This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


One of the traditions we have in my family is that as we sit at the table on Thanksgiving we go around and each of us says one thing for which we are thankful.  One circumstance in our lives for which we are grateful.  One event we are glad we have known or experienced, especially over the past year.  It gives us an opportunity sometimes to say something silly and funny, or even ironic; but also to recognize very important relationships or milestones.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday, ostensibly it is a secular holiday as well.  It is, like July 4th or Memorial Day, celebrated by just about every American no matter what their religion or lack of religion.  It is at the same time a very spiritual holiday.  It is a time of year when we bring into consciousness what we have received and realize and express our gratitude for it. 
We leave it up to each family or individual to understand to whom or to what we are grateful... but there is this tacit and implied belief in the very word “thanksgiving” itself that we are grateful to someone or something other than ourselves.  To date no one at our Thanksgiving table has yet said anything like, “I am grateful to myself for buying myself that new car.” 
No.  Implied in the idea of gratitude, of receiving a gift, is that of another who is the giver.  To say “thank you” means that there is a “you” whom we are addressing, even if that “you” is not named, identified, known, or recognized.  Even if we say the giver is the impersonal universe or blind fate, simply by addressing it as a “you,” we personalize it.  We make a giver out of it.
This whole idea of gratitude is in every case at least a subtle recognition that we are not alone and independent in the universe.  Our life comes from beyond us, somehow.  To approach our lives and the things in our lives with gratitude is fundamentally different from simply taking, using, consuming, and exploiting.  The holiday is still called “Thanksgiving;” it is not called, “Face-stuffing Day,” or “Eat-All-You-Can Day,” or “Consume-as-Much-as-Possible Day,” or “Black Friday-eve,” at least not yet.
No.  There is still room for us to reflect on ourselves as recipients, as people who have received gifts from another.  For people of faith this means, I think, paying attention to that Other, the ultimate Source of what we have and enjoy.

One of the most remarkable and subtle little verses in Scripture, one which has the most wide-ranging implications, yet which is also dramatically and chronically under-appreciated, is the first verse of the 24th Psalm.  “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  This one little verse expresses something virtually presupposed in the whole rest of the book.  It is the root cause of our gratitude and thanksgiving. 
If we lose sight of this knowledge that everything belongs to God, we fall into serious misunderstanding leading to even more serious bad and destructive behavior.  We start to imagine that things belong to us and we may do with them as we please.
Often children — and many adults — understand things this way.  They somewhere acquire the idea that being given a gift means ownership, and that ownership means some absolute power of disposition over the thing.  “It’s mine!  I can do whatever I want with it!” is the argument.  We have this idea that we may do whatever we want with the things that are said to belong to us.  They may be exploited, misused, transformed, sold, or even destroyed.  It is hard sometimes to get it through the head of a child that, “No, just because something is yours does not give you the right to destroy it with impunity.  We need to take care of the things we have.”
Our children are not born with this understanding of things but they get it from us.  It is we who often have this notion that ownership means absolute power over something.  It is we who get resentful if the government tells us what we can’t do with our own property.  It is we who have this idea that property is something we can exploit, develop, poison, or destroy according to our will.
The catastrophic effects of this ideology are all around us and becoming more pronounced.  It is the precise opposite of thanksgiving to assume that the world exists for me or for us to use as we desire.  There is here no sense of responsibility to any Other who presents us with gifts; for gifts imply responsibility.  A gift implies a donor.  And a donor might have some idea of what the gift is to be used for.  In thanksgiving we recognize this.  Thanksgiving places constructive limits on our use of things.
We expect a gift to be used according to its nature and purpose in being given.  If we gave someone a beautiful, leather-bound set of the complete works of Charles Dickens, we would probably be disappointed were the recipient to say, “Thank you!  I can use all this nice paper for fireplace kindling!”
The Native Americans, who are an integral part of our Thanksgiving story, would not have understood gifts and ownership as meaning absolute control over something.  Ironically, their understanding was far closer to that of Psalm 24, than was the view and practice of the people who arrived in boats and actually had Psalm 24 memorized!  To the natives you could no more own land than you could own the air or the sea.  To them it was obvious to whom the land belonged: it belonged to the Creator.      

