live in the palatial papal quarters, but instead, he lives in much more modest accommodations in an apartment compound occupied by other priests, also. He dresses simply – you aren’t likely to see him decked out in the red velvet slippers with gold braiding that Pope Benedict was so fond of. He feels very strongly that in order to be faithful to Christ’s call, the Church can’t allow itself to fall victim to idolizing material things. That the resources, the blessings that God has entrusted to the Church, are best used in service to the genuine aims of the kingdom of God – feeding the spiritually and physically hungry, healing the sick, caring for the poor, all in the name of Christ.

Offering God a portion of what we’ve been blessed with, in order to carry out these great ends of the Church – in other words, stewardship – is a very important part of our individual lives of faith. And for the church to use those offerings faithfully, in a way consistent with God’s priorities, is an important part of our collective life of faith.

“All kinds of greed” – that’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage from Luke. Wanting more than you need, hoarding what God has given you in order to share it with others, using those blessings in ways that are more attuned to your own goals and priorities instead of God’s – these are all various forms of greed, and Jesus addresses them all in this lesson. As we heard, he gets on the subject when he’s asked to settle a dispute between two brothers over their inheritance.  He tells this story as a response to the greed that he saw as the underlying problem between the two brothers.

Sometimes, people point to this story to make the point that Jesus is anti-wealth. In fact, Jesus does offer us some very sobering thoughts about the dangers of wealth, but that doesn’t seem to be his real point here. The man in Jesus’ story hasn’t gotten his wealth by stealing, or exploiting other people, or in any other inappropriate way. If anything, he seems kind of surprised by his windfall. What seems to be the point of this story, and of a lot of Jesus’ teaching, is that, as more than one person has put it, our possessions actually possess us. Concern for our possessions very quickly make it difficult for us to truly care about what God cares about. Protecting and preserving our wealth and our material possessions distract us from true wealth – from what is really rich in God’s eyes.

God calls the man in the story a fool because he thinks he can hoard his resources all for himself, and because he spends his resources in the way he thinks is right, not the way that God thinks is right. All of his concern is about hoarding and selfishness; and spending money to build bigger barns in order to accomplish that selfishness, only compounds the problem.

In his story, Jesus teaches us the hard lesson that the Kingdom of God isn’t about keeping our blessings for ourselves. That isn’t why God has entrusted us with them to begin with. We’re called to use them in trust and faith for God’s real concerns, not for ours. That’s what Pope Francis is saying in his simpler way of being Pope. The fancy lifestyle, the lavish clothes, the luxury cars – these are all just forms of spending God’s money on bigger barns. They’re all expenses made while justifying them as important to preserve the stability, and dignity, and tradition of the church, while people who could have been fed, clothed, sheltered, exposed to the gospel, went uncared for. As unsettling as it is, each and every one of us – individually, and collectively as the church – will have to answer for the way we’ve used the resources God has given us. Have we been good and faithful stewards? Have we hoarded our resources? Metaphorically speaking, have we built bigger barns for ourselves in order to preserve our priorities over God’s? That’s what Jesus causes us to think about in this story, both individually and collectively. What good are bigger barns, if the grain that’s been stored up in them rots with age, while people go hungry? What good are bigger barns if there’s no livestock to fill them? What good are bigger barns if their cost obstructs, instead of advances, what’s important to God? Because really, God doesn’t want us in the barn-building business, especially if the barns are used to hoard and to hurt instead of to help achieve God’s real priorities. With God, it’s never about the barns; it’s always about trust and faithfulness, and using God’s resources properly.

Ramon lives in a poverty-stricken village in Honduras. Somehow, he struggled to put himself through the training required for him to become a Pentecostal preacher. He started a small congregation in his village, just a few people at first, but eventually it grew. And when it did, Ramon had dreams of building a nice little church building for them in the village, but his efforts were blocked in all sorts of ways, time and time again, no matter what he tried. Eventually, he came to understand that at least there, in that time and that place, God really wasn’t interested in a church building. But God was very interested in being present in the lives of the people of the village. So twice a week, Ramon clears out the living space in his tiny little house, and he sets up white plastic resin chairs in the house, and they spill out into the front yard, where chickens and stray dogs wander between the chair legs. And twice a week, the faithful come together to worship God in a way that’s a bit different than most of us are used to. It’s hot, and it’s sweaty, and it’s loud, and boisterous, and sometimes even chaotic. But God is present there, in the midst of those cheap lawn chairs and stray chickens, just as much as if it were a papal mass being celebrated in the Sistine Chapel. And those same, poverty-stricken faithful share whatever they have, offering a surprising percentage of their income, each week, dedicating it to God’s service. And in return, Ramon’s little church uses that money to take care of the things that God really cares about in the lives of the villagers – not paying off a building, that was really only Ramon’s dream – Ramon’s bigger barn – but it wasn’t God’s dream. Instead, that money goes to help provide clean drinking water. For transportation for villagers to get to the nearest medical clinic, and to pay for medicine that’s needed but that can’t be afforded. To buy shoes. To buy groceries. And doing it all specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, and while offering the villagers the hope and assurance of God’s love and compassion for them.

It’s for those kinds of things that God has given us what we have, and that God calls us to be faithful stewards of. As followers of Jesus, that’s one of our prime commandments.

There’s a principle of preaching that a sermon isn’t supposed to be all Law – all just beating people over the head with things that they’re supposed to do, but that ultimately, we can’t ever really pull off. A sermon is supposed to offer a message of grace. It’s supposed to offer a reminder of the truly good news that God has given us through Christ. It’s hard to find that good news in this passage, a story all about a fool, and what Jesus warns us not to be like. But there is at least one little crack of sunlight in the story, and it’s in the very last thing Jesus says. He mentions us needing to be mindful of being rich toward God. There’s some good news here, in that through Christ, we can at least see and understand what God considers rich and right. Through Christ, we can see and understand what God calls us to be, and to do – both as individuals and as the Church. We don’t have to fumble around or guess about what’s right; all we have to do is focus our gaze on Jesus himself. How he lived; what he taught. That’s the whole purpose of God entering into our world, in the flesh, to see, literally in person, what pleases God. It’s true that even though we can see the right path, we still might refuse to follow it, but the good news continues in that through the Holy Spirit, we can be emboldened and empowered to actually follow that path, as hard as it might be sometimes, as much anxiety and change and transition as it might mean for us. We can follow that path. Not perfectly, to be sure, but we can see it, and know it, and follow it. That’s God’s promise, that’s God’s message of hope and love in this passage, whether you’re a mild-mannered Pope from South America, or a loud, sweaty Pentecostal preacher in Central America, or a good and faithful parishioner in Middle America.

Thanks be to God.