There was a lecture on campus this week, Thursday night, by a Reformation scholar from Yale Divinity School. Dr. Gordon is about to release a new book on Zwingli. His earlier works were mostly about Calvin. He was very fair in his presentation, fairly correct. (That was supposed to get a laugh – that I would critique a Yale Divinity School Reformation Scholar – saying his lecture was “fairly correct”……)
The lecture hinged on where it is that one places authority. Basically - who gets to determine (and to enforce) the drawing of lines between the sheep and the goats. Who is it that can tell us which are the wise bridesmaids, and which are the foolish? The Church which all of the Reformers sought to reform placed that authority in the great ecumenical Councils and those who upheld the Council declarations. Luther, Dr. Gordon claimed, placed that authority in the religious experience which brought him to enlightment. Dr. Gordon’s presentation asserted that Luther then insisted that this type of religious experience was to be normative for all the righteous. Zwingli gave authority to the scriptures, which he understood as having been directed if not dictated by God. Calvin places this authority in the mutual consent of the faithful (and by that he was most likely referring to the faithful Reformers.)
Where does that authority, or right, lie? Who gets to decide (and possibly enforce) the drawing of a line; and statements about who is and who isn’t welcomed into the wedding banquet?
I wonder how many sermons this morning will unknowingly also hinge on the notion of authority. How many preachers will warn congregants against being like the five foolish bridesmaids? I wonder, as you listened to me read these verses from Matthew 25, if you envisioned two distinct and separate groups and wondered into which group you were to be found?
It is important that we remember Calvin’s insistence that the purpose of our weekly gatherings is to build up the church and every church member. It is helpful when we point out thoughts, words, and action which might prove to be stumbling blocks to receiving the gifts of God’s grace. It is important and we need to do it.
I am trying to avoid uttering a “but”. Because saying that word, after one sentence is complete and the next is about to begins – is sort of like drawing a dividing line. And the message God has placed on my heart this morning is to tear down any such dividing lines or criteria for asserting authority.
So you tell me – really, tell me. By the nodding of your heads or a subtle “Preach it brother,” when I read Jesus parable about the kingdom of heaven how many of you started wondering, “Am I sufficiently prepared?” Or “Will Jesus catch me sleeping?”
I do wonder how many sermons will return to this theme. As I consider my own preaching history, most of the sermons I have peached on Matthew 25:1-13 have been encouragements to be ready, to be on guard, to keep awake! Too often – far too frequently the discussions within our churches concern themselves with the topic of in which group of five we will find ourselves. Even lectures on The Reformation revert to the pre-Reformation emphasis on who has the right to establish and enforce the criteria by which we had all better be ready to be judged.
Early in the week, a gift arrived in my email in-box. The writer said one thing which completely altered my week and my approach to this text. He wrote, “Focus on the lamps; ignore the bridesmaids.”
“Focus on the lamps; ignore the bridesmaids.”
This was the advice of a contemporary colleague in ministry and I would be remiss if I in any way implied that St. Matthew intended the emphasis to be placed on the lamps. But it is a great thing for us contemporary preachers to do.
The drawing of lines and the debates over right vs wrong has inappropriately and unfortunately overtaken our churches and our worship events. This congregation articulates why it is a “better” congregation that the one down the street. That congregation defines itself by pointing out the ways in which it isn’t like the other options in town. It all sometimes seems like a contest to determine which group of bridesmaids are the wise and which are the foolish.
“Focus on the lamps, ignore the bridesmaids.”
The groom takes the action he does because there isn’t the light from the lamps present when he arrives. The groom recognizes and welcomes those who provide the light in midst of a dark and lonely night. The groom does not recognize those persons whose own faces are not lit by the glow of the lamp that never runs out of fuel.
In re-reading my sermon to this point – and particularly that last paragraph, I worried that I too had allowed this to slip into an evaluation of the holders of the lamps. Call me on that – and help me to not do that.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, St. Matthew the Gospel writer, and Jesus the Christ ALL worked to ensure that the light from the lamp of God shines and gives light to a dark and too often lonely world. And they all – every one of them – including Jesus – lifted as a primary concern shining forth the light which brought the world into being; the light which illuminates our path.
What the light exposes is sometimes fickle or fleeting. It is a light which exists on this side of I Corinthian’s kyros time. It is a light which we too often see only in a mirror dimly. It is a light which needs attending and trimming and dedication. And that which is exposed by the light is to be examined.
What if we focused on the lamps, and ignored the bridesmaids? What if we devoted as much attention to open, ongoing, heart-felt conversation about what the light exposes? Too often, rather than looking at what the light reveals, we debate and argue about who is holding a lit lamp as opposed to whose lamp isn’t burning brightly.
Happening to have a lit lamp or failing to keep awake relegates us into bitter bickering about who is right and who is wrong; about drawing lines and enforcing them.
Worry about whether we are among the five wise or relegated to the pool of the five foolish inhibits our ability and our willingness to see what the light is exposing.
I think this is why some of us hate any mention of controversial topics in worship. We are eager to be among the lamp-holders; less eager to consider what the light and the lamps expose. It is comforting to know we are tending our lamps; it is a challenge to peer through the flicker flames and try to see clearly the path of the approaching groom.
The debate as to where authority lies will never cease – and it should not. We need to discuss this and expose the various answers and then admit how answering these questions will impact our attempts at forming congregations and churches and communities of faith. How one answers that question does influence whether you are likely to be Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist or Methodist…….
We all should strive to be the wise bridesmaids, who plan ahead, who are awake. Our life together ought to strengthen these traits in us.
Above all, we need to focus on those lamps. We need to study our bibles and be ready to offer the wisdom of Jesus in the midst of any and every conversation. I am not asking for you to memorize texts which can be used as proof or validation for your previously held thoughts. I mean knowing the Gospel message and bringing it to light whenever we find ourselves seeking guidance or wisdom.
As a pastor in the Christian Church, I won’t ignore the bridesmaids. As a preacher and a teacher in the Christian Church, I will trim my lamp and shine the light of God’s Word so that the darkness of the world around us might be dispelled and the way of our groom might be illuminated.