Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sermon: Each Light A Prayer

Isaiah 9:2-7

I was reading a sermon by Timothy Cargal, (yes, pastors listen to and read other pastor’s sermons, how else would we be spiritually fed?) and in it he talks rather humorously about how, “One of the great cultural traditions of modern American Christmas observances is the use of lights. Everything that doesn’t move is decorated with lights. Christmas trees are recognizable by their lights, and indeed as more and more types of trees are used as Christmas trees, the more it is the presence of the lights that identifies them as such. Lights are put around lampposts. We hang lights from the eaves and awnings of our homes, and around windows and doorframes. Lighted fixtures and images are arrayed in front yards, and those that are not self-lighted are bathed in spotlights. Without a moment’s embarrassment at the brazen self-interest, electrical power companies promote contests for the best and most elaborate seasonal displays.” He then goes on to talk about the psychological reasons that we do this during the darkest time of year, when the days are short and the nights are long.

I remember a powerful story told by Roger Robbenolt about his father who feared the darkness in the years before electric lights. It was a symptom of his manic-depression.

During the gloom of December, as long as the kerosene lamps were ablaze he could endure the long nights. But if there was no kerosene his father would become violent and angry from his fear. The year when Roger was nine particularly stands out in his memory. 37 inches of snow had fallen in three weeks, and more was coming. They hadn’t been able to get into town to buy oil or candles and on Christmas Eve – both ran out. Roger’s mother called a mile distant neighbor on the phone, pleading for any extra kerosene they might have.

On those blizzard shrouded days there was little to do. One pastime was rubbernecking (some of you will know what that is, it is when there are 18 families on a party telephone line, each with its own distinguishable ring. Well, even if the call wasn’t for you, you could very carefully lift the phone, cover the mouthpiece and listen in on your neighbor’s conversation.) The neighbor said she didn’t have any extra oil, and the phone call ended.

What happened a while later was a miracle due to people being nosy. As Roger stood by the window, he saw lights like fireflies in the distance, lanterns, seventeen lanterns growing larger as the bearers came nearer. Roger’s father saw the light and cried out, “The lights – look at the lights.”

Roger says, “They came on that Christmas Eve, the light bearers. But they bore more than light. Though jobs were scarce and gardens had dried up and the snow was too deep to care for trap lines, everybody brought something to share. Tilllie Mauldin had come up with the makings of mincemeat pie. Bill Cooley had some ground venison. Gyp Matthews brought corn to pop. Thirty people or more crowded into the tiny living room and kitchen . . . ”

“We sang and laughed and shared far into the night. Ted rolled in our kerosene barrel, and everyone poured half a lantern-full into it. We would not be without light.”[1]

You see there is more to Christmas and lights than just psychology. It is about hope, deepest hope, that reaches beyond our mind into the depths of our souls. Light is spiritual. Isaiah captures it in his writing.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

It isn’t until after he has told us about light that he says:

A child is born to us, a son is given to us.

He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

In the darkest night, Isaiah says, there will be light, spiritual hope, and that hope comes in the form of a child, the Christ.

It isn’t just Isaiah, that realizes that light and Christ are connected. You also hear it in our Christmas carols, this connection between light and the newborn child and the hope he brings into a dark world.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing says, “Hail! the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”

Do you hear what I hear says, “Pray for peace, people everywhere! listen to what I say The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night: He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”

As humans, we crave hope. We want to see dark times vanish, we want the shadows of evil lifted, we want the lonely midnight hours of the soul to be lightened by the company of angels.  We want to be standing out in the fields by night and see the glory of the Lord shining upon us. We crave hope. And the lights that cover our houses, the lights that cover our trees, the lights that drape our sanctuary represent prayers from the depths of our spirit, prayers to God to bring light, hope-filled light, into our world.

Imagine as you drive home that each light on the houses and trees you pass is a prayer, and some of us really like to pray. But still it is a voice crying out. The owners of the homes, the people putting out the lights may not realize it, they may not be aware that they are praying. But deep in their spirits it is there. The desire for the light to overcome the darkness.

As we light the candles tonight, we are joining those perhaps unknown and unwitting prayers. But we are doing so consciously.

We are aware of the spiritual quest of humanity. We speak quite openly about our hope that comes from this child of God born many years ago. We believe that what the angels sang is possible, that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people, and that this child is part of making that happen. And we lift our lights to heaven praying that it would be so.

Each candle is a prayer. We are bearers of the lanterns of hope, messengers of the everlasting light, who come to bear homage to the child in the manger, who is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace.

[1] Tales of Gletha the Goatlady, Roger Robbenolt (Ave Maria Press, 1993)

Sermon: 12 Hour Pregnancy

Luke 1:26-38

I remember my seminary professor of worship commenting that one of the strangest things about Christmas, is that we don’t read the scripture about the angel appearing to Mary until the last Sunday before Christmas. This year, that timing is particularly strange because -- with today being Christmas Eve, this morning we read about Mary being told by an angel that she is pregnant, and then tonight we will read about her giving birth to Jesus. So in less than 12 hours we will go from Mary hearing about God’s plan, to her being in the very fulfilment of it.

So the timing of the scriptures this year is relatively entertaining. She barely has time to buy maternity clothes before giving birth! Amazingly it is estimated that 1 in 2500 women doesn’t know she’s pregnant until she goes into labor! There are some wild stories out there. So much so that TLC has a television show called I didn’t know I was pregnant.

Of course, we know Mary’s pregnancy didn’t really happen like that. And that is what my seminary professor was trying to remind us.

We really ought to read the passage of the angelic visit 9 months before Christmas – so that we can be part of the slow build up to the birth. Then we can experience the agonizing decision of Joseph as he planned to disband his engagement to Mary, and then changed his mind with the help of a dream. We can enjoy the days, perhaps weeks and months that Mary spent living with her aunt Elizabeth who was also pregnant. We can wonder with all of them, and ponder with them what God’s intentions are for this child who is developing and growing in Mary.

