Essential Oil

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep.But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’

“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’

“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’

 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

 “Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.


Confession time: this parable bothers me.

And that’s because, sadly, there may be no characters in the Bible that I identify with more strongly than the foolish bridesmaids.

I am that person who is always forgetting things. Who is always losing track of time. Who forgets a hairbrush every time I go somewhere for the weekend, and has been known to send birthday cards up to six weeks after the birthday occurs. It is a minor miracle that I get anywhere on time and I am truly ashamed to think about how deep the piles of paperwork on my kitchen counter are.

I get these women on a visceral level. These are my people, these foolish bridesmaids. Best intentions, but somehow it never quite comes together.

And likewise, there may be no characters in the Bible that irritate me more than those wise bridesmaids. Because they remind me of all those flawless, put-together people who never leave the house with their slippers still on and never lock their keys in their car and never have to run for their gate at the airport and look at you with something between pity and contempt when you do any of the above. Or, um, all of the above.

Not that I don’t completely admire those people, with an admiration bordering on jealousy. They are amazing people to work with, every email replied to, minutes neatly typed, meetings both starting and ending on time. Without them the world would crumble into pieces.

But it’s still not pleasant to see the foolish bridesmaids get knocked down like Matthew seems to be doing here. Denied entrance to the party just because they didn’t have a back-up plan. It’s not even like they were the ones running late—that’s squarely on the groom’s shoulders!

I have to admit, I cringed when I saw the parable looming in the lectionary. I didn’t think I’d preach it. I thought I’d get too defensive. I wasn’t prepped to deal with the wise bridesmaids, or, as I’ve been known to call them in my head, the Judgey McJudgeypants of the gospels. I don’t like that this parable seems to reward the ones who refuse to share what they have with those in need, and shames those who were adequately—just not over—prepared.

After all, we’re in the same chapter of Matthew—the very same chapter—where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, and celebrates those who visit the sick and feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Shouldn’t the wise bridesmaids be sharing their oil, or, if not their oil, at least their lamps? Maybe there isn’t enough to oil to make ten lamps work, but couldn’t they walk two-by-two?

It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Or it didn’t, until this week.

I think I’d gotten too caught up in the physical details of this passage. Oil levels and wicks and hours of the night. But I don’t think that’s where Matthew’s head is, as he tells us this story.

I don’t think Matthew’s really thinking about lamps, so much as he’s thinking about people, and how they shine.

Think back to the sermon on the mount, some of the most famous verses in scripture. What does Jesus say there? You are the light of the world. … No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others. (Matt 5:14-16)

And so I wondered, as I read and re-read the parable this week, if Matthew wasn’t talking so much about stuff, stuff we can lose and misplace and forget and muddle through without okay, but about souls. About making sure we have enough oil to shine before others.

Framing the parable that way, it makes more sense to me. There’s a lot people can share, but not everything. Some stuff we have to build up in ourselves—peace, self-worth, self-compassion. It’s not that others can’t help, but they can’t make it happen for us.

I was pleased to note for the first time this week that the wise bridesmaids don’t, actually, just brush off their foolish friends. They help them form a game plan. They tell them what they can do: find someone selling oil, and go buy some. They guide them to where they can get refilled.

In some circles, that’s called a referral.

The wise bridesmaids want their friends to find their light. But not at the expense of their own. And now I begin to get why they are considered wise. Firstly, because they thought ahead to keeping back-up oil around, but also because they were able to discern what they could do for their friends, and what they could encourage their friends to do for themselves.

My first semester of seminary, I took a class in spiritual practices. On the first day our chaplain asked a question that bowled me over, a question that in twenty-one years of Christian living had never been asked of me:

How are you caring for your soul?

How are you caring for your soul?

I’d literally never thought about it. I’d just sort of bounced along on church and prayer and some soothing music once in a while and that seemed to be working. But none of that was intentional, and there were periods where I’d lapse, and even though those same periods were often ones of profound weariness I’d never connected the dots.

Friends, our souls need tending. They need caring. We have to take care of our soul health, just like our physical and mental and emotional health.

We need to refill our lamps, so we can continue to shine.

I find it intriguing that this is one of our more women-centric stories in the Bible, because in general the self-care industry in America is wildly biased towards women. And self-care is good and necessary, exercise and enough sleep and time spent just playing, but I propose that it’s not enough. Not for weeks like this one, weeks that seem to be on endless repeat.