If we are able to keep this perspective in mind, of to whom our lives and world belong, it will change the way we live.  It will enable us to live with thanksgiving, and it is something we express when we give thanks. 
The universe, the creation, the Earth, and everything and everyone in it belong in perpetuity and exclusively to the One who created them.  Ultimately it is the Creator who owns and is responsible for the whole place.  All matter, all energy, all resources, all life, all people, all belong to God alone.  Which is to say that we, the human race as a whole or individual people, finally and truly own none of it. 
The most we can say is that the Earth is something that has been placed in our care.  We are managers; we are stewards; we are custodians; we are caretakers.  But we are not owners of even so much as our own bodies, let alone the vast resources of this planet, let alone the whole universe.  Nothing inherently belongs to us.  We have absolute freedom over nothing. 
But we are indeed the caretakers, the Creator’s agents, which is itself a great privilege and responsibility.  And it is for that we give thanks, as expressed in Psalms like 118 and 136: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever.”  We give thanks, as we hear in both these Psalms, for what God has done for us in delivering us from the power of evil.  Our relationship to the Earth and to the Creator is one of thanksgiving and responsibility; it is not one of ownership or control.
Rather, all of these things are given to us, placed in our charge, by the Creator, to be used and developed according to the Creator’s wishes.  And we see the Creator’s wishes embodied in Jesus Christ, who walked lightly on the earth, saw God’s presence in all of nature, and gave his life for the life of the world.

I conclude with these famous words of Chief Seattle, which I take to be a cogent and incisive commentary, a midrash, if you will, on Psalm 24, verse 1.  Chief Seattle says, “Teach your children what we have taught our children....  This we know.  The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth....  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves because the thankless and ungrateful attitude of people has always resulted in bad times for all.  Idolatry and injustice lead inexorably to calamity, often natural disaster.  But to approach the web with gratitude, the kind of gratitude our Thanksgiving holiday is really about, will enable us to live in peace and prosperity. 
The Earth belongs to God.  God is the One who weaves the web of life.  To abuse the gift of creation is to insult the Creator.  God expects us to cherish in thanksgiving the world placed in our care.  
This is the meaning of Thanksgiving, is it not?  To give thanks for what we are given by committing ourselves to fulfill the wishes of the One from whom all these blessings flow.  To cherish the resources placed in our care by devoting them to the upbuilding of all in the community.  To add value to what we are given by dedicating the lives sustained by such blessings to the doing of justice, the loving of kindness, and the walking in humility with the One who made all things.

Sheep and Goats.

