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A door has been opened on Tuesday. In a time of economic uncertainty and overall concern about America’s place and role in the world, the people of this nation have opened a door with this election. The shame and lingering injustice of slavery are like walls that restrict the imagination and the actual participation of all people in public life—but the same people opened a door. Even if you didn’t vote for the Senator from Illinois, surely you will celebrate that a man whose father came from Africa will be the next president of the United States.
A text message sent from phone to phone across the nation spelled out the significance of this election that goes far beyond partisan politics: Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack ran so our children can fly.
A door has been opened, and we have the privilege of following our children as they cross the threshold into a future where the walls that separate us no longer exist.
Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8).
In this passage from the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us about prayer and perseverance in prayer. For generations we have prayed, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” first suspecting and then knowing that human dignity and freedom are not determined by skin color or ethnic background. We know that it is God’s will that we live in ways that reflect that truth of one humanity. For generations we have searched for ways to move from the guilt and shame of slavery and Jim Crow toward reconciliation and restored community. For generations we have been knocking, and a door has been opened.
I’ve been thinking about closed doors a lot this past week. I replayed a scene from my childhood in my mind, again and again. My brother and I shared a bedroom for many years—two beds, two desks, a dresser with two sets of drawers, and a wardrobe with two doors. We shared a room, but it often felt more like the Berlin Wall ran right through it. There was a seam in the carpet, just between our beds, and at times that line was as heavily guarded as the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. We could be very territorial.
I don’t remember what exactly happened one day, but my brother was in our room and he had locked the door while I was gone. I asked him to please let me in, but he didn’t. I knocked, gently first, then harder, but his response didn’t change. I pleaded with him, and he laughed – he thought it was hilarious.
Eventually I went to the kitchen and came back with a sturdy stool, solid beech wood. “Let me in.” – He just laughed. I was furious. I grabbed the stool, swung it over my shoulder, and – wham! – hit that door as hard as I could.
Too bad there weren’t any baseball recruiters around to see my swing – they would have been impressed by the hole I put in that door. My brother and I looked at it and suddenly agreed, “Man, that was stupid.”
His ugly pleasure in shutting me out was gone, and so was my angry frustration. We finally found common purpose in mending the damage we had caused, and in working together we learned to live together in a shared room.
The story of the bridesmaids doesn’t end with a vision of togetherness, but rather with harsh separation. Five of them stand outside. They knock and they plead, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” And the voice from behind the closed door declares, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Is he pretending? Is he playing some cruel game? Is he telling us that parts of his sermon on the mount need to be rewritten?
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you—unless of course you ran out of oil and show up late for the banquet, in which case you might as well forget about the party.
Do we need to rewrite his earlier teachings?
Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ (Mt 6:31). But worry about your oil and how big a bottle you will have to fill to let your light shine when the bridegroom arrives. Worry about your oil and let others worry about theirs, so you don’t end up sitting outside in the darkness.
Is Matthew telling us that worries about oil not only determine the economic and foreign policy of nations but our life in the kingdom as well? Is everything Jesus said earlier suddenly up for revision?
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” the story ends—well, nothing beats worries in keeping you awake; so is sleeplessness suddenly a Christian virtue? Are we to stay awake, worried about our personal oil supply while anxiously scanning the horizon for the Son of Man coming with power and great glory (Mt 24:30)?
No, not at all.
When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid:
yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet.
Proverbs 3:24, we have to hear it in beautiful King James English to grasp that this is both a promise and a command. It is the Lord who neither slumbers nor sleeps so that God’s people can lie down and sleep in peace (Ps 4:8; Ps 121:4-5). The reign of God is like a baby, sound asleep in her mother’s lap, not like a bunch of frantic bridesmaids running through the night in search of fuel for their lamps.
To live in joyful anticipation of the reign of God to be fulfilled in all things is like waiting for a wedding feast to begin. Ten bridesmaids, each wearing a dress cut from the same fabric and carrying a lamp—and nothing in their appearance would tell you which ones are foolish or wise. Ten bridesmaids waiting to meet the bridegroom, waiting for the procession to begin. All ten become drowsy and go to sleep, taking a little nap before the big party, lamps in their laps, and no one can tell which ones are wise or foolish. But then they wake up. And suddenly there’s a line running right down the middle, wise ones on the right, foolish ones on the left, separated like sheep from goats.
This isn’t the first time Jesus talks about lamps. In the sermon on the mount, he teaches us about the life of discipleship, and he says,
You are the light of the world. […] No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Mt 5:14-16).
Let your light shine. Give light to all in the house. Let the world see your good works. The oil in our lamps isn’t some hard-to-find commodity for which we must compete; it isn’t even something we have; it is who we are. Waiting for the fullness of God’s reign is not about hoarding oil or anything else – it’s about burning with expectation.
This isn’t the first time Jesus talks about being foolish or wise. In the sermon on the mount, he says,
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall (Mt 7:24-27)!
The oil that makes our lives shine like lamps on a stand are the teachings of Jesus, teachings that light us up and transform us and our actions. This kind of oil cannot be commodified, bottled, sold or borrowed.
- I can look at Rosa Parks and the courage and beauty of her witness, but I can’t ask her, “Could you give me some of that?”
- I can look at Martin Luther King and his prophetic passion for justice, but I can’t turn to him, “Let me borrow some of that.”
What you and I and everyone who hears the words of Jesus can do, though, is act on them with courage and passion. What we can do is greet the bridegroom who comes to us in the hungry and the thirsty, in the stranger and the homeless and the imprisoned. What we can do is open doors we have the power to open, and step through doors that have been opened for us. What we can do and must do is stay alert during those daily kingdom moments when simple acts of mercy and compassion extend the boundaries of God’s reign and include the excluded.
Five of the bridesmaids stand outside. They knock and they plead, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” And the voice from behind the closed door declares, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” This isn’t a cruel game of playing stranger, nor does it mean that parts of the sermon on the mount need to be rewritten. In that sermon Jesus says,
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
The bridegroom’s glorious arrival may be delayed, but the moment for the life of discipleship to begin is now – and the door is open. The coming of God’s reign in fullness may be delayed, but the time for us to live a kingdom life is now – and the door is open. Our watchfulness is needed not for scanning the horizons of history for the return of Christ—but for recognizing him in the faces of the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the refugee, the homeless, and those locked behind prison doors.
The wise man hears the words of Jesus and acts on them. The wise bridesmaid hears the words of Jesus and lets her life be a lamp for his light.