Sutherland Springs. Las Vegas. Puerto Rico. Charlottesville. The news keeps coming, and no amount of time on the treadmill will let us run from it, and no super clean diet will wash it away, and heaven knows no days at the spa can make it okay again. It takes soul-energy to face this pain, this trauma, this ugliness and come out with some semblance of peace, with faith intact. If we don’t care for our souls, they can become bruised and broken. We can find ourselves retreating to keep them safe, afraid to engage with the world around us at all, or reaching for physical protection as if it were a good enough substitute.

And so it is wise, friends, to bring back-up oil along with you. To know what you need to fill up your soul again, so you can shine in the dark.

Some of us have our routines down—prayer, meditation, rest, conversation partners, music that touches our souls, places in nature that fill us up. And some folks are just blessed with resilient souls, souls that brim with God’s peace and joy naturally. (Kind of like those lucky folks with good metabolism.) If you are one of these people, one of these wise bridesmaids, and your soul is well, and you know how to keep it well, I want to say two things to you:

First, you are doing good work. You are doing God’s work. Bless you for taking care of yourself. Bless you for allowing yourself to shine.

Second, and I say this gently, but you probably know this already: there will be people clamoring for what you have. Not for you to share your peace with them, but for them to take it from you. After all, that’s what the foolish bridesmaids asked for—not to share in the wise bridesmaid’s light, but to take their oil, take it permanently. The wise bridesmaids said what sounded harsh, and can still sound harsh: no. They said no. And that was wise. Wise to say no so that they weren’t all plunged into darkness. Sometimes you have to say no, not just for your own well-being, but for others.

There are people in the world who will destroy your light. Not always intentionally. Sometimes because they simply see it is beautiful and do not know how to go about tending to their own. It is okay to tell them to go get oil of their own. Not because you do not care about them, but because you care about them enough to want them to shine with their own light.

And most importantly, you are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. It is popular for Christians to interpret Christ’s call to take up our crosses as a reason to sacrifice our well-being for others, a point of pride even to give until we’re burnt out and empty. But the whole point of the cross is that it leads to resurrection. Whatever pain is involved in the cross is a pain that prefigures new life. When we find in situations where we are sacrificing our health, our peace, our souls for someone else and there is never new life there, never anything but endless pain and abuse, that is not taking up our cross. That is foolishness. That is hiding our lamp under a bushel.

And now, let me say something to those of you on the other side of this story. The ones who feel like there’s never enough oil, like you’re always running on fumes, like you wouldn’t know how to care for your soul if it emailed you a list of written requests.

You are not a bad Christian or a bad person for feeling this way. If life has run your oil supply down, it is in your power to build it back up again. Start small. Find something—just something, that helps center you. A walk. Five minutes silence. Reaching out to an old friend. Grace before a meal. Ignoring work emails after bedtime. Give yourself permission for it not to work miracles, but just to become a part of your routine.

And if it’s worse than just feeling rundown, if you feel like you’re moving around in darkness and there is no light to find, inside or out, tell someone. Tell someone you need to share their light for a while. Tell someone you need a guide in the darkness. It’s not a permanent solution, but it can work for awhile, until you can build up your own light again. Tell a friend, a family member, an elder, your doctor, me. Heck, tell all of us. You deserve to shine. You were created to shine.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t think the problem in this parable is really that the foolish bridesmaids ran out of oil. It’s actually the consequence of the real problem. After all, what’s the moral of this story? What’s the final verse?

Keep alert. Stay awake.

And all the bridesmaids—all ten, wise and foolish together, fell asleep. They all failed at staying alert.

What would have happened, I wonder, if they’d stayed awake? Paid attention to each other? If they’d noticed that the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps were going out?

Could they have warned the bridesmaids in time for them to go get more oil before the groom came? Could they have all gone together, the wise ones lighting the way for the foolish ones, until the foolish ones could light their own way again?

That’s our job, really. To care for ourselves, yes, but also to watch out for each other. If we can, to reach out to others and say, “hey, you look tired. You look lost. You look burned out. Can I help? Can we figure out something together? Can I go with you to get more oil?”

Because, friends, there’s a party on the other side of the door. There’s a party waiting for us. And wouldn’t it be better if we all got there together? If we made sure that we could all find our way through the dark?

Friends, keep alert. Be on soul-watch this week. Seek out oil for your soul. Help others do the same.

Let your light shine.

The world needs to see it.



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