Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

By Rev. J.C. Austin

One of the most stunning scenes in the entire epic Lord of the Rings movie trilogy comes well into the third film, as a climactic battle is about to break loose between the forces of good and the minions of evil. The forces of good, the army of Gondor, is hopelessly outnumbered, though, and if they fall, then the forces of evil will be able to conquer the rest of the world.

Recognizing this, two of the film’s heroes light the first of a system of beacons that comprise a prearranged distress signal to another, smaller kingdom hundreds of miles away. And so you watch them coax the first beacon, which is really just a very large bonfire, to life. As flickering tongues of fire become a giant blaze, they squint about 30 miles into the distance to the top of a mountain range, looking to see if the next beacon in the chain will respond by lighting up.

After some tense moments go by, it finally erupts into life. And then, in a soaring series of panoramic shots, we follow the beacons being lit, one by one, each one on top of high, craggy, snowy mountain peaks about 30 miles apart. At several of them, we’re able to see the tiny figures of men noticing the beacon behind them light up, then plunging torches into their own prepared but unlit bonfire, and then waiting to see the beacon in front of them take up the signal and relay it on. And it goes through a dramatic series of them on various mountains until the last one is seen on the horizon in the smaller allied kingdom, which begins mobilizing to come to their aid.

Being a fan of both Lord of the Rings and the craft of filmmaking, the first few times I watched this sequence I simply ate up the experience without questioning it. But at some point I started wondering: in the story, how long were those beacon-lighters up there on those isolated, towering, barren mountain peaks? It can’t have been easy to get up and down there, but they also couldn’t have simply lived there because clearly they couldn’t have hunted or gathered their own food and water perched up there in such a desolate place.

So they must have rotated through in shifts, presumably for at least a couple of weeks at a time, depending on how many supplies they could bring up the hard climb with them without having to go back and forth. It must have been hard duty, climbing up these all-but-impassable mountains while carrying all your food and water, and then to just sit there with one other guy for at least a couple of weeks with one job to do: watch to see if the previous beacon is ever going to light up.

Now, if you think all this is taking a fantasy film too seriously, A) you’re probably right; B) there is a long history of doing that with The Lord of the Rings, and if you think this is too much then you really don’t want to hear from the hardcore superfans; and C) this part isn’t actually fantasy. It’s based on a real-life system of beacons for the Byzantine Empire that were established in the 9th century through the Anatolian mountains (modern-day Turkey) to warn the capital of Constantinople in the north of any attacks on the southern borders, transmitting the message over hundreds of miles at literally almost the speed of light.

And, like the ones in the film, there is very little information available in the history books about the real-life beacon-keepers themselves, only that their task was to sit on the mountains and watch the beacon behind them, then light their own when it was lit to relay the warning on. But given the location and general military practice, we can assume that they rotated in and out, both in being “on station” up in the mountains, and on who was actually on watch at any given moment so that there was always someone watching, but also time for everyone to sleep, eat, maintain the beacon, and so on. But even so, they all still had only one real job: until the beacon next to them was lit, their job was to watch and wait, and be ready to go when they saw the light.

In this parable that Jesus tells, the bridesmaids had one job, as well: to watch and wait for the bridegroom to arrive at the wedding, and welcome him when he comes. And, as it turns out, that means a lot more watching and waiting than they had hoped. The drama of the story, of course, is that half of the bridesmaids prepared for that possibility by bringing flasks of oil along with them to make sure they could keep their lamps lit, and half didn’t. Jesus calls those who brought flasks “wise” and those who didn’t “foolish” because if there is anything that hasn’t changed from first century Judea until now, it’s that starting times of weddings are unreliable at best, and the wedding party is usually the reason why.

In the first century, the delay was more likely from last-minute negotiations between the families over financial arrangements; that might sound odd to us, but at least they didn’t have to deal with unexpected parades or, as is my most common experience, overzealous photographers. But still, if you’re in the wedding party, you have to be prepared for a delay, and you also have to be ready to go as soon as their limo or donkey or whatever finally pulls up outside the sanctuary.

Now, here’s where things get weird in Jesus’ parable. Everybody, the wise and the foolish bridesmaids, has fallen asleep waiting for the bridegroom during their delay. But when word comes that he’s about to arrive, the foolish bridesmaids ask for some of the extra oil that the wise ones have brought, because their lamps are going out; the wise ones refuse, saying there won’t be enough for all of them. Then they suggest that the foolish ones go out to buy more, which they do, which is also weird given that it’s midnight and there weren’t very many 24-hour Wawas around selling lamp oil in first century Judea.

But they try anyway, and while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives and everyone goes in to the banquet. By the time the bridesmaids have returned with their oil (so apparently Wawas really are everywhere), they find that the banquet is in full swing, the doors have been closed to them, and when they try to get in, the bridegroom refuses, saying he doesn’t know them. Then Jesus concludes the story with the moral, “keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Except that’s not what Jesus actually says. The word he uses actually means, “keep watch,” or “be vigilant,” which is not the same thing as staying awake. He’s not telling them they can never close their eyes; he’s telling them to be prepared to respond at any time. That means making sure you have what you need to do your job, and organizing yourselves to make sure someone is always watching for the sign that it’s time to do that job.

