Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Flack
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
When we were in Tanzania, there was a running joke about what denomination of Christianity you wanted your night guard to profess. This was because you wanted your night guard to take his job seriously, and to stay awake if he could, or at least sleep lightly if he couldn’t stay awake. The joke was this: if you wanted a guard that would sleep the whole night and miss all the thieves, get a Lutheran, because they believed in grace, and that it didn’t matter if they guarded the property or not. If you wanted a different kind of guard, get a Pentecostal, because they believed in works. But if you wanted a good guard, get a Masai, because everybody was scared of them. That’s the joke. I don’t know how true it is, but I do know, that with many jokes, there’s something true in there. Lutherans believe in grace—free grace, grace as a gift, grace that erases in, grace that brings us into God’s love just as we are—grace sometimes preached as if nothing we did really matters. Pentecostals think that you’ve got to make a choice to accept God and often, preached as if wearing the wrong piece of clothing is going to condemn you to hell. In a way, it’s a classic grace versus works problem, and this joke takes both sides of the question to their maximalist positions.
Here we have ten bridesmaids. The all have lamps, or torches. They’re all waiting for the bridegroom, who tarries. Maybe he’s taking selﬁes with the groomsmen, or maybe his limo broke down on the Jersey Turnpike—who knows? But he tarries. And for Matthew, this was a plain description of the church, the collection of Jesus’s followers. And the scary thing is, ﬁve of them are left outside the door. Five. And when they say, “Lord, Lord,”—by the way in Matthew, this is a sure sign you’re in the wrong, so never hire a Lutheran as a night guard and never say “Lord, Lord,”—the Lord says, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”
Isn’t that scary. “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.” When Christ comes in glory, as he is described as doing in Thessalonians, and we all gathered to meet him, imagine that. “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.” And why not? Because when he came, they were looking for oil, which they should have had in abundance. Or, perhaps, because they did not trust that the bridegroom would let them in without oil anyway. Or for a host of other reasons. But the Lord says to them when they knock, “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.”
Why didn’t the other bridesmaids share? Shouldn’t the point of the parable be that if we share, everyone has enough? That’s a good Sunday School lesson, isn’t it? But I guess Jesus has something else in mind. And here’s what I think. There are some things, some callings, we cannot share. God gives us callings for ourselves alone to use. Yes, we use them for the beneﬁt of others, but they are given to us to use. You can hear that in the old saying, “Blessed to be a blessing.” God calls each of us to his table, God gives each of us more grace than we deserve or could even imagine asking for—but God gives to each of us in a unique way, and each of us has our own lives to build with God. And so, we explore our relationship with God for ourselves, and we experience it in our own way. But if we ignore that calling, if we push it away, if we seek to stave it off, and remain content in our own sins, then when the Lord comes, we will ﬁnd that we have nothing to offer him, because we left God’s gifts to collect dust on the shelf.
I am aware that I have placed a conditional on the gospel message today. But I also believe that grace must change us. It cannot leave us where we are, but it must make a difference in our lives. God has to matter, and God’s grace must transform us, or it would be vain and empty and worthless. Why would the bridesmaids not share their oil? Maybe it’s because they were given a job to do—they are actually torchbearers, lighting the way of the bridegroom, making a glorious procession through the dark, shining light upon him as he joins his wife. They have a solemn responsibility for the bridegroom himself. Maybe that’s why—they have a calling, an assignment that is their own. But it’s their own, and they’ve got to do it. Because if they don’t do it, they won’t know the joy of the party. The ones, who knew that they had a glorious thing to do, prepared for every eventuality. The ones who didn’t take it seriously, but tittered and gossiped and Facebooked themselves without committing to their work were ﬁnally left out.
Here’s the thing. Faith leads us to do things beyond our dreams. I think sometimes faith and works are like what you see during the March Madness basketball tournament every spring. Every year some team that has no business winning wins a lot more than anyone expects. If you believe, you are capable of so much more. How many times have you seen an upset? One team believed and trained for more than some thought possible. But you can’t know the joys of going beyond what you think you can do and into what you believe unless you do it on faith.
Despite my joke earlier, I actually don’t think Luther was too far off from Matthew. He wrote in one of his books, “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever.” That’s an amazing thing to think: believing, faith, the gift of grace, doesn’t let us lie, but makes doers out of us. Doers of love, doers of peace, doers of hope, doers of the Gospel.
So it turns out we can still believe in grace and be night guards. We can ask God to give us oil for our lamps, to keep them burning, burning, burning. We mean a life of daily turning from sin to the works of light, daily confession and forgiveness, daily prayer and pardon. The parable tells us that grace makes us ready, come what may, so that when the bridegroom does come, we can raise our torches and join his throng. Amen.