Saturday, November 8, 2008

Oil Reserves - sermon for Pentecost +26A

In our Old Testament reading for today, we come upon the Israelites as they have finally reached the Promised Land. We have skipped over much of the book of Joshua, including Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan into Canaan, the conquest of Canaan by Israel, and the allotment of Canaan to the 12 tribes of Israel. The Israelites have now settled in their new land, and so Joshua asks them, “whom will you serve?” What is your choice, now that you have finally gotten where you have wanted to go for so long? Will you choose to follow the Lord, or will you choose another way?

Choices. We have just gotten finished with making some choices, haven’t we? Whether you voted absentee or stood in line last Tuesday, the time for making choices for who will be President of the United States for the next four years, who our judges will be, whether or not we will have casinos in our state – all of these choices have been made. If you didn’t vote, then the choices were made for you. But I hope you did, and I hope you took the opportunity to make your voice heard.

Sometimes it seems as though we make a thousand choices every day. As a mom of three young girls, I am faced with not only my choices but their choices as well, as they turn to me for decisions. “Do I need to wear my winter coat today?” “Can I watch TV now?” “Can I have a piece of my Halloween candy?” Often, these choices don’t have clear consequences, and I find myself wondering if I should say “yes” or “no.”

The Israelites don’t really have a “mom” they can ask to help them make their decision. But they do have a choice. God isn’t going to force them to serve God. The Israelites can choose to be incorporated into the local culture, worship the local gods, or go back to serving the gods of Egypt.

What makes it easy for you to make a choice? What makes it difficult? I am sure there are some choices we make every day, choices that are good for us or bad for us, that we make without a second thought. Things like what we will have for breakfast, what we will wear, whether we will return a phone call or an email, or even answer the phone. What does it say about the human condition that so much of what we are and how we define ourselves is lived out in the choices we make? What do the choice we have and the choices we make tell us about God?

And by the way, sometimes those little choices add up to becoming one big choice. Sometimes those little choices lead us to a place where we realize that we've made the wrong choices. Sometimes making small bad choices put us in a place where we are find ourselves with no choice at all. That little warning light on the dashboard means it's time to get the car serviced. It's a busy life, so we can put off the trip to the repair shop one more day, right? Then days stretch into weeks, and before you know it, you find yourself and your disabled car on the side of the road, facing a major bill for a new transmission, not to mention the towing fee and the fact that you just missed your critical appointment. Small choices sometimes lead to big consequences.

We as a nation have made those kinds of choices over the years. I have titled this sermon “Oil Reserves” mostly because of the gospel story, but when we think of this term literally, we are faced with the crazy shortage and supply and demand economics we went through this summer as oil prices topped $100 a barrel and gas prices were above $4 a gallon. At that point, many of us made choices – choices to stay home or combine our errands into one trip. Choices to not go on a car vacation or to walk to places rather than to drive. Some of us even made a choice to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, if we were able to make that choice. I thought about getting a motorcycle for my weekly trips out here from our home in Cleveland Heights, but then I realized that riding a motorcycle in the winter doesn’t really work.

How do little choices add up for you? Since you are here, I can assume that you have made the choice the Israelites made – as they told Joshua not just once, but three times “We choose to serve the Lord.” What does that mean for you? What does it mean for you to serve God? What does it mean that God gave the Israelites this choice anyway? If God is all-powerful and since the people of Israel were God's people, why didn't God simply command them to serve? You must serve God! End of story. Why give them a choice, especially when the Israelites have such a track record of making poor choices.

What does it mean for us today, as Christians to have a choice about how we will serve God. You may think that you have already made this choice. After all, here you are. But in fact, do we not need to decide over and over to what it means to serve God? Doesn't choosing to serve God mean a lifetime of making this same choice over and over?

For me, choosing to serve God can be reflected in a thousand little decisions that I might make every day. Little decisions, like whether we are going to have an Advent wreath in our home and do a devotion with the girls each night. Or whether I will try to say prayers with them before they go to bed, even when they don’t really want to and I am feeling pretty tired and not much like praying either.

What choices do you have to serve God every day? What are the decisions you must make over and over again? Decisions like whether or not it is just too nice outside to go to church this week, or whether you should call that person who sits next to you in worship who hasn’t been here for a couple of weeks. Decision about what it means to actually live out a life of service to God by serving our neighbor.

Perhaps can think of those decisions we make, the ones where we choose to serve God, as a kind of oil – oil for our lamps.

Our Gospel lesson for today is the story of the ten bridesmaids, and it can be a difficult passage to hear and understand. We read in the gospel that the bridesmaids were waiting outside of the banquet hall, waiting for the bridegroom. To gets some context, we need to understand the wedding customs in first century Palestine. Weddings in those days didn’t start at a particular time, but instead began whenever the groom arrived. The bride got herself ready and waited. And in this case, waited and waited. As the preacher Sharyl B. Peterson writes,

When guests received an invitation for, say, 4:00 Saturday afternoon, the wedding itself might start Saturday afternoon, or it might start some time Saturday evening, or perhaps on Sunday morning, or maybe not until Monday or Tuesday.