Then as the day nears, and we are in the last month, we can experience the frustration they must have felt in knowing that they would have to travel for a census. Yes, it would take longer than our time between services for  Mary and Joseph to travel by foot or by slow footed donkey (if you believe tradition) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s a trip that takes 2 hours and 10 minutes by car according to Google maps, but for a pregnant woman walking or riding would take 4 to 7 days. And all of that not knowing if the baby would be born along the way, or wait until they had reached Bethlehem.

My professor was trying to remind us, that this was no easy one day pregnancy. It was an emotional roller coaster, with ups and downs, struggles and difficulties. And we don’t take enough time to consider all that went into the preparations for the birth of Christ. We make it sudden, as if it only took a few days. Imagine if we started reading the angel’s announcement in March, if we agonized with Joseph in April and May, if we visited with Elizabeth and read about the joy of their meeting in June. If we heard about the upcoming census in August, and made travel plans in September and October. And then last week, we had left with them by foot. For some of us, this would be too much Christmas! But the power of it would be a reminder that God’s ways are often slow and deliberate. And that what we read in a few sentences in the bible is God’s work over months, and sometimes years.

Reading this passage so close to Christmas can give us the illusion that God’s answers to the world’s problems are quick, like an order on with delivery by Fed-Ex, absolutely guaranteed to be there the overnight. But God often takes the slow, grow a messiah in a mother’s womb, let him be a helpless babe, grow into a child, mature through being a teenager, wait until he is 30 years old before he goes public, path to salvation.

But, as I was preparing for today, and knowing that we would go from the announcement to the birth in the space of 8 hours, I thought, perhaps there is something for us to learn from hearing the two stories in such a short time, also.

Perhaps there is power in thinking of the birth of Jesus into our world as a sudden and surprising event that we didn’t really have time to prepare for.

Because honestly, that is how it was for most of the world. Mary had time to prepare, but the shepherds in the fields didn’t. Suddenly there were angels singing in a heavenly host around them. And they had to decide right then and there if they were going to go to Bethlehem and see this child who had been born.

Joseph had time to change his mind, but the innkeeper didn’t. He had to decide when the couple came to his door, right then and there if he had space for them.

And sometimes the same thing is very true for each of us. Although we have time to get our decorations out and ready for Christmas, and although we have time to consider and reconsider what gifts we are going to give each of our family members, when it comes to God erupting into our lives it is often a sudden and unexpected thing that we are not ready for.

For example, this has literally happened to me. I have been driving past someone’s house, and I have been nagged by God to stop and go in and see them. As though God is shouting at me, “Now, right now.” Twice I have had that happen and the person has been on their death-bed with family around. They hadn’t called me to tell me. But God had.

Or an accident occurs and you are the car right behind it. So you are the witness, and the first on the scene to try to provide help. You don’t have time to prepare for that. And yet God is calling you to serve in that moment and to use your gifts and talents at that moment to help in any way you can. To be an agent of calm, to summon help, to pray for those involved, to give first aid. Whatever it is, God is calling you to be present.

Or perhaps you are in prayer, and suddenly God is saying to you, “Hey I have a job for you to do. A project for you to give birth to that will bless the word.” God has never put that idea into your mind before, you had never considered it. A change of profession, a move to a new area, starting of an outreach to homeless, or opening a pre-school in the church. But there it is – a calling from God. Suddenly later that day a door opens in your life and the very opportunity that God shared with you in prayer is available, and you simply are not ready. It is too sudden! But you know that you have to decide now, whether you are ready or not.

That’s where Mary becomes a role model for us. She stands there in shock and surprise with an angel standing before her and she says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

She is a role model of listening to God’s surprising news, listening to God’s sudden and unexpected announcement and saying, “Yes.” So for all those moments when God throws us into ministry, into service, when God calls us without warning – she reminds us as unready as we are, we can enter into the whirlwind of God’s call upon our lives. Oh, yes we will wonder what is going to happen next. But before we know it, time whirls by and the next thing we know God’s promises are coming true for us. It is the sudden and surprising that leads to the long range and the life changing.

Yes, there is something for us to learn from this amazing 12 hour pregnancy, it is that when God bursts into your world, say, “Yes” and be prepared for the blessings that follow. What unfolds may take weeks, months or years to come to fruition, but it is the suddenness of God’s call that begins the process. So this morning we celebrate the surprising nature of God’s call – which can come out of nowhere like an angel appearing to us – and we contemplate what it means for us to say, “Yes.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Another Year Is Dawning

Frances Ridley Havergal was an English poet and hymn writer – her best known hymns from our hymn book are Take My Life and Let It Be and Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak. She showed signs of being very intelligent very young, began writing verse at age seven, but was discouraged from rigorous study by delicate health. Yet she still took a year to study music in Germany, was able to speak several modern languages along with biblical Greek and Hebrew, and published many books of hymns. She died too young at 42. (Thanks to the for links to a number of biographies on her!)

In one of her letters to a friend she said this about writing hymns: 'Writing is praying with me, for I never seem to write even a verse by myself, and I feel like a little child writing. You know, a child would look up after every sentence and say, "What am I to say next?" That is just what I do. I ask that at every line He would give me not merely thought and power, but also every word even the very rhyme. Very often I have a most distinct and happy consciousness of direct answers.' (Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Normal Mable, 1951).

All of that is background for what follows – one of her verses written specifically for New Year’s.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be,
In working, or in waiting,
Another year with Thee.

Another year of mercies,
Of faithfulness and grace;
Another year of gladness
In the shining of Thy face.

Another year of progress,
Another year of praise,
Another year of proving
Thy presence all the days.

Another year of service,
Of witness of Thy love,
Another year of training
For holier work above.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be
On earth, or else in heaven
Another year for Thee.

