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Worship and Sermons
November 12, 2017

“Well Oiled Faith” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, November 5 2017, Year A / Pentecost 22 (Commitment Sunday) –  Amos 5:18-24  •  Psalm 70  •  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  •  Matthew 25:1-13

THEME:  Don’t let our compassionate care for others dwindle so that Jesus will recognize us when we he returns.


          When I was a kid, our whole family used to watch Star Trek.  I’m talking about the original TV series created by Gene Roddenberry.  It first aired in 1966.  William Shatner was Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy was First Officer Spock and James Doohan played Scotty, the ship’s engineer.

          One of the things about the show that made it so popular was the way the writers anticipated new technology.  Maybe the best of all was the ship itself:  the Starship Enterprise. 

          Whenever Captain Kirk needed to get somewhere lickety split, he would tell Lieutenant Sulu to put the ship into warp drive.  And off they would go, faster than the speed of light.

          The reason they could travel so fast was the special fuel source they had.  Do you remember what it was?  Dilithium Crystals - a rare mineral found on only a few planets in the galaxy.  When placed in an electromagnetic field, it allowed the ship to move at Warp Speed.  As long as they had a supply of DiLithium crystals, they could get anywhere they needed to go.   They just had to be sure it never ran out.

           It struck me this week that our gospel text has the same message for us.

          At one level, this parable is as straight forward as they come.  Jesus is the bridegroom.  His followers are the bridesmaids.  They’re waiting for the bridegroom to come (Jesus’ return) so they can walk with him into the wedding banquet, which represents the Kingdom of God.

          The bridegroom, however, is delayed.  All of them fall asleep.  Half of them – the wise ones – have had the foresight to bring a supply of extra oil to keep their lamps burning while they wait.  The other half, however, have not.

          When word comes that the bridegroom is approaching, they all wake with a start, because nobody knew for sure when he would come. 

          That’s when the foolish bridesmaids begin to panic. “We don't have enough oil!  Our lamps are going out!” 

          They’re forced to head off to buy some more oil.  While they’re gone, the bridegroom – Jesus – comes and brings the wise followers with him into the banquet.  By the time the foolish followers return, it’s too late. 

          Most surprising of all, their failure to stock up on oil has made them unrecognizable to the bridegroom.  Because they’re not prepared, there will be no banquet for them, no entrance into the Kingdom, only the damnation of life spent in the outer darkness.

          The thing that puzzles most people, is the oil.  What does the oil represent?  Most important, how do we make sure we’ll have enough to last until Jesus returns?

          Many have suggested that the oil signifies the presence of God in our life, or the Holy Spirit or faith in general.

          All of these are right, as far as they go.  But they don’t go far enough.  Matthew has in mind something more.

          For Matthew and his community of Jewish Christians, faith is not real until it’s put into practice.  The test is whether our faith leads us to help those Jesus called the least:  the widow and the orphan, the prisoner and the immigrant, the poor and naked, the homeless and the hungry.

          The oil represents is not just any faith but true, living faith – a faith that lights up our lives as we put it into practice to light up others’ lives.  And not just every once in awhile, but for a lifetime.  Only when helping the marginalized becomes a lifelong habit will we become recognizable to Jesus on judgment day.

          None of us knows when that is.  All we really know for sure is he’ll come at an unexpected time.  But we’re all human.  We all lose focus when we get tired of waiting. We’re tempted to let our faith falter and our works wither.  We have a name for this phenomenon:  it’s called compassion fatigue. 

          At it’s extreme, compassion fatigue is actually a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  When we think of PTSD, we most often think of the military.

          With the celebration of Veteran’s Day yesterday, it’s a good time to remember that 20% of returning soldiers suffer from PTSD.  Half of them go undiagnosed.  Among the other half, only half of them (one quarter of the total) receive anything like adequate care and treatment.  That’s a big reason why 22 US veterans take their own lives every day.

          Veterans are by no means the only ones affected by PTSD.  Our front line responders also suffer from it.  Doctors, nurses, counselors, therapists and EMT personnel are all exposed to trauma on a regular basis. 

          By helping people who’ve experienced trauma, they themselves develop symptoms of PTSD.  One therapist said she experiences as much as 45% of the suffering her patients do.

          The helpers' symptoms often go unnoticed.  They suffer from anger, anxiety and disrupted sleep.  They often feel powerless and emotionally disconnected from family, friends and life itself.  That is the very definition of compassion fatigue.

          But it’s not just those in helping professions who suffer from trauma-induced compassion fatigue.  70% of adults in the US have, at some point in their lives, experienced trauma.

          All of us experience it at least indirectly.  As we witness what feels like a tidal wave of tragic events – the shootings in Texas and Las Vegas, ongoing revelation of sexual abuse, the persecution of minorities and the refugee crisis – it’s not surprising that 25 million Americans have PTSD.  Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from it.

          That’s a whole lot of compassion fatigue.  I know that a number of you experience it, too.  Some of you are caring for loved ones who face health issues.  You know first-hand what compassion fatigue feels like. 

          In fact, all of us are called to be caregivers, whether that means helping a parent, spouse or child, or helping folks who are suffering in places like Harrisburg, West Virginia and Maine.  We care because Jesus commands us to love the least the way we love him.

          So, we all have to take seriously the real and present threat of compassion fatigue.  That is the warning of today’s text. 

          So, on this Caregivers’ Sunday, I’ll pass along three pieces of practical wisdom from folks who know a thing or two about this.

          First, take a break.  No one can be compassionate all the time.  That’s the path to burnout.  The trick is to regularly focus on reminders of what’s soothing, good and joyful in our lives.  Even if it’s just little things – looking at family pictures or taking a walk – these help us to balance the vicarious suffering we feel as caregivers.

          Second, tell a joke. Better yet, swap jokes with somebody who’s got a good sense of humor.  It was the writer and publisher, Bennett Cerf, who said “Laughter is the best medicine.”  We Christians have not always appreciated the power of humor, but if we are indeed made in God’s image, then we surely worship a God who has a terrific sense of humor.  Tickling our funny bone is one of the best ways to relieve stress.

          Third, say thanks.  Research shows a whole host of benefits come from regularly practicing gratitude.  Not only does it renew our compassion, it also helps us sleep better, become kinder, and even gives us stronger immune systems.


          That means remembering the original source of our oil:  God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Our compassion for others is simply a reflection of his compassion for us.  His love fuels our love.  It’s like the DiLithium crystals that power the Enterprise, we never want our supply to run out.

          So, whether we’re caring for a family member close at hand or folks in need further afield, let’s remember to take a breather, tell a joke and, most important, give thanks to God for his love. 

          This is how we make sure our lamps are burning brightly for as long as it takes Jesus to return.  It’s also how he’ll recognize us when he does.

          Let it be so.

Last Published: November 13, 2017 2:55 PM
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