Matthew 25:31-46

            In Jesus’ great parable of the Last Judgment, the nations are all gathered into one great flock, sheep and goats together. The King then divides and separates the sheep from the goats.  The goats are assigned to the King’s left, where they are cursed and sent into the eternal fire, and the sheep are on the right.  They are blessed and go to heaven.
            Now, I am an urban/suburban person.  I don’t really know from sheep or goats.  What may have been obvious to Jesus’ hearers when he talks about sheep and goats, is a mystery to me.  So I had to look up some facts about these animals. 
            The King addresses the sheep first.  What are sheep like?  Why would Jesus use the image of sheep to talk about the redeemed and blessed ones?  What were the qualities of sheep that made them a good image of disciples, for jeus?
            First, sheep have a reputation for not being very bright.  (Actually, I understand that they’re smarter than cows but not as smart as pigs.)  But maybe their skittishness makes them seem less intelligent than they are.  Sheep have an innocence and vulnerability about them.  They are famously docile and credulous.  They are so trusting that they could easily be led “like lambs to slaughter,” as we say.
            I don’t think Jesus wants disciples to be stupid.  But there is this childlike openness and trustingness that he values.  
            Sheep also are known for having poor eyesight.  When they respond to the King they ask, “When did we see you?”  On the other hand, sheep do have excellent hearing.  With training they can even recognize their own names.
            Finally, sheep were known for their flocking ability.  Especially in the face of danger, sheep regularly cluster together in a tight group.  They are therefore somewhat communal animals.
            Jesus refers to his followers as sheep, lambs, or a flock on numerous occasions.  He identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, who takes care of and protects the sheep.  Jesus does call individuals, but he establishes them as a flock, a group, a community, the church. 
            The sheep are the ones who hear Jesus and know his voice.  They trust his voice more than they trust in what they see.                              
The lesson we learn from sheep is that we are not to judge by what our eyes see, because so often what we see is conditioned by our expectations and desires, our prejudices, biases, and self-interest. 
            Rather we are to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who feeds us, gives us water, heals us, remains with us and clothes us, and gathers us together, including even strays from other flocks.
            Goats, I learn, on the other hand, are considerably smarter than sheep.  Their intelligence rivals that of dogs.  But they do not have dogs’ loyalty. (Dogs, of course, are eternally loyal to whomever has a bone.)  Goats will only become loyal to people if a relationship is developed over time.  They will not follow you as readily.  They will hang back and make their own decision.            The intelligence of goats makes them less cooperative.  They tend to be defiant, cunning, independent, and capricious.  In fact the word “capricious” literally means “goatlike.”  They are always conniving how to get what they want.  Goats have been known to figure out how to escape from complicated enclosures, for instance.                                      
            The eyesight of goats is equal to humans.  That’s not saying very much when compared to the eyesight of hawks, but their intelligence probably makes them seem to have better eyesight.  They pick up on and notice things.  So their response to the King’s charge has a different emphasis than the sheep.  They answer, “When did we see you, Lord?”
            But the big thing I want to emphasize about goats is their ravenous appetite.  Goats are known for destroying whole landscapes because they will eat just about anything.  The cartoons that show goats eating tin-cans, or that commercial where the goat is munching on office waste-paper, are accurate.  They will eat all kinds of junk, just about anything they find in front of them.  They are the consummate consumers.
            Historically, some countries even banned goats because they are so destructive of crops.  Today, goats continue to be used by people to clear out unwanted vegetation.  They have been described as "eating machines" and "biological control agents".  Herds are used to clear dry brush from California hillsides to prevent wildfires.
            But goats will not actually swallow and digest everything; in the end, they are a bit more picky about that.  But they will taste and chew up almost anything in order to find out whether it is good for food or not.
            I wonder if it isn’t the omnivorous destructive appetites of goats that makes them an image for those rejected by God.  I wonder if that doesn’t have anything to tell us in terms of our approach and attitude towards God’s creation.
            In this sense goats remind me of people, especially people in our economic regime.  We have mowed through creation like goats on steroids or a veritable plague of locusts, carelessly chewing up everything in our path.  This is not even just because we need it for nourishment.  We are addicted to consumption and growth.
            We are laying waste to this planet for the sake of our own greed and pathological desire for more. 

            If this is the ideology we follow, then it is not surprising that we have no perception of, or time for, other people around us who may be in need.  We don’t see them as sisters and brothers, members of the same flock, whom we need to gather around and protect, whom we need to lift up and serve.  We see them as competitors for scarce resources.  We see them as unlucky losers.
            So the goats’ answer to the question is to say, in effect, well, yeah, there’re these pathetic poor and sick and imprisoned people here, we see them every day.  But when, Lord, did we see you?  If we had seen you we would certainly have served you.  You’re the King!  It is in our interests to get on your good side and win your favor!  Had we seen you, we would have bowed down and worshiped you!  But we didn’t see you.  All we saw were these homeless, unemployed, indebted, sick, undocumented, criminals, and such.”
            The “goats” of this world do not see anything of value except insofar as it can be consumed.  The balance and beauty of a landscape is lost on them; they see only the coal or the natural gas beneath, which can be ripped out and sold for a nice profit.  We chew up mountains to get to the buried resources the same way a goat chews on an empty can to squeeze out a few drops of soup.
            The “goats” of this world do not see people and villages, they see cheap labor they can suck some wealth out of.  They see real estate.  They have to do with the commodification of the world, that is, reducing it to its raw economic value.  They ask, “What can I get out of this?  How can I benefit from this?”
            To this mentality the hungry and thirsty, the strangers and the homeless, the sick and imprisoned, are opportunities… not for service, but for exploitation.  The “goats” would say: “What do you mean I didn’t help the needy?  Look at all the stock I have in ADM, Suez, CCA, J&J, Citibank, and Cigna!  I’m doing good by doing well!”
            The goat nature of our economy, rooted in the goat side of our human nature, is what created poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  And it is aggravating disease and incarceration.  It is this goatishness, this ravenous wastefulness, that Jesus sees in the people who find themselves on the wrong end of the last judgment. 

