The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
What a strange story. 10 bridesmaids sat in the desert at midnight. They were on their way to a wedding, and perhaps because they were related to the bridegroom, they were waiting for him to come with his entourage, and take them the rest of the way. 5 of them were wise enough to bring extra oil for their lamps, but the other 5 were “foolish,” probably too excited to remember such practicalities.
But the story takes an ominous turn. When the bridegroom drew near, the ones with oil refused to share, and the others had to rush back to the village to find oil merchants – at midnight, mind you – and, of course, they missed the bridegroom’s coming. They made their way to the wedding on their own, but found that they were shut out of the feast. The host didn’t even recognize them at the door.
This parable has been told about God’s tough love on Judgment Day, when those who have not bothered to pay attention to God will find their lamps empty of oil, shut out of the kingdom of God.
But, as always with parables, there are other dimensions to this story. It is about spiritual readiness, it is about being alert for the journey ahead. It is about being awake to the possibility of God’s coming at any moment, and responsive enough to get up and go. It is about taking the risk and moving down the road so that you can join in the party of God’s kingdom.
Today I’d like to talk about being alert and ready to move forward as citizens of this nation. Many of us have felt as if we have been sitting in the desert at night for many years, and last Tuesday’s election seemed like the coming of a kind of bridegroom, taking us down the road in a new direction. President-elect Barak Obama is not the Messiah, and he won’t be able to wave a magic wand and make everything bright and beautiful, but this is a turning point in our history, and I want to mark it. I also want to be awake and ready, with my lamp filled with oil, so that I can go where this moment might take us.
Last Tuesday night, President-elect Obama said that we have “put [our] hands on the arc of history and [bent] it once more toward the hope of a better day. It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did…at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
Whether you are jubilant or disappointed about the outcome of this election, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I think we can all recognize that the arc of history is bending, that many are placing their hope on a better day, that change has come to our nation.
There is, of course, the historic change of an African American with mixed-race parentage rising up out of our traumatic history of slavery and racism, and becoming our 44th President. The enormity of this cannot be overstated. We will always struggle with racism as one of the imbedded sins of our nation. But millions of African Americans are dancing with joy, hardly able to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation has finally been fulfilled, the arduous and bloody Civil Rights Movement has finally come to fruition. Thank God.
Tuesday night I talked to my mother about Nettie Lynch. Nettie, an African American, was hired as a young woman in the 1920’s by my grandparents to be the family nanny, cook, and housekeeper. She stayed as a member of the family for some 50 years, outliving my grandparents. Nettie’s father Willie Lynch was Abraham Lincoln’s valet when he was President, and was present at the Ford Theatre when he was shot. After that tragic event, the family migrated to California for a new life, starting over in the wild west of Carson City, Nevada, where she met my grandfather.
Nettie really raised my mother, with a formidable guiding hand, and she was a kind of grandmother to me. I remember her sitting in the living room watching television with my grandmother, two elderly women, almost like partners, witnessing the events of the civil rights movement unfold on the screen in front of them, but not talking much about it. After my grandmother died, my parents bought her a house and supported her until she passed away. I’d mow Nettie’s lawn every Saturday and then we’d listen to the radio, hoping that Willie Mays would hit another home run for our beloved San Francisco Giants.
But when this daughter of President Lincoln’s valet took the bus to San Jose on her day off, the only restaurant that would serve her was Woolworth’s – this was only 50 years ago, in the San Francisco Bay Area. And when this beloved member of our family served us Sunday supper, she would go sit in the kitchen by herself and eat. The ugly line of racism, even in our kind and generous family, was traced across the floor.
You, no doubt, have your own stories. Reviewing where we’ve come from, it is obvious that change has come to America, and I hope that Nettie is able to see this day. I would want to celebrate and dance in the streets with her.
But President-elect Obama is not just a black man. He is also, in the words of Colin Powell, the next generation. He has come to embody the conviction that many of our ways of doing things are no longer working, that it is high time to rethink how we approach the global economy, international conflict, immigration, health care, and so much more. It is time for us to make a leap forward in our evolution as a human community. I pray that we are at a tipping point, when a historic shift just might take place. Humankind does this from time to time.
We cannot be passive in this time. We cannot sit back, half asleep, and wait for the bridegroom, hoping that he will take us to a better day. “Keep awake,” Jesus said. If we hope to bend the arc of history towards hope again, we’ll need to make sure our lamps are full of oil. What would that look like for us, as citizens today?
It includes continuing to be as involved in the democratic process, as so many millions were in this campaign. I’ve never seen such engagement in my life. Everybody I know was doing something. Don’t stop now! Find a cause you believe in, something that your Christian faith motivates you to do, and remember what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Filling our lamps with oil also includes doing what we can to make sure that communities and institutions that are a force for good, such as St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, are as strong as possible. This parish is not just a place to come for personal inspiration, a kind of spirituality club. We are a lamp of hope to our city and our state, as we provide inspiring worship, compassion for the suffering, formation in the faith for children and adults, food for the hungry, and advocacy for the marginalized.
Our nation will only be as strong and forward-moving as its neighborhood churches and other local institutions, like ours, are. We may not be able to make Congress do everything we want, but we can invest in communities of hope where we live, and in so doing, encourage the forward momentum of our nation.
So when you go to a pledge party soon, or when you get your pledge card in the mail and you fill it out, think of it as an investment in your nation. Today, the world needs St. Michael’s spiritual depth, strength, and compassion more than ever. This is no time to hold back, sitting in the dark with empty lamps. This is precisely the time, at this tipping point in history, to fill up our budget, our buildings, our worship, and our ministries with the oil of the Spirit, and be a part of this movement.
As our President-elect said, “I ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….it can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice…where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”
God comes to us in this moment. So wake up and get ready for the journey ahead. Fill your inner lamp, fill the lamp of our parish community, fill the other lamps that are within your circle of concern. Then together, illumined by the Spirit, let’s move on down the road, so that we can all join in the wedding feast of God’s kingdom.