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Matthew 25:1-13
1  “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 The five who were foolish didn’t take enough olive oil for their lamps, 4 but the other five were wise enough to take along extra oil. 5 When the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight they were roused by the shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!’
7 “All the bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. 8 Then the five foolish ones asked the others, ‘Please give us some of your oil because our lamps are going out.’
9 “But the others replied, ‘We don’t have enough for all of us. Go to a shop and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came. Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked. 11 Later, when the other five bridesmaids returned, they stood outside, calling, ‘Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!’
12 “But he called back, ‘Believe me, I don’t know you!’
13 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return.

This is a much-debated parable, and so it is important to consider all the information very carefully. In our interpretation of scripture, in particular parables, we tend to be either literal or symbolic; but we can’t lean too heavily on either approach, or we will miss the point altogether.

First, let’s identify the symbols in this parable: the bridegroom, bridesmaids, wedding feast, and lamp oil. Most interpretations say this parable is about the end times, when Christ (the bridegroom) is meant to return for his bride, the church. In that case the oil would represent our faith and the way we live our lives, and the feast would represent life after death, with some being allowed in and others being excluded.

However, if we pay close attention to the first line, the insights will change, for it does not say “the kingdom is like a wedding feast.” It says this: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In many translations the word “virgins” is used in place of bridesmaids…and in our modern context it’s difficult to make sense of why these unwed women would be waiting for the groom on his wedding night. Perplexing as usual, although I think one thing is certain…Jesus is telling us to be ready when the party begins.

In order to understand this story more fully, let’s examine Jewish wedding custom in Biblical times. The explanation below is a paraphrase of information found on biblestudymanuals.net. It’s a bit lengthy, but worth knowing about in order to fully understand what’s going on in this parable:

The first major step in a Jewish marriage was betrothal, which involved the establishment of a marriage covenant between the prospective husband and the bride’s father. They would negotiate to determine the price that the bridegroom must pay to purchase his bride. Once the price was paid, the marriage covenant was established and the man and woman were regarded to be husband and wife.

After the marriage covenant had been established, the groom would leave the home of the bride and return to his father’s house. There he would remain separate from his bride for a period of twelve months.

This period of separation afforded the bride time to gather her possessions and prepare for married life. The groom occupied himself with preparing a living space in his father’s house to which he could bring his bride. At the end of the period of separation the groom would come to take his bride to live with him. The taking of the bride usually occurred at night. The groom, best man and other male escorts would leave the groom’s father’s house and conduct a torch light procession to the home of the bride.

Although the bride was expecting her groom to come for her, she did not know the exact time of his coming. As a result the groom’s arrival would be preceded by a shout, which would forewarn the bride to be prepared for the arrival of her groom. After the groom received his bride together with her female attendants, the enlarged wedding party would return to the groom’s father’s house. The wedding guests would already be assembled there. Shortly after arrival the bride and groom would be escorted by the other members of the wedding party to the bridal chamber.

While the groomsmen and bridesmaids waited outside, the bride and groom would enter the bridal chamber alone to privately engage in physical union for the first time, thereby consummating the marriage that had been covenanted a year earlier. The groom would emerge from their new home to announce the consummation to the groomsmen and bridesmaids waiting outside the chamber. These people would pass on the news of the marital union to the wedding guests. Upon receiving this good news the wedding guests would feast and make merry for the next seven days.

And so returning to the first line of the parable: “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like…” Notice this doesn’t say anything about a split kingdom, where some of the bridesmaids are in and some are out. The kingdom is made up of those whose job it is to invite everyone to the wedding feast. And as the kingdom comes to earth, there will be those who are prepared for this role and those who are not. In Jesus’ time, some of the listeners (the Sadducees and Pharisees) were not realizing that he was the Messiah. The bridegroom had come to sit in their midst, the consummation had already taken place, they were the ones responsible for letting everyone know…and they were complaining that the party hadn’t started. They had no oil in their lamps, no recognition of the spirit…and so they fretted and got bored, grumbled and then rushed about, but wound up realizing what was going on too late to join the celebration.

This wedding feast is no spontaneous gathering; the village would have been preparing for a wedding ceremony a year in advance. To then miss out because they were not ready for the moment they had awaited for so long…foolish is the right word. So while the wise bridesmaids are lighting up the streets and proclaiming the marriage union to the entire village, the foolish bridesmaids are going to miss the whole party because they were preoccupied with the things of this world.

