Dancing in the Dark/Christ is the World’s Light
“Dancing in the Dark/Christ is the World’s Light” a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Chapel Hill November 12th 2017
By, Vicar Christy Lohr Sapp
(read Matthew 25:1-13)
In a poem inspired by today’s gospel reading, Trappist monk Thomas Merton invites us into a little creative re-imagining:
There were five howling (or scatter-brained) virgins
To the Wedding of the Lamb
With their disabled motorcycles
And their oil tanks
But since they knew how
A person says to them
To stay anyhow.
And there you have it,
There were five noisy virgins
But looking good In the traffic of the dance. (but well-involved in the action of the dance)
There were ten virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.
In Merton’s vision of it, there is more to this wedding party than we have typically been taught. He imagines a feast in which all are welcome, in which all bring something of themselves – though imperfect.
I like this reading, and I, too, would like to disrupt the traditional binary reading of wise versus foolish in this text. I’d like to propose that we all are a little bit foolish, we are all a little bit fatigued, we are all a little bit dim, but that this should not stand in the way of our enjoying fellowship in the kingdom of God. We just might need to be prepared to dance in the dark.
Personally, I find myself tripping up on the contrast between the alleged wisdom versus the foolishness of the two groups of young women described here. Many interpretations of this text have focused on the foolish five who did not have the foresight to pack extra oil for their lamps. In these types of teachings, oil represents faith – or faith and works – and their lack of preparedness speaks to the need to be ever vigilant in the maintenance of our faith. Muscle memory is invoked. The foolish girls are criticized for a lack of diligence, for sloppiness, and for being low on faith or goodness. They find the door shut to them because neither faith nor good works are things that can be successfully crammed in at the last minute when the supply runs short. In this type of thinking, one can’t have a faith cheat sheet to get through the final judgement, and one cannot get a “faith infusion” from someone else to make up a shortfall.
The five foolish women are criticized – like goats separated from sheep – as examples of those who will face judgement and exclusion from the kingdom of God.
I, for one, am a little too uncomfortable with this type of reading. Truth be told, I’m uncomfortable with it because deep in my heart, I fear that I, too, am lacking in an ample oil supply. Like the women in Merton’s poem, my tank often feels empty. Does this automatically exclude me from the company of the wise?
As most of you know, today is the last day of my six-month internship at HTLC, and this sermon is my final hurrah. This internship was a requirement in the process of approval for my ordination. For me, this has been a four-year process of fitting candidacy requirements into and around a full-time job and an energetic family. I think my husband will agree that we’re all feeling a little low on oil.
Much like the whole gaggle of virgins in today’s parable, I’ve become prone to falling asleep at unhelpful times. Basically, if I stop moving for too long, I fall asleep. This has become particularly noticeable during the kids’ bedtime when I’ll nod off after reading them a story – only to rouse myself an hour or two later having missed dinner clean up and needing to burn the midnight oil on whatever work project or candidacy assignment needs to be completed.
I suspect that I’m not the only one here today who feels low on oil. Illness, anxiety, grief, disappointment, dreams deferred – all of these can empty oil reserves and dim our lamps. I suspect that many of us are running low, but I am not convinced that this, alone, makes us foolish.
Fatigue is not what makes us foolish; it is part of what makes us human. This text ends with the charge, “Keep awake”, but recall that both sets of women – the wise and the foolish – fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. Perhaps our understanding of wakefulness is something that needs to be considered in this passage. In verse five all who wait became drowsy and fell asleep. All of them got up and trimmed their lamps. In the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we have another instance of sleepiness: in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here Jesus invited his disciples to watch and wait with him in prayer. They could not do it. Jesus asked, “Could you not keep awake?” I think we all, not just the disciples and not just the five young women, fall short of the wakefulness required to follow Jesus.
People who work with university students sometimes have a troubled relationship with keeping awake. The institution where I am currently employed encourages a number of unhealthy habits among students. Many of these relate to sleep deprivation. Among the unhealthiest is the veneration of the god of basketball on the altar of Krzyzewski-ville. For those who do not travel east of Franklin Street, let me explain: K-ville is a Lord of the Flies-eqesue tent village that grows outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium each winter. This is the means by which students queue for tickets to one particular basketball game. Groups of students partner on maintaining a tent presence in K-ville, but the rules stipulate that at least one person has to be in the tent at all times. There are anointed students called “line monitors” who do tent checks at random hours to make sure that others are following their arbitrary rules, and there are times when all participating students have to be present for roll calls. Often these checks happen in the middle of the night. Students are required to sleep in the tents and be available at a moment’s notice. Keep awake – for you know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the line monitor. 3
If a person is caught-out away from K-ville during a line check, it can jeopardize the entire tent. The whole group can be kicked out of the process if one person slips up. Thus, groups of students work together to create elaborate spreadsheets of tent coverage so that members of their team can maintain essential functions – like showering, eating, oh yes, and going to class.