--Frances Ridley Havergal (1874)

There is much that I like about that hymn, and I pray that you will reflect upon it, and use it in prayer and preparation at the beginning of this new year! By the way she also has a wonderful reflection called “Twelve reasons for attending church on a wet Sunday”, which is worth looking into and reading, but I will save that for next month!

Sermon: Sowing Tears

Psalm 126

I have been listening to Christmas Carols on the radio while driving. I joked with Kristi that every time I get in the car I hear at least one of these three songs: White Christmas, Silver Bells, and Blue Christmas they are so overplayed. So then we took a 10 minute drive to Arby’s for lunch together and what happened – they played White Christmas, and Blue Christmas – but no Silver Bells.

Well, if I were going to play one of those three songs today as part of my sermon, it would be Blue Christmas. You see, one of the realities of Christmas is that it comes with tears. Every Christmas as we gather in the church for Christmas Eve it is a different gathering. There are those who are no longer part of our lives, those that we are separated from by changes in relationship, by moves, or by death – and we deeply miss them. But there are also those that are new in our midst that remind us that there are new joys, new lives, and new relationships and these bring hope and gifts for tomorrow.

This interplay of joy and sorrow is captured well by Psalm 126.

Psalm 126
When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
    it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are overjoyed.
Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
    like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
    crying and carrying their seed,
    come home with joyful shouts,
    carrying bales of grain!

As I read the psalm I was captured by one of its lines. “Lord, let those who plant with tears, reap the harvest of joyful shouts.” And I began to reflect on the image that that created in my mind.

I imagined a person going out to their garden and weeping, with the tears running down their cheeks. And then that person takes those tears and carefully plants them in the ground. Over time the tears sprout into plants and they grow. What they grow into, I am not sure. I guess it is just a time of growing and waiting for the expected vegetables to grow. The plants flower, they are pollenated, and then begins to grow what the gardener wanted. Weeks or perhaps months later the vegetable is ready to pick. In this case, the vegetable is joy. Such joy that you want to shout.

As I reflected on that image I began to wonder how our sadness and tears can grow into joy. How are the two emotions related to one another? When have you seen one transform into the other?

Now I know that the writer of the Psalm may not have meant it to be a picture like the one I created in my mind. I realize that they simply may have watched people planting with tears in their eyes because the times were tough – they were being oppressed and under the power of others. And then later when the harvest was happening the situation was changed and the threat to their lifestyles was gone.

But even when you see the image that way, the emotions are connected. People rejoice because what once was heavy upon them is gone. The sorrow and the joy are still bound together, they are related, and one transforms into the other. And so I decided to ask you – for your wisdom as a group. Because you have been through tough times, I know you have shed tears, and I also know that God has sometimes turned those tears to joy.

The sermon today is not just me sharing my words. You see, I knew that you have sat here and listened to the kids, and heard the Christmas story from them with its message of hope and peace, and you might be ready to do something more interactive. So I am changing my approach today, and asking all of us to contribute our life experience as we talk about three questions. Just three, so don’t be afraid to speak up! I won’t keep us going forever with a thousand questions. We can take our time and answer a little more deeply and get several viewpoints in answer to each. Ready?

Question 1. How are sorrow and joy related?Question 2. How do you see God involved in transforming one into the other?Question 3. What advice do you give to someone who is right now planting tearful seeds?

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom. For those of us who are feeling blue this Christmas, there was some great insight and advice there.

I think the greatest joy of this passage is the promise that our tears can be turned into joyful shouts. It can happen. As Isaiah 61:11 says, “As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.” There is water for the desert, and life in Christ. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sermon: Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-11

When I was looking over the scriptures for today, I said to myself, You know what, I love this passage from Isaiah. I used to preach on it frequently at funerals, but I haven’t in a while. I don’t know why that is, but I haven’t used it in a while. And it is both somber and hopeful. The opening words shout, comfort! Here is comfort! And I thought to myself, after a year like this, that is what we need. We need comfort after a year of hurricanes, we need comfort after a year of mass shootings, we need comfort after a year where our personal lives have been thrown into a tailspin by health problems, or marital troubles, or stresses from work, or unexpected turns of event that we did not want. We need comfort.

“In one of his books writer and philosopher Loren Eiseley tells about the time when he was only a young lad and his father died. His father died a slow death in great bodily torture. Eiseley's mother was deaf. Young Loren alone heard the sounds of his father's agony. This was before the wide application of painkilling drugs. Eiseley said a curious thing happened to him during that very stress filled time. He became so tense that he could no longer bear the ticking of the alarm clock in his own bedroom. He smothered it with a blanket but still he heard it as if it were ticking in his own head. He tried to sleep, but he could not. His distress and loneliness were too great. It was then that help came.’

“His grandmother saw the light burning in his room in the wee hours and came to sit with him. Later when it came time for her to begin her own long journey from which there is no return he touched her hair and knew in those moments that she had saved his sanity. Into that lonely room at midnight she had come, abandoning her own sleep, in order to sit with troubled young Loren. Eiseley never forgot what that meant to him. To know that someone sees and understands. sometimes that is all we need to know in order to make it through a time of crisis.”[1] Well, today’s passage shows that God, like the grandmother sees us in our times of crisis, when the distress of the situation is too great, and God pulls us onto God’s lap and holds us.

I’m not making that up, listen to Isaiah 40, some selected verses.

Comfort, comfort my people! says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice was saying: “Call out!”
And another said, “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up; the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God, coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.

Yes, we need what God is offering in this passage. We need to see God opening up God’s arms wide and saying, “Take comfort my people, I love you. Even if it feels like you are being punished, I love you. I love you like a shepherd cares for the lambs and lifts them onto his lap, the care of one who is powerful and protective over one who is so fragile. Like a grandmother who takes an anxious boy onto her arms and sits with him. I love you.”

The beauty of that word, love, is that it isn’t the kind of love that we think of normally. This word in Hebrew is hesed and it is often translated as loving-kindness.