Let’s reconsider the symbols in this story. If we are the bridesmaids, then let’s say the lamp represents our hearts, and the oil represents the Holy Spirit who prepares us to receive Christ’s light. If we are not filled up with the Spirit, it’s easy to be consumed by the things of this world. When the divine party is about to start, we’ll be yawning and lazing about. We will have slacked off in our prayer and meditation times; and we will only notice that that our lamps are not ready as the party is about to begin. We go looking for oil at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and subsequently we find exactly what we had been seeking all along: separateness and lack.

But when we are wise, we have taken the time to prepare our hearts through prayer and meditation, spending time daily nurturing the spirit’s place in our lives. And when the moment finally comes, we are neither bored nor impatient. We have been waiting expectantly all along, and we are ready to proclaim the bridegroom’s news to all the invited guests.

“The kingdom of heaven will like…” So where is this kingdom that Jesus talks about so often? Is it somewhere beyond the horizon, only accessed after life on earth has come to an end? The answer is simple: Heaven is where God dwells. Through his spirit, God lives within our hearts; he exists in thoughts and in time, in all the space in our universe; in every aspect of creation; in the community of oneness, ushered in by Christ’s existence as a man; in the center of the cross, and all along its branching arms, connecting us to him and to one another. The only way to be excluded from the kingdom is when we close ourselves to God’s presence by allowing fear, doubt and self pity to overpower our God-consciousness. When we fill our hearts with shame and self-centered thinking, there is no room for the Spirit to dwell there, nothing to carry the flame of God’s light.

Let us always remember that the kingdom is not some far-off place, but is right here with us, and the celebration has already begun. And then let us share our light with the world, inviting the entire village to join in as we celebrate our unity in Christ.

Only Human

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. –Desmond Tutu

A human being is multi-faceted, paradoxical at best. On the one hand, humanity is our ability to care for others, in a sense it is our compassion and kindness. But on the other hand, we can attribute most of the worst events in history to the essential flaws of human nature.

Allowing one another a shred of human dignity is a nice idea. Humanists are defined as secular individualists who employ scientific reason and critical thinking to their problems. Humanist approaches seem to focus on the betterment of society through a basic respect for all humans. Sounds ok so far.

But…and this is a big but…I’ve seen over and over that even with the best intentions, we will wind up hurting each other again and again. Even at Koinonia, where a small group of people have committed to living reconciled lives, we fail each other over and over. We unintentionally (and sometimes carelessly) step on each others’ toes, gossip, bend the truth in the name of being nice…as my A.A. friends say, our best thinking doesn’t seem to get us very far.

So yes, Desmond, we can only be human together. But, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope) I’m with Alex on this one. Humanity is full of errors in judgment, self-righteousness, self-centeredness, fear and flat out disregard for the other beings around us. And so, in my experience, we absolutely need divine intervention if we are to make anything worthwhile out of the mess of life on Earth.

Without God, I’ve charged headlong into the life I dreamed of, where I just wanted to be happy all the time. When that was my life, relationships fell apart, jobs were abandoned, my family was to be kept at arms’ length, and I was fierce and independent. At best, I was lonely and aimless, experiencing intermittent happiness among the mess. At worst, I was filled with resentment, judgment and paralyzing fear.

With God, I’ve balked many times at the life he has laid out before me. And then thankfully I’ve followed his lead regardless of my fear. Faith tells me to keep going despite my inner-critic’s warnings. With God, fleeting happiness is all right because a deep sense of joy permeates my walk with him. Even in the midst of turmoil, I can experience divine grace and forgiveness. And in God’s presence, I can be more than simply human. I can glimpse eternity, and know that my humanity is a precious and temporary gift.

Each life is a treasure. How will you spend yours? Will you squander it on selfish pleasures? Or store up heavenly riches that will reward you and countless others in this life and the life to come?

How often do I decide that my way is the only right way?
How important is it that I be right?
Does it matter if you hear exactly what I intended to say?
Were you even listening to begin with?

How often is my view of good the same as your view of bad?
What about all the space in between?
How big can God become, if we let the Spirit out of all our heart-cages?
Can such wonder ever be contained?

Tao Te Ching 2:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

1 Corinthians 6:19 “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself,”

The Last to be Hired

This post is from the message I was privileged to share this past Sunday at Koinonia’s gathered worship service. Every Sunday evening, we share communion and a meal, followed by a simple worship service based on the lectionary readings for that week. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Matthew 20:1-16
Parable of the vineyard workers

1  “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.
3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

This parable is well-known, and we might hesitate to admit that we probably remember it because it rubs us the wrong way. Our American culture is built around the premise that you earn your way to the top. “The early bird gets the worm,” so to speak. It’s been ingrained in us from a young age that if you work harder, your reward will be greater.