In my opinion, all of K-ville is foolishness. Sleeping in a tent for three to four weeks straight in winter when you have a warm cozy bed is foolishness. Being pulled from sleep at odd hours for line checks is unhealthy. Our students at Duke can be really, really smart, but they can also be really, really foolish. And, like these ten women in our gospel, they can be both simultaneously. Yet, students consider the largest portion of foolishness to go to the person who misses line check by being out of K-ville when roll call happens.
In a similar fashion, I think the foolishness of this gospel story comes not in having enough oil, not in running low, not in falling asleep, but in leaving the party. Why do the foolish five do this? All of the women were asleep, and all were awakened, and, “Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.” (vs 7). All of the lamps were lit. Recall that when asked to share their extra oil, the dim ones said, “for our lamps our going out.” (vs 8) This implies that there lamps were, indeed, burning. Yet, when asked to share, the wise set of women said, “No.” They sent the foolish ones away. Time and time again, in our scriptures we hear of people being sent away because of foolishness that deems others neither to be enough nor to have enough. Women, children, the blind, tax collectors – they are sent away by those who are foolish. But here’s some good news: Jesus calls them back in. Perhaps the foolishness of all of the women in this text comes in judging a brightness deficit by society’s standards. All of them had burning lamps, though some might have shone longer or more brightly.
Let us pause here to reflect on the nature of light. When I was in school, I was taught about light particles versus light waves, but most of what I know about light comes from experiential learning – from fumbling around in the dark and being blinded by brightness.
Light is such that it’s not really shareable in the sense of a material item, but it’s also not deplete-able. Sharing light happens, but not in the same way that one would share something tangible – like oil. Hindus have a saying that the light of a flame is not diminished by the lighting of another wick. By this they suggest that in sharing the light of their own tradition, they do nothing to reduce their own faithfulness. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for this text, as well. One lamp is not extinguished by the lighting of another. Light can be passed from candle to candle without the first light being dimmed.
An equally remarkable property of light is its pervasiveness. The only way NOT to share a light that is shining is to extinguish it or block it. Hiding an open light in a dark space is nearly impossible. I’m reminded of this every time I try to look for a sweater without waking my husband in our dark bedroom. Once a candle is shining it is difficult to hide without putting it out. A light shining in the darkness insists on being shared with others. It cannot help but illuminate everything within its reach.
So, for these women to take the suggestion of their peers to go get oil means that they do not understand the light. They become distracted from the reason they are gathered. They allow themselves to be sent away from the party. The foolishness, then, is that these five 4
were persuaded to leave. These five stopped their vigil, voluntarily stepping out of the action, and their major mistake came in thinking that they could replenish their own oil. The other five sent them away, and failed to recognize that, lamps or no lamps, their fellow watchers could contribute to the party.
To my eye, all of these women are foolish. They are foolish because none of them sees a way for everyone to contribute. Also, none of them understands the true nature of the Light that is coming. The Light of the world does not operate off of oil. It cannot run out. If we understand the bridegroom in this text to be Christ, and if we believe Christ to be the Light of the world, this light cannot be extinguished, this light cannot be lost, and this light cannot be withheld. By leaving the party, five women cut themselves off from the brightest light of all and five women failed to help their sisters into that light.
If our parable is read in this vein, then, it is less of a lesson about wisdom and foolishness, about wakefulness and sleepiness, and more a statement on abundance and scarcity. Light is the kind of thing that shines equally on all who are in its presence. A shining light cannot be withheld from those around it. The foolishness came in not utilizing the resources that were surrounding them and not seeing the gifts of others. It came in not recognizing the light that they already had. It came in thinking that any of them could fuel their own lamps. One candle can light the darkness, and all who are present will benefit from it.
So, what is the good word for those of us who might be feeling a bit dim? What are we to do when our own oil is low? I think this text is inviting us into the presence of those whose lights are shining brightly. I think this text calls us into the wedding banquet and challenges us not to lose sight of the goal of feasting with the bridegroom. Basking in the reflected light of others, we should not be deterred from joining the dance. Perhaps if you find your own oil running low, this text is telling you to stay close to those who have lit lamps. Remain in the presence of those who are shining brightly.
HTLC is a place with many bright lights. I have felt my own lamp refilled in this place, but I have also seen you replenish others. HTLC is bright because the light of Christ shines here. HTLC is bright because all are invited to the banquet.
The good news of the kingdom is that our way is not prepared by our own lamps but by the light of Christ. Christ is the bridegroom who lights our party. If you feel dim – especially if you feel dim – stay and join the feast. Hold onto your place in the line. Dance even if your feet hurt. Do not miss the opportunity to rejoice in the celebration. Regardless of the level of your oil, join with others to be a howling dancer at the wedding of the Lamb. Don’t miss out. Instead, let whatever light you have shine before others that together we may all glorify our God in heaven. Amen.