There was a time in my life when I was sure what this parable was about. It was simply about being prepared for the long haul of living life as a follower of Jesus and continuing to be faithful even if Jesus’ coming again is delayed longer than expected so as to be allowed into heaven. My days of that understanding are past.
Of course, there was a time when I was sure that it would never happen that a man would enter a church on a Sunday morning and shoot up the place and kill more than two dozen people and wound many more. Those days are also past.
As I’ve been saying, wisdom is about being prepared to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. All of us have false beliefs. The problem is that we don’t know which ones they are. All of us are bound to be mistaken at some points. Will we be open to correction or will we stubbornly persist? The wise are open to correction. The foolish persist in error.
Wisdom, at its core, is being prepared to be surprised. To cultivate the wisdom of heaven is to allow ourselves to let go of our certainties about how the world must be, in order to hold space for the ways in which God is bringing forth the deeper, often unexpected, reality of love – often even through us.
Wisdom is being prepared to hold open the space into which God is bringing forth the deeper reality of love.
It is no accident that the parable we look at this morning directly calls out the wise and the foolish, the ones who proceeds with wisdom and those who proceed with foolishness.
Those who are wise are those who are prepared for the unexpected. They have carried oil for their lamps, in case of an unexpected delay in the festivities.
Lamps themselves are symbols of wisdom. Wisdom is not a bunch of things we know; it is the capacity to continually hold up light to see what is real before us. When we run out of oil, we lose our light and scramble in the dark. We miss the moment.
And it is this “missing the moment” that is at stake in Jesus’ parable.
Now it may well be that its original placement here had to do with encouraging early Jesus followers to remain prepared despite their disappointment that Jesus had not returned already. The moment missed in the parable, the moment of Jesus’ return, is the end of time. And to miss that moment is to be excluded from eternity.
And this parable has continued to be understood in terms of our being ready. Not necessarily for the return of Jesus or the end of time, but more personally as the end of our time, or our death.
But more broadly, we may understand this parable as a warning to be prepared for those big moments of crisis. Of the sudden emergence of a critical situation in which we are called upon for heroic moral choice. Will we be prepared?
But to be prepared in what way? To be prepared how? What is the oil that is needed? And what is the surprise that might set us scrambling in the darkness if our lamps go out?
And here we may think again back to the situation last Sunday in that Baptist church in Sutherland TX? Would we be prepared? In what way? To what end?
But let’s not think again about that situation. At least not yet. Let’s work on counting before arithmetic. Arithmetic before trigonometry, and trigonometry before calculus.
Let’s think about some smaller, less fraught, situation. Because each situation that confronts us is the beginning of eternity. Each situation that we face brings the past to a close and opens up the entire future that lies before us. Each situation seems more or less dramatic, more or less important, more or less crucial, but each situation is reflecting our heart in one way or another, and setting the stage for all that is to come.
We may have at some point been led to believe that when we die either enter the kingdom of heaven or not. But the fact of the matter is that we live into the kingdom of heaven or not in each moment. In each decision, each action, each habit we cultivate. Each habit we let go of.
Here’s some basic wisdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven comes into being in each instance of love shared. Each instance of love offered or received.
So let’s begin by imagining a situation in which we are tested, not by an enemy shooter, but by an appreciative word from a loved one. It takes almost no effort, no preparation, no special grace, to respond in a way that strengthens the affection and builds the relationship. It seems like no test at all.
But who among us have not at one time or another found ourselves snapping at someone who is only wishing us well? For one reason or another we are not able to build on the love that is offered to us in that moment. Perhaps we are nursing a grudge, perhaps we are too deeply enmeshed in some other hurt. For whatever reason, we are not able to open our heart to receive and expand the love that is coming to us. In that moment, the doors to the kingdom of heaven close to us. We do not live into the kingdom of heaven. We were tested. It was an easy test, to be sure, but we were not able to pass through. We were not prepared. Our oil had for some reason run out.
Of course, we can imagine that the other person might have given us help. Recognizing that we were struggling, they might have continued to look warmly and invitingly at us. This might have rescued us into building on that love. The doors are opened and we live into the kingdom of heaven.
On this template, we can imagine all sorts of situations into which we might contribute from our open hearts and receive into those same hearts. We can imagine all sorts of situations into which we can intervene to encourage and magnify goodness, strengthen relationships, build up people to be able to respond with compassion and justice and kindness and mercy. And just as easily, we can imagine all sorts of ways in which we might shut down, refuse, deny, or ignore kindness, generosity, compassion.
When we offer a helping hand, when we make someone feel at home and included, when we offer a word of encouragement or consolation. When we are patient with someone who is slowing us down, when we graciously help someone to understand how they are missing the mark, when we bless someone with our presence in a lonely moment, these are all ways in which we don’t miss the moment and we live into the kingdom of Heaven.
The simple truth is that the more that we do this with intentionality, with planning and foresight, the more we strengthen both ourselves and others to live into the kingdom of heaven in each moment.
