Pentecost 23A + Matthew 25:1-13
Today, at 11 AM, right out there in the courtyard, The Table will be celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Baptism! Four month old, Wilson, will be united with Christ in death and in resurrection, in the waters of that fountain made alive with the presence of God’s love.
When it comes to baptism, we Lutherans are “all in.” It’s our thing, we boldly practice it, we preach it, and we strive to live deeply in its promise. However not all Christian traditions practice and understand baptism in the same way that Lutherans do. And that has provided the members of The Table with the opportunity to have a wonderful conversation about how we understand God’s amazing grace and unconditional love. About half of the members of The Table community come out of traditions that do not practice infant baptism, so it is that we have been asking the question, “Why do we baptize infants?” “Why don’t we wait until they are adults who are able to make public confession of their faith?”
It’s been a great conversation, and an ongoing conversation, discussing the pros and the cons of “infant baptism” and “believers baptism.” And the word that surfaced for me as I prepared for Wilson’s baptism today, the word that will be central in our baptismal proclamation this morning, is “Confidence.” We practice “infant baptism” because we are really “confident” in God’s love. We trust that God loves us and that nothing is stronger than that love. We trust that we are the beloved of God and that nothing can change that fact. We trust not in our doing, but in what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. So when it comes to baptism it does not matter how old you are, what you may or may not understand or believe, we are “all in,” because we believe that God is already “all in” for us.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about bridesmaids who are waiting to meet the bridegroom. We are told that five of them were foolish, and that five were wise. And it seems to me that the wise ones, were the ones who were “all in,” and the foolish ones were the ones who were, maybe, “holding back” a little.
The wise bridesmaids filled their lamps with oil, and brought more oil in flasks, they brought enough oil to keep the fire going no matter what might happen. They were prepared for the long haul, they were prepared for a change in plans, they were prepared because they were “all in.”
The foolish bridesmaids brought just enough oil to meet their own expectations, they did not prepare for a possible change in plans, they weren’t prepared for any surprises. And at midnight, when it becomes clear that things are not going to happen in the way that they imagined, the foolish must return to the dealers to buy more oil for their lamps. So it is that sometimes, when we “hold back,” when we are not “all in,” we end up missing out.
So what is the meaning of this parable? What is Jesus trying to tell us us about the Kingdom of Heaven? Is he saying that if we “hold back,” if we are not prepared with extra oil, we might miss the coming of Christ and in doing so somehow lose our place in heaven? At first glance, that’s kind of what it sounds like?
But that can’t be true, because we know that’s not how the story ends! Ultimately the story begins and ends with Jesus; the story that bears witness to God’s unconditional love for us and for all of creation; the story that reminds us that God is “all in” for us, that God does not “hold back” when it comes to us; the story which we boldly proclaim when we baptize our children with confidence in God’s grace.
So it is that this parable is not about salvation (or damnation) but rather about how one experiences the fullness and abundance and the very presence of God’s Kingdom. We are the beloved of God, there’s no changing that, that’ s done, that is the Gospel truth; But sometimes we don’t fully live into that promise, sometimes we lose our confidence in that promise, and sometimes, when out of fear we “hold back,” we can miss out on the fullness of life that God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus. God is “all in” for us, and the more we can find a way to be “all in” in our response to that reality, the more we will experience the kingdom of God right here, right now. The foolish bridesmaids don’t fully invest in the occasion, they “hold back” and buy only what they think will be “enough.” Perhaps they are afraid to risk anything more, perhaps they are afraid of scarcity, and that fear leads to missing out on the experience. The wise bridesmaids not only fill their lamps, they bring a little extra, because they want to be prepared for any surprises, they don’t want to miss out, they are fully committed, they are truly “all in.” And in the end that’s what makes the difference.
I’d like to share one more story with you, another parable, an African folk tale, entitled, "The Jug of Water."
