"Owning What Cannot Be Given Away”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – November 9, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 78:1-7; Matthew 25:1-13


    There are times when we look at the parables of Jesus and think to ourselves, "What does this parable about a Jewish wedding have to do with my life?"  We have to remember that Jesus was practicing his craft as a teacher by illustrating his truths wrapped in common, everyday experiences.

    In the case of our lesson, Jesus used the occasion of a Jewish wedding and feast to illustrate a timeless message that would have a universal appeal to all people.  We have to look beyond what happened to the ten young women to see what lesson Jesus was teaching.  As we learn from the story, five of the women had not come with extra oil for their lamps and five had come prepared for an extended period of time by bringing extra oil with them. 

    When the groom arrived for the wedding, the women who were not prepared had to go to those who sell oil and buy more and thus they not only missed the wedding but they also missed the wedding feast that followed.  There is a message here for all of us. 

    Jesus' lesson had little to do with a Jewish wedding.   The imagery of the wedding was only the vehicle for helping his listeners retain an important aspect of their spiritual growth.  Jesus began his teaching with these words, "Approaching the Kingdom of God is like this.  Once there were ten young women . . . . "   Jesus was teaching that people cannot postpone the development of the skills of spirit until the moment when they need them.  If they do, they will be like the five foolish bridesmaids.

    Everyday, our news is filled with stories of people that needed a skill immediately and they discovered that they had run out of oil.  One of the most heart-breaking stories occurred recently in Seattle, Washington.  A teenage boy had just been crowned prince of his high school homecoming court.  He was a star athlete and was extremely popular among the students. 

    He allegedly felt rejected by a female student whom he liked.  He responded by entering his high school cafeteria and shot five students, killing four of them before killing himself.  Two of the people he shot were his cousins.   Everyone was emotionally overwhelmed by this tragic event.  How could someone with so much promise suddenly lose grip on his emotions to the extent where he wanted to erase his future and the futures of other students? 

    He needed the acquired skill of coping with rejection.  Everyone eventually finds rejection coming from people who have different values, different likes and different goals.  He had not developed the skill of never ever personalizing how other people respond to him.  Instead, all he had at his disposal was a response to his hurt that was powerful enough to override his desire to continue living. 

    Jesus was teaching that sometimes people can appear to have everything working for them when their inner world is starving to death.  Five women had their lamps filled with oil, but when the time came for those lamps to provide light, they had gone dry.

    I can recall very vividly the time we took our daughter, Sue, to West Virginia University in Morgantown.  This was Sue's freshman year and the newcomers to the campus were relegated to living their first year in "The Tower" which is a high rise dormitory.   We arrived on campus, gathered her articles from the car and headed for the elevators. 

    When the three of us crowded inside the elevator's coach with other students and their belongings, I began to realize how much times had changed since I went to Albright College.  We were surrounded by stereo systems, televisions, golf clubs, tennis rackets and skis. 

    These articles were just the ones I can remember, but they represented the tip of the iceberg.  As the elevator ascended to higher floors, I said, "Have you students come to the University to learn new things or to play?"  Sue turned various shades of red and I am sure she wanted to disown me, but above the nervous laughter of students, one young man said, "In our world, you have to be prepared to be successful at doing both."  He was absolutely right! 

    Just as we never get a second chance to make a first impression, students often do not get a second change to receive an education at this point in their lives when they have fewer responsibilities.  When students are anchored to their purpose for having an advanced education, they are very reluctant to chase experiences that are more seductive than studying.

    When Bermuda was at the peak of its prosperity and cost of living was the fifth highest in the world, many people earned and spent their paychecks because they knew that more money was in their personal pipeline.  No one in recent years had experienced a recession; in fact, a recession was something that never entered many people's minds.  The blindness to the possibility of being made redundant was not on their radar scope.  When it happened, people were left without enough oil.

    However, those that had the wisdom of the five women who brought extra oil for their lamps lived more modestly while banking or investing their excess money in rental properties or other investments.  People cannot wait until the last minute to plan for the moment when their cash stops flowing or wait until they are in their 60s to begin thinking about their retirement.  There are many applications of Jesus' message to our spiritual and physical evolution.

    The second important lesson from this parable is that there are certain things about life that we cannot borrow or give away.   The five women who ran out of oil came to the five women who had planned ahead and begged them to share some of their oil reserves.   Their answer was, "No, if we give you some of our oil, we will not have enough for ourselves."

    While this appears cold-hearted and selfish, we have to remember that Jesus was not talking about sharing their oil.  If he had been talking about oil, these women would have gone to their friends and neighbors in the area to help their sisters get enough oil to sustain them. The ten girls would have known each other and were friends.   However, sharing their oil was not Jesus' message.  He was talking about spiritual qualities that cannot be borrowed or shared.

    For example, we cannot borrow someone's character qualities.  People who choose wisely to invest in themselves by selecting values that will serve them are miles ahead of people who followed the crowd or who invest their energies in pleasing others.  This latter group is more like leaves that flutter in the direction of the prevailing wind.  

    The identities in this latter group developed no distinctive roots.  We do not know if we can count on them, if they will show up when they promised, or if they will follow through on their commitments.  There are consequences to each path that have been paved with our choices. 

          When I entered the ministry, I noticed something fascinating about the storyline of the men whose funerals I was conducting.  This was in the days when many married women were not wage earners. Going over the chronology of the lives of men, I noticed how often they moved their families from one location to another.  One woman told me, "We moved so many times, that our freshly painted rooms had not had a chance to dry before we moved again." 

    Men were moving their families because they went to places where businesses were hiring.  In those days the men were thinking about providing for their families.  Today we hear:

We can't take the kids away from their friends.  If we move, we will lose the house.  This is where I was born.  I want to be near my family.  Look at all the resources available to us from social agencies that are willing to help us get through this period.

    Last year there was a report of a single mother with three children that had fallen behind in her house payments.   What she earned working two jobs kept the electricity on and her children fed.  Every social agency imaginable came to help her.  Life became easier at first and then she felt that she could no longer live that way.  She was extremely independent. 

    She read where contractors where hiring in North Dakota and in border communities over the Canadian border.  She packed up her family, allowed the bank to repossess her home, left everything behind and traveled 1,578 miles to apply for a job.  When she arrived, she found instant communities developing everywhere around the new oil fields.  Today, she is earning $126,000 a year by driving a gigantic industrial truck for British Petroleum.

    We cannot borrow someone else's motivation.  We cannot borrow their tolerance for taking risks.   We cannot borrow their faith and trust in God that allows them to abandon everything that translates into personal security.  We cannot borrow their spirit that says, "You've gotta do what you gotta do if you're going to make it."  Everything about this young family's life was transformed by her decision to read the signs that pointed to such a decision. She had to answer the question, do I want to grow in the direction of dependency or maintain my freedom?   She chose her freedom!      

    This woman did not want to be shut out from the wedding feast Jesus referred to.  In this case, the wedding feast was symbolic of the rewards and satisfaction that would come from her economic independence and the self-esteem that would grow from being a contributor to society.  She told the reporter, "When God is part of your team, there is nothing that you cannot accomplish even when the odds for success appear to be stacked against you." 

    This is the way it is when we approach living in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus' parable was teaching people that life's most creative and loving attitudes are responses that no one can develop at the last minute. They are developed incrementally throughout our lives until they are well-cultivated habits.  In every moment of life, we can only use what we already own.  This is why it is important to remain a student of life for the rest of our lives.