How are we able to do this more and more? It’s not a mystery. We do it with the simple, ordinary steps of preparing to live each day well: we thoughtfully manage our sleeping and eating, keeping our calendars from being too full, we make time for regular physical activity, we consciously and intentionally stay in touch with the Spirit in prayer so that we are regularly returning our hearts to God. All these practices help keep us prepared to be living into the kingdom of heaven in the midst of each moment.
Over time, as we practice living into the kingdom of Heaven, our capacity grows. Just as a weightlifter increases her capacity to lift heavier weights with greater repetition, or a runner increases his capacity to run further and faster, we increase our capacity to open our hearts. We are prepared for increasingly challenging situations.
Of course, there will be days and perhaps even weeks in which we are thrown off these practices: we get sick, or some immediate crisis disrupts our routine, but by cultivating these routines, we gain the resilience to meet the surprise or testing moments so as to live them into the kingdom of heaven.
And as we wisely manage our regular, disciplined practice, not only do we increase our capacity and preparation, we also create an environment around us that makes responding in love easier for those around us. Our open hearts create a space in which it is easier for others to open theirs. We don’t shut them down or close them out; we build them up. We invite them in.
To return to our parable: would it have been different if there had been nine wise bridesmaids and only one foolish? In that case there would have been plenty to share in the unexpected moment of testing.
And now to return to the horror of the Sutherland shooting last Sunday. Suppose we were there. Would we be prepared? In what way? To what end?
There is no doubt that in a moment such as that, there are only the resources immediately at hand. There’s only the oil for the lamps that is there.
We’ve read stories of those who shielded others with their bodies. We’ve read about the men who pursued the shooter. Everyone in that time and place was put into what might seem to us to be a terrifyingly difficult, if not an impossible, situation. And for many that moment was indeed the dramatic test in which they met death and eternity in their midst.
Yes, it’s true that in these terrifying, surprising moments we may quickly come to the end of our resources of mercy, compassion, courage, strength, or capacity to live into the kingdom of heaven. But what about the rest of the time?
There were a whole series of moments before that moment. I raise this not to blame or condemn or judge anyone, but simply to say that shocking testing moments like this do not come out of nowhere.
Whatever insufficiency of wisdom and light and oil there was in that moment had its roots in a history of previous moments. And we are all a part of the culture and climate and environment that somehow allows someone to grow up violent and abusive. We are all at least some small part of the culture that cultivates or tolerates abuse and bullying that opens the door for more abuse and bullying. Our fractured communities do not cultivate the resources to see mental illness and the resources to heal it.
And we in the US have consciously allowed assault weapons to be a commonplace commodity. No other industrialized country in the world allows this and no other country has the mass shootings that we do. That’s a fact. Period. That’s foolishness that leads to hell. Not the Kingdom of Heaven.
The scale is so different that I have some hesitation to bring this up, but we at St. Paul’s also had an attack. Two weeks ago a vandal tore down our rainbow flag. Several people were prepared to confront him, not knowing what capacity for violence he had. But in any case, that moment did not come out of nowhere. When political leaders fan the flames of homophobia and transphobia, such vandalism should not be surprising. When religious leaders – even some who call themselves Methodists – condemn queer people, that gives license to those who would try to intimidate us from our open doors and open hearts.
These moments of crisis, these moments of challenge, these moments of testing, do not come out of nowhere.
This parable challenges us. This parable confronts us with the reality that Jesus followers want to be prepared for the unexpected. We want to be prepared to embrace what comes to us as the surprising wonder and beauty of the Spirit’s action in the world AND we want to be prepared for the times when we are tested to live into the Kingdom of Heaven even when love is challenged.
Are we – in our own lives, in our lives together as a church, as a community, as a nation – are we cultivating and increasing the reserves of oil available to us and our households, and our neighbors and our community and our world? Are we living in such a way so as to nurture the stores of grace, the stores of mercy, the stores of compassion, the stores of love?
Are we building that gentler, more compassionate network of relationships that will increase the flow of oil into the lamps that each of us carry?
You know, most of us, most days, just have normal days. That’s why we call them normal. In those days, are we building our capacity to live into the kingdom of heaven by practicing the arts of kindness and compassion? Doing the small favor, giving the modest word of encouragement, expressing gratitude to those who assist us?
Do we intentionally maintain our awareness that we are God’s beloved children, called to live out that love through the network of our relationships to one another and all of creation? These normal days build our reserves so that we do not run out when we face the unexpected.
Unexpected, challenging tests can happen any time. Someone slights us, or betrays us. We receive a threatening medical diagnosis, a loved one becomes ill, or dies. A piece of news comes to us that overturns all our plans for the day. These surprises, these tests, can be large or small.
Jesus shares with us the wisdom of Heaven that our expectations may fall to the reality that is taking shape before us, and so Jesus invites us to cultivate our ongoing capacity to open our hearts even in the face of the unexpected. Jesus invites us to be prepared for each moment – because in each moment we are invited to live into the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.