November 8, 2020 - Proper 27
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” That's Jesus’ parting line in the Gospel reading for today. How do you keep awake? Do you count sheep? Drink coffee? Set an alarm to go off regularly?
The ancient writer Pliny, in The Natural History, writes, "During the night, also, [cranes] place sentinels on guard, each of which holds a little stone in its claw: if the bird should happen to fall asleep, the claw becomes relaxed, and the stone falls to the ground, and so convicts it of neglect. The rest sleep in the meanwhile, with the head beneath the wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other: the leader looks out, with neck erect, and gives warning when required” (Book X. Chapter 30).
In all illustrated manuscripts of this book, the sentry bird is the only bird with eyes open. Various manuscripts show each of the sleeping cranes standing on one leg with all five birds having their heads above their bodies. Others show all the birds with “craned” necks, where the sentry crane looks up, while the sleeping cranes have tucked their heads under their wings. The sleeping cranes here are standing on two feet. But, the sentry crane holds the stone in its claw.
Centuries earlier, Aristotle had described cranes in History of Animals by writing, “When they settle down, the main body go to sleep with their heads under their wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other, while their leader, with his head uncovered, keeps a sharp look out, and when he sees anything of importance signals it with a cry” (Book IX.X.).
Who are the people we might identify as our “sentry birds”? They are the ones who remain awake as the rest of us sleep. They are the ones who cry out to warn us of impending danger. Are WE willing to take our turn as a sentry bird?
In today’s gospel story, the bridegroom’s arrival is greeted with a shout to awaken those who are to attend the celebration. Similarly, the Messiah is expected to arrive unheralded, with everyone taken by surprise. Five of the young women -- the wise ones -- are prepared; they have oil with which to refill their lamps. But the other five -- the foolish ones -- are not ready, and their lamps are empty. In a different situation, Jesus would have called for those who had oil to share with those who had none; but today’s parable offers no such option. Indeed, Matthew maintains that there will not even be time for a worker in the field to pick up his clothes laid aside during labor, for the coming of the Messiah will be like lightning.
And so, the prudent -- even if they want to -- will not have time to share with the careless. This leaves the young women seeking someone to sell them oil at midnight, but by the time they find someone, it is too late. The bridegroom has arrived and the feast has already begun.
But to be clear, today’s parable does not speak of there being a shortage of oil for the lamps. It speaks only of those five bridesmaids forgetting that they would need it.
To me, it seems that “keeping awake” as we are told to do today in Jesus’ words is simply knowing that we have all that we need if we only will receive it. If only we remember that what we need is there for us. A supply of oil to help light our way forward. We already have Jesus as we await the return of the bridegroom. We already have Jesus, but we must pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift. All we have to do is fill our lamps.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The message of Matthew is to live in preparedness. It is NOT a paranoid preparedness. Rather, it is the call to live each day as though it were our last. Live it not in fear of the worst that might happen, but in expectation and hope for the best to come -- the new heaven and the new earth. To be the sentry bird for others and to herald for others the arrival of that time when Jesus comes again.
We must be prepared to fill our lamps when they run low. Friends, that has to be enough on those days when our hearts break at the pain and suffering in this world. We alone cannot alter or change that. But we can fill our lamps with oil. We can keep our lamps shining as signs of promise and hope. We have more than enough oil to do that. And -- for now -- isn’t that enough? And in the end, isn’t that really everything? Isn’t promise and hope truly what our world needs most of all