Who do we light our lamps for?

Thank you to New Creation Fellowship Church for allowing me to share this message today. It’s especially for you if:

  1. You have been put off by the Parable of the Ten Foolish Virgins in the past.
  2. You aren’t sure what to make of Jesus’ words that some people get locked out of the kingdom of God.
  3. You weren’t allowed to go to school dances, amusement parks, or riding in cars with boys–just in case Jesus came back while you were out sinning. When you sinned, you did it in a hurry, to cut down on the likelihood that you’d get caught in the act during the Second Coming.

Enjoy!

Rebecca

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Today, we’re examining next week’s lectionary text, from Matthew 25. I’ve chosen this because we are in the final days of an important presidential election and a time of incredible pain and division in our nation, and I think Matthew has some words for us in this moment. 

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To recap the story: A wedding is about to happen. Traditionally in first century Jewish culture, the bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family, where they would go through a marriage ceremony, then the couple would leave, sometime after dark, to parade through the streets on the way back to his home for days of celebration. Attendants would need to carry lamps or torches along the way to light the street. Those who participated in the marriage parade without a light might be assumed to be wedding crashers or, worse, thieves.

Ten women are waiting for the bridegroom to come. Five of them are ready, with their lamp in hand and oil in jars. Five, though, were not prepared. They were “foolish” in this story, because while they had their lamps, they did not have any oil.

The groom was taking his time coming, and the ten women fell asleep.  When midnight rolls around, they hear the procession coming their way. They awake! It’s party time!  They all get their lamps out, which is when the foolish virgins realize that they don’t have any oil. They ask to borrow some from their wiser friends, who tell them no—each wise virgin has enough oil for herself but worries that she won’t have enough to share. Each wise virgin refuses to share, just in case. The unprepared virgins are told to go buy some more oil if they want it. The foolish virgins head out to find someone to sell them oil at this late hour, and, while they are gone, the groom arrives. They miss it.

The wedding party members who are present go into the banquet. And get this—they shut the door behind them. The five women who are looking for the oil they should have already had are locked out. When they finally get the oil and return, they knock on the door and ask to come in. The groom tells them, “I don’t open the door for strangers.” Ouch.


I don’t like this story because I have no doubt what kind of virgin I am. If you are a regular member of my congregation, you know it too, because you’ve never seen me in church for the processional. In fact, I don’t know if we have a processional. The first 5 minutes of church are a mystery to me. I’ve never seen them. Does Derrick walk in swinging a thurible? Are we to genuflect before we enter our pews? Is someone taking attendance? I have no idea. 

A little over a year ago, we moved into a house that is just two blocks from church, so we could walk and everyone in my family could leave at their own pace, even the youngest who can be trusted to walk that far. “Ah ha!” we all said, “Now we’ll know which of us makes us late each Sunday!” And it turns out that it was me. 

Here’s how bad it is: We’ve been having a live sharing time on Sunday mornings for some time now, conducted over Zoom. I’m late for it every week. And it occurs at my own dining room table! In fact, to get there even late, I typically have to watch the pre-recorded service with the video running at 1.5 speed so I can cram it in to be a little less late than I would be otherwise. It’s fine, and all the music, no matter the original tempo, is upbeat. 

And you can now guess why I don’t like the parable of the virgins much. I tend to be the kind of virgin who is too busy doing something else to notice that I’m out of oil, so deep in thought or a project that I don’t even notice that I’m running late. And even though I know I’m missing something important, it’s hard for me to correct. 

And so, in this story, I’d be out there, finally with oil in hand but still missing the banquet. I’d be hearing it happen inside, but I’d be outside, in the dark.

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Let me switch topics.

Many of you know that I have spent a number of years studying Westboro Baptist Church and have written a book about that group. 

Well, this church is most famous for its picketing at funerals. Since the early 1990s, they have shown up at funerals, as well as many, many other events, including high school graduations, concerts, public lectures, and other events, to preach their message that God hates a variety of people, but most of all people who fail to adhere to their view of sexuality or who do share their view but who don’t proclaim it loudly at funerals. 

Most Christians find this behavior and this theology repulsive. I will take just a minute to explain it.

