It was a teaching day today. I was at the University of Indianapolis most of the day, working with local pastors on their preaching. One of the bonuses of my new appointment and the house we purchased to live in is that I’m just a few blocks from that campus. I walked this morning to get to the place where I teach. Considering I used to have to leave at 6am on a Saturday to get here, that feels like a luxury. And it was a great walk. Cold autumnal air, crunching through the leaves that no one in the neighborhood can keep up with right now, though some try harder than others it should be noted. It’s quiet at that time of a weekend morning. Time for reflection, time to breathe. But then catching a scent of that common fall like flavor, burning leaves. The city says they’ll pick them up if you bag them and put them out, but some folks don’t like to wait. They pile them up somewhere and burn them. I didn’t see the ashes and only caught a hint of the haze, but smell was strong. Despite the air quality issues, it’s not a bad smell, brings back memories of a more innocent age, an annual chore, a family moment.
Fire fascinates me, I confess. The bulk of our vacation experiences growing up was camping out in the wilds of somewhere, and a highlight of those trips was the late night sitting around the fire, cooking and toasting marshmallows, keeping warm, staring into the ever changing shapes and sounds of a crackling flame, being together, telling stories, singing songs. The fire drew us together, kept us safe and gave us a sense of place in the dark and sometimes scary world around us. Yet, care had to be taken with that fire, it had to be tended, it couldn’t just be set free to run and spread and turn into a destructive force. You had to tend it, care for it, feed it and control it.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning is a Spiritual from the text we’re reading this weekend. Like most spirituals it has an uncertain history, but it certainly can be traced back through various blues singers and recordings into the slave experience where is was used as a work song, but also a way of hoping for something better. It was a flame around which an oppressed community gathered to keep their spirits warm and have a sense of place in a dark and scary world of pain and suffering. A simple song, sung by workers able to keep their minds on their task and yet be transported into another reality, another kingdom. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / See what the Lord has done.
Actually there is some divergence on that last line. The oldest recording of the song ends with “See what the Lord has done.” It was sung by Blind Willie Johnson, a popular blues singer of the early 20th century. His plaintive tenor voice seemed to be calling us to pay attention to what God is doing among us every moment of the day. It was a call to keep awake, as Jesus tells us. But not simply for what is not yet here, but what surrounds us already.
A few years later, the Rev. Gary Davis, another blues singer/preacher, recorded the song and changed the last line to “for the world’s about to end.” Rev. Gary was singing a warning about the coming kingdom, that the promised return of our Lord is on the horizon. He wanted to remind us that what we see and what we experience, for good or for ill, is not all there is. There is more, something more, another world, another reality into which we lean, even as we live and work in this reality. There is a destination to our history, a culmination of all that we are becoming. It doesn’t have to be a threat, it could be a promise, a hope. One can imagine the slave singing of another world knowing that the scars he bore did not define him, the chains he wore was not the shape of his life, the name he was given to live in the white man’s world was the name written in the book of life for him. And one day, one blessed day, the tears will end and life, promised abundant life, will begin.
But some of the oldest reports of this song being sung in the fields have yet another ending to the verse. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / for the work is almost done. The work. Or sometimes your work. Your work is almost done. Soon I can lay down this hoe, soon I can set aside this shovel, lay down my pen, and enter into the blessed rest of the savior. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Matthew 25:1-13 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Sometimes I think Jesus tells a story just to confuse us. It’s like He wants us to work on something, to work out something. We’d rather He’d just hand it out on a silver platter, wrapped up in an easily opened package that makes things easy for us. But no, a story, about ... what? Weddings and lamps and oil and an odd celebration of selfishness. Something is not right here.
Of all the images Jesus uses to help us grab hold of the kingdom of God, or of heaven, which is Matthew’s preference, this is the only one where the future tense is used. The kingdom will be like this. Why is that? Aren’t the others future oriented too? Well, yes, and no. There is something unique about this one. Perhaps if we heard entering the kingdom of heaven will be like this we might understand the whole story a little bit better. The approach of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.
Jesus loved weddings, He used the image for talking about the kingdom often. Parties and feasts and especially weddings. Because something special is happening there, a binding, a connecting, a covenant and a vow. And a whopping great party. What better description is there for this new world, this new life? A party of inclusion and invitation. Y’all come. Right?
Why then the lamps? Why then wise and foolish? And aren’t we supposed to share, even when we don’t have enough ourselves? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Why do we call the ones who won’t share wise? OK, every metaphor has it’s limits. Or rather we’re victims of crashing metaphors in this story. Go back to the Sermon on the Mount, on the other end of Matthew’s gospel. You are the light of the world, so let your light so shine before others that they may see your light and give glory to God. Remember? The light, the lamp, is not just an object of illumination, but it represents a life of service and sacrifice. It represents a life transformed by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God. The wise bridesmaids lived a life of preparing for the Bridegroom; the foolish ones thought it didn’t matter until the last minute. When He finally arrives, they have nothing to show that they belong to Him, nothing to shine as a way of living and giving and caring and hoping. He says, I don’t know you.
Remember, unlike the Sermon on the Mount which is for everyone, this is insider talk here in Chapter 25. This is the sign that you’ve been paying attention. This is for those who said yes some time ago and now they need to show a yes worthy life. The wise bridesmaids didn’t share their oil because they couldn’t. You can’t share acts of love. Each has to do their own. Each has to participate according to the grace given them, to use the gifts they have received. I can’t ride your coattails into the kingdom, you can’t let my lamp light your way. That’s just not how it works. Sure we can share, sure we can teach and mentor and sure we are better together than any of us are alone. But in the end, we have to trim our own lamps, we have to burn our own oil. That’s the work. The work that is almost done. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / the work is almost done. Thanks be to God.