            When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”
            The criteria for making the cut between sheep and goats  are very clear.  The King does not give the nations a theological test, as if believing the right doctrine was what mattered.  Neither does he assess everyone’s personal or sexual morality.  Indeed, the King doesn’t even evaluate the nations on how well they kept the letter of the Law. 
            No.  The only thing the King cares about here, the only criteria for dividing the sheep from the goats, the only question that matters in determining whether people are blessed or condemned, is whether they gave material assistance to those in need.  What the King measures is the quality of our actions towards “the least of these who are members of [God’s] family.”
            Because what we do to them, we do to him.  If we reject them, we reject him, and then we cut ourselves off from the life he offers.  If we serve them we serve him, and we participate in the life he offers. 
            And let’s remember who it is that Jesus is talking to?  Who is his audience?  You have to go back to the beginning of chapter 24 to discover it, but it’s the disciples.  He is not talking to the nations and telling them what they should do.  He is addressing the disciples and basically telling them that the nations will be judged on how they treated… them. 
            When he says “the least of these who are members of my family,” I see him opening his hand to indicate the disciples  themselves.  They are “the least of these.”             
            At this point, at the end of his ministry, we know who the disciples are.  We know where they came from.  We know who was following Jesus.  We can go through Matthew’s gospel and find all these people who had joined Jesus’ entourage.  The hungry and the thirsty, the strangers, foreigners, and aliens, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.  That’s to whom Jesus’ ministry was addressed.  That is who left everything and followed him.
            Jesus’ disciples were these people.  This was his flock, gathered together around him, supporting each other, healing and accepting each other, participating together in his liberation.  These were his sheep.  And the ones from the nations who are saved are the ones who show themselves to be sheep as well.  They show this by the way they treat other needy people as equals, as people deserving of attention and salvation.

            The church that Jesus envisions is the poor serving the poor, the needy serving the needy, the broken healing the broken, the hungry feeding the hungry.  For we are all sheep, members of one flock, and he is the “one shepherd.”
            That’s the vision he wants us to have, as he concludes his teaching ministry, and moves into his sacrificial work.  He is saying to his disciples, “Always choose community over consumption, service over gain, generosity over cheapness, compassion over hardheartedness, and weakness over power.  Then you will be choosing life over death.  And in so choosing, you will be chosen… for life!

To Hoard or to Invest?