Westboro Baptists are Calvinists, like Presbyterians and some kinds of Baptists and Dutch Reformed and some other groups. Like other Calvinists, they hold to TULIP, which is a sweet acronym for the contentious theology that explains predestination. The picture shown here stands in the church sanctuary so that people can see it every time they gather.

The “T” is for Total Depravity—that all people are born hopelessly evil, by our very natures, and thus we can do nothing to close the chasm between us and God. We’re nothing but sinners. Now, other Christians, including non-Calvinists, may believe this, too.

The “U” is for Unconditional Election—the idea that God saves not because of our merit, not because we deserve it. Because we are totally depraved, we can do nothing to make God love us. Again, this is not unique in Christianity.

The “L,” though, is where Calvinists start to distinguish themselves. It stands for Limited Atonement, which means that the salvific death of Christ was limited in its scope. In other words, Jesus’ death was not for all of humanity but only for some. For whom, then? For those God selected—or elected—at the start of time. In other words, before we were born, God decided if Jesus’ death was for us or not. Remember that, because we are all depraved, none of us deserve it. And those who receive it do so without any consideration of their merit—that is, unconditionally.

The “I” is for Irresistible Grace, which means that if God elected you, you can’t say no. If Jesus died for you, then you will be saved. And that will be reflected in your life of obedience. God’s irresistible grace won’t let you keep acting like the sinner you are.

The “P” is for Perseverance of the Saints, which just means that if you are one of the elect, not only will God have you—he will keep you. You won’t lose your salvation. You never earned it in the first place, and you can’t lose it.

Now, Westboro Baptists are not just Calvinists but Hyper-Calvinists, which is a word that can be used as an insult, though I do not mean any negative connotation. I mean that they add two doctrines to TULIP: double predestination and absolute predestination. “Double predestination” means that God doesn’t just choose who is going to heaven—God also actively chooses, at the start of time, and without any consideration of our merit, who goes to hell. A Westboro Baptist once explained it to me this way: We are all on death row. Every single human is a sinner and deserving of death and eternity in hell to follow. If the governor calls and pardons the death row inmate in the cell next to me, I cannot complain. Both of us deserve death; if he is excused from it, not because of his merit, but because of the grace of the governor, I cannot complain. In fact, I can only praise the governor for having mercy on undeserving criminals at all.

And by “Absolute Predestination,” I mean that God preordains not just salvation, not just who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, but everything. If you have a cold today, God made it happen. Whoever wins the election, God made it happen. Everything, big and little, personal and global, God didn’t just permit but caused. Everything is not just under God’s control but an expression of God’s will.

Now, there is tremendous assurance in God’s providence in these doctrines, and if they describe your beliefs, please know that I’m not attacking them. 

Because of the way they understand these doctrines, Westboro Baptists cannot ever know who God loves and who is bound for heaven. Remember: good behavior doesn’t get you into heaven, so we can’t assume that just because someone is behaving well (that is, as defined by the church), that they are heaven-bound. Life-long members of Westboro Baptist Church could be damned! But by this theology, Westboro Baptists can know who is definitely going to hell: the disobedient. In other words, being obedient doesn’t get you into heaven, but being disobedient is a sign that God hates you and damned you before you were born.

As you can imagine, this isn’t a church that wins a lot of converts. Imagine a missionary knocks on your door and asks: Can I speak to you about Jesus? He probably hates you for no reason except the nature given to you by God at Creation, and you’re likely going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

Yeah, it’s not a church with a lot of growth.

So who are the ones Westboro Baptists know are damned? Well, all non-believers. All non-Christians. All non-Westboro Baptists. Americans broadly, but not just us. The whole world. God hates coal miners killed in mine explosions. God hates astronauts killed in space shuttle explosions. God hates politicians who have been assassinated. God hates pop stars, police officers, the entire US military, and all Christians who all also think gay people go to hell but don’t say so at their funerals, including Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson.