It is a kind of love that is promised to another, it is a love formed in the bonds of a covenant. It is love that extends to all generations. (Agape Bible Study).

A similar word from the New Testament Greek is agape which might be described as the highest form of love, sometimes translated as unconditional love. It is love which is there for us no matter the time, the place, the situation. Even when times are tough, even when we have wandered away, the love remains. CS Lewis describes it like this: “There are two kinds of love: we love wise and kind and beautiful people because we need them, but we love (or try to love) stupid and disagreeable people because they need us. This second kind is the more divine because that is how God loves us: not because we are lovable but because He is love, not because He needs to receive but He delights to give.” The fact is, not many of us are good at agape. Most of you when you encounter a stupid or disagreeable person don’t want to love the person. But try to love me anyway!

I admit it is hard to love unlovable people. We want to be Krampus to them. Krampus, you say? Krampus is a tradition in Austria and other parts of Europe on December 5th. Krampus is the evil half-goat, half-demon anti-Santa.

Think Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas only weirder. Santa rewards good kids. Krampus gives them coal.[2]. On Krampus night people dress up as this horned, goat man and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Oh, and alcohol is involved – no real surprise there.[3] The beatings are generally not harmful and more playful than violent, but hey, who of us doesn’t have someone we want to beat with a stick, right? I made sure that I didn’t share this story until after Krampus Night, which was December 5th had passed, because I didn’t want you all showing up at my doorstep dressed like demons waving sticks at me! I’d have a heart-attack! People even send Krampus cards to each other, with pictures of this demon. This tradition says a lot about us as human beings. Most of us have a hard time loving others unconditionally – we believe that some people don’t deserve love. They deserve being beaten with sticks or given coal. We even have a hard time believing that God could offer them unconditional love.

But Isaiah says, God’s love is the love of a shepherd for a newborn lamb. The shepherd cares not because the lamb is needed, but because that is the nature and role of the shepherd.

God cares for us like that. Or perhaps we might say God’s love is the love of a grandmother for a grandchild. She loves the grandchild simply because the grandchild is hers. It is the love of a saint who loves even the stupid and disagreeable people, because that is what saints do!

This is the God that says, “Comfort, comfort my people!” to us, the God of hesed and the God of agape. God does not want us to weep, to feel like we are grass that has been dried up in the drought of life, flowers that have withered in the heat of troubles. God does not want to send Krampus after us to beat us with sticks. No, God says, your penalty is paid. God wants us to know that God will gather us up into God’s arms and lift us onto God’s lap. To help us silent the ticking of the alarm clocks, and to settle our souls. To wipe the tears from our eyes, as we weep for the hurts of our lives and our world. To tell us that the sorrows of this life: the hurricanes and the shootings, and our personal trials and tribulations are like grass and will wither and fade away, while God, God is eternal. God’s words last forever. God’s strength does not fade, and with a triumphant arm God brings the reward for God’s lambs.

God does all this even though we are temporary in comparison with God’s eternity, even though we are weak in comparison with God’s strength. God’s love is very real. That love is eternal and strong, and will always comfort us. Ah! Thank you, Lord! For we need this so much!

[1] King Duncan, ChristianGlobe Illustrations

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Sermon: Embrace

Isaiah 64:1-9

Every year when December comes, the focus of our church services changes. For much of the year we focus on what it means to lives as followers of Jesus. We focus on the things we do, our roles and our tasks. We look at the foibles of humanity and watch how God works to help us on our way.

But in December we concentrate not on what humanity is doing, nor even how God is striving to shape humanity; instead, we focus on God breaking through, tearing open the heavens and coming into our world. We celebrate that God from time to time is a little less patient with us, and simply bursts into the world to do new things. I like what one commentator said, “God refuses to be held at arm’s length from us.”[1] It makes me think of a few of you when I greet you – if I try to shake your hand you look at me funny and brush it away and give me a hug. God refuses to keep shaking the world’s hand -- God rushes in and gives the world an embrace.

“Allan Nelson is a consultant to business operations throughout the world. Allan Nelson is also a deeply committed Christian.’

“He ofttimes walks a fine line through life as he seeks to live out his Christian faith in the midst of a variety of culture clashes. One such clash for Mr. Nelson took place in 1978 in a visit to Soweto in South Africa. In a profound and exciting way he experienced in this land afar off the collapsing of a circle of innate suspicion and hostility.”

“Mr. Nelson was in South Africa on a business trip to advise American companies as to how they might best respond to pressures to do something positive in this world of apartheid. As a church-going man he determined to go to church somewhere in the city on Sunday morning. Quite intentionally he sought a place to worship in a black South African congregation. He wasn't at all sure he would be welcome in such a congregation. But he knew his scriptures. He knew that in Jesus Christ the barriers that separated people should be broken down. He hoped he would be accepted.”

“Allan was told that there was such a congregation just five blocks from his hotel. As he and a friend whom he invited to go with him walked those five blocks to church he was reminded at each step of the racial barriers that separated the races in South Africa in those days. "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" signs were everywhere. There was no mingling of the races anywhere. It became more clear to him than ever that white and black in South Africa were divided by huge walls of practiced hatred. Maybe he shouldn't go to a black church after all. Allan began to second guess his decision.”

“But then the church loomed just ahead. He consciously submerged his fears of apartheid and nourished his hopes for a new kind of world where all the baptized are one in Christ Jesus. Allan and his friend arrived early. They simply entered the empty church, found a seat, and waited. Slowly the members of the all black congregation began to file in. No one sat very close to them. Not close at all! In fact when the sanctuary was filled there was a large circle of empty seats that surrounded the two white Americans. Here they were. Two white faces surrounded by a sea of black faces as isolated as an island in the ocean.”

“A lump came to Allan's throat. His fears now drowned out his hopes. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the circle of hatred could collapse even in a Christian church.”

