Awakening to God’s Presence, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2017

Proper 27

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

 Note: This sermon originally ran for Proper 27 on November 9, 2014.

Download the sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Awakening to God’s presence, 22 Pentecost, Proper 27 (A) – 2014

November 9, 2014

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7 (or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70); 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Love the Lord your God, Pentecost 21, Proper 27 – 2011

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 (Track 2: Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70); 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

“You don’t know me? How could you not know me? You invited me to the wedding!” This parable is one of the stranger ones Jesus told. There are almost too many issues to wonder about and some of them are puzzling to say the least.

We realize there’s a potential problem when we hear that 10 young women went out to wait for the bridegroom and only five took extra oil. Ah, there’s a problem. This may easily turn out to be a lesson in being prepared. But there are other problems less easy to figure out.

In Jesus’ day, there would, indeed, be a procession in the evening, one in which the bride would be escorted from her father’s house to the wedding, accompanied by young girls carrying torches to light the way. However, Biblical scholar Richard Pervo, in an article in the journal “Tuesday Morning,” brings out the point that in this story there’s absolutely no mention of the bride, and even the bridegroom is unexplainably late in arriving. Were the bride or bridegroom unprepared in some way? We might all remember a wedding or two where the bride was late and people began shuffling their feet in nervous anticipation of a real problem. But this isn’t about the bride.

So, then we might look at the problem of the oil. We might think it wasn’t kind of the five young women not to give some of their oil to the ones who had none. Is this a parable that teaches about sharing? Anyway, where would five young women go at midnight to find a store open that would sell them oil? Another problem!

Finally, the bridegroom arrives, and with great rejoicing, the guests go into the banquet hall, with the exception of the five who are off looking for oil. When they finally arrive, they are not admitted because their host claims not to know them. Strange indeed. How could he not know people he’d invited? They were young girls, probably friends of the bride from the village. At least in this parable, unlike the one about the man who had no wedding garment, the unfortunate women were not bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

So many questions; where do we start? The most helpful thing is to look at where this passage falls in the whole gospel of Matthew. If we were to back up to Chapter 24, we’d find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple and the coming of the end times. That whole chapter is couched in eschatological images – the end of time, the Second Coming. We remember that Matthew’s audience was most likely Jews, and it was written around the year 90. A lot had happened to the Jews at that time. The temple had indeed been destroyed by that time. The fledgling church was growing to include the gentiles. The persecutions of the Christians had already begun under Nero, followed by Domitian. So, very likely, this passage is basically a warning to be prepared. Christians of that time believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, so being prepared was very important.

If we look at the very end of Matthew 24 we read: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Today’s reading begins with “At that time” – so we realize that this parable is a continuation of the point Jesus was making in Chapter 24. At that time– when the master returns, whenever that is – you must be ready.

But the end time has not yet come, has it? We’re still waiting; and that’s OK – we need the time. We suddenly realize that what this parable is really telling us is that we must live the way God wants us to live all the time, not just when we think the Second Coming may happen. Jesus often reminds his hearers that we know not the time nor the hour. We must not be like some of the early Christians who put off their baptism until they were on their deathbed so that they could be guaranteed a place in heaven – their souls being cleansed from sin by their last-minute baptism. We can’t play chicken with God. It’s not only juvenile, it’s hypocritical. And we know what Jesus says so often about hypocrites.

Today’s parable is one of the really interesting ones. In one way it’s full of questions on a very human level. What happened to the bride? Why was the bridegroom late? Why did he not recognize the young women? These are questions that would make a Bible study energetic!

On a soul-searching level, it’s very straightforward. Jesus is reminding us that we must live our lives as true children of God. Of course, we are human and we will sin. We will have times when we don’t share our oil, so to speak, whether that’s because of our selfishness or our own unpreparedness. But overall, we must seriously examine our hearts and souls each day and strive to be a witness to God’s love. Perhaps that could be a reason the bridegroom doesn’t recognize the five foolish virgins. Would God recognize us as children of God right now, today? Or would God see that Sunday in church is the only time we think about God or our spiritual lives?

The world today makes it very difficult to keep notice of our spiritual lives. We see entire institutions, governments, even the institutional church exhibiting less than laudable practices. We might wonder if the whole world has turned a blind eye to anything of God. We’re certainly not treating God’s gift of creation as a gift worth caring for. With all the difficulties and horrors we see happening all round us, we might even wonder where God is in all this.

That’s when we have to remember this parable. Every one of us must begin every day with the resolve to live as a child of God. It’s not easy. Those who do, we were reminded in the Beatitudes, often suffer for it. But it’s worth it. We must be the ones who point toward God in everything we do. That’s how we stay prepared. It’s through our daily kindnesses, our willingness to share our oil, whatever that might look like. It’s through our example of what’s important in our lives. With Christmas coming soon, do we find ourselves totally immersed in the consumer side of the holiday, or are we taking some time to pray, to find some quiet time to thank God and ask for God’s strength? Are we afraid to talk about the true meaning of Advent and the coming of our Savior among our own families and friends, because they believe Christmas is really about buying and selling? And yes, stores will be open at midnight, we’d be able to get our oil, but would we be welcome to the feast? Maybe not.