A Nigerian tribal chief sent out his messengers to invite all the people of the tribe to a great feast. "All of the food will be provided,” he announced, "but each family must bring one jug of palm wine."
Ezra wanted to attend the great festival very much, but he had no wine. He paced the floor trying to think of a solution for his dilemma. Finally his wife suggested, "We could buy a jug of wine. It is not too expensive for such a great occasion."
"How foolish," Ezra cried, "To spend money when there is a way to go free." Once again he paced until he came upon a plan. "Rather than carry wine I will carry water in my jug. Several hundred people will attend the festival. What will it hurt to add one jug of water to the great pot of wine?"
On the day of the feast the tribal drums began to beat early in the morning, reminding the people of the great festival. All of the people came dressed in their finest clothes, gathering by mid morning at the home of the chief. As each family entered the tribal grounds, they poured their jugs of wine into a large earth pot. Ezra carefully poured the contents of his container into the pot, greeted the chief, and joined the dancers.
When all of the guests arrived, the chief commanded the music to cease and ordered the servants to fill everyone's glass with wine. As the chief spoke the opening words of the festival, all of the guests raised their glasses and drank. Suddenly a cry of disbelief arose from the crowd, and they quickly drank again. What they tasted was not wine, but water.
Each guest had decided that their one jug of water could not spoil the great pot of palm wine!
On this occasion everybody “held back,” assuming others would pick up their slack. Nobody was “all in!” And consequently everyone “missed out!”
Next Sunday we gather for “Thank Offering Sunday.” I am looking forward to experiencing this tradition at First Lutheran. It’s my understanding that it is a time when we remember the story of the saints who first gathered together on this spot to dedicate their prayers and their resources to the building this wonderful church. Next week will gather to give thanks for their faithful response to God’s love and to prayerfully consider how we might respond today, how we might be part of the ever unfolding story of God’s good work here in this place. To prepare for next Sunday I invite us all to spend some time this week reflecting on the many ways that God has blessed our lives and our life together; And to discern how God might be calling each of us to use our gifts, talents, and resources to support “our ministry” in this coming year; the many and various ways that God is inviting us to enter more deeply into the experience of the kingdom.
We live in an interesting time in the life of the church. I’m not sure if we are wise or foolish, and I don’t think its particularly helpful or necessary to label ourselves one or the other, however it does seem like the oil in our lamp is getting kind of low. Things are not going as we might have expected, things are changing in ways we don’t understand and perhaps in ways that we don’t like, and as the oil level in our lamp gets lower perhaps we will be discovering whether or not we are “all in,” or “holding back.”
I know some churches that are almost all out of oil, and are not prepared with an extra flask. And I don’t believe First Lutheran is one of those churches. Right now we’re low on oil, that is true, but I also know this; We live in the confidence of baptism, the confidence of God’s love; And in our prayers and in our conversations the Spirit continues to lead us and sharpen us in our calling, the unique way God would have us join the work of the Kingdom here in this place; and in the end I believe that “oil” follows mission. In fact as we engage in our mission, as we dig down and embrace it, we might even discover some oil we did not know that we already had! (Our Buildings!)
As this year comes to an end, as we continue to discern what our calling as a community of faith might be, as we unpack our mission statement, “Called to be the Heart of Christ feeding our neighbors with Grace, Mercy, Love and Justice;” As we wonder aloud with each other what it means to be “the church that feeds people body and soul;” Let us each be in prayer as we consider how we might be able to give of our time, our talents, and our resources to be “all in” for what God is “all about” in this place.
God is “all in” for us, in this we can trust, in this we can be confident. Let us not be tempted to fear, to believe in scarcity, but rather to embrace the invitation to be part of God’s ever coming and ever present kingdom. Each and everyone of us is loved deeply, each and everyone of us is needed; Each and everyone of us invited, each and everyone of us has something to give. May God bless us this week in our discernment, may the Spirit continue to makes us bold, and may the love of Christ give us peace. Amen.