PicturePicture

The list of what they think God hates is so extensive that it is actually hard to make fun of because anything seems like it could possibly fit. The image shown here is from a Comic Con convention, where fans of science fiction and fantasy and comic books and such gather to share their interests. Westboro Baptist Church picketed a Comic Con, and this counterprotestor, using humor to address the situation, came out wearing his Star Trek uniform and holding a sign that says “God Hates Jedi.” The joke, of course, is that there is some tension between Trekkies and fans of Star Wars. In the other image, a man holds a sign that says “God Hates Kittens”. Its ridiculousness points to the ridiculousness of Westboro’s signs. And, after you read enough of the signs, you might think that there is some way that a person could conclude that God does, in fact, hate kittens.

One former member recalls holding a sign that says “Gods hates bikinis,” which helped her see the level of control the church sought over its members (who were forbidden from wearing bikinis). God hates bikinis? What about tankinis? What about one piece swimwear that shows a lot of cleavage? And how do we know this? How does God feel about pantyhose that twists? Does God hate knee socks that fall down and thick knitted tights and itchy elastic as much as I did as a child? Is the person who invented double knit polyester burning in hell right now? Can I stone my neighbor for mowing his grass while wearing shorts, socks, and sandals?

Well, I am teasing a bit. Westboro Baptist Church would say that there is logic behind their signs, that there are reasons for every prohibition. Mennonites are familiar with these prohibitions. Indeed, our own Camp Mennoscah, like other Mennonite camps, forbids two-piece swimwear. I don’t necessarily disagree, though I can’t imagine this rousing God’s hatred. Here perhaps I assume that God is too much like me, that God figures you gotta choose your battles and not fuss about children’s clothing unless it’s really important, like wearing a mask in public. THAT’S a clothing issue I think God should care about, not swimwear. But that’s me—the virgin who is careless with her oil. In the parable, the groom seems a lot more likely to hold a grudge.


Back to those virgins, the ones who got kicked out. Many Christians have read that story as being about preparation for Jesus’ return. Those who aren’t ready are out, damned, headed to hell. There have been some good refutations of that vision of salvation, including the Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. For an even better read about hell, though, I have to recommend You’re Not Going to Heaven (and Why It Doesn’t Matter) by Wes Bergen, a former member of this congregation who now pastors out in West Virginia.  I will not say much about their views on heaven, which are worth reading—especially Wes’—but I will say that there is some scholarly dispute about whether Jesus actually told this parable or whether it was added by first century Christians who were a bit obsessed with Jesus’ return.

What does Westboro Baptist Church have to do with those foolish virgins? It is this: Westboro Baptist Church spends a lot of time sorting people into wise and foolish virgins, figuring out who might be in and who is  definitely out, who God hates and who might God love.  I’ll agree, in my worst moments, that this is a fun hobby, especially nine months into a pandemic when I both miss people and also am stunned by how terrible they are. Thankfully, though, I’m not God, because my list of “foolish virgins” would include people who text and drive and those who wear their masks under their noses–which I think are legitimately evil things to do–but children who ask for a snack immediately after criticizing dinner, those who sneak out of bed for a snack and leave the kitchen dirty, and the ones who try to turn up the thermostat like I’m not going to notice. I assume that the saving grace of Jesus is powerful enough to save the one who leaves his dirty sardine can in the sink overnight and that, in heaven, I don’t have to deal with it in the morning.

If that seems petty, it precisely illustrates why people have no business figuring out who is in and who is out. It’s hard not to let our personal prejudices creep in. But even when we think we have a clear standard—“what the Bible says”—I argue that we don’t. In this story, the only sin that the foolish virgins committed was not having oil ready. Yes, this was a big deal, but, geez, was it enough of a big deal not to be able to enter the banquet? Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God,” which includes fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkard, and robbers, which is already making me feel a little uncomfortable. But people who are tardy? I understand detention for it, though it never motivated me to make it to first period, but kicking them out of the banquet and out of the kingdom of God? That seems harsh! 

After all, we don’t know what they did the day of the wedding. Maybe they were so busy doing other bridal attendant tasks that they just forgot or ran out of time. Sure, we condemn them for not having oil, but maybe they were out getting extra ice, or they realized that there wasn’t enough handicapped accessible parking at the party and so were valet parking cars for elderly relatives. Maybe one of them was the mother of the flower girl and had to spend the whole day at the beauty parlor, watching the hair dresser fix the home-made haircut her toddler decided to give herself just that very morning.  

