The Lectionary This Week – Fill Your Lamps

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 32, 09 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Amos 5:18-24
  • Psalm 70
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

I’m going to a little something different as I consider these lectionary readings this week.

The last time these readings rolled around was 2011. Kurt Hendel, a professor of church history and Lutheran confessions at LSTC, asked me to play a song I’d played earlier in the semester, “No People, No Pity,” one of two I wrote on prophetic judgment and promise for the confirmation kids at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Somonauk, Illinois, for a sermon he was set to preach in the seminary chapel the week of these readings.

I was not keen on playing the same song twice in one semester, so I told Dr. Hendel I’d write him a pair of songs based on the Amos reading and the Matthew reading. It wasn’t a commission as such, but what came out of this was “Fill Your Lamps” and “Let Justice Roll Down.” And writing these songs about this bit of the lectionary was actually quite eye opening.

First, the readings. I’ll start with Amos:

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:18-24 ESV)

What we have hear is the passing of judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, following the long indictment of Israel and Judah (which themselves come after an indictment and judgement of Israel’s neighbors). It proclaims the “Day of the Lord,” which apparently some in Judah are eagerly awaiting. (Rapture, anyone?) Amos says that day will not go very well for those who actually want it to come. It will be a dark and frightful day, full of dread, and pain, and suffering, and death.

And now, the Matthew reading, which at first glance struck me as utterly unrelated:

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. ’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out. ’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves. ’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us. ’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. ’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 ESV)

Again, this is a judgment text, in a long line of Matthew judgment texts. And for Matthew, for the community Matthew speaks to (and for), escaping the coming judgment is hugely important. That some will be swept up in that judgment, and not ready for it, is also crucial to Matthew. I have written at length about judgment previously, and so I will set that aside today.

When I looked at these two texts, and considered how to make songs out of them, the thing that struck me most was how to balance them against each other, and how to make sense of them in terms of each other. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t just simply pull them out of hat, or matched them together on a whim. There was a reason. To quote Craig Satterlee, “They may have actually known what they were doing.”

The link, I decided, was in the judgement of the deeds in question. In the Amos reading, God utterly rejects Israel’s worship, its sacrifices, its praises. They are meaningless, and God has promised to flood Israel and destroy it rather than heed worship and praises that were empty and pointless. The justice God plans is an annihilating justice, and it reminded me of desert storms that seemed to come out of nowhere, dump an intense and overwhelming amount of rain, and then as quickly as they came, simply move on or disappear. Gullies become temporary — and frequently dangerous — temporary rivers.

“Let Justice Roll Down” is a fairly straightforward rewording of the text, with my experience of desert rain (From New Mexico, California, and Saudi Arabia) informing how I understand the flood of justice that Amos is calling down. I’m not a “social justice” Christian, and I frequently find social justice talk smug and self-righteous, as most of those talk that talk seem to me to assume they are always on right side (or will be) of God’s justice. Amos here is reminding all who listen that God’s justice is overwhelming and annihilating — it destroys all in its path (Noah’s flood, for example).

We experience that annihilating justice as mercy in baptism. Because in baptism, we are put to death, we are annihilated, and then raised again. There is the prophetic promise of new life that Amos leaves to the last few verses of his long and somewhat frightening declaration of judgment. And at Kurt Hendel’s suggestion, I altered the repetition of the last verse to reflect the fact that even though these quick desert storms wash away and destroy, they also provide the necessary water for the plants of the desert to bloom. Desert plants bloom quickly and furiously after a even a short rain. New birth, new life, coming from the annihilating flood.

And now that I look at the passage, the desert comparison is even more apt, because Amos also wants “an ever-flowing stream.” After washing away the old, this new water will not be subject to the vagaries of the monsoon cycle, but rather, will bubble up and provide water so a garden can grow and thrive where once only parched plants and the hardiest of critters struggled to survive in the harshest of conditions.

I don’t remember if I played that revised second refrain in chapel or not when Dr. Hendel preached it. It wasn’t part of my original lyrics, and I’ve scrawled them at the bottom of the lyric page.

Okay, but how does this relate to the Matthew reading? I mean, aside from judgment, which I’m not really dealing with today? I thought a lot about the relationship between the actions condemned in Amos and approved of in Matthew. What might be the difference? God condemns empty worship for the sake of empty worship in Amos. But why might those who fill their lamps be the young women ready to meet the bridegroom here?

This is where I got creative with “Fill Your Lamps.” I’m going to post the lyrics to the son as well, and I hope you can see what I’ve done.

Fill your lamps with the oil of gladness
Fill your lamps with the oil of kindness
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of healing
Fill your lamps with the oil of blessing
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of patience
Fill your lamps with the oil of celebration
Wait for the Lord to come

Dark midnight’s coming, yet the Spirit pours
Abundant oil to anoint and to restore

Fill your lamps with the oil of friendship
Fill your lamps with the oil of worship
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of compassion
Fill your lamps with love in action
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of mercy
Fill your lamps with the oil of hospitality
Wait for the Lord to come

Behold, it’s midnight, and the bridegroom’s here!
In our darkest moment God’s light appears!

I made the oil, and the filling of the lamps, a metaphor for the commands Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in Matthew, on how we should live together as the people of God. In effect, we fill our lamps and “wait for the Lord to come” by living as Jesus has called us to live — with self-giving love, compassion, mercy, and kindness. Our lives together as a community of people, the love we show to each other and to the world, is itself a form of waiting for the Lord. Yes, the implication is some will be ready and some will not. But that message is central to Matthew — some will, in fact, be ready, and some will not. Judgment is coming, the master is coming, the bridegroom is coming. We don’t know when. So be ready.

The main difference I saw when I wrote these two songs — Amos condemns acts aimed at solely pleasing God for the sake of pleasing God. By “filling the oil” with the content of the beatitudes here, Jesus is encouraging acts intended not to please God but to show love to neighbor by noting that such acts will also please God.

This song is an exhortation, and not a condemnation. But if I want to go that route, then something this approach to the reading suggests is that this Christian way of living together is not a commodity, not something that can be bought or bartered or traded. It cannot be given away either. It must be carefully cultivated, and it cannot simply be acquired at a moment’s notice. (And even the virgins who are ready fall asleep, and are awoken by the bridegroom.) Kindness. Mercy. Generosity. Love. These are not easy things. They are hard, and hard to live in an unkind and violent world.

Now, perhaps I am doing a tremendous injustice to the passage by making the oil (and the lamps) so metaphorical. I don’t know. I do know I like “Fill Your Lamps,” and it was one of my more inspired melodies. Because I don’t actually write musical notation, it took concerted effort to remember this melody (that happens a lot), some deliberate dwelling on it before it got properly lodged in that part of my memory that contains song melodies.

And so, I will be playing this song this coming Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Westchester, Illinois. Come out and listen, and maybe even sing it with me!