(Note: I preached this sermon on this Sunday in 2014)
Can you wash off your baptism?
That’s the question of a character in an astonishing new book. Lila the book is called, and the character of the same name is wondering just what she’s gotten herself into. Born around the time of the First World War, Lila is an orphan or at least a monstrously neglected child who is taken by a woman named Doll who nurses her back to health and cares for her. She has no education, no settled home, only a life of moving from town to town looking for work in farms or houses. But Lila has Doll.
Later on Lila meets the pastor of a church, a widower with no living children. They get married, but first she gets baptized. And then she learns about her husband’s faith. She learns that Doll who raised her and cared for her had never been “saved.” Doll had never heard the Gospel, never been baptized, never repented of any of her sin. She imagines Doll in the resurrection, still stooped over because there’s no point in fixing a back when it’s just going to be sent to hell. And she decides that she wants nothing to do with it. She goes down to the river and washes her baptism off. She decides she’d rather suffer with the woman who cared for and protected her than be in what her husband calls heaven.
That’s not the end of the story. But it’s a powerful moment, and a powerful idea. Because I struggle with today’s Gospel. I struggle with many of these stories that we have heard from the Gospel of Matthew, week after week this fall. Today it’s another parable Jesus tells about the Kingdom of Heaven. It will be like this, Jesus says: Ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, go to meet the bridegroom for the wedding. The five wise have oil for their lamps and the five foolish do not. The bridegroom is delayed, and so all of them fall asleep. But at midnight, when the shout goes up that the bridegroom is coming, they wake up, trim their lamps, and get ready to go. But then the foolish bridesmaids see that they don’t have enough oil for the wedding. They ask the wise ones for some of theirs. No, the wise maids say—there’s not enough for you and for us, go and buy some from the dealer. While they’re out buying their own, the bridegroom comes, takes the wise ones away, and closes the door. I don’t know you, he says, when the foolish ones come back with their oil. So be ready, Jesus says. Be awake, because you never know when the bridegroom may return. There may not be enough time to get oil when he does.
And like the other warnings we have heard from Jesus this fall, this story is aimed at the church, at the community of believers. Once again, on one hand there are the wise bridesmaids. They have their oil. They have faith, they have perseverance, they have works of charity. On the other hand, you have the foolish bridesmaids, who have a lamp. They are part of the party. But they don’t prepare themselves. They don’t have enough faith, or enough perseverance, or enough good works. Both the wise and the foolish fall asleep, because they are waiting so long for Jesus, the bridegroom, to return. In the early church this was interpreted as being about death: falling asleep was a metaphor for dying. Both the wise and the foolish would die, but only the wise would be prepared for the return of the bridegroom at the time of the resurrection of the dead.
This is not how I want the parable to go, however. I would be happier with a parable that went like this: The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five were foolish and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look, here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” And the wise replied, “There will not be enough for you and for us, but we will share what we have, and if your lamp goes dark, ours will go dark with you.” The bridegroom came, and all the lamps were going out. “Because you have chosen to share your oil, and to risk the darkness together,” the bridegroom says, “enter all of you into the wedding banquet.”
That’s how I want this parable to go. Because, if you’ll pardon the expression, to hell with being ready. I know a little bit about what I’m talking about here. I used to want to live in the shadow of an active volcano just to help me remember that life is brief, that time could run out without warning, that I’d better live ready. I’ve worked on treasuring each moment as it passes and filling the day with prayer and all of this is good, but holy cow is it exhausting. Sometimes we need our illusions. We need to let ourselves fall asleep when the dishes are dirty, the sermon isn’t drafted, and the lamp of faith is empty.
And you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with the foolish bridesmaids of the world. Not literally. But those people who are not ready for crisis and judgment. People who are not ready for death. People who have given no thought to their souls. People who don’t know or don’t believe that anything about them could be called a “soul.” I’ve loved these people and still do and they’ve taught me things I hope I never forget. If I am counted among the wise, with a flask full of oil for the trip to the banquet, I hope I would have the loyalty, I hope I would have the courage, to say to my foolish friends, “Let me walk with you to the dealer so that you can find your way there. I’ll stay with you until we get back to the door of the banquet. And If you’re going to be shut out, let me be shut out with you.” I’m not saying I would wash off my baptism, as Lila does when she hears what it means. But what is my baptism if I can’t say, “Yes, you may share my oil. Yes, I will share the danger with you.”
So I struggle with this parable. And whenever I struggle with the word of God, I find that I am driven more deeply into prayer. I am driven more deeply into the mystery of what faith is and how we grasp it.
I thought this week about a member of our church, Sue K____. Sue is a very active member of Messiah who has had health problems so severe that she has not been able to be present here on a regular basis for many years. I visit her once every six or eight weeks, though I’ve also seen her many times in different hospitals. Sue W____ also brings her communion on the first Sunday of the month.
The last time I visited Sue she told me a story that she invited me to share. One night she went to a sleep clinic to be observed. She had breathing trouble and wore one of those CPAP machines overnight to force air into her lungs and keep her breathing. They hooked her up to all the monitors and she fell asleep. Overnight, despite the fact that a machine was forcing air into her lungs, her blood oxygen saturation fell and fell. Normal is 96-99% saturation, and it was below that. It fell below 65%, when you start having impairment in average people. It fell below 55%, a rate at which the average person would lose consciousness. It fell all the way to 24%, she told me, a rate at which your body is closing down in a desperate effort to keep your brain alive.
But, like the bridesmaids, Sue woke up. And thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, she has kept on waking up, through all kinds of dangers. A person could be forgiven for wavering in their faith at times like that. A person could be forgiven for having a bad attitude, even about their church which can never be as present as we ought to be for people who cannot come and be among us. But that is not Sue. Her faith is so strong. Despite her trials or because of them I don’t know. Her body cannot get all the oxygen it needs on its own, but she has oil enough and to spare. She shares it with me. She would share it with anyone. From a couch that she can leave only with difficulty.
What I want us to hear in this parable today is not the rebuke to the foolish, though that is there. And it’s not the sudden and maybe even vindictive arrival of the bridegroom, though it sure looks that way. But what I want us to hear is the miracle of faith. How is it that anyone has that flask of oil, that totally unnecessary and surplus thing called faith, called trust, called perseverance in the face of delays and frustrations and dangers? How does anyone keep it? I have no idea. It must be a gift from somewhere, from God. Whatever faith you have, treasure it. Whatever faith you have, you’ll need. And I don’t care what the parable says, you can share it in a pinch.