“And then, before the service started, a woman got up and began to sing "Amazing Grace." Allan described her voice as one of the most beautiful he had ever heard. Allan was moved by her singing. It was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that when she started to sing verse two some great impulse from within prompted him to join his tenor voice to her song. They were singing. Just the two of them black and white in harmony.

An old woman from the back of the church came forward and touched him. "Jesus," she said softly. That was the one bond between them.”

“And then Mr. Nelson committed an illegal act. He embraced the woman. They both wept. Suddenly, the circle of emptiness around them collapsed. People shoved up against Allan from every side. His hopes had won out over his fears. There was, indeed, one church, one baptism! Allan Nelson now says that this event changed his life forever. "[2]

That’s December in the church. God gets tired of the separation between heaven and earth and wanders into the midst of our world, and illegally embraces it across the divide.

The power of this embrace is such that it changes the very way we think about the way God works in the world. You see, we might be tempted to think that God is hands-off, distant and seldom involved. We can look at hurricanes and mass shootings, wars and famines, and think that God doesn’t really care.

But then along comes a child who is the very son of God, into our midst and says, let me live this beautiful mess with you and show you a different way. “Jesus” that one word spoken by the woman in South Africa, the one word spoken by God that brings us together. Suddenly we start to see the work of God in every act of compassion, in every hand reaching out to help others.

The passage from Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter.”

I like the potter and clay image. Imagine for a moment that God is the potter of the world, of creation. We are clay. Can a potter shape anything by being hands-off? If the potter refuses to touch the clay, will the clay change shape? No, of course not, it will just remain a spinning lump. But as soon as the hand of the potter reaches out and touches it, moving hands carefully and constantly the piece begins to take shape. December is a reminder that God is very hands on, helping us to see that God is like a potter with hands on the world at every moment as it spins through the day. God is shaping, recreating, and always in contact.

Even more, not only is God in continuous contact with us – once in a while that isn’t enough even for God. Once in a while, God says, “I’m coming into, stepping into the world with you. I will be clay too. I will help remove your imperfections, I will show you what I want you to do and be, I will be clay with you.”

So each year we remind ourselves that God refuses to be held off by a handshake, but reaches out to embrace the world. Christ, the child, who is both human and God, reminds us of this. And even more we remind ourselves that what God has done in the past, God will do again. God will step into human time and history and embrace us.

Michael A. Schmid writes the following words in a song of his called Embrace, the chorus goes like this:

“Embraced by Your mercy, Embraced by Your cross, bringing joy in our sorrow and victory to loss; we embrace Your mission sent forth by Your grace, for it’s Your hand we cling to and Your future we embrace.” That’s what December is about in church, every year!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, Lectionary Tales For The, by Richard A. Jensen

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Christmas Blessings


This last month one of the scriptures for Sunday worship was the beatitudes – those teachings from Jesus that start out, “Blessed are . . . “ These teachings remind us that there are deeper joys and greater happiness in life that we dare not miss.

James Garrett in God’s Gifts shares a piece by an unknown author that does something interesting. It creates a set of beatitudes for Christmas. In other words, he points out the unfathomable blessings of the season that bring meaning and joy to us. Here it is:

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the age-old story of a babe born in Bethlehem. To them a little child will always mean hope and promise to a troubled world.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the Christmas star. Their lives may ever reflect its beauty and light.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the joy of giving lovingly to others. They shall share the gladness and joy of the shepherds and wise men of old.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the fragrant greens, the cheerful holly and soft flicker of candles. To them shall come bright memories of love and happiness.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the happy music of Christmas time. They shall have a song of joy ever singing in their hearts.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the message of the Prince of Peace. They will ever strive to help him bring peace on earth, good will to all.’ (Author unknown)

What a beautiful and wonderful reflection! Yet, as I read it, it lacks one of the things that Jesus’ original beatitudes convey – that even the overwhelming difficulties we face can bring us the deepest blessings of God. So I created a couple of seasonal beatitudes of my own for you to add to the above:

Blessed are those who are having a Blue Christmas without one they love, for they shall one day join them in the angel choir with songs of greatest joy.

Blessed are those who have no presents under the tree, for Christ himself is their gift and justice and mercy will be theirs.

Blessed are you when you are overwhelmed by the rush of the season and all about you seems chaotic, for the hush of a Silent Night and the light of a single candle is yours.

I humbly add those three blessings to the prior list as a way of reminding us, that in the good and bad of the season, God is at work bringing us deeper joys and greater happiness that we dare not miss!

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Sermon: Sheep or Goats

Matthew 25:31-46

For the past two weeks we have looked at Jesus’ parables. We have read about young women who had extra oil ready for when the groom was coming, and refused to share their oil with others. We have read about a greedy master who punished one of his servants for failing to make him more money. And this week we hear a story that in many ways caps them off. Like the last two, this story is meant to start discussions and debate – it is meant as an opener for teaching, where Jesus will talk with people about what God’s kingdom is like.

It is meant to challenge us to think, to ask questions, to talk to one another! So are you ready to hear it?

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

This story like the prior two is a sorting story – a story where some people get rewards and some do not. Like the last two, this one also challenges the hearers to reconsider what God’s realm means and to contrast it with the world. So this week Jesus says, if you do it for the least of these you do it for me. When you fail to do it for the least of these, you have failed to do it for me.

This is a contrast from the values of the world that say, “if you want rewards you do things for people who can reward you. Help a rich person and you might get a reward, but help a poor person and what good does it do you?” The little guy or gal isn’t going to pay you back. They aren’t going to give you a big donation for your charity or political campaign. They aren’t going to help you climb in social status. So it is a waste of time. Help those who can help you in return. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. You do a favor for me, I’ll do a favor for you.

But, like the other parables, Jesus turns the norms of society on their head and says that the one who judges us and who ultimately rewards us, does so based upon what we have done for those who are most in need.

