November 23, 2014

Avoiding the Oil Crisis


Text: Matthew 25:3-4: “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”

Within the past few years the Vestry has undertaken to greatly increase the energy efficiency of Saint John’s by installing an incredibly efficient new gas-burning furnace right beneath your feet. And we all held the reasonable hope that this would help us achieve a lower expenses for our utilities, because we were shifting from heating oil to natural gas as our fuel source.

It was a good plan, and it was made after a great deal of deliberation. And now comes the news that electricity prices in New England this winter are expected to be higher than in any place in the rest of the country. It feels a little bit as though we just can’t win. Unless maybe we just give up electricity, and become the first Amish Episcopal church in America.

We’ve been thinking seriously about energy for forty years now, since the first time the phrase “oil crisis” appeared in the headlines. Some of us are old enough to remember those days; before then, gas was thirty-three cents a gallon and you didn’t really think much about things like insulation or R factors or programmable thermostats. In a lot of ways, the oil crisis was the best thing that ever happened to us; it not only made us aware of the fragility of our dependence on fossil fuels, it may just turn out to be what history will point to as the moment that turned us on our first steps away from irreversibly damaging the climate.

The thing we got right was that we planned. We saw what was coming, we understood that we needed to make a change, and we made careful and considered plans.

This strange little parable from Matthew is like a foretaste of Advent a few weeks early; it is an advent of Advent. It’s not really a story about bridesmaids and a bridegroom that appears out of the dead of night. It’s not really even a story about oil lamps and the need to keep a sufficient supply of oil ready at hand at all times.

This little parable, remember, starts out with the most important clue: “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” That doesn’t mean there will be bridesmaids and a bridegroom, or lamps or oil or even a banquet­—although very often the descriptions we get of what heaven is like involve banquets.

No, what the story is meant to relate is not caught up in its details, but in the narrative elements that make the story work. The bridesmaids could just as well be farmers setting by grain for the winter, or fire fighters making sure the tanker truck is filled with water every day, or accountants making sure they have enough paper in the printer for tax season.

What the story teaches us about the kingdom of heaven is three basic things:

First: You already know what you need to get there. The smart bridesmaids are all alike in this one basic thing: they all know that lamps need oil. Some of them take responsibility for planning accordingly; some of them don’t. Knowing what is needed is not the same thing as doing it. Saying the words of the creed is not the same thing as living the faith. We already know what we need to do to get there.

Second: We don’t know when the moment will come when we need to be ready to get up and go. In one sense that is a message about the fragility of this life of ours; it’s a reminder, if we needed a reminder, that our circumstances can change calamitously in the flash of a moment, that life can end suddenly and unexpectedly.

But in another sense this is, again, a herald of the themes of Advent. It may be that the moment that heralds the coming of the kingdom is the return of Christ. That is the future our faith proclaims, and in that moment, whatever it means and however it comes, our preparation will be shown for exactly what it was worth, for good or ill.

Third: Not everybody gets to go. This is a part of the message we struggle with. The implication of the story of the bridesmaids at least seems to be that this judgment, the exclusion of some people and the inclusion of others, is not random; it’s based entirely and only on merit. If you have prepared, you enter in; if you are out trying to pull together a few last things before showing up at, oh, ten minutes past ten, then you may find the door shut, and the chance lost.

This is where we part company with our brothers and sisters who claim the label of Universalists. This basic idea—the idea that heaven is in some basic way a place with a gate, that there are those who will not be admitted—has been deeply troubling to people of good will and deep conscience down through the centuries, so much so that they have constructed a whole theology based on offering an alternative take on texts like this one.

But Jesus seems to have a pretty clear message here. Not everyone gets into heaven. It isn’t all bad news; the way to be admitted isn’t to be of a specific race, or class, or to have a certain kind of degree, or income. It’s not anything unreachable by anyone. It simply takes doing it. The “it” is the rest of the gospel message. It’s living out—doing—the will of our loving God.

That’s the good news in all this. The oil crisis can be avoided. We can make sure that we get to enter into the banquet when the bridegroom comes. We simply need to do what we already know is necessary. Pray. Forgive. Work. Help. And give thanks. Amen.