Those soldiers stationed at the beacons, whether in the movie or in real-life Anatolia, kept a vigilant watch, but they also took turns sleeping and guarding so that whoever was on watch could be vigilant instead of dozing off. In the parable, the wise bridesmaids fell asleep alongside the foolish ones, but that wasn’t the problem because someone was still keeping watch, and the wise ones get to go into the party because they were prepared when the signal went up; they had one job, they were ready to do it when the time came, and they did it.

The ironic thing is that the foolish bridesmaids seem to have forgotten that the job, the real job, wasn’t actually to have their lamps lit; it was to welcome the bridegroom when he came. The lamps were just a means to an end, just a traditional way of making the welcome more festive. The reason the bridesmaids are foolish isn’t just their lack of preparation and readiness to do their job when the bridegroom came; it’s that they abandoned their post when they heard he was coming and weren’t there when he came because they were off worrying about buying oil at midnight.

They had one job, and they failed to do it. And while the reaction of the bridegroom refusing to acknowledge he even knows them when they do finally come back with their lamps seems a bit harsh, believe me; I’ve seen a lot worse when people mess up a wedding for someone.

What the foolish bridesmaids should have done is simply waited for the bridegroom without their lamps, trusted that the light from the lamps of the wise ones would be enough, and welcomed the bridegroom when he came. Because THAT was their job. It’s not like those beacons where if one isn’t lit, the system falls apart; what was important was their presence and participation, not their lamps. It was their presence and participation and joy that was the job and message with which they were entrusted.

Lamps are nice, but what is really necessary for a wedding is a bride and bridegroom, their wedding party, their friends and neighbors and family, to come together and witness their commitment to be faithful partners and to promise to support them as they live out that commitment. It is an inherently communal, collaborative act in which the bridesmaids themselves, not simply their lamps, had a crucial role to play in leading the celebration.

There is a classic gospel blues song that captures this dynamic while referencing this very same story. It’s called “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” and is most often attributed first to Blind Willie Johnson who recorded it in 1928. But the song comes out of traditional roots, and specifically the call-and-response style of both the historic Black church and the blues, in which a singer or preacher calls out a line or part of a line, and the audience or congregation responds with the other part. So it goes like this:

Keep your lamps / trimmed and burning

keep your lamps / trimmed and burning

keep your lamps / trimmed and burning

Oh, see what the Lord has done.

Sister don’t / you worry

Brother don’t / you worry

Sister don’t / you worry

Oh, the work is almost done.

Now, if just one person tries to do a call-and-response, it would sound like this:

Keep your lamps…

Keep your lamps…

Keep your lamps…

Oh, see what the Lord has done.

See what I mean? You would think the point of the song was to keep your lamps…safe? Covered? Dry? Who knows? When you call, you need someone else to respond, because the power and truth of the song only really come through when you create it communally.

And that song, in its call-and-response style, also shows how we’ve misread the real power and truth of this passage, because we’ve assumed that it’s all about whether the individual bridesmaids prepared individually to light their lamps. But I think the real point of is that it’s not just that the bridesmaids were foolish for not having prepared for a delay; it’s that they were foolish for not realizing their real job is to help lead that communal call-and-response, that they could keep their lamps trimmed and burning as a community, and not just as individuals, so that everyone could rejoice together.

Today is the start of our annual stewardship campaign here at First Presbyterian, the season in which we as a congregation prepare for the coming year by making sure that we have the resources we need to keep our congregational lamps trimmed and burning, ready to welcome Christ through our ministries of worship, of education and faith formation for people of all ages, of compassion and justice for those who are impoverished or marginalized in our world.

But as we do so, we need to remember that the point is not those resources themselves; the point is not the oil. Neither is the point the programs or services or events we do; the point is not the lamps. The point is the message that is given to us to relay on: the good news of Jesus Christ, of Christ’s reconciling love and justice and mercy and peace. And that is entrusted not simply to us as individuals but most importantly to us as a community, a community that can live and work and serve and love together and with partners to give and magnify the ever-repeating call and response of the gospel back and forth out into the world in all its true beauty and power.

Friends, that message and this community is needed more than ever right now in our nation and in our world. The election may be over, but the profound divisions and injustices and conflicts in our nation and world are not; the shadows and gloom of mutual suspicion and fear and anxiety are as long and deep as ever. And so we, not just each of us but all of us together, have a job to do, a message to relay, a call to respond to. So let’s take it up together, starting right now. Sing the response back to me; don’t worry, only you and God will hear it, and God will be delighted, but we will all know that we are singing it together:

Keep your lamps (trimmed and burning)

keep your lamps (trimmed and burning)

keep your lamps (trimmed and burning)

Oh, and see what the Lord will do.

Sister don’t (you worry)

Brother don’t (you worry)

Sister don’t (you worry)

The work is just begun.

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