The possible hold-up wasn’t the bride but the bridegroom. Bridegrooms were busy, working people, and time was understood quite differently in the Middle East in those times from the way we understand it here today, and you didn’t hurry these things. So, the wedding ceremony started whenever the bridegroom got there, and you never knew just when that might be.[1]

So the bridesmaids wait. And they all fall asleep, despite the admonition at the end of our passage to “keep awake”. But then when they are awakened to learn the bridegroom is about to arrive, there is a problem. Some of the bridesmaids have extra oil for their lamps, just in case their wait was longer than they anticipated. And some have not.

Now, at this point, the bridesmaids who have the extra oil don’t share their oil with the others. Instead, they tell them to go out to buy some more. And by the time the “foolish” bridesmaids return, the doors to the banquet hall are closed, and they have been locked out of the festivities.

It doesn’t seem really fair, does it? Why don't those bridesmaids who have the oil share with those who do not? Where is God's grace here? Where is the grace for those bridesmaids?

There is a children’s song that goes along with this passage that I most recently heard performed by the Veggie Tales – those animated vegetables that act out Bible stories. They sing:

Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning

Give me oil in my lamp I pray

Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning

Keep me burning till the break of day

It goes on like that, with the next verse, Give me joy in my heart keep me singing, and then - Give me love in my heart, keep me serving. I am sure you could think of some others (there is one “give me gas for my Ford keep me running for the Lord”, but that doesn’t really help me with my point here).

It's worth remembering that the story of the bridesmaids is a parable, and the oil in the lamps is a metaphor for something. And, to my thinking, it would be a mistake to think of the oil as some kind of transferable commodity, something that can be bought and exchanged, having monetary value. No, I think the oil instead represents something much less tangible, something that is not easily transferred from one person to another. To me the oil in the lamps might represent the choices that have been made, the choices over a lifetime, the choices we make to serve God. And each time we make a choice for God, we fill up our lamp with a little more oil.

Now, just to be clear here, I don’t want to say that it is our job to judge the foolish and the wise bridesmaids, or that somehow we can pile up a list of good deeds that will allow us to enter the banquet – to join Jesus at the heavenly banquet. I really do believe that the grace of God's love is available for all, everyone, and that there really are no actions we can take, no choices we can make, that can deny us this grace in the end. All of the bridesmaids had access to oil before the wedding. God's love is available to everyone.

The question for us, then is what we choose to do with the gifts of God. Will we chose to serve God all of our days? Or will we make foolish choices, choices make it harder to see and understand the love and grace that God has offered us. The gift of God is the ability to make a choice. The oil in our lamps are the consequences of our choices. When we do good things for others – especially when we join together in Christian community with one another – and when we spend our time cultivating our relationships with others and especially with God – we are adding oil to our lamps.

And what does this oil bring us? Why is it important to keep our lamps trimmed and burning? Because when we have lived a life of choosing to serve God, we are prepared for any eventuality. We know that God is with us, no matter what life's journey brings to us. When we reach times of stress or pain - as we all will - we will find ourselves turning to God for comfort and hope. That turning, that opening of ourselves to God’s healing presence, will not be an easy one. But perhaps it will be somewhat easier, if we have already spent our lives turning to God. When we have already taken the time to cultivate our relationships, to be there for others, to really know one another in our communities, especially our community of faith, then we have the oil we need to get through good times as well as bad times.

As most of you know, before I had my three beautiful daughters, my husband and I endured many pregnancy losses. Of course, these were times of great grief for us, times when we didn’t know what we were going to do next, times that tested our faith.

But the last miscarriage I had, on New Year’s Eve 1997, turned out to be one where I found out about spiritual oil. I started seminary in the fall of ’97, so after the miscarriage, I returned to the seminary one cold January morning, just in time for the chapel service. I hadn’t personally told anyone what had happened to me, but the community, a community of faith, knew. As I walked into the chapel, two of my friends found me. Each of them silently took one of my hands, and we sat together for the entire service like that, hands clasped together, hope literally flowing from them into me. My “oil” was replenished that day, because I was a part of that community of faith, because I had made the choice to make myself vulnerable, because I had chosen to take the path God had opened to me to go to the seminary in the first place.

Perhaps you have a story like that one as well – a story of how this community has helped you get through a loss or a disappointment in your life. Each week, as we sit together, as we share our joys and concerns with one another, as we worship together, we are refilling our lamps with more oil. If you think about it, this is really part of what worship is about. We come here to be in the presence of God and each other, to be renewed and refilled. God's love pours into us like warm oil into an empty vessel. We are filled with goodness and love. And that oil will be available to us when we need it. We can keep it in reserve all week long. We can take it with us wherever we go throughout our whole lives. It won’t even fluctuate in price. It is a great gift, and it doesn’t cost us very much at all.

Thanks be to God for the many ways in which God has filled our oil reserves each week – for friends who encourage us, for communities where we can share and support one another, for a God who longs to be in relationship with us. Thanks be to God who have given us this wonderful choice, a choice we make with all of our minds and all of our hearts and all of our souls. We have been filled. Let us make the choice, again and again, to serve God.


[1] Sharyl B. Peterson, “Oil Crisis”, found at,

1 comment:

Iris said...

What a moving story about your friends helping you to replenish your oil! Beautiful!