Sermon: When the Lights Go Out

“When the Lights Go Out”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 19, 2017

Jeremiah 17:7-8

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

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.

I am not one of those parents who always carries a bag stocked for emergencies; rather I am an utterly foolish optimist, forever overestimating how long my child can go without snacks or a toy. When we eat out, I assume, often with disastrous results, that making pyramids out of those little coffee creamer packs will be enough to entertain her while we wait for our food to arrive. So I identified with the five bridesmaids who blithely assumed the groom would be on time and that they would be able to go the distance with just the oil already in their lamps.  Heck, if I were them, I would be patting myself on the back merely for having thought to bring the lamp!

Have you ever been caught out like that, unprepared for the trial at hand? Maybe in a small, tangible way, like a parent with an impatient child, or maybe in a bigger way – a spiritual or emotional way. If you’ve ever wrestled with deep doubt, or wondered how much longer you could keep slogging through something hard – an illness or chronic disease, a parent’s deteriorating health, a bout of depression, a child’s struggles, a divorce – you glance at your wick and realize it’s spluttering, unsteady, about to go out. The panic, the anxiety, the dread of being left in the dark can be overwhelming. I opened with a lighthearted illustration of the bridesmaids’ predicament, but since we’re talking in parables – spiritual metaphors – I think it’s safe to say that being shut out of the wedding party is a metaphor for something considerably more challenging.

The unprepared bridesmaids and their parable have generally been understood to be about the eschaton – the end of the age, when Jesus would suddenly return and believers who had kept the faith would be welcomed into the kingdom, while those who had lapsed back into their old ways would be shut out, just like those five foolish bridesmaids.  

This interpretation seems straightforward, even logical, but it does not feel terribly charitable, or terribly relevant, given that so many end-day predictions have come and gone since Jesus’ time. An end-of-the-age interpretation also ignores the rule that parables always have a twist. Sometimes it’s hard to hear new things in a text we’re familiar with; one way to get at the twists in a seemingly straightforward parable is to start asking questions:

Why are the wise bridesmaids called “wise” and rewarded for keeping their oil to themselves, when elsewhere in this same Gospel Jesus says “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you”? (Mt. 5:42)

Why would a merciful, compassionate Jesus shut out of the kingdom people who clearly want in, especially when elsewhere, this same Jesus tells a story about the virtue of persistently banging on your neighbor’s door after it’s been barred shut for the night?  Jesus said about just such late-night interruptions: “Knock and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:5-10)

Didn’t Jesus also say something about the first being last and the last being first…that when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, those considered “in” will be “out” and vice versa? (Matthew 19:30; 20:16)

Perhaps something else is going on here.

The end-days interpretation of this parable is built on the assumption that Jesus is the “Lord” to whom the foolish bridesmaids beg admittance, and that inside is the desirable place to be.

But Jesus’ entire ministry is built on the opposite assumption: that in the kindom of heaven, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. In the gospels, those who have observed the rules, who have built their lives around being ahead of the game, are most often the ones missing the point, while those who come up short in society’s estimation are the ones most likely to grasp Jesus’ message. Think of the widow who only has one coin to give; the foreigners and prostitutes and detested tax collectors; the peasant fishermen Jesus calls as his disciples; the sick, the mentally ill, and those struck by leprosy; the beggars whose physical afflictions force them outside the city walls. People who couldn’t possibly fulfill the law held in such high regard by the Pharisees; people who fell outside the bounds of what was considered prudent, appropriate, praise-worthy behavior. These are the people with whom Jesus spends the vast majority of his time; by contrast, unless they’ve shown up uninvited to test him on matters of the law, Jesus rarely spends time with those who have it together.

The outsiders are the ones most likely to be invited to a party Jesus is hosting, which makes it pretty unbelievable that Jesus would shut out the bridesmaids who came up short while welcoming in the five bridesmaids who had followed all the rules – and who were also, let us note, pretty darn stingy with their oil, despite Jesus’ direct admonitions otherwise.