Matthew 25:14-30
I live in a house that was built about 55 years ago.  It has a one-car garage.  The Master Bedroom has two normal-sized closets.  It has a very small basement, and an attic that is hard to get to.  In its day it was a fairly good-sized house, I think.  Certainly it was considered to be more than adequate for a family with three children.
Today, however, as I drive around some of the newer developments, I find that many new houses have two or three or even four car garages.  At least one of the closets in the Master Bedroom is often a veritable room in itself, literally as large as one of the bedrooms in my house.
It is clear to me, then, that in the past half-century, we have become a nation that accumulates much more stuff.  When I was a kid I don’t remember such a thing as a “garage sale.”  At best the church might have an occasional rummage sale.  But no one had enough overflow junk in their house to have to invent the garage sale until the 1970's.  And back then there were no self-storage facilities, huge garages where you could keep your overflow stuff until you got a bigger house.
We have become, in the last three decades, a collector culture in which we are encouraged to acquire and hoard things, storing them, saving them, burying them in our basements, attics, and garages.  We have become masters of acquisition.  Indeed, the whole world economy has depended on our habits of acquisition.
A friend of mine is a real collector.  Instead of books, he has on his shelves little collections of things.  Here is a set of various Santa Clauses.  Over here, different figurines of elephants.  On this side a congregation of stuffed Disney characters.  Over on that side, sets of coins.
In his attic he had, carefully filed and stored away, several years of Hess trucks, still in their original, unopened boxes.  He had twenty or so years of National Geographics.  He even had boxes of match-books, and more boxes of ballpoint pens.
In his dining room he didn’t just have china, but sets of plates and cups, some of them commemorative, and he could tell you right off the top of his head which items he was missing.
Now, this is kind of extreme, but I know just how he feels, because I am a collector too.  I collect books, and CD’s, and those ceramic animals that come in tea boxes, and Bibles, and other stuff.  I do realize however that it is a disease.  There’s even a TV show about it now.
Sometimes I go into these anti-materialistic fits, and I will pack up boxes of stuff to bring to Princeton and sell to the used-book and used-CD stores.  Later I will feel guilty that I might have unloaded something really valuable or that I might need someday.
But this whole collector mentality pervades our culture.  Indeed, I think the economy relies on people buying stuff they don’t really need.  On credit….  And I get nervous as I see children brainwashed into making collections of game cards, or cartoon DVD’s.  Yet even I quietly put away my son’s Beanie Babies in plastic bags for posterity.

But our addiction to stuff is killing us, I think.  It is no accident that the same dynamic of congestion in our homes is also reflected on our desks, on our highways, and even in the arteries feeding our hearts.  We are caught in this ideology of collecting, hoarding, grabbing, keeping, holding, and storing, and it plays out in terms of clogging, obstructing, weighing down, choking, blocking, and damming the flow in our lives.
I am convinced that our stuff is killing us.  It is killing us because we are designed by God to be efficient channels of the gifts and energies of creation.  God gives us raw materials and raw talents and our job is to improve them, add value to them, enjoy them... and pass them on.  We are to pass them on so that others may enjoy them and add further value to them and so forth.  So that from the naked resources we receive, we see the value and the meaning increased all the time.
When we block it, that process stops.  Not only is value not increasing, nor people being helped; but we are personally dysfunctional.  We are not filling our function.  We are a disease in the system.  We need to be removed from it. 
This is what is going on with the servant who had been given one share in Jesus’ parable.  The other servants, who had been entrusted with more, immediately went out and gave it away.  That is to say, they invested it.  And make no mistake, every time we give something away it is an investment of some kind.  But this third servant does not give the money away.  He buries it.  He keeps it.  He hoards it.  He puts it in a box on a shelf in his attic.
He does this, he says, out of fear.  He is afraid of losing it.  He is afraid of what the master will do to him if he loses it. 
And the lesson he, and we all learn is: To fear losing is to lose.  More to the point: To fear losing is a basic and fundamental act of faithlessness against a God of abundance who has already promised that you won’t lose, you can’t lose... except by being afraid to lose.
Now, not too many of us bury our money in our backyards.  But we bury it in other ways.  We bury our resources when we trade them for useless stuff, which we then bury in storage in our closets, garages, and houses.  We bury our resources when we use them only to feed our own desires, compulsions, comfort, and luxury.  The master will come and say, “So, what happened to that million dollars I gave you over the last two decades?”  And all you can point to are cars, clothes, household appliances, electronics, sporting equipment, stocks, CD’s (both kinds), insurance, and other stuff that mainly benefit only you and yours.
God’s gifts are given for the common good.  They are to be used in making the world better for everyone.  More bluntly, they are not to be hoarded, saved, stored up, and retained, but given away, redistributed, spread around.  This is the profit the Master desires.

