“Let’s just say it: This Scripture makes church folk look bad,” said the Rev. Anna Carter Florence at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Filling Stations,” and the text was Matthew 25:1-13, the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids.
“Church folk look like people who only take care of themselves,” she said. “They hoard and stockpile and think that, if people are in need, it is their own darn fault. I asked an unchurched friend to read the passage with me, and he said, ‘This is in the Bible? That is not right.’ ”
Florence tried to understand this passage by placing it with other passages from Matthew, using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
“This passage made mincemeat out of the Beatitudes,” she said. “I put it next to Matthew 6:19, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,’ although, to get to heaven, you will need a large stockpile of oil on earth. Or Matthew 6:25, ‘Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink,’ worry about your oil and make sure you have enough for you. Or Matthew 7:7, ‘Seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you,’ unless you are late and the bridegroom answers the door. Or Matthew 7:12, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ in everything except oil, which changes everything.”
The congregation laughed.
The passage, she said, challenges most of the things we believe about God. If taking care of yourself was the main message of the Bible, then the feeding of the 5,000 would never have taken place.
“It would have been the moral of the very prepared,” Florence said.
The passage, she said, resonates with her because she likes to be prepared, and she said when people are asked to preach at Chautauqua, they should come with a sermon ready.
“I believe in savings accounts and life insurance,” she said. “This is why we get angry when things go horribly wrong. It looks like some did not do their homework: ‘If there was a plan, this disaster would never have happened.’ ”
Florence admitted she did not like the five “smarmy bridesmaids, but I might vote for them.” She asked if the five wise bridesmaids had oil at home — were they normally geneous, but this was the last of their oil? Did the five foolish bridesmaids forget to go to the store, or did they have barrels of oil at home and just forgot to bring some?
“It is not about how much oil you have, but how much you carry with you,” she said. “The five wise bridesmaids brought flasks to keep their lamps going. The five foolish ones did not. It won’t do you any good to have oil at home. What kind of oil to we carry with us? This is not a commodity that we buy and sell.”
At Columbia Seminary, Florence and her colleagues give a lecture to students on the spiritual life of a preacher. They use a lamp as a visual aid to show that a preacher is a light for others. They light the lamp, but it is rigged with only a lit bit of oil and it goes out quickly.
“When the oil runs out, you run out, we tell them,” she said. “A person without oil cannot be a light to the world. What fills you up spiritually? Where do you find God? How do you make sure that you get enough oil?”
Florence said everyone will run dry, and she reminded the congregation of the emergency instructions on an airplane: In the event oxygen is needed, put your own mask on first and then help those around you.
As a mother, wife, teacher, writer and conference lecturer, Florence said she knows what it means to run out of oil, referencing her personal experiences with her family.
“Some fuel is not negotiable,” she said. “You cannot borrow it from someone else. Teenagers can borrow homework, but they cannot borrow the hours the other person put in studying for the test. We need reserves that no one else can build up for us. Your passion for God, what fills you up spiritually, you carry with you every second of every day.”
Individuals will run out, Florence said, and time will run out, and the time will come to draw on the oil that one has. It will come from what fuels you spiritually and how you see God today, she told the congregation.
How do you keep that fuel going? From Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”
“That is where you will find Jesus — where you will be filled,” she said.
Some people use this passage to scare people into being afraid they will be locked out of the Kingdom, Florence said.
“They are missing the point,” she said. “We fill our flask and take it with us because we can’t wait to meet the bridegroom. We take it out of joy — the desire to meet Jesus when he comes. Which he will. Which he will.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Department of Religion, presided. The Rev. Bruce Archibald, a retired Presbyterian minister and president of the Presbyterian House board of trustees, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “A City Called Heaven” by Dwight Bigler. The Dr. William N. Jackson Religious Initiative Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services.