November 8, 2020 /23rd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Amos 5:18-24 / 2nd Reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 / Gospel Matthew 25:1-13
People Be Ready
There are larger life issues than who wins an election – even an election for president. Our well-being and our ultimate destiny are not determined by our politics, but by our relationship with God. More important than the question: did your candidate win or lose? Are questions like these:
How is it with you and God?
Where is your heart?
Are you seeking Christ’s Kingdom above all else?
We can get so caught up with the things of this world that we lose track of what matters so much more. Which brings us to the gospel reading for today. The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids can be confusing for several reasons: It seems to go against many biblical themes of sharing, showing compassion, helping those with less. Why don’t those who have more oil just share with those who have run short? It does seem cruel to abruptly slam the door shut on the five bridesmaids who show up late. What happened to: “The last shall be first”? And the final admonition to “keep awake” seems awkward – since all ten bridesmaids fell asleep before the bridegroom’s arrival.
Here is how I make sense of this parable: To begin with, it’s not about how much oil is in your lamp. This is not a simple fable about being practical and thinking ahead. If Jesus had come to teach us all to think ahead, the feeding of the 5,000 would have had a very different conclusion. Instead of miraculously feeding the multitude, Jesus would have commended the boy who was practical enough to pack a lunch – and would have sent all the rest home hungry (teaching them to plan ahead next time). It’s safe to say this parable is not about oil in your lamp, but what’s in your heart. It raises questions like these: Are you ready to meet Jesus? Is your heart turned toward God? Is hope alive in you today? The thing about the wise maidens not sharing their oil with others is this: spiritually speaking it’s not possible to do so. Another person can’t believe for you, hope for you, love for you. Such things have to come from your own heart, what you have within yourself, wherever you go. Jesus is teaching about spiritual readiness, spiritual openness, spiritual vitality. He encourages us to cultivate the gifts of faith, hope and love – encouraging us to look not only at immediate circumstances, but also keeping in mind the long term and the big picture – the abiding presence of God.
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In one sense, the parable can be understood as being ready for Christ’s final coming, at the end of history. Yet Jesus comes not only at the end of this age, but also in various and unexpected ways. He promised to be with us always, but we are not always with him, not always open to him, not always ready to welcome him. Why? We are so often distracted, busy with worldly and material things – oblivious to anything spiritual. There is a vivid image in the Book of Revelation. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Picture Jesus on your front porch – only you are too distracted to notice he’s there. You and I can become so preoccupied with all our own stuff that we lose track of what is essential and eternal. In the words of poet William Wordsworth:
“The world is too much with us; getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
This parable, then, is a call to be alert, to be alive to the reality of Christ: not as some historical figure, but as a living Savior. The call to each of us is to be always ready to welcome Jesus, in any and all circumstances:
to live with a faith that is vibrant and vigilant
keeping Christ in mind and heart
to live each day with hope that is joyful and confident
to live with a loving heart, welcoming each person we encounter
to live without bitterness, guilt and anxiety
to be present to Christ as Christ is present with us
Jesus told another parable about a wedding. A king invited guests to the marriage feast of his son. But those invited declined, sending their regrets because they were busy with other things. They failed to recognize the urgent necessity of the moment. They were not ready. In his First Letter, St. Peter offers this encouragement: “Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) Do you have hope? Are you ready to share it? Do you have your spiritual “elevator speech” ready to go? Are you able to account for the hope that gives your life meaning and purpose? Such spiritual awareness and vitality is not something you can go and get when the moment arrives. It’s not available in stores! (any more than you could find lamp oil for sale after midnight) When an existential moment arrives, a Kairos moment, it’s a reality check, a gut check, a heart check. What sort of faith do you actually have – not in theory, but in fact?
The bible offers many examples of persons who were ready and open to Jesus, who were able to respond in those pivotal moments – and also some who were not ready:
Recall Mary and Martha. Martha was preoccupied with many things; Mary recognized, “one thing is more needful.”
When a man was beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho, a priest and a Levite were not ready or willing to help. A Samaritan was.
Four fishermen were ready when Jesus called them to come and follow. A rich young lawyer was not.
Two thieves were crucified along with Jesus. One was ready; one was not.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and a professor at my seminary. He wrote a number of books on Spirituality. Once he was on a sabbatical at a monastery in upstate new York, working on a new book. The abbot approached him one day and said the priest at a local church was sick, and they needed a priest to teach confirmation that afternoon. Nouwen said, “But I have no time to prepare.” The abbot replied, “Henri, if you’re not ready now, you never will be.”
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You and I may be more prepared than we realize. Even a little faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, is enough. It’s not the quantity but the quality of our faith that matters. It’s the ability to see in Christ our greatest good – the capacity to let everything else go for the sake of him who died for us. What we’re talking about is the faith that actually lives with us: a faith that is actively present, not a faith borrowed from someone else, not a faith that exists only at church on Sunday morning, not a faith that sits on a shelf at home, or tucked away in a book, even a bible.
What’s needed is faith in the present tense, here and now, the kind of faith ready to rise to meet any occasion:
faith like Abraham and Sarah, who were long past middle age when God called them to pick up and go to a new place – and they got up and went.
faith like a young woman in Nazareth who was going about her business when God sent a messenger to ask her to be the Mother to his Son. Mary didn’t say: I need to think about that. Can I get back to you? Let me check with my fiancé. I’d like to ask the rabbi. She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” “I’m ready.”
In closing I share these words of a song written back in the sixties by Curtis Mayfield. Could the message of this song capture the spirit of the parable Jesus tells today?
People get ready, there's a train comin’.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’.
You don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord.
People get ready for the train to Jordan.
It’s picking up passengers from coast to coast.
Faith is the key, open the doors and board ‘em.
There’s hope for all among those loved the most.
There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own.
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there is no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.
So people get ready, there's a train a comin'.
You don't need no baggage, just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'.
You don't need no ticket, just thank the Lord.