The old song "Get Me to the Church on Time" did not apply to the wedding parable of Jesus in Matthew 25. In Palestinian villages weddings were at night, and the bridegroom could show up unexpectedly. All he had to do was send a runner ahead to shout, "Behold the bridegroom is coming," and the waiting bridal party had to be ready. In this case the clock was tolling twelve ~ midnight. Here I come ready or not ~ and then the door was shut!
Matthew is dealing with the discouragement of early Christians that Christ had not come again. They needed to prepare for delay. How they would wait would be crucial. The word for patience comes from the word "patior" which means to suffer. God's time is not our time. Experience the agony of his absence as well as the power of his presence. Prepare, anticipate what his coming, his presence will mean. Absence can make the heart grow fonder if we wait and watch in expectation.
The story says that five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish. It does not say that five were good and five were bad. In fact, when it came to externals, there was no difference. They carried the same lamps; they wore the same dresses, they all drifted off to sleep. We are dealing with substance and not image. The oil represents inner resources ~ what we have in reserve when a crisis comes. The lamp is the outer form, but the oil is the inner fuel.
Other parables of Jesus have to do with how we serve and share with the neighbor. Dresses and lamps are things that can be exchanged. In this parable the oil represents spiritual resources of faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen which are not transferable. One does not extemporize love and loyalty to the bridegroom on the spot. When the account is overdrawn, when the lamp goes out, darkness falls and doors shut. Unfortunately, much of our modern life attests to the reality of depletion. The language gives us away ~ we are burned out, or stressed out. We are drained, empty, depressed and exhausted. Depleted stores of love and hope and purpose flicker and sometimes die in work or family.
Such depletion can happen in the service of the bridegroom. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth surveyed 1,000 pastors across the United States. Here are the results:
Pastors work more than 46 hours a week - 90%
Believe ministry affects their families negatively - 80%
Feel being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family - 33%
Reported a stress-related crisis occurs at least once in their ministry - 75%
Feel unable to meet the demands of the job - 50%
Feel they were trained inadequately to cope with ministry demands - 90%
Said they have a lower self-image now than when they started ministry - 70%
Reported a serious conflict with a parishioner monthly - 40%
Confessed having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church - 37%
Lack someone they consider a close friend - 70%
Have considered leaving ministry in the last 30 months - 50%
I hope and pray such is skewed, but the evidence is that for many today the supply of oil is low, and depletion and depression are realities for followers of the bridegroom. A culture of instant gratification, lacking inner spiritual resources, resorts to artificial, addictive quick fixes to fan the flame.
Sometimes, it is necessary to let go if we are to let God. In a machine often the bearings need oil to reduce friction or they wear out and wear down. To get our bearings we need the oil of God's grace to reduce friction in personal relationships.
The late Frederick Speakman, noted Presbyterian minister, told the story of shaking hands at the door one Sunday when the service was over. As he came back down the aisle the lights were already turned out. He sensed that strange aliveness of an empty church just after worship. Some things were left behind. A bulletin with a shopping list in the margins ~ hopefully, not during the sermon. In this pew, a pair of gloves; in the next, a pencil on the floor and a candy wrapper on the seat. As he reached the chancel he stared once more at the empty sanctuary and thought to himself, "I wonder what else has been left behind." Wouldn't it be every pastor's dream to come down the aisle after worship and find other items there. You know, in this pew a lady's deep grief; there, a man's bitter disappointment or sense of failure. In another section some secret sin, whether real or imagined, not all that ultimate as long as it was discarded. Further on, the more bulky trash of a badly bruised ego, the remains of a heated argument on the way to church. Anger, guilt, hurt ~ all the stuff that can beat us up and burn us out ~ swept up and thrown out with the rest of the leftover trash. Realized forgiveness ~ God's grace as a renewable resource ~ he whispered to himself. "That's the only thing that keeps some of us going."
In many ways we are used up as Christians ~ we are sent to be spent. There is depletion, but there is also replenishment. Drained, we can be refilled. We live our life in the world, but we draw our life from God. The grace of God is a renewable resource ~ and we are recyclable. If your flame is burning low, listen again to the Master ~ "Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" ~ refreshment ~ renewal ~ replenishment.
The parish I serve is an inner city cathedral whose wonderfully diverse membership includes a number of life's casualties returning from the far countries of burned out hopes and dreams. Sixty per cent of our parents are single parents ~ some members are dying of Aids ~ others belong to support and addiction groups trying to rekindle a flickering flame. The healing services undergird our ministry together as people come to the altar rail to receive the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and the realized forgiveness of Jesus Christ. That anointing replenishes our spiritual resources and lubricates our community of faith. As forgiven sinners we are the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah who wrote long ago, "bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench."
Jesus Christ not only gave himself for us, but he gives himself to us at every step of the journey. There is replenishment! And wise ones still trim their lamps with the oil of his grace. Amen.
Prayer: Gracious God, the ways of this world tend to wear us down and burn us out. If our depletion is because of service to you continue to use us as you will. Where our depletion is because of wasted resources and poor preparation, discipline us, strengthen the inner life, fill us again, that our lives may burn with the fire of your love for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, and our Lord. Amen.