When I was in college I used to go home for the summers.  One summer my father hired me to do a job for him.  He had this hobby of handicapping the races at Saratoga, and he gave me the job of going to the track and placing his bets.  I had to do this according to very strict rules.  He told me his picks, and I was to bet them only if they went to three-to-one.  When he wanted to parlay, I was to take all the winnings from one race and place it on the next.  And so forth. 
The reason he asked me to do this was that he got too excited.  He wouldn’t wait until a horse was at three-to-one; he wouldn’t sit out the races he knew he shouldn’t bet.  In other words, he was too involved because it was his money and he was the one who stood to gain or lose.
I, however, didn’t really care that much about the races.  And I certainly didn’t have any money to put on horses at the track.  He knew this.  He knew that I would faithfully carry out his instructions to the letter and not get swept away with excitement.  He knew that between trips to the betting window I would be curled up with a book somewhere, barely conscious of the race at all.
This system worked very well, as I recall.  It was all because of the fact that since this wasn’t my money I was free to do with it exactly as instructed.  So, when I came home late at night, weighted down with cash, he would greet me, saying, “Well done, good and faithful son!  You have proved trustworthy in a small matter.  If I had anything big I would certainly put you in charge of it.”
But if I had simply locked the money he gave me at the beginning of the night in the car and gone to the library, fearful of losing it, what would have happened then?
And let’s not forget that the servants in the story are not doing this for their own gain in the first place.  This is the master’s money and the master gets whatever return they can manage.  The master is the beneficiary.  The servants don’t get to keep one penny of what they make with their investments.  They are not doing it to increase their own wealth, but the wealth of the master.
The Kingdom of God is like this.  It is not about giving back to God just what God has given to us.  It is about giving back to God more than what God gave us to begin with. 
Neither is it about taking what God gives and making something out of it for yourself.  No, it is about taking what God gives and making something out of it for God. 

Someone once asked C.S. Lewis if we could take our books to heaven.  Now this person, as well as Lewis, was a great reader and book-lover.  And Lewis replied, “Yes, we may take our books to heaven.  But only the ones we have given away.”
That is the mystery of this parable.  We only have what we give away.  That which we try to save and hoard and collect, we lose.  That which we dedicate only to serving and helping and glorifying and feeding ourselves, we lose.
But that which we give away, we gain.  The trustworthy servants in the parable gave away their bags of gold.  And both end up with double what they had to begin with.  That’s the kind of return you get when you give away the resources entrusted to you.
That’s the spirit we come to you with in this season when the church is concerned with stewardship.  Now, stewardship time is when the session gives you an opportunity to give away money... to invest it, to do with it according to the will of the One who entrusted you with it, the One who gave you your mind and skill, the One who gave us the raw materials of the Earth.  And Jesus is right here promising that if you do give it away, it will produce a significant return.  That return will be not to you personally, but experienced in ways that benefit us all.
It will be used to help the needy, the deprived, the dispossessed, and the hurting.  It will be used to teach ourselves and others about the truth of God’s love for the world, revealed in Jesus Christ.  It will be used to worship and glorify God, and to deepen our own spiritual lives so that we come to identify with all of God’s creation.  It will be used to invite others to share with us in that love and service, and so fulfill their own destinies.
It will be used to help people to see that it is not what they collect, hold on to, keep, store, or hoard that is important.  Indeed, these practices only kill us and stifle our spirits under piles of junk.  Rather, what saves us is the way God’s gifts flow through us to others.
God gives us his Son that his life might flow through us.  God gives us all things, that we might be a blessing to all.  God blesses us with life and love, to share and distribute according to God’s commandments.  This is the way God has given us to glorify and enjoy God.  Let us keep faith with that sacred calling, not to be worthless and lazy servants, but to be trustworthy with what we have received.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Be Prepared.

Matthew 25:1-13.