Especially now, in an era where we’ve grown used to systems of welfare and government assistance, there might be a sense of self-righteous indignation when we perceive that anyone else is getting something for nothing. Sayings like “there’s no free lunch” are part of our vernacular, and we just come to accept it as fact. Just last week it was suggested in a mainstream political debate that when those without health insurance are faced with catastrophic illness or injury, perhaps we should let them die rather than cough up the tax dollars to give them a chance. The audience cheered at this suggestion, an audience full of people who claim to be Christians, people who claim they hold upstanding values when it comes to fairness and justice.

I found a re-write of the Lord’s Prayer on one website where this passage was being discussed:

Our Father who art no longer powerful,
your name is very ordinary.
Thy Kingdom come, but only in heaven,
cause we’ve got it all taken care of here on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread
cause we have worked long and hard for it.
Forgive us our sins regardless of whether we forgive others;
after all, it’s your fault we are tempted.
Deliver us into evil cause that’s what we like most.
For ours is the kingdom, the power,
and we should get all the glory. Amen.

It seemed comical at first, then a bit shocking. How many times have I thought these things? How frequently do I take control into my own hands, then want extra credit for everything I’ve accomplished? How many times have I cast God aside, then forgotten to call on him in times of trial, then blamed him for my circumstances? How many times have I purposely chosen evil, then wondered why my life is so hard with me in the throne? Certainly I don’t think it’s right to leave people for dead when they can’t afford insurance, but I confess that the idea of working all day only to be paid the same wage as someone who worked only one hour at the same job in the same location really bothers me.

These thoughts of entitlement, of fairness and supposed “justice” are products of the Confuser’s work in my life. The enemy is using these to distract me from the beautiful message waiting in this parable. (By the way, we must remind ourselves that a parable is an allegory, a story that is meant to draw comparisons, not something to be taken literally.)

The workers in this story are meant to represent the church. Some are born into this world as kingdom workers; they are raised in the church, they live all their lives with the church, and they die in the church. Others leave or are never involved in the first place. They live worldly lives, filled with sin and depravity. Then there are all those in between, the ones who hang around church but don’t do much outside of Sunday morning. Those who rarely or never go to church, but lead fairly moral lives. And everyone else that falls somewhere among all the extremes.

What this parable tells us is that everyone has an equal chance to enjoy the rewards of answering God’s call. We might hear the call first thing in the morning. Or we might show up late and so be called an hour before closing time. But it is God who calls us to receive his rewards, and God who decides what each of us will receive. The kingdom of God is the antithesis of the American dream. The kingdom is upside-down, a place where the last to come are the first to be rewarded, a kingdom where we are to be mature and child-like all at once, a kingdom where all are welcome because there is no such thing as status or self-importance.

The landowner in this story shows us what God’s grace is truly about. We read it as earnings for a day of labor. But the way I’ve come to see it, the day represents a lifetime, and the payment is salvation. There’s no greater reward than salvation. One cannot be “more saved” than another. As we live out Koinonia’s calling to be a demonstration plot for the kingdom, may we always remember that we have already been hired at the vineyard, some of us earlier in the “day” than others. Let’s invite the late-comers in, and let’s continue to challenge one another to answer God’s call, so that we will not be embittered when the last become first. Let’s rejoice when the rewards are issued, and receive our places in God’s eternal kingdom.

Never Too Late

September 1, 2011

Exhaustion set in upon waking. I ignored its demands. Discipline took its place. Or maybe it was merely obstinance, stubborn determination to prove something to someone I’ve yet to meet, that set me to task with the daily routines.

I was brave today, or at least I told myself not to be afraid. I spoke of gratitude and vision, and prayed with deep conviction. Even so, by the time the dinner bell was rung I had already begun to unravel.

Tried to rest before it was too late, to no avail. As my family slumbers, I’m still waking, still wondering, still pondering and figuring. Answers hang before the wrong questions, and the hopeful horizon fades just out of view.

I try to stop caring, but I answered the call to compassion when I was yet a child without words. No one knew my open heart might need protection. The healing has begun, but I am still revealing painful scars.

These two spirits, entrusted to me, stir up all the dregs of my past. Have I ruined them already, I wonder? Is it simply too late? “Never too late,” I can hear my mother’s words, “It’s never too late to become a better parent.”

