Paying the Light Bill and Jesus the Thief
Today’s sermon will be focused on two things: the light bill, and theft.
I mean, good morning, congratulations to our ordinands, etc., etc. But what I really want to talk about is what Jesus is doing in these scriptures, because it’s honestly pretty weird.
In our gospel, Jesus illustrates himself in two different ways: the master coming from his wedding, and a thief who breaks into a house. This is very strange, especially the second one.
Images of Jesus as the bridegroom are strewn all over scripture, we’re familiar with those. We know that we as Christ’s Beloved are constantly being invited by him to the Heavenly Banquet, often described as a wedding feast.
But oddly enough, that’s not what’s happening in this text.
The master is not inviting anyone to the wedding. He’s coming home from it: “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet,” the gospel says.
And we’d better have our lamps lit when he gets here.
Then Jesus tells us he’s coming at an unexpected hour just like a thief.
So not only do we not get to go to the wedding, we’re also waiting for a burglar to break into our house. Great! What an encouraging scripture for an ordination day!
But let’s take a second look.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”
That is a fantastic word to take into ordained life.
It fully describes the readiness for anything that you need to have to serve God’s people as a deacon or a priest.
Being a clergyperson is one of the last true renaissance occupations in the world, in the sense that you have to be a true jack of all trades. You will be called upon for anything from toilet repair to systematic theology and everything in between.
Flexibility, openness, both taking one for the team and being ready to ask for help are some of the qualities it takes to be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.
But I want to point out something that lies behind Jesus’ commandment to keep our lamps lit.
In the story, it means having enough oil for the entire night, keeping the flame burning no matter how long it takes for the master to arrive.
For us, both as lay and ordained leaders, it means keeping the lamp lit for our whole lives.
You have to keep your house lit up 24 hours a day, all light switches on, all lamps plugged in, lightbulbs freshly replaced.
And that, as any budget-conscious dad will tell you, is expensive.
When you become a leader in the church, dear ordinands, you are looking at a significant light bill. And it doesn’t come due just once a month, it comes due every day.
That’s not easy, and it’s not cheap.
What are you going to do to make sure you can keep your lamp lit and be dressed for action?
I’ll tell you right now that you can’t do it alone.
You need community, that’s why we’re here as your diocese to take our own vow to support you in your life and ministry from this day forward.
You have to cultivate relationships within and outside your congregation so that when your light is dim and flickering, someone can lend you some oil, chip in a few dollars on that light bill, and tide you over to the next day or week or month.
And you have to do the work it takes to be able to pay your own light bill or give someone else a hand with theirs.
We all know that to have the money to pay our literal light bills in our physical homes, we have to go to work every day. We can’t wait for the inspiration to strike or do it when we feel like it.
The same is true for your spiritual house. Every single day you have to do something that will help keep your lamp burning. Prayer, Bible study, meditation, singing hymns, hot yoga, I don’t care, but get into the Spirit and dwell there in whatever way you can every day.
Because I promise you this: if you don’t allow God to feed your light, it will flicker and die.
The risks and demands of serving God’s church in a time of very real death and resurrection are not to be entered into lightly, and God’s people need the flame of your passion for the gospel so very much.
We need your light. Do what it takes to keep it alive, and let us help you do that.
Pay the light bill, every day.
So that’s our spiritual utility expenses handled for the moment, let’s talk about theft.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
What if I don’t want the Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour?
I hate unexpected hours. I want organized, planned out, on my calendar, expected hours. I don’t want Jesus showing up to rob me.
But of course, it’s far too late for me, and for you too.
A long time ago, at the very most unexpected of hours, when I was at my lowest, Jesus showed up and robbed me of my idea of what I thought my life was going to be. He stole my certainty and my control and told me, “You are going to spend the rest of your life telling people about resurrection, if you say yes to me.”
I did say yes, and I’ve never looked back.
Ordinands, if you bring your long journey toward this day to mind, I know you can pinpoint the moment Jesus broke into your life like the thief he is and robbed you of your plans and your control and your false ambitions. He may also have stolen your grief or your self-doubt or your regret, casting them out of your life to make room for your light to shine.
And it’s going to keep happening.
Richard Rohr says that maturing spirituality is more a process of letting go than of gaining or acquiring.
And it turns out Jesus is so eager to help us with that letting go that he fully breaks into our house to make it happen.
So in that daily process of paying your light bill, of spending time in prayer with Jesus to keep your lamp lit, observe what larceny he may be committing in your life.
Sometimes it’s very painful. The situations in which God is at work in your ministry may rob you of your confidence, of your faith in the church, of your sense of purpose, of the fulfillment you dreamed of when you dared speak the word that you thought you might be called.
But on rare and beautiful days, at unexpected hours, Jesus breaks into your life and steals your fear, steals your sadness, steals your egocentrism and your clenched-fist scarcity, and you are left with nothing in your heart but the fierce tenderness and unyielding grace of his love.
And you know in that moment that you’re not the one tending your light at all. Jesus is. And he will never let it go out, in this life or the next.
St. Ambrose of Milan, who we celebrate today, knew a thing or two about being dressed for action on behalf of Jesus the thief.
In terms of being stolen by the Lord, for Ambrose it happened quite literally. It was very fashionable in the patristic age for people to get kidnapped by mobs and dragged off to become bishop by popular acclamation.
That’s what happened to Ambrose; he was baptized, ordained, and consecrated all in the same week. What the method lacks in formation it makes up for in the lack of paperwork.
But he soon found out the cost of keeping his lamp lit.
He was constantly under siege from the combined forces of Arian heretics allied with the Roman Empire, who were trying to steal his church buildings and take over his congregations.
When the emperor surrounded the basilica with soldiers, Ambrose said, “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ…I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.”
Because here’s the other thing: when it comes to thievery, the powers and the principalities are out to steal everything they can from the people in your care.
Capitalism is a relentless machine, and it forms the bedrock exploitative mindset that infects our society. Fed by greed and fear and allied with patriarchy and white supremacy, it will roll over your people.
Let Jesus steal your fear from you so that you can steal your people back from the Empire, giving them over to God so that together, we may heal and flourish. That is your sacred work.
So, ordinands, that is our charge to you today: pay the light bill, and let yourself be stolen by Jesus the thief, every day anew. The vows say it in a fancier way, but that’s really what it comes down to.
Thank you for letting all of us stand with you in this holy moment. We can’t possibly predict the adventures God is going to take you on as your ministry unfolds, but the unknown, the mystery, is the best part.
Long live the unexpected hour. May you be blessed by it every day.