Interestingly, Jesus’ parable has had pretty far reaching effect on people’s values. Everyone from Mother Teresa who based her whole ministry on this passage, to Malcolm Forbes who said, “You can easily judge the character of a [person] by how [they] treat those who can do nothing for [them].”

But before we get into the things it teaches us, let me remind you that parables always have the potential to be misinterpreted. The biggest problem with this parable is that it suggests that people are judged purely on their works, that God has no sense of grace, and it makes it sound like Jesus doesn’t even know or pay any attention to those who haven’t done good works. But we know that none of us live out God’s will perfectly, and we know that God has deep forgiveness.

The parable isn’t trying to tell us that the only thing God judges us based on is how we treat the least of these; however it reminds us that Jesus clearly aligns himself with those who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are strangers, who are naked, who are sick, and who are in prison. These are Jesus’ people and he wants us to care for them. When we don’t, it is as though we deny knowing him – because we are standing against everything that is important to him. When we do, we demonstrate that we have sat at his feet and listened to his will.

I read this story of Riaz as I was getting this sermon ready. “In The City lived Riaz, a high school student in his last year. “The last year of high school is critical” the guidance counsellor emphasized.

“You can’t put ‘hanging out with your friends’ on your résumé, Riaz. You need to follow the program that we have created.”

Riaz was not sure how to tell his guidance counsellor why he didn’t make it to the various extra-curricular activities they had discussed. It had been an excellent week. On Monday, he meant to go to the yearbook meeting over lunch, but his friend (the one who never seems to have proper food) refused to go, and he knew that if he did not share his sandwich and juice with him, he would not eat or drink all day.

On Wednesday, he got into an argument with some of his band mates who were making fun of the new exchange student from the islands. He was so upset and confused by their words that he did not feel like hanging out with them; instead he went to the mall and got the exchange student a winter hat and gloves.

He missed student council because his sister was sick, and opted to skip chess club on Friday to hang out with his lunchtime friend in detention (since he never had the chance to see him on the weekends).

Riaz regretted that he did not make any of his extra-curricular activities for the week, but he did not regret any of his actions. He wondered what would be better, looking good on paper or doing good by his friends and family.”[1]

Riaz may not have literally sat at the feet of Jesus, but he understood the heart of the teaching. Each and every moment of the day is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to serve others or to serve yourself. You can help those who need it, or you can help yourself. But you can’t do both.

Like I said, this parable caps off the few we have read over the past three weeks. Each of them has asked, what gets us into heaven and what keeps us out?

Is it being excited and prepared so that we are ready on a moment’s notice, even if that means refusing to share what we have? Is it putting all of our effort into increasing God’s kingdom, or should we instead stand up to evil and refuse to be part of a system that is not godly? Is it giving to the poor? And the answer is all of the above. Ultimately it is about our choices – do we choose to do that which leads us closer to God, no matter what; or do we choose to do that which gains us the world?

Choosing one means rejecting the other. If we want to choose God we need to do that in every aspect of our lives – in our emotions, in our ethics and morals, in the people we serve. So where will you serve Jesus this week? In whose face will you see him?

A Jewish story goes: I went up to Heaven in a dream and stood at the Gates of Paradise in order to observe the procedure of the Heavenly Tribunal. I watched as a learned Rabbi approached and wished to enter. "Day and night," he said, "I studied the Holy Torah."

"Wait," said the Angel. "We will investigate whether your study was for its own sake or whether it was a matter of profession and for the sake of honors.

A Righteous Person [a Zaddik] next approached. "I fasted much," he said, "I underwent many ritual cleansings; I studied the Zohar the mystical commentary on the Torah day and night."

"Wait," said the Angel, "until we have completed our investigation to learn whether you motives were pure."

Then a tavern-keeper drew near. "I kept an open door and fed without charge every poor man or woman who came into my inn," he said.

The Heavenly Portals were opened to him.[2]

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., The Jewish Way of Life and Thought, New York: KTAV Publishing Inc., 1981, p.177 , by Rabbi Aaron Leib of Primishlan

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sermon: The Wrong Hero

Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is one that on the surface seems pretty straightforward. When the master gives you money, make more. If you do, you will be rewarded. If you don’t, you will be punished. It is a very businesslike exchange. But what if the story isn’t about business?

You see, several biblical scholars say that we have for too long made the wrong people in the story the heroes. What they point out is that in classic storytelling, even in Jesus’ other parables (like the Good Samaritan) when there are three people responding to a situation – the first two are almost always the bad examples. We don’t start out with the hero and then end with a boring failure – that just isn’t the way you tell stories to build tension. You start out with the failures and then you hear about the hero.

I spent a couple of months reading 25 volumes of fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913 from all around the world. What these bible scholars say is true. Always there are three brothers or sisters, or three men, and the first fails to do the task. Then the second fails in the same way. Finally the third does what he is supposed to do and wins the day. That is how these stories work.

But if we apply that method to this story, the first two servants who make money are the failures, and the lazy one who just buries it in the ground is the hero. And to most of us today, this approach to the parable doesn’t make sense to us. We are simply too business minded. We have bought into the idea that more is better, no matter how it is done, no matter what the cost, no matter who gets stepped on.

You see, there is a key phrase in the parable that tries to tell us that the last person is the hero. Near the end when the master is berating the servant, he says,

“You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested by money with the bankers and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” Those lines would have made Jesus’ hearers know that the master was a bad man. He is unfair, he is greedy, and worst of all collecting interest was against Jewish law. Deuteronomy 23:19 says, “Don’t charge your fellow Israelites interest—whether on money, provisions, or anything one might loan.” In fact, in the bible there is not a single positive reference to collecting interest. None, zero, zip. When collecting interest is mentioned it is always a bad thing. Always.

So Jesus’ disciples and the people listening to him that day would have heard that and they would have had to consider the risks of resisting what their masters told them to do and instead doing what God wanted.

