Saturday, November 08, 2008

Preparing the Spirit

A reflection on Proper 27A

I have a good friend who is always late for everything. Whenever my friend and I schedule a date to get together I plan to arrive 15 minutes to a half hour later because inevitably she will call and say she’s just leaving. Of course, occasionally she’s on time, which then makes me the late one!

At first brush, the Gospel story of the bridesmaids seems very critical of those who procrastinate and are late. Unusually harsh because the story says that none of them knows the day or the hour that the bridegroom will come. So, if you don’t know the day and the hour how are you supposed to know when to be ready? Under those conditions even the most conscientious of us could be late and unprepared.
Like many other stories in scripture this story raises more questions than it answers. It stands in sharp contrast to all the other places in the Bible that speak about grace, generosity, and hospitality. Since this Gospel reading seems incongruent with other pieces of scripture it beckons us to take a deeper look, to look beyond the surface, and ponder what is really going on.

One day, Honi, a legendary Jewish man saw an old man planting fruit trees. “Why are you doing this,” asked Honi, “You’ll be dead before they bear fruit.” The man replied, “I am planting these fruit trees for my children and grandchildren. Honi was impressed and sat down in the shade of a nearby tree to ponder this. Later he awoke to someone picking fruit and exclaimed, “How can a tree just newly planted bear so much fruit.” “What do you mean?” Asked the man picking the fruit. “These trees were planted by my grandfather.” “Oh my,” thought Honi, “I have slept for 70 years.” Stay awake, our reading says, we know not the day nor the hour.
What we are pondering today is not promptness, rather we are pondering what it means to be awake, attentive, preparing. Specifically we are speaking of spiritual preparedness. Spiritual work is quite distinctive from taking care of business and completing tasks. Spiritual work is the core of who we are as Christians, it is work grounded in prayer, discernment, worship, and community, and it requires us to intentionally dedicate time to cultivate our spiritual lives.

Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners community, tells a story about a colleague living in a village in Central America. She worked in a community that was marginalized in all kinds of ways. She poured herself into her work for social justice, laboring with great might to bring change to this village. One day, some of the people of the village came to her, asking her why she worked so hard, why she didn’t join them in their fiestas or sit with them on their porches in the evening.

“There’s too much work to do!” the laboring woman replied. “I don’t have enough time.”

“Oh,” the people of the village said. “You’re one of those.”

“One of who?” the woman asked.

“You are one of those,” they responded, “who come to us and work and work and work. Soon you will grow tired, and you will leave. The ones who stay,” they said, “are the ones who sit with us on our porches in the evening and who come to our fiestas.”

Most of us have been raised in a world that values busyness, as if there is a correlation between busyness and importance. Or perhaps the issue is the opposite, perhaps we do not have enough to do. Perhaps we feel like our lives have no value because we aren’t busy enough. Regardless, we, in this country, and especially in this parish are truly blessed. We are able to have both work and leisure. We do not have to worry about walking miles to haul clean water, nor wonder when we will have our next meal.

The issue this Gospel reading points us to look at is how we spend our time and what occupies our inner thought process – in particular those things that draw us closer to God and those things that pull us away from God. Essentially asking us, above all, to make time for God. Nothing is more important than our relationship with God, with self and with others. And the only way to have a healthy relationship with God, with self, and with others is to nurture it. To rest on our spiritual porches and commune with God.

There is another ancient Jewish legend about two men walking through the Red Sea, which God has spectacularly parted, in order to aid the exodus of the Jewish people. Imagine that walk, the high walls of water held back by a mysterious and awesome force so a group of people can follow God to freedom. Now imagine two men named Ruben and Simon who were part of that group, but instead of looking up and seeing the glory of God, they looked to the ground and saw mud.

“This is terrible,” said Ruben, “There’s mud all over the place.”

“Disgusting” said Simon, “I’m in muck up to my ankles!”

“You know what?” replied Ruben, “When we were slaves in Egypt we had to make bricks out of mud just like this.”

“Yeah,” said Simon, “There is no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here.”

And so it went, Ruben and Simon complaining the entire way across the bottom of the Red Sea. For them there was no miracle, only mud. Their eyes, heart, mind, and spirit were closed to the possibility of miracle, grace, and God, even though they walked right through it all. We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are….

