Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Before the Door Closes

Matthew 25: 1-13
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States once said this, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  President Lincoln accomplished a lot in his brief years.  From his humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the sophisticated and decorated halls of the White House, Lincoln persevered against odds that most of us wouldn’t dream of having or being able to overcome. 

I wonder if he had a sense that, because of his outspokenness about slavery, his acceptance of war as the only means of saving the Union, his desire to unify the Northern and the Southern states, that eventually his life would be taken? 

Lincoln lived only 56 years but the life in his years, the belief, the work, and his conviction to equality and justice, his commitment to transportation and technology advanced the American people and vision of a unified people changed the fabric of America that changed our lives.  What you do in life and with your life matters greatly.  Although he wasn’t a churchgoer, he did craft some sort of belief in God and the divine providence in all matters.  He led the life of discipleship whether he would call it that or not.
The gospel writer Matthew offers us four parables in succession that deal with the Kingdom of God or the second coming of Jesus and when it will come.  More importantly, through these parables Matthew offers us a glimpse at how we are to live until that happens.  Hear now the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids from the 25th chapter of Matthew.   

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

There are parts of this parable that are just downright uncomfortable to our 21st century sensibilities. Why wouldn’t the five ‘wise’ bridesmaids share?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  Why would the bridegroom slam shut the door, never to be opened again, even after the bridesmaids went out to buy oil at midnight?  Isn’t God supposed to love us all, forgive us all and want all of us in the kingdom?  I mean they at least made an effort to replenish their oil supply.

But the door reverberates loudly as it slams shut, shaking the family photographs off of walls of the kingdom.  The reality of this parable is there will be judgment.  The truth is yes, we are supposed to share, and yes we are to be ready.  This parable might instill fear.  But should we live our lives out of fear?  No, I don’t believe so.

As was the custom in first century Palestine weddings lasted for days.  A wedding was a joyful, all inclusive event that went from one house to another. There was plenty of partying and using up of the wine, remember the wedding at Cana?  Jesus comes to the rescue and changes the water into fine wine.  The guest lists weren’t lists as much as there was an expectation for entire village participation, remember the parable of the wedding banquet?  Many were invited but few were chosen. 

Or, in the excitement of it all something was forgotten.  In this case, valuable oil.  I’ve officiated at plenty a wedding where someone would inevitably forget something.  The best man forgets the rings.  A bridesmaid forgets her party heals dyed to match perfectly her dress.  There’s so much to do and so much to remember in the frenetic bliss of a wedding. 

There were ten bridesmaids each with her own oil lamp. Five planned ahead and made sure they had enough oil to last them until the bridegroom came.  The other ones just didn’t pay that much attention to their little lamps.

They go to meet the bridegroom at his home but, he wasn’t there.  Perhaps he had last minute preparations to attend to, perhaps he was busy with his family or with his groomsmen, whatever it was, he wasn’t there at the expected time.

So the bridesmaids got sleepy, the excitement was finally catching up with them and they laid their coiffed heads to rest.  And they slept.  The groom comes.  It’s midnight and it’s dark.  It’s in this excitement, the realization that the time REALLY had come, that the groom was finally here to complete the nuptials, sign the wedding contract and marry the young maiden that five of the bridesmaids realize their lamps were empty.  Whoops.  A big life altering whoops.  They ask the five bridesmaids with oil to share, they didn’t.  Nothing is worse than fighting bridesmaids. 

They frantically try to find some oil, but the market was closed at midnight of course and even if it were open it’s possible that the merchant’s inventory would be depleted.  While they were gone in final pursuit the groom comes and the doors to the banquet hall are closed.  Access denied.  The moral imperative?  Keep awake, always be ready, you just never know when the time will come.

This end time theology is so hard for us to understand.  It was hard for the first century Christians to get it, no less we, in the third millennium, so far removed from that first community of Christians who followed Jesus intimately can understand it or integrate it into our thinking.  Who among us thinks about the end times, about Jesus’ second coming?  It’s no longer a part of our psyche as it was for the disciples and the first century believers.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t and can’t happen.

Over and over again the Bible lets us know that time will come to an end, Jesus will return and that we will be judged on the way in which we conducted our lives.  Some may find that daunting and some will find it to be a comfort depending on how you spent your years, however many you have.

We have been given freedom, freedom of thought, and freedom of actions.  God doesn’t micromanage our lives, thank goodness.  But there in lies the rub.  Because of that our freedom comes with a cost and that is responsibility.  Our choices bring consequences and it’s our responsibility to make wise choices.  The bridesmaids were measured by their actions and the choice that they made about filling their lamps.  Five were filled with life giving, light giving oil.  Five were not. 
Is your lamp filled?  Does it contain the oil of hope, justice, compassion and caring?  We don’t have to be Abraham Lincolns, but we all have been given gifts to use in our life times.  We all are given the opportunity to live Christ-like lives.

Is your lamp getting low?  Then come and refill.  Renew your spirit with the love from others on the journey.  Refill your lamps with God’s forgiveness and grace.  Will you be ready at the end of your day, or the end of your life, or perhaps if Jesus should come in our life times?

The door closed on Lincoln’s life much too early.  Yet in his lifetime and subsequently for generations to follow, his actions and decisions toward his fellow man changed the landscape of American culture.  It was for him, in the end, the life in his years. 

May it be so for ours.

First piece by Courtney L. Haley
Second piece by He Qi
Photo unknown

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