***  ***  ***

My oldest daughter will turn 7 in a week. I have to laugh at myself, or at least smile a little, at the pressure I feel to offer my daughters a perfect childhood. The truth is, there is more yelling and chaos in our lives that I ever dreamed I would allow. I’m struggling to let go of the wounds uncovered while I parent my children through the lens of my own dysfunctional upbringing. My parents loved us and provided us with the best they had to offer, but there was a lot of pain and insecurity woven throughout my developmental years.

My parents began their this leg of their journey into healing when I was still in high school. They visited counselors, attended workshops, and today they are marriage mentors, transforming their past hurts into hope for so many others. Now I am in my 30’s, and just a couple of years ago my mother and father attended a parenting workshop at their church. Some of their friends wondered why, since they were about to become empty-nesters after my youngest sister moved out a year later. That was when my mother asserted that it’s never too late. I’m so grateful for their example, and for their commitment to growing in the Spirit. If they are still healing, then there’s hope for the rest of us yet.

” When I think of all this I get down on my knees before the Father who has stamped his image on every race in heaven and on earth, and I beg him to give you, out of his glorious abundance, the power to win by his Spirit ruling your inner life. God grant that Christ, through your faith, might establish residence in your hearts. May love be your tap root and foundation. May you have the strength to grasp with all God’s people the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ which surpasses all human understanding. Let God’s fullness fill you.”

Ephesians 3:14-19, Cotton Patch Version

Back in March, I was reading William Powers’ Twelve By Twelve and wrote a post called Sacrifice Your Birthright. Today I’ve been pondering again over my privilege as a white North American woman.

My thoughts rested on an experience from my college days, on a particular evening when I was waxing philosophical with a couple of friends. One was a young, naive white man who had come to college to find a wife. The other was my friend Kamran, whose parents had moved to the U.S. from Iran when he was a small child so his father could pursue a career as a doctor. The conversation bounced all over the map, until we began talking about our grade school days. All three of us had experienced some relentless teasing and physical bullying. During Kamran’s turn to tell his story, our other friend nodded vigorously and proclaimed over and over again, “Yeah, man. I know what you mean!” I could tell that Kamran was frustrated, but was a bit taken aback when he suddenly insisted, “No, no you don’t!”

He went on. “You’ll never know what that felt like, because you’re white! My family came over here with money, education, status. But I’m still treated like I might be carrying a bomb in my jacket, just because of how I look. You’ll never know what that’s like, because you blend in with all of them.”

Now, this happened back in 1997, so I’m paraphrasing Kamran’s response. But the gist of his message has stayed with me ever since that night. Because I’m white, I don’t and never will experience discrimination in the same way as a person of color. Even when I traveled to Honduras with Habitat for Humanity that same winter, and we were refused service at a gas station because our bus was full of gringos. Even when I was touring Spain in 1999, and there was anti-American graffiti because of some international situation that was upsetting folks that particular year, and some people sneered and swore at me in the streets. Even when I had dreadlocks in my hair and the airport security searched my bag for drug paraphernalia (I have never been searched before or since). Even when I took my daughter to a birthday party here in southern Georgia, and we were the only white people there, and I awkwardly made conversation and tried to help with the food preparations, making all the wrong moves.

Because in Honduras, we simply went to the next gas station and got served. In Spain, most of the people left us alone. A few months after my flight, I cut off my dreadlocks. And after the birthday party, I shook off the awkward feeling and went back out into the world where I am part of a white majority. In other words, I always had a relatively simple way out of an uncomfortable situation.

In 2002 Kamran took a winding road trip that encompassed all 49 states on the continent. During the trip, he crossed the Canadian border so he could visit Alaska. He was heavily searched during both crossings, with little or no explanation. He was even forced to use a crow bar to pry open his glove compartment, which had jammed shut years before, simply because he looks like he’s from the Middle East. When he told me about the experience, he tried to laugh it off, but he was angry and hurt by the discrimination levered against him.

I recently heard a white man say to a black friend, “When I was in Africa, the only white man in the village, I finally understood what segregation must have been like.” I wanted to jump out of my seat, to yell and scream, “No, no you don’t!” Because in Africa, white people are not forced to use separate bathrooms from the Africans. They are not forced into slavery, treated like second-class citizens, jailed for no apparent reason beyond the color of their skin, shoved into corners and forgotten about, dying nameless deaths. No, in Africa, this particular white man went on to say, he was frowned at until he smiled and waved, and then the villagers waved back. The kids were curious about his hairy arms and pale skin. He did some good deeds, and a week later he was back home. That’s all. His experience simply gave him a two-dimensional snapshot, a mere glimpse of a fragment of a moment in time, compared to the agony that black Americans have been through in the last 200 years.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow the truth of racial discrimination as it exists in our world today. In the past I’ve tried to argue that all prejudice is the same, but now I’m not so sure. Because these wrongs have been passed down through generations, and we cannot hope to right all the wrongs of slavery and genocide, of racial profiling and workplace discrimination. A few friendships across racial lines cannot heal enough wounds to bring reconciliation between people whose families and cultures have suffered under injustice for centuries. In short, it would take a miracle to bring about that sort of peace.