And let’s not ignore the gendered parts of this: Jesus, it seems, is always down to party, but that’s pretty easy when you’re a man with few responsibilities. From the pictures, I gather the guy doesn’t even bother to shave, and I think he told his followers not to even own a second cloak. When you only own one outfit, it’s pretty easy to get dressed. There’s a lot more work that goes into being a woman getting ready for a big event.  

Point is, we don’t know, and before we join in condemning women for failing to get everything on their to-do list done, we could take a moment to remember all the times we forgot the oil for the lamp, the overdue school lunch money, the donuts for the morning meeting, the permission slip for the child’s field trip, maybe even the actual child, forgotten at daycare.

This parable suggests, in the reading I’m giving it here and which a lot of churches give it, that we can get kicked out of God’s kingdom, out of relationship with other Christians, and out of heaven, for an offense as simple as forgetting the oil. What I don’t like about that is that it seems so unpredictable; the bridegroom seems so spiteful, so fickle, his approval and welcome so precarious. What kind of bridezilla won’t seat a late guest? I know, it’s rude to be late. I know it’s rude to be late. I know, I know, I know. (Ask me how I know. Because I have heard the lecture numerous times over my life.) But I don’t see how it’s a relationship breaker. 

And so I get a vision of God, from this reading, that is spiteful and picky about things I can’t anticipate. Someone who condemns me for not having oil might also condemn me for a million other things that I don’t see as such a big deal. You can’t get ahead of this God because you can’t know what the rules are because there are so many of them and because they aren’t grounded in anything useful. Maybe God does hate Jedi and kittens. Maybe God does slam the door in the face of those who don’t have their spiritual house in order. Maybe God wants us to slam the door in the face of those who don’t fit what we think the Bible says, too. Maybe this passage is our permission slip to kick out those who are not meeting our expectations.  

Because these are presumably the words of Jesus, I can’t ignore them. I also can’t square them with the other parables of Jesus, who tells us that the shepherd finds every lost lamb and the widow searches for every coin, who throws open wide the gates even though the road is narrow and hard, who makes his yoke easy and burden light.

So let me approach it again: No matter what those ten virgins had to do, they also had to have oil for the lamps. It was their most important job. Why? Because the oil would allow them to welcome and protect others who were attending the festivities. The oil in the lamps would guide other people to the groom. The oil welcomed OTHER people to the party. The light of those lamps said, “You are included. Come here and be part of this banquet. Come and these lights will keep you safe.” In this reading, the mistake that the five foolish virgins made is a grave one. It is one of not welcoming and caring for the guests. If everyone is invited to the kingdom of God, then our gravest mistake—the one that will land us on the outside of the banquet hall and have Jesus denying us—is our failure to welcome and protect those who need our welcome and protection.

The last picture I share with you is of people participating in Angel Action, which is a counterprotest against Westboro Baptist Church that was created in response to the church’s picket of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. You might recall that Shepard was a gay college student murdered in Wyoming in the 1990s. His funeral was one of the first high-profile ones that Westboro Baptists picketed. In response, Shepard’s friends sewed these costumes. You use PVC pipes and white sheets to create “wings” that work on a lever system. When you pull down, the wings rise high in the air—8 or 9 feet, easily—and block the signs. Westboro Baptist Church is still able to exercise its right to be present, but these Angels—first in Laramie, Wyoming, and now in counterprotests all over the US—stand between their signs and those trying to come to the banquet, using their protective wings to guide those who want in.

In a real wedding, the virgins would have guided the groom to safety. In the parable, the groom arrives anyway, but the virgins’ foolishness risked his guests. The groom does not need help finding his way. His guests, though, need the protection of a lit path. We light our lamps not so that Jesus can find us, because we cannot be lost to Jesus. We light it not to be seen by God, who always knows where we are and what we need and is always with us. We light our lamps for those who need our help safely entering the party. My prayer for us this week is that we keep our lamps lit for those who need the protection we can offer as they journey toward God.

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