Once upon a time, when I was young, I was a terrible Boy Scout.
I had been a Cub Scout. I had worked my way through the ranks. I was a bobcat, and a tiger, and a wolf, and a bear, and a webelos. It wasn’t too difficult. The Cub Scout motto is, “Do Your Best.” And if there’s one thing I can do, it’s my best… even when my best isn’t that good.
But then I became a Boy Scout.
Now, the way I remember is that when I became a Boy Scout, I got the first rank for just showing up. After that, I was supposed to earn merit badges. My friends and peers earned merit badges. They became Tenderfoots and First Class Scouts and whatever. Some of them even became Eagle Scouts. And that’s pretty impressive.
I don’t think I earned a single merit badge. It turns out that merit badges aren’t a big motivator for me. And, anyway, the only one I really wanted was the archery one. So, after I fell further and further behind my peers, I stopped being a Boy Scout.
The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared.” And I was not. I rarely am.
Today’s reading is another parable. And if you listen to preachers and read commentaries, it’s about being prepared.
You see, the kingdom of heaven will be like this.
There will be a wedding, and there will be bridesmaids. Some of them will have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and some extra oil. They will be prepared. And some of them will not have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and nothing else. They will not be prepared.
Well, the groom will be late. All of the bridesmaids will fall asleep. But, around midnight, the groom will finally show up. And someone will see him in the distance and shout for the bridesmaids to come and meet him.
The bridesmaids who have their stuff together will trim their lamps. They will be ready to go to the wedding banquet.
And the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will trim their lamps and realize that they don’t have enough oil. They will turn to their neighbors who have oil and say, “Hey, we don’t have enough oil and our lamps are going out. Can you give us some of yours?”
And the bridesmaids who have their stuff together will reply, “No. If we give you some of our oil, there won’t be enough for us. Go to the all night oil shop and buy some.”
So the bridesmaids who don’t have their stuff together will do just that. And while they’re gone, the groom will arrive, and gather the people who are ready, and go to the wedding banquet, and close the door.
Later, the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will return from the all night oil shop. They’ll knock of the door and shout, “We’re here. Open up!” And the groom will reply, “I don’t know you.”
Yeah. The kingdom of heaven will be like that. The people who have more than enough will not share. The groom will not let people who are late enter. There will be no grace.
So, have your stuff together. Grab some extra oil on your way out and keep awake. You don’t know when that groom is going to show up and take you to the wedding banquet. And you don’t want to be standing in front of a closed door in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So be prepared!
The problem is that I’m not prepared. I don’t have my stuff together. I don’t know how much oil I have. I’m just trying my best. And I’ll bet that a lot of us are in that same situation… and least some of the time… even the Eagle Scouts.
And on top of it, no one knows when Jesus will show up. No one knows the day or the hour. And I’m not sure that an extra flask of oil is going to be enough.
What’s someone who’s just trying his best to do?
God loved the world this way. God looked at the world and saw suffering and sin. God put glory aside and became one of us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up. And we have faith that God will return and finish the work that God started.((Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. p. 46.))
Sometimes, in some churches, we say it this way: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.
But Christ has been going-to-come-again for a long time. The groom is very late. And here we are with our little lamps, trying our best to be the light of the world and doing our best to keep those lamps trimmed and burning. But, sometimes, the oil runs out.
And it is easy, in the midst of trouble, to get distracted. It is easy, in the middle of the Lenten wilderness, to focus on the wrong thing.
It is easy, when we think that we have just enough oil in our lamp, to look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough, and say, “I can’t share. I won’t have enough.”
It is easy, when we think that we don’t have enough oil in our lamp, and no one will share with us, to say, “Christ is late. I have time and more than enough time. I can leave, and go to the all night oil shop, and get some more. I’ll be back before Christ returns.”
It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to do this on my own.” It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to get prepared for Christ to come back.”
But here’s the thing: there is not one of us—there is not one of us—who can guarantee that we have enough oil to make it through the long dark night until Christ returns. We all see our lamps run dry from time to time. It happens to the people in the pews. It happens to pastors. It may have happened to you now and again. I know it has happened to me now and again.
There are times when our faith runs low. It happens.
And if we have our stuff together, we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just hold onto the little bit that we have left, we’ll be okay. And if we have our stuff together, we can even look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough and think, “Thank God I’m not like them. Thank God I’m prepared. Thank God I can do this on my own.”
And if we don’t have our stuff together… well… we can think that we just need to walk away. Maybe we can find an all night oil shop.
Now, I need to be careful here.
Sometimes, we need to walk away from our congregation or from the church. It is true. I have been there, and I will not criticize anyone for saying, “I need a little time away.” And I will not stop praying that anyone who walks away for a season will come back… or find another faith community that meets their needs.
But I also believe that when our faith is low, we can find support in this church, in this congregation, in this community.
There will be times when you cannot sing the hymns. There will be times when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow. And in those times, you can rely on the melodies of your neighbors. We can sing the hymns for you.
There will be times when you cannot pray the prayers. There will be times when the words are buried too deep in your soul and it feels like no one is listening. And in those times, you can rely on the words of your neighbors. We can pray for you.
Literally. We can sing in your stead. We can pray on your behalf. We can add oil to your lamp until the flame burns bright again.
And then, when your neighbor cannot sing—when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow—you can sing for them.
And when your neighbor cannot pray—when the words are buried too deep in their soul and it feels like no one is listening—you can pray for them.
Literally… in their stead… on their behalf. You can add oil to their lamp until the flame burns bright again.
In your long dark night of the soul, we can gather around you with our little lamps and cast a little light. And, as the seasons pass, we will all have the chance to do that for each other. That is the joy of a community of faith… that we—not each of us on our own, but all of us together—can keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
Because, it turns out, we are the all night oil shop. And that means that none of us have to wander off. We can all be present when the groom comes: when Christ returns, and fills our lamps with oil, and lights the whole world.
Thanks be to God.