Sermon I preached this morning at St. Mary’s of High Point, my discernment internship placement. This was only the second sermon I’ve ever preached. I’ll link audio when that’s available.
Proper 27, Year A
- Old Testament: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
- Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
- Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
Good morning! My name is Caitlyn Darnell and I’m in the discernment process to become a priest in the Episcopal church. Part of that process is to do an internship at a parish that isn’t sponsoring me, so I can see the breadth and diversity that the Episcopal church contains. Some of you may remember Andrew Hege who did an internship here previously. I’m like Andrew 2.0, with slightly less hair. I work at St. Timothy’s as the formation assistant during the week which means that the really important part of my job happens on Sunday’s, and so am unable to be here. So instead I’ve been here with you on Wednesdays at the noonday Eucharist, and I crash vestry meetings for fun too. So for those of you I haven’t met yet, hello! It’s so good to be here! And for those familiar friendly faces I see, it’s great to see you this morning.
I live in an intentional community in Winston called the Abraham Project through the Episcopal Service Corps. This means that I tend to spend almost every waking moment with the same few people and we live in a crammed house together. I love it. In June, last year’s class of interns moved out, but since I was doing a second year of the project, I got to live in the house over the summer. So my little extroverted soul suddenly found myself in the lull of summer in a big empty house alone. I pretty quickly went on the search for friends…because I was starting to talk too much to the blank walls. I started hanging out with some really cool people over the summer. Of course, making new friends leads to all the classic awkward questions. It’s like going on a dinner date. “What do you do for fun? (I rock climb). Do you have any siblings? (A little sister). Where you do work? What do you want to do with your life?” “I work at a church and might be a priest someday” Ah! Magically that opens up all topics of religion for conversation. Every time.
It led to an interesting conversation with one of my new friends. She said that she’d grown up religious, went to all of the Sunday Schools and all of the church camps. I asked her where she went to church, assuming that she offered all of this up because she still went. “Oh I don’t go right now. I’m letting myself be really I selfish in my 20s. I’ll probably go back someday, you know, when I have kids to take to Sunday school.”
I just shrugged. I was too dumbfounded to say anything to her or to even talk about why I myself still come to church. We fell into an awkward silence where the discord of our values rang. In my head, I took off my “Christian hat” and pretended like I didn’t have anything to say.
But I did! Hadn’t she learned that you don’t just get to choose when you are and aren’t going to be a Christian. We were supposed to be Christians all the time! That’s what we learned in Sunday school! What if something terrible happened? Was she just going to ask forgiveness with her last few breaths and assume that was a fine way to live her life now? How could she say she was “sort of a Christian” if she put a life of partying and drinking and desperately pursuing her career in front of it? How can you follow Christ if you insist on being first in line ahead of him.
But in that situation, that was sort of what I did, too. I was afraid of being lonely over the summer and so I didn’t say anything so I could preserve the peace and move onto a new conversation topic. I put my fear ahead of my conviction.
I think we see something like that in today’s Gospel. I’ll admit, I was perplexed when I saw this was the Gospel I had to preach on. It’s such a weird one! We’re taught that we’re always supposed to share. We’re taught that we are supposed to give to those that need, to share our oil. We are supposed to stay awake and wait for Christ. We should sell our possessions and give up everything to follow Jesus, not hoard them or run off to buy more oil. We are told that Christ is all the light we need. The first will be last and the last will be first, so shouldn’t the so-called “foolish bridesmaids” be let in? Jesus scolds the Pharisees for closing the doors of the temple to some, yet the feast is closed to those who beg to come in. What are we supposed to do with these words of Jesus?
I think that when we read difficult parables like this, we take the metaphor too literally. We immediately try to assign all of the characters and are perplexed when they don’t interact in the story as we would expect them to. We want the people to be people we know, we want to assign ourselves to the role of the wise or the hero, and above all we want the things and places in the story to be real things and places. Because then we can more quickly move on.
All of the bridesmaids knew that it was important to wait on the groom, and had a hunch that they’d have to wait until after dark and after bedtime because they all took their lamps. But some remembered to take extra oil, and others forgot or thought that they’d be fine without it. Perhaps they counted on others sharing with them. But the oil in this story is not representative of our resources, our money or giving food to needy, or whatever else. The oil is the way we live and practice our faith. For me, that practice is best lived out and practiced through a worshipping community.
To be a Christian is something that takes constant practice, constant thought and intention. We don’t get to be passive Christians, we are called to be active and proactive Christians. Not only are we to leave our lamps shining, but it’s our responsibility through the grace of God to bring extra oil, to keep the practice up, and keep them lit throughout the week.
Some thought that there would be more than enough oil to wait it out. That there was more than enough time in life to be “a good Christian someday”, perhaps like my friend. Or That their prayer and good intention on one day of the week would last. Some thought that they could just avoid this one conversation, and that would be fine, like me. Those were the ones who would eventually find themselves foolish.
It makes me ask the question:
Who do you serve? For whom do you keep your lamp lit?
Who do you serve? For whom do you keep your lamp lit?
I think we all like to think “Of course I put Jesus first. Of course I keep the lamp lit for him.” Because Sunday School and our conscience tells us this is the right answer. This is what we ought to be doing. And perhaps in your heart you believe that, perhaps you believe that Jesus is above all else. But what do you practice? Where is your extra flask of oil? That’s a hard question to ask yourself. It’s one of those questions in life that never goes away, and always lends a different answer. It’s a question for meditating, for pestering your waking thoughts. It’s one of those questions that you can’t answer quickly if you’re truly being honest with yourself.
Who do I serve? Who do I keep my lamp lit for?
Many of us are slaves to the image of ourselves in our minds. My greatest weakness is that I need to be seen as unique and special, and even in all my best intentions I end up serving that need, and not then call of Jesus. My friend was serving what she thought the ideal life of a 20-something is supposed to be. Do you serve yourself above all else? Do you serve an innate desire to be and do and have more? To live into a societal or cultural expectation of who you’re supposed to be? Where does your lamp shine? For whom is your lamp lit? Yourself, or the approval of others?
We don’t get to be a Christ for others. What do I mean by that? I mean that Christ died to save us, and each must take up his or her own cross to follow Jesus. You don’t get to take someone else’s cross for them. You can’t bring someone else’s oil for them. Rather, it’s the continual burning of our lamp, the light of Christ shining through us, that we can show them. They must find and let that light shine for themselves. No one else on earth can for them, only our Savior in heaven.
So we come to the troublesome gospel. Why is it so troublesome? Because we think one of the wise bridesmaids should have shared? Could have? Will share, just because we asked? Can we mooch the salvation of others?
And so how does that lead to what you practice? Does your confession to follow and wait on Jesus remain evident in your practice? Do you remember your flask of oil, or are you counting on the light of some one else to be enough for you too?
I think what makes us forget our oil, what makes us reject continually practicing at being a Christian, is that crust that hardens our heart. That thing that causes us deep grief and worry. What grief, what fear and concern, do you carry that makes you forget your oil? What holds you back, what preoccupies you, what stops you from being all in?
I am in the process to become a priest, to do this for the rest of my life, and my own answer is not the answer I wish it was. For me, it’s my fear of being alone and my fear of not being unique.
Is it your concern for what others think of you? Is it your need to be busy, so that this that restores your soul is not your priority? What is yours? What weighs on your heart and keeps you in fear of being all in? Meditate on this, and then bring that flask of oil with you everywhere. Don’t count on being able to buy it when it’s late and the doors are closed.
Who do you serve? For whom is your lamp lit? Why did you not bring your flask of oil?