It’s up to us to live in a way so that we are always prepared. Quite honestly, living a life in which we’re always prepared is easy. All we have to do, all we’re asked to do by God is: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Mindful of God’s abundance, Pentecost 26, Proper 27 – 2008

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

What are we to do with Jesus’ parable of wise and foolish bridesmaids? It’s not easy to be sympathetic with any of the characters here. The bridegroom sends out invitations, but shows up hours late himself and then shuts the door on half of the bridesmaids. Those maidens who get shut out are off trying to buy oil in the middle of the night, when the wedding is about to begin. Meanwhile, the bridesmaids who did bring extra oil won’t share it, and come off looking selfish and snotty.

And what shall we do with a parable that speaks about God closing the door to heaven? That much seems clear – the wedding banquet represents the joy of being in the presence of God. A month ago we heard another parable about a wedding feast, in which the king sends out invitations to his son’s wedding feast, only to have the invitations refused. Not to be deterred, he invites in whoever is standing at the street corners, and has a huge party anyway.

Once again in today’s parable, everyone is invited to the banquet. So why does anyone get shut out? They all do show up; they all do bring their lamps; they all are ready. Could the problem be their lack of watchfulness? True, the bridesmaids do fall asleep while they’re waiting; and Jesus admonishes us at the end of the parable to “Keep awake … for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

But let’s be fair – all the bridesmaids fall asleep, the wise and the foolish alike, yet half of them end up enjoying the wedding anyhow.

That leaves us with the oil. We’re told the wise maidens bring extra oil, and the foolish ones don’t. That sounds simple enough, but we’re on pretty shaky ground if we look for the easy answers, and decide that the oil represents Goodness, or Piety, or Works, or even Faith. If we do, then it starts to sound as though what’s important is the amount of oil we’re carrying around – as though we all ought to be doing extra good deeds, or praying extra hard, or living a perfect life, so that we can store up a spare flask full of midnight oil, ready to burn if the Messiah decides to pull a pop quiz at the end of days.

The pattern of Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels simply doesn’t support that viewpoint. Instead, in his parables the invitations always go out to everyone, the pay is the same for those who start work early or late, and everyone is considered a faithful servant so long as they don’t bury their gifts.

No, it’s not that the foolish bridesmaids are shut out because they don’t have enough oil – after all, their lamps are trimmed and still burning when the bridegroom’s arrival is announced. They get excluded because they’re so worried their lamps might go out that they run off in search of extra oil, and wind up missing their grand entrance.

What they seem to forget is that God hasn’t retired from the miracle business; that in fact, God seems particularly fond of weddings, of making a little go a long way, and of keeping oil burning when it really matters. Jesus turned an ordinary wedding into a foretaste of the banquet to come when he turned water into wine. He defied scarcity with the abundance of the kingdom of God, and fed thousands from a small boy’s lunch.

According to rabbinic tradition, when the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire, only a single night’s worth of oil remained undefiled in the Temple. Nevertheless, the sanctuary lamps remained lit for eight days until fresh oil could be prepared. Next month Jews around the world will commemorate this unquenchable abundance as they light candles in celebration of Hanukkah.

Mindful of God’s abundance, consider the passage from the book of Wisdom that was offered today as an alternate reading in place of a psalm:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.
We don’t need to chase after Wisdom – just seeking her is enough. In fact, Wisdom herself is seeking us.

Now we can see how the foolish bridesmaids have gone astray. Instead of trusting that they can find Wisdom sitting alongside them at the gate, they run off to the marketplace of ideas in search of illumination. Instead of trusting that Wisdom is radiant and unfading, they worry that their own little lamps won’t be enough for the bridegroom’s party. So they hurry off, hoping to find someone who can sell them some security, who can take their money and hand them a nicely packaged flask of enlightenment that will be sufficient to please the bridegroom.

Perhaps if the foolish bridesmaids had trusted that wisdom is unfading, they would have stayed and greeted the bridegroom and would have been welcomed into the feast. Perhaps the wise maidens never even needed to open their extra flasks, because the banquet hall itself was so brilliantly lit.

You see, God doesn’t only perform miracles with oil and with water – the sorts of miracles that defy the physical laws of nature. God’s greatest miracles are those that defy the laws of human nature, our ingrained expectations of work and reward. We’re used to thinking that doing more gets us more, that by and large we are rewarded in proportion to our effort.

But the Bridegroom does not open the door to us because of more work, or even more faith. He opens the door to us so long as so long as we keep our lamps burning for him; so long as our faith allows us wisdom enough – a gallon of wisdom or one radiant drop – to answer his gracious invitation and await his arrival at the feast.

Written by the Rev. G. Cole Gruberth
The Rev. Cole Gruberth is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.