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.
At first brush, the Gospel story of the bridesmaids seems very critical of those who tend to be late. Unusually harsh because the story says that none of them knows the day or the hour that the bridegroom will come. However, 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.
Perhaps the reading is not about promptness at all, but about what it means to be awake, attentive, preparing? Specifically, in our context, what if it is speaking of spiritual preparedness?
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.”
For me this story begs the question: Am I working hard, exhausting myself in the name of God, but ironically leaving no time or energy to just be present to God? Do I think that working hard is enough? Or is it actually more effective to listen for God’s direction and then go and do?
The Gospel reading points me to look at is how I spend my time and what occupies my inner thought process – in particular those things that draw me closer to God and those things that pull me away from God. Essentially asking me, 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 these relationships. To rest on our spiritual porches and commune with God.
So let’s take a moment and rest on a spiritual porch with God. Get as comfortable in your pew as you are able. You may want to close your eyes so you can pay attention to what’s going on inside of you. Take some deep breaths, right into your belly, and breath out. Can you feel yourself quieting down a little? Now pay attention to how you feel inside, and your thoughts. Consider the state of your soul. Are you at peace? Or are you restless? Are you agitated or calm? Do you feel at peace with your self? Do you feel at peace with your family, friends, and neighbors? If so, give thanks to God for this time of peace in your life. If not, ask God to guide you into the steps it will take to bring you to a place of peace, whether that means letting go of something, or forgiving something, or making a change in yourself. Now ask God what God hopes for you, what is God’s best idea for you and how you live your life?
When you are ready, open your eyes.
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….
Taking time to focus on God is the only path toward living a balanced, holistic, fully integrated and authentic life of faith. But how does one do this? In a world in which many people are increasingly busier than ever, how does one find time to grow one’s faith and relationship with God?
A process of preparing can open one's heart to the peace of Christ. With the peace of Christ in one's heart, one’s spiritual lamps become filled with the kind of holy oil made up of God’s love igniting the light within and the capacity to shine out into the world. Shining out to be God’s hands and heart in the world. Shining out to feed people in mind, body, and spirit.
A reflection on the Gospel for Proper 27A: Matthew 25:1-13