Sometimes in Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God you have to wonder if it’s a place you really want to go to.  Matthew 25 has these three incredibly powerful parables that he delivers just before he is betrayed and arrested and killed, and they are very disturbing.  I mean this one, about the prudent and foolish girls waiting for the bridegroom to come to his wedding, it sounds pretty tame until you start thinking about it.           
The lesson in verse 13 is, “Keep awake.”  But they all fell asleep.  So why isn’t the lesson, “Be prepared”?  Why are the foolish girls treated so harshly for their mistake?  Shouldn’t the prudent girls be encouraged to share their oil, instead of being so selfish and sending their friends off to the store in the middle of the night to buy some?  Why doesn’t the Bridegroom at least apologize for being late?
It seems like the closer he gets to the end of his earthly ministry, the darker and less compromising are Jesus’ parables.  And the Kingdom of God sounds less like the wonderful treasure found in an empty lot, and less like the home of an endlessly patient Father, and more like an obstacle course where only the strong survive.
The Lord tolerates no slackers, no forgetfulness, no absent-minded distractions, no cowardice or weakness.  Jesus is looking over into the abyss, he approaches death, his words smoke with apocalyptic imagery.  He has just finished a couple of chapters fulled with invective against the religious establishment, thus sealing his own death warrant.  And from this perspective the Kingdom of God starts to look more like the forbidding, moated fortress that Christian comes to at the end of Pilgrim’s Progress, with a door that can only be opened from within to those who have proven themselves worthy. 
In these last three parables Jesus emphasizes the awesome weight of responsibility, and the magnitude of the stakes involved.  This particular parable reminds me of the even more uncomfortable one where he says “to those who have will more be given, but to those who have not even what they have will be taken away.”  In this case, he means that you have to make sure you have enough oil in your lamp to last the whole night.  The flame must be fed continually, and you can’t assume the bridegroom will come early at your convenience.
Not only that, but you cannot expect even your friends to share their oil with you because they should not be asked to jeopardize their own attendance at the wedding banquet.  It is your responsibility to have enough fuel to last.  Because in this case how well you prepare for this bridegroom and this wedding banquet will show conclusively what is really inside of you and that is all that matters.  And you will have to face it and there’s no second chances.

My father once told me about a funeral he did.  It was for a young person who died suddenly.  The family were technically members of the church, but they were not active.  If they came twice a year that was pretty good.
When the person died, the family members were disconsolate.  My father went to visit them.  And they exhibited some characteristics of the stages of grief: bargaining, anger, denial, and so forth.  But at some point someone asks him where God is and why isn’t God being of more assistance to them in their hour of need.  Why is God so absent?
Later, reflecting with me on this situation, he expressed more frustration about people who think that coming to church twice a year is going to give them the inner resources they need to deal with an emergent crisis like a premature death in the family.
You can’t expect to play well in a golf tournament if you only play twice a year.  You can’t expect to be a soloist in a concert if you only take out the instrument twice a year.  You can’t expect a marriage to survive if you only express love to each other twice a year.  You can’t expect to understand current events if you only read the newspaper twice a year.  Why do we think we will be able to handle a spiritual crisis just fine if we only have even minimal contact with the Spirit twice a year?  Attending church twice a year is just not enough to feed the flame of your own faith.  
Some things you can do infrequently because all you need is a periodical tune-up.  Go to the dentist; have your eyes checked; get the car inspected; clean out the gutters; that sort of thing.
But other things need constant care and maintenance.  Faith is just one of those things that is like a burning lamp: if you don’t keep adding more oil to replace the oil that has been burned, it will eventually fizzle out.
These folks were totally unable to deal with their sorrow, and they wondered why it was so hard.  But they hadn’t given themselves enough oil.  Their flame was allowed to sputter out. 
You have to make sure you have enough oil, which is to say that you have to keep the flame of faith alive in your heart all the time.  You just can’t wait for disaster to strike and think that your faith can all of a sudden be rekindled into a flame strong enough for you to get through it.  It doesn’t happen that way.
You can’t wait until the blackout strikes before you decide to go and buy batteries for your flashlight.  The stores will be sold out of batteries, as I can testify from bitter recent experience.  The batteries have to be in place and tested before the power goes out.  The power source needs to be always available.
And if it’s not, it’s not God’s fault.  God is not merciless and cruel because God doesn’t automatically suspend the laws of time and space in order to accommodate your shortsightedness or your denial about what will necessarily happen.

