‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Looking for Empty Lamps: Matthew 25:1-13
I read a really beautiful story this week in an article called “Love’s Road Home" (there's a link to the article below). It was a story about a wedding that a judge named Terrence Lavin got to officiate in Chicago back on Halloween day. He was very happy to officiate this particular wedding. He said, “These two fighters are now, and shall forever remain, together. And I have to tell you that I’ve never been more confident about a knot that I helped to tie.” He was marrying two people name Sam Siatta and Ashley Volk. The story of how he came to know them is what caught my attention. These weren’t people who just came to the court house looking to get married and signed up with whatever judge would have them. No, these two are a couple that Lavin sought out and developed a relationship with. He saw great potential in their lives and wanted to help them reach it. He only saw the potential, though, because he was paying attention. Or, in the words of Jesus, he was awake, and aware that something good and holy can bloom anywhere, including in someone who has just been released from prison and can’t find a job.
Lavin’s part of this story began his nephew, Conner T. Lowry, who enlisted in the Marines in 2008. According to his uncle, Mr. Lowry wanted to join the Marines because he thought it would help him “straighten out his life a little bit.” Judge Lavin was not in favor of this decision at all. He felt like the risks of joining the military at this point in history were too great for people in the enlisted ranks. He was critical of the war, even as he as supported individual soldiers. In short, he was worried, as any of us would be if and when someone in our family joins the military. But, Conner was clear that he intended to enlist, and he did, with the same exuberance and confidence with which he had lived his entire 20 years up to that point. His uncle, and the rest of the family, sent him off with great love and their blessing.
In late February of 2012, Conner was on a tour in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. One night, when he talked to his mom, he told her that he had a mission the next day. He also told her about tension that had developed when some American troops had burned copies of the Quran while destroying some possessions of prisoners. This action had not help strengthen the relationship between the American and Afghan troops. Civilians were protesting. The Afghan troops had actually been asked to leave the outpost where he was stationed. The next day, on the mission that he had mentioned to his mother, Conner, now Corporal Lowry, was killed when standing in a turret in a moving vehicle. The vehicle he was in struck a live electrical wire hung over the road on which they were driving. According to the article I read, his mother, Modie Lavin, still isn’t sure if it was a trap or an accident that killed her son.
Terrence Lavin, her brother, Conner’s uncle, wanted to do something to honor his nephew, but wasn’t sure how until he came upon Sam and Ashley’s story in an article (not the one I’m talking about) in the New York Times magazine. Like Conner, Sam had been a Marine and had served in Afghanistan. His time in the service had been hard. His role had been similar to that of a sniper and he had spent much of his time in intense, bloody battles. Even after his tour was up, he was still jumpy. The article I read described him as feeling sorrow, shame, and confusion about his time as a Marine. He had already been drinking as a kind of self-medication. He would continue to drink more and more. One day in 2014, he drank so much that he blacked out and broke into a neighbor’s home, possibly thinking it was his own. He and the neighbor, also a former Marine, got into a heck of a fight. Sam lost the fight and ended up sentenced to six years in prison.
He was able to get out early and had been trying to rebuild his life with Ashley, but they hit a string of bad luck. Due to a paperwork issue, he lost his disability from the military. Given that he had a felony on his record and was on probation, he had trouble finding a job. He wasn’t drinking anymore and was getting help with his PTSD, but, still, things were hard. Ashley worked nights as a bartender just to scrape together enough for them to have a roof over their heads and the essentials they needed for survival. Ashley said that she had loved Sam since they were 10 years old. He had proposed while he was in prison, tying a piece of dental floss around his finger to remind him of the future that he hoped they could build together. Judge Lavin thought it was obvious that they were committed to one another, but they really needed some help. They needed someone who was awake enough to really see them. Because of what happened to his nephew, Justice Lavin was awake. He was paying attention.
Lavin invited Siatta and Volk to meet him at his office. Lavin listened to their story and did something very important: he asked Sam what he needed. That where all stories like this should start, with this question: What do you need? Siatta said he needed a job. Lavin, who had been a steelworker as a young man and knew many people in unions in the area, connected Sam with a group called Helmets to Hardhats. This group places veterans in building and construction jobs. Fortunately the local carpenters’ union was accepting applications. Sam got put at the head of the line. He began a carpentry course last summer. Now, he’s an apprentice carpenter. Ashley still works as a bartender, but she doesn’t have to pull all those extra shifts. In early October, while they were on a date, Sam asked Ashley, again, if she wanted to get married, maybe on Halloween. She thought he meant next year. No, he meant this year… just in a couple weeks. Of course she said yes. Remember, she's loved him since she was 10 years old. Justice Lavin agreed to officiate.
It was a small wedding. Sam’s mom and Ashley’s parents were present. The lawyer who had represented Sam for free also attended, as did the retired judge who helped get him released early from prison. The man who helped him get in the union came, too. Justice Lavin wouldn’t let them dress in costume for the wedding (their original idea)… there is such a thing as decorum he said, but he did spread rose petals down the aisle of the courtroom and bought some flowers to spruce up the place. Sam and Ashley used Sam’s parents’ wedding rings. Ashley did keep the string that Sam used to wear around his finger to bring himself hope, but she left it at home, in a safe place. During the wedding, Justice Lavin spoke of Ashley’s great strength, saying, “She kept on fighting, for him and for them.” He praised their commitment and happily administered their vows.
They didn’t get a honeymoon, but they did have a night off to celebrate with their families over pizza, a very Chicago thing to do. That night, Ashley said, “We finally have a future. We got Sam set up. He’s on the right track. Now it’s my turn.” She had once dreamed of pursuing journalism or opening a dance studio. She had even trained as a welder. Now that they had Sam’s work squared away, she could take some time to remember what she was passionate about. And, Sam felt better because he could return some of the care and hard work that she had been happy to dedicate to their life. Surrounded by people who loved them, they were sure that they had so much in life to look forward to… all because a stranger was paying attention and acted on their behalf.
Now, I don’t know if anyone in this story is religious or even understands themselves to follow Jesus. But, what I do know is that I see something holy in their interactions. I mean, isn’t this a lovely story story of care for stranger and love of neighbor? None of this would have been possible had Justice Lavin not been prepared… had he not been standing at the ready to live out his values and use his privilege to help someone else. His grief became the door through which he could see and understand someone else’s pain. His grief woke him up. He knew neither the day nor the hour in which he could be called to help the stranger. But, he stayed awake, and he ended up helping change someone’s life.
What is keeping you awake? What is reminding you of the on-going potential for Christ's coming into this world? Maybe the fact that there has been one more senseless mass shooting is pushing you to find a way to act in accordance with your faith. Maybe the generosity of your neighbors in last week’s wind storm has inspired you to be a better neighbor in this town. Maybe you have watched over the last several weeks the countless testimonies of women, sharing their stories of harassment and assault, and realized that you feel called to make the world safer for women. What is keeping you awake? Are you prepared to greet Christ in whatever form he coming?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
C.J. Chivers, "Love's Road Home," The New York Times, November 10, 2017
Susan Hylen- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3459
Carla Works: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1017
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4994
Bob Ekblad, "Proper 27," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.