The parable says that the kingdom of God will be like this – that some will be in, and some will be out. But remember way back, from several sermons ago, that the kingdom of God is also like an invasive weed, and corruptive yeast that spreads everywhere, and a deceitful real estate agent. The kingdom of God shows up where you least expect it. So if a parable about the kingdom of God is telling us that some will be “in” and some will be “out,” where do you think the kingdom will be realized? Where do you think Jesus will be  – with those judged worthy of admittance by their foresight and planning, or with those doing all they can to keep their lamps from flaming out?

Isaiah 42:3 says, “A dimly burning wick God will not quench.”

We’ve all been there, a guttering flame the only thing between us and the void. Most of us have probably been like the unprepared bridesmaids, tempted to run off in search of something that will keep the darkness at bay, something to distract us from the simple, yet terrifying, act of merely waiting in the darkness.

Episcopal priest and blogger David Henson asks another startling, illuminating question about this parable:  “What would have happened had the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night?  

Surely,” says Henson, “the bridal couple would have welcomed their friends into the light of the banquet, unconcerned about the state of their oil lamps, happy just to see their friends waiting for them.”  The bridesmaids’ downfall, he argues, wasn’t not bringing enough oil or not being prepared; it was their inability to wait in the darkness, trusting that the light would eventually come.

In their defense, it can be incredibly difficult to wait in the dark, to be non-anxious in the year of the drought.  We struggle to trust, to stay present in the midst of our difficulties despite our urge to run off and try to create our own light.  But here is the good news, friends, the counterintuitive, parable-with-a-twist news: the kingdom of God is found in the darkness, found not in stocking up on light or trying to manufacture our own, but in waiting for light to come! If that seems odd, think about Advent, just around the corner: it’s an entire church season built on this very concept.

I asked earlier where Jesus might be in this parable. It’s a question we often ask when faced with looming darkness: where is God in this? I wonder if, instead of running off to get more oil, the unprepared bridesmaids had simply turned around, whether they might have discovered that Jesus was there in the darkness, with them, bringing light.

If you or a loved one has ever experienced depression, you know that it is a place of utter darkness – a terrifying lack of feeling, desire, energy. Quaker author Parker Palmer tells of a time when he was mired in the depths of a profound depression. Several times he had contemplated suicide, just to be able to end this interminable suffering that seemed to squeeze the very air out of his lungs. But somehow, he was able to wait, as his flame guttered and went out.

He was fortunate to have many friends visit him during this time, but many of them were not very helpful to someone experiencing depression. “These were the people who would say, ‘Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.’ And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this, quote, “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, ‘Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people…You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.’ And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, ‘I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.’

But one person was helpful. “There was…one friend who came to me,” he says, “after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet.  He hardly ever said anything.  He was a Quaker elder. …Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being.  And the act of massaging just…in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering.  He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way.  …it made a huge difference.  And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is…willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

A little confidence that the light is coming.

When he wasn’t able to do much else, perhaps not even able to trust that the light would come, Parker was able to wait. And slowly, surely, the light came, borne by a friend who knew that what Parker needed wasn’t to go smell the roses – to run out and restock his own oil – but to simply have the way lit for him by someone whose light was still burning.

We haven’t focused much today on those so-called wise bridesmaids who conserved their own oil. But I wonder how this parable might have been different if the wise bridesmaids had been more like Parker Palmer’s foot-massaging friend. Imagine what would have happened if, instead of telling the foolish bridesmaids to go buy more oil, they had trusted that sharing their light – not even necessarily their oil, but simply the light from their lamps – would be enough to light the way for themselves and for their sisters caught in the dark.   

I want you to know, friends: whatever darkness you are facing, whatever deep, painful, terrifying thing confronts you that you’d rather not face: God is with you, Jesus is with us, in the dark. That is the kind of God we worship – one who began the world in the utter void, one who spent a dark night alone in Gethsemane, one who will find you in the depths of the pit and bring you light, one who will work through you to shine that light for someone else.

Whether you are the one alone in the dark, in need of the courage to stay present with your guttering flame; or whether you are the one well fortified against the night and in a position to share with others; let us remember, at the start of this holiday season, that the kindom of God is found OUTSIDE the party, that the light of Jesus is likely to be found not inside a hall filled with party lights, but out in the darkness, shining through us and for us when we ourselves have run out of oil.

Thanks be to God, Amen.