Believe it or not the fourth century bishop Eusebius actually tells the parable that way.

The parable goes like this: a master had three servants, one who squandered his master’s money with the wrong crowd, one who multiplied the money and made more, and one who hid the money. So what happens? Well, the first one gets what we expect, the one who wasted it all is thrown in prison for misusing the Master’s money.

But here is where things get interesting, the second one, who multiplied the money is rebuked. It might not make sense to us, but to Jesus’ listeners it made complete sense. We have to put aside our American ears, which have been caught up in Wall Street for generations, and instead hear things like 4 Maccabees 2:8 that say, “As soon as one adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though a lover of money, one is forced to act contrary to natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel the debt when the seventh year arrives.”[1] So in that early bishop’s retelling, the one who multiplies the money is rebuked for loving money too much.

So what happens to the third servant, the one who hid the money? We are told that that one is accepted with joy. Yes, you heard that right, accepted with joy. The hider is the hero.

Why? What might Eusibius have really been trying to say, and what does it tell us about what Jesus was saying? It is likely that Eusibius is contrasting being a Christian with being a Roman. You see, Romans did collect interest. This was their normal operating procedure, like ours today. But as I have said the Jews did not.

And it is likely that Jesus was also challenging people to think about what practices they were going to follow – the outsiders, the Romans,– or the ways that are practiced in the kingdom of heaven, where there will be no collecting of interest. He may have been asking, “Will you follow the emperor who claims to be a god, or will you follow the God of Israel?”

Perhaps you will remember that last week, I said that when Jesus taught parables the idea was probably to get us started in discussion about all things Godly. If that is the case, then he has come up with a great story with which to do it. Clearly there will be people coming at it from all sides. Some people will be supportive of making money and listening to one’s master, some people will know the Jewish law, and want to emphasize that. His listeners would immediately enter into a debate. I found this retelling of the story that uses a mother with three daughters that could create a similar feeling.

“In The City, there was a mother with three daughters whom she loved very much. The mother had many gifts that the city relied on, so she entrusted these gifts to her daughters while she went to another city to share her gifts there.

To the first daughter, she gave the gift of farming. She taught her about the land and how to care for it. The daughter cherished this gift and taught anyone who would listen how to water and care for the earth. The entire city blossomed with the gift of farming and had a bountiful harvest of every good fruit of the earth.

To the second daughter the mother gave the gift of reading and writing. The daughter cherished this gift, and taught anyone who would listen, how to read, write and create beautiful stories of the city. Soon schools were built, and people of all ages gathered to read, learn and tell stories. The city created a library so that everyone had access to this amazing gift of reading and writing.

The third daughter received the gift of music. The daughter cherished this gift. She would go high into the mountains to practice this gift of music where she thought no one would hear her. She practiced singing and playing the harp day and night, but never felt ready to share her gift with the city, or with anyone but the birds.

One day, when she was up on the hill practicing, she saw her mother returning, and she started to cry. She looked out over the city and saw the lush and green farmlands because her sister had shared the gift of farming. She saw the beautiful library and people reading stories to each other because her sister had shared the gift of reading and writing. And she felt ashamed because only the birds were singing, and no one was playing music.

When the mother returned, she celebrated and congratulated her first and second daughter on the splendid work they had done. When evening came, she asked her daughters, “What is that sound coming from the mountains?” We do not know, there has been a beautiful sound coming from the mountains since you left, we assumed that it was the birds, but today it sounds different, it sounds like wailing.

The mother went up the mountain, and there was her third daughter crying so violently that she was gnashing her teeth. The mother was disappointed in her daughter, but clearly not as much as the daughter was in herself. She informed the daughter that she will be going to a new town, and will be bringing her two sisters. The daughter pleaded with the mother to go with them, but the mother said no. “Everyone in The City is in love with the music of the sky; you must remain and teach it to them.”[2] Who is the hero of the story? Who gives the most? The two who intentionally share? Or is it possible it is the one who gets no recognition for her work? You could have a great lunch time discussion on this story! Which is the most like God’s kingdom?

Parables are meant to make us think, to challenge us to find God and godly living. They are not meant to be easy. If the bible scholars are right, then in this parable God stands with the one who is given the least, and has the integrity to do what is right – even in the face of economic pressure.

God is not the harsh master or the greedy master. God does not reap where God does not sow. God does not reward people monetarily in heaven for what they have done one earth. The billionaires here are not super-billionaires in heaven. God does not cast out one who follows the Jewish law. Rather, God’s hero may be cast aside by the world, hated by the world, despised by their masters. The good news is that they are not slaves to money, instead they are servants of the Most High.

It is very possible that we have read this passage with the wrong hero and the wrong message. It is not about making more, or even about giving more to the church, but about serving God first even at the cost of our jobs.

So what does that look like today? When you step out those doors, where might following God put you at an economic risk? Where do Judeo-Christian values class with those of the business world? What would you need to change to put yourself in line with God’s ideals? Because we have a choice to follow the god of the greenbacks or the God of Israel.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (p. 102-105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: Not Enough Oil

Matthew 25:1-13

If you have ever read a bible passage and had as many questions after reading as you did when you started, you aren’t alone. Today’s parable from Jesus can leave us with lots of questions. The thing with parables is that they are teaching tools, to start discussions – they are not meant to be exact replicas of reality. So there are always ways that the parable is going to be like the kingdom of God and ways that it isn’t.

For example, in the parable of the bridesmaids and the oil, the wise bridesmaids refuse to share, and because of that the foolish bridesmaids are locked out. Does that mean in the kingdom of God sharing is bad? No, of course not, in kindergarten we are taught to share with others. It is one of the most important things that we can do. And other places in scripture affirm that, even the parables that Jesus tells right near this one in the bible, but in this story something else is happening. The point isn’t about not sharing. So what is going on here?