Here at large church we are a richly blessed community. We have a beautiful worship space, lovely church grounds, a generous and loving parish community, a very professional and committed staff. We have a multitude of well organized and skillfully led ministries that engage many people, all volunteers, from Altar Guild to Ushers and everyone in between. We have numerous opportunities to help and care for the world around us, from the amazing accomplishments of our Outreach Committee to our vibrant ECW, the Boutique and its offering to our community. From the Social Activities Committee and their dedication to planning four fun events for us each year, most notably the Hoedown and fall BBQ, to our choir and the dedication of those who sing and lead us in music, to our clergy who care deeply for the pastoral concerns of this parish, and especially our vestry as it discerns the vision for the parish and the strategy and goals for living into that vision while at the same time tending to the fiduciary responsibilities of parish leadership. We are an awesome parish filled with gifted people from all walks of life and with vast experience. We have so much to celebrate, for we are profoundly blessed!

Next Sunday we gather to Celebrate our Ministries, to celebrate all the ways we are blessed. In between services, at 9am, we will have a celebratory brunch. At this brunch we will have the opportunity to recognize and thank the many people who enable us to have and to be such a vibrant parish. We will celebrate and honor the leaders of our various groups and committees and their members, we will give thanks for all they do.

And in the Eucharist we will take a moment to come forward to the altar. How many of you have ever walked through the altar rail gate and stood at the altar?
Coming forth to the altar is an invitation to step into sacred space; the Lord’s Table is our most holy and sacred space. The invitation to this sacred place is an invitation to present your self to God: mind, body, and spirit. Our lives are a gift from God and therefore our lives are holy. We will stand in this sacred space and give praise to God for the gift of life, and celebrate the sacred within each one of us.

Coming forward to the altar I have also asked you to bring your envelope with your offering of time, talent, and treasure. I’ve done this with congregations for 10 years. I know that some of you are anxious about this. You think that people will be watching you and taking roll – who is pledging and who is not.

If our focus is on taking roll, then we are focusing on the wrong thing. The reality is, no one knows what is in the envelope you bring forward. It might be empty. It might have your offering for the day. It might have your pledge. Who knows? Who cares? What’s important is NOT what is in the envelope, but what is in your heart.
Coming to the altar is an invitation to present yourself and offer what is in your heart to God. Some of you will choose not to come forward. That’s ok, no one is counting. Some of you may come forward with fear or resentment about something, even anger. That’s ok, too. Others will come forward with peace and joy. Whatever is in our hearts we bring to God.

The reality is our lives are holy and sacred whether we know it or not. Our lives are holy and sacred whether or not we nurture our relationship with God, with self, and with others. The primary difference is, when we stay awake, when we actively cultivate our spiritual lives, when we actively nurture our relationship with God, with self, and with others, we find ourselves living full authentic lives. Living full authentic lives, grounded in God, causes us to lift our eyes from the muck and mud around us, to cease our complaining and see the glory of God in the world around us. Our scripture readings from the Old Testament to the Gospels to the Epistles make it clear that we are to nurture our relationship with God. Some call this Sabbath Time. Some call it prayer. Some call it Contemplation. Some call it worship. Regardless taking time to focus on God is the only path toward living a balanced, holistic, fully integrated and authentic life of faith.

Thus the process of preparing opens our hearts to the peace of Christ. With the peace of Christ in our hearts, our spiritual lamps are filled with oil ready to be ignited by God’s love. Then, having hearts ablaze with the passion of Christ’s hope and joy, we are able to recognize how truly blessed we are, committing ourselves to being Christ’s hands and heart in the world.


Jennifer said...

With hearts ablaze--- what a great sermon!

Thanks for visiting my blog-- I've spent many an hour with Brian C. We're in the same ministerium and have several couples between us who are Presbyterian and Episcopalian. He's been at All Saints about a year longer than I've been with the congregation I serve.

karlajean said...

Great sermon--I love how you made the text accessible, affirmed the ministry of a very busy congregation, but then also brought it home, to the spiritual, the heart, the individual pieces of community that all are called by God to offer. Lovely.
How did they respond?
You are taking beautiful risks with this congregation, I can feel it. Please know you continue to be in my prayers!

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