The truth as it stands for me is that I need to continue sacrificing my birthright. I need to listen to others’ stories, and recognize that though I can empathize, I’m a long way from knowing what it is to be in someone else’s shoes. That goes for my friends who are black, Latino, Arab, Asian, or even white for that matter. And when I admit what I don’t understand, that’s when God can step in and show me that the miracle of peace was completed over 2000 years ago, and that it continues to unfold before me every day, if I’d only take the time to listen to his word.

I’ll leave you with the text from another chapter in Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Ephesians. Translated into the dialect of southern Georgia in the 1950’s (where black and white churches had replaced Jews and Gentiles) Clarence said of his volumes, “If this humble work may be used of God to enlarge and strengthen the faith of others in his Son Jesus Christ, then indeed my joy will be full.”

Ephesians 2 CPV

1.         In days gone by you all were living in your sin and filth like a bunch of stinking corpses, giving your allegiance to material things and ruled by the power of custom. You can still see this spirit working now in the lives of those who won’t listen. In fact, at one time or another all of us were following our selfish inclinations and doing just as we pretty well pleased, because we were naturally just as big scoundrels as everybody else. But even though we were a bunch of corpses rotting in our mess, God in his overflowing sympathy and great love breathed the same new life into us as into Christ. (You have been rescued, I remind you, by divine intervention.) With Christ Jesus he resurrected us and elevated us to the spiritual household. This clearly demonstrates forever the untold richness of his favor which he so kindly bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus. So again I remind you, you have been rescued by his kind action alone, channeled through your faith. You didn’t get this on your own; it was God’s free gift. So nobody can brag that he himself achieved it. For we are his doing, made for the good deeds which God intended all along for us as Christians to practice.

11.         So then, always remember that previously you Negroes,who sometimes are even called “niggers” by thoughtless white church members, were at one time outside the Christian fellowship, denied your rights as fellow believers, and treated as though the gospel didn’t apply to you, hopeless and God-forsaken in the eyes of the world. Now, however, because of Christ’s supreme sacrifice, you who once were so segregated are warmly welcomed into the Christian fellowship.

14.         He himself is our peace. It was he who integrated us and abolished the segregation patterns which caused so much hostility. He allowed no silly traditions and customs in his fellowship, so that in it he might integrate the two into one new body. In this way he healed the hurt, and by his sacrifice on the cross he joined together both sides into one body for God. In it the hostility no longer exists.

17.         When he came, he preached the same message of peace to those on both the inside and outside. In him we both found a common spiritual approach to the Father. So then, you are no longer segregated and pushed around, but you are fellow citizens with all Christians and respected members of God’s family. This is based on the unshakable foundation Jesus himself laid down through the apostles and other men of God, with Christ being the cornerstone. Around him all the rest of the building is fitted together into a dedicated temple of the Lord. And you all are a vital part of God’s spiritual dwelling place.

There was a movement that began about thirty years ago in Australia called Permaculture (from perma[nent agri]culture) which was concerned about making good and natural use of our earth. I would like to suggest here the idea of church itself as a kind of permaculture.

Permaculture is a design system to create sustainable living habitats. Permaculturists seek to find regenerative solutions that are local, on-site, and natural. We have to look right in front of us and say: How can we regenerate what is right here? How can we live with what we have and make it beautiful and good? I ask, why should that not be true for church too? Wouldn’t it make sense that all we need for salvation is available for all peoples, all the time, and everywhere? God and grace cannot be that scarce. Why should any church technology be so centralized at higher levels, or dependent on major and specialized education? Maybe that was Jesus’ point in starting with fishermen?

From daily meditations by Fr. Richard Rohr
Adapted from Emerging Church Conference, Swannick, England, 2010 (unpublished)

My mother-in-law forwarded the above quote to me from an e-mail newsletter she receives. More can be found on the Center for Action and Contemplation website.

And I’d also like to include this little gem of a prayer that was at the conclusion of the message:

 Starter Prayer:
    God comes to you
      disguised as your life.