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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 32, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
November 6, 2011

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Matthew 25:1-13

The Good Oil’

There’s a gospel song by Bob Dylan you might know. It’s called “Gotta Serve Somebody” … “Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” … It may well be inspired by the text from Joshua. A rousing text, challenging the people of God to choose God, to choose godly ways – creating, saving, teaching, healing; trust, fidelity, commitment – over worldly ways, evil ways, the ways of false gods – violence, greed, grasping at life, competing with others for resources, using and exploiting one another, promoting mistrust, fear, and so on.

It’s a rousing song and text, reminding us that our lives do bear witness to certain choices. Our lives reveal the one whom we serve. Our little decisions add up. It’s not so much about what we sing or say. It’s how we live. It’s the allegiances we make. It’s the way we treat those we don’t readily understand or like so much …

The Gospel reading is similarly concerned. It, too, is about allegiance, or devotion.

Jesus tells a parable about the kindom of heaven. The attendants or bridesmaids (“virgins”, Greek) symbolise, most obviously, devotion. The scene is one of bridesmaids waiting (with the bride) for the bridegroom whom they will welcome, and then, with the bride, escort to the wedding banquet. There are ten bridesmaids (very possibly another symbol of perfection, of pure devotion).

Complicating the scene is the fact that the groom seems to have been delayed. The ten young women, an idealised picture of the people of God, wait. Unsure as to when the groom will come.

Further complicating the scene is the fact that five bridesmaids are wise and five are foolish. Perhaps this is not so idealistic a picture of the church. Perhaps it’s quite realistic. A divided community. Enthusiastic, devoted even. But some wisely so, some foolishly. Some prepared for the task of welcoming the groom – they have oil sufficient for the night-time journey. Others ill-prepared for the task – they will, indeed, plead with the wise ones when the moment of truth comes – “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” To which the wise reply, “No! There will not be enough for you and us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”

So, we have bridesmaids symbolising pure devotion. We have wise bridesmaids representing devotion plus preparedness. The oil symbolises something to do with this preparedness – that which makes welcoming and accompanying the groom (and bride) possible. That which makes possible a light. Something that, moreover, cannot be shared. We will learn, then, that these wise bridesmaids, unlike their foolish counterparts, are “known” by the groom. They are known – they are in a relationship with him.

There is a Jewish text from the Talmud. Rabbi Eleazer said, “Repent one day before your death”. His disciples were perplexed, and asked, “How is a person able to know the day of death, in order to repent before dying?” … “All the more reason to repent today!” exclaimed Rabbi Eleazer, “lest s/he die tomorrow, and hence … his/her whole life should be spent in repentance.”

Some scholars think our Gospel is concerned exclusively with early Christian expectations of Christ’s return. The suggestion here, however, is that the parable of Jesus, like the text from the Talmud, is about encouraging repentance – now – a new life – now – a new relationship with God and with one’s neighbours, especially the most needy, the most searching, the ardent and questioning – now – today – “lest one die tomorrow”.

Preparedness, patience, wakefulness (Eastern spiritual teachers use the term “beginner’s mind”) – all these have to do with how we live – how we wait for the Saviour – how we meet the One who comes in the name of our God – how we encounter God in the Scriptures, in the bread and wine, in the gathering of God’s people, in the neighbour who is different.

The oil symbolises faith, then – that which makes it possible for us to greet and accompany God and neighbour in the world. Faith that makes good works possible (just as oil makes light possible). Faith that is a relationship – with God, in the name and Spirit of Jesus – with God, and therefore with all the friends of Jesus: the poor and the poor in Spirit (the humble saints the Scriptures depict as a bride of Christ [see Revelation 19:7–8]). [The saintly face that comes to mind this morning is the tear-stained face of an Aboriginal woman, Lottie, who pleaded with the Attorney General on Tuesday night: “We need more youth services in Redfern!” Lottie was a picture of passion and patience ...]

We hear a lot of talk critical of Western individualism – much of it justified. This parable, however, does encourage me to address something quite personal. What kind of relationship do I have with the Saviour? What kind of spirituality do I nurture? Am I an enthusiastic bridesmaid, filled with devotion – good intentions – naïve beliefs – loud professions of faith? Or am I a bridesmaid devoted and prepared, devoted and patient and wakeful (which doesn’t mean anxious and awake all night – the wise bridesmaids are happy to sleep … and to rise – they will be ready to provide light when the time comes). Wakefulness means to be in relationship, let’s say friendship, with the groom. To know him, attend to him, minister to and with him, and, more significantly, to be known by him.

Are you a bridesmaid devoted and prepared, and a friend to the bride and groom? Not one of those who say, “Saviour, Saviour” without a real commitment. We read about such false disciples in Matthew 7. They know the words and even appear to know what to do – but do not do God’s will, and are not “known”.

Later in our chapter (Chapter 25) we have the account of those who are known – those who, humbly, have gone about feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Not for the sake of rewards, but for Christ’s own sake.

There is a danger of this sounding moralistic – just get out there and do it! It’s important that we couch an imperative to love in properly evangelical/gospel terms. The oil does, I think, symbolise faith. And faith is a relationship with God. And there is something you, and I, can do about that. There is one thing. We can be open to it.

We can be open to it: we can seek it, receive it, respond to it, and give thanks for it …

There’s another way to hear this … The good news is that the groom has already come, has found us unprepared, has suffered at the hands of our inhospitable foolishness – and has loved and forgiven us. The good news is that God, in this Christ, has, does, and will provide us with oil to burn – for the oil is Christ, Christ himself the Wisdom surpassing/subverting all worldly wisdoms …

It’s important that we couch an imperative to love in properly evangelical terms. We can love because we are always and already loved.

This gospel reality tends to sneak up on us, surprise us, outstrip us. I pray, this week, that you find yourself caught up in the realisation of this – that, empty-handed, you find yourself in receipt of love, your heart aglow with it; that those around you – those most dependent on you – seek you out, befriend you and confide in you – expressing the love of God who says to you, “Truly, I know you … N, I know you”.

Let’s complete the homily together: “What kind of relationship do I have with the Saviour? What kind of spirituality do I nurture?”Amen.