When the time comes close for a baby to be born, the prospective parents keep an overnight bag packed and ready at all times.  They know the baby is coming, they just don’t know exactly when.  If the mother goes into labor and the bag is not packed, and due to this unreadiness she has to deliver in a taxi-cab... the baby, when she gets to be about 14, will be justified in asking, “What were you thinking?”
But most parents are prepared because they eagerly await the baby, they want to welcome the baby, they are called to be parents, this arrival will be the joyful focus of their whole lives.  The baby can’t come soon enough, at least for the mother, in most cases.
You read the baby-care books, you take the Lamaze classes, you join the new parents’ support group, you paint the nursery and buy furniture, you have a baby-shower, you finally buy some life insurance... you do all these things so that when the baby finally comes you are ready!  Or at least as ready as you can be.
And you enjoy getting ready because you are looking forward to this blessed event.  You make sure you have more oil than you’re ever going to need for this particular lamp.  You don’t want to have to go door to door in your neighborhood at three o’clock some morning, carrying a screaming infant, asking your neighbors if you might borrow some baby formula.
The prudent girls had enough oil because they were anticipating a happy event and they didn’t want to miss it.  They were thinking ahead because they wanted to go to this banquet and nothing was more important to them. 
The foolish girls, on the other hand... well, maybe they really didn’t want to be there in the first place.  Maybe they harbored some resentment or jealousy towards the Bridegroom and had no reason to be as careful.  Maybe they were too busy that day to get to the store.  Maybe they put it off or just forgot to get oil.  Or maybe they didn’t think he was really going to show up, and perhaps that would have been okay with them. 
Maybe they were betting he was going to come much earlier, before they ran out of oil.  But that is a risk you don’t take when you really care about something.  If you want World Series tickets, you don’t put it off and assume something will be available at game time.  No, you get to the box office 20 hours early and camp out in your sleeping bag.
But you see, all of these excuses mean, in effect, that they didn’t care.  At least they didn’t care enough.  It wasn’t the most important thing in their lives that they get into this wedding banquet, because if it were they would not have neglected to have enough oil.  Indeed, they would have had gallons of oil and even spare wicks, matches, and a spare lamp, just in case.

The point is perpetual readiness.  You have to be able to function in the darkness.  You need enough of the oil of spiritual practice to feed the flame of your faith.  You just can’t start praying, reading the Bible, and going to church when things get difficult, and expect it to be immediately effective.
But you know what the whole thing is predicated upon?  You have to know that the Bridegroom is coming.  Not only that, but you have to know that the Bridegroom is coming and it will be great!  It will be worth the sacrifice.  It will be worth sleeping on the pavement outside the box office.  It will be worth lugging extra oil around, or spare batteries.
That’s what we sophisticated, modern folks have so much trouble with.  We lack this conviction that the Day is coming, the end of the world, the completion of creation, the goal of history.  We think it’s going to be like this forever... or at least for our lifetime.
But listen: not only is it not going to be like this forever; it’s not even like this now.  The world is not what we think and perceive it is.  We see a tiny corner of reality, and even that we see unclearly.  The end of the world, the Kingdom of God, is right next to you, within you, all around you.  It is, as Jesus says, “At hand.”
In the meantime, while we wait for the fullness of the dawn, we carry these lamps to remind us of the light and to give us a piece of that light in advance.  The lamp we have is our faith, and it is fed by the things God has given us to do which anticipate Christ’s coming.  When we hear the Word we are listening to some of that light.  When we celebrate the Sacraments we are envisioning the coming daybreak.  When we offer prayers to God we are opening our eyes all the wider to absorb the sunrise to come.
These are the oil we need to keep the flame of faith, and hope, and love, alive in our hearts.  They constitute the fuel of our spiritual life.  Without them, we descend into darkness so deep that even the Bridegroom’s dawn can take forever to find us.             
But with them we are ready to awaken to the call, “Here is the Bridegroom!  Come out to meet him!”