One thing that might help is to know that the word bridesmaid is really deceptive, the actual word means a young unmarried woman. So what we have here are 10 young unmarried women waiting for the groom.

So this could be a story about competition between the women to see who would get to marry the groom. Which explains their unwillingness to share – The stingy one won’t share with one who didn’t plan well, because then she might not end up getting married. They are rivals for the affections of the groom.

But again that is not what the kingdom of God is like. We are not in a competition with each other for God’s attention. God isn’t going to pick just one of us, but invites a whole multitude. So why would Jesus compare people seeking God with a group of rival women competing for a husband? It sounds like a bad comparison.

One possible explanation is offered by the Jewish Annotated New Testament. It reminds us that in Jewish tradition, oil is often a metaphor for righteousness or good deeds.

So it may very well be that Jesus is telling us to make sure that we have filled the lamps of our lives with the oil of good deeds, so that when the groom comes we can show just how brightly our lives burned. But that still makes it sound like there is a competition in life and that some of us have done enough good deeds and others haven’t. I think it lends itself too easily into the mistaken idea that we must do a certain amount of good deeds in order to get into heaven. Plus, how many of Jesus listeners would have been able to catch that symbolism?

While I was thinking about all of this I ran into that interesting retelling of the parable, that was read for you; where the planners and the last minuters are attending a protest.

This retelling reminds us that it isn’t the idea of sharing or not, and it isn’t that there is a competition to see who can meet with the mayor – the issue is whether or not the people were prepared for the long haul. Were they ready for whatever the situation called for? Pure and simple. I think what Jesus was trying to get his listeners to be ready, they don’t know the day or hour when the bridegroom will come. That’s the point. Ignore the other stuff, it just gets in the way.

So I think Jesus is trying to get us to think of ourselves as young women, who very much want to impress a young man, and you don’t know when he is going to arrive. Clearly, the bridegroom is the Christ, the messiah, and Jesus is telling them, they never know when the Christ may come, and they should be ready. (The irony is that he was sitting there with them at that moment as he taught this – and some of them were clearly didn’t realize it). Consider what he must have been thinking and feeling as he said to them, “Keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.” Perhaps he smiled, perhaps he shook his head sadly as he thought, “Some of you don’t even realize the bridegroom is here. You aren’t ready, and soon it may be too late.”

In the little book, Laughter in Appalachia, Fred Park of Berea, Kentucky tells a story about a man named Quill. Quill lived way back in the woods where he hunted and fished all the time. Quill didn't pay any attention to the hunting seasons or laws or anything, and he knew the woods better than the game warden.

The game warden had been trying to catch Quill for a long time. Today was the day. He knew Quill would be up early to go fishing. So the game warden sneaked down there in the middle of the night and hid on top of Quill's house. This way he knew he had the jump on Quill. He'd let him head out and then he'd follow him. His plan was to hide in the woods until Quill had caught a large, illegal bunch of fish, and he'd catch him.

As it started to get a little bit of daylight, the game warden could hear Quill get up, start a fire, and put the coffee on. His stomach started growling at the smell of that coffee and those fresh smelling biscuits as they baked in the oven. He could hardly contain himself. Suddenly out walked Quill on the porch and hollered, "Come on down here and git some of this coffee and biscuits while they're hot! I know you're out there!" He went back in and shut the door.

The game warden could not believe it. He climbed down and walked up on the porch and into the house and exclaimed, "Well, how did you know I was out there?"

Quill said, "I didn't. I walk out there and say that ever morning, just in case ye are!" Quill may not have been a genius, but he knew enough to take precautions. He was ready![1] That is what Jesus is telling the people there sitting with him. “Come on down here. You should be looking every day for the Messiah, expecting him to be with you. Because you never know he might be out there in the woods, and if you aren’t ready you might be in a heap of trouble.”

But what does the story mean for us, who live in the days after Christ has come? Many think it is referring to Christ’s second coming, and being ready for that. But I wonder about that, because that certainly isn’t what he was thinking of when he shared it with the people sitting around him. He was there, then.

Rather, I think the message for us today has more to do with how we live our lives. Like young women wanting to impress the groom, our love for God should have a sense of eagerness of being in God’s presence, we should have a sense of striving our very best to please God.

After all, if you want to impress the handsomest hunk, you do everything possible to get ready. You don’t do it half-heartedly, and you certainly don’t wait until the last minute.

You still should be living every day with the expectation that you will meet the messiah, you might see him in the face of a person who is suffering, you might find yourself on your deathbed, perhaps he will come again in the clouds tomorrow, whatever the method of meeting him, you should be living with the expectation of it happening at any time. So you should be trying to impress God.

Here Jesus is not telling us to compete with our neighbors and try to keep them from getting into heaven, nor is he telling us that God is measuring the oil of our lives and will judge us based upon our works. No, it is more likely Jesus is telling us, be a like a young girl waiting for her boyfriend, be so in love with God that you are doing everything you can to show it, so that when the day comes that God calls you into heaven, your light is bright for all to see.

Of course, there is one other possibility. And I save this for last because it is so counter to our normal reading of the passage. What I am saying here will make more sense over the next couple of weeks as we look at the next two parables of Jesus.

But it is possible that Jesus is actually critiquing the women who won’t share their oil. The bridegroom has been sighted, he is right there before them. How much oil do their lamps need? Honestly, not much, just enough to burn for a short time. If they had shared their oil, everyone would have gotten in. Jesus may be critiquing those who are afraid to be generous, whose selfishness prevents others from getting to see the Christ. This is an interesting twist that Jesus may have hoped would come out in discussion as they talked about the kingdom of God. So I would add it as a second thing to consider, after first reading it as a reminder to prepare ourselves, read it also as a reminder to help others prepare themselves for God as well. They also need oil for their lamps, and quite honestly you have it. The message of God’s love is that oil, give it to them, so that they can enter in as well.

[1] Laughter in Appalachia by Fred Park