The New Oxford Annotated Bible calls this an “apocalyptic parable” and Matthew probably intended it as such. However, in more recent times a growing number of biblical scholars and religious writers have rediscovered the ancient wisdom tradition that some of the early followers of Jesus embraced. These teachers, instead of putting all the focus on some future coming, would emphasize Christ’s coming to us right now, again and again and again.
The last couple of weeks I have talked about “knowing God” and “loving God.” Today I want to talk about “meeting God,” not in some future apocalyptic event, but right now. If you have been listening to what I have been saying this may seem like a paradox, which it is. I said last week that there is a sense in which we are all spiritual beings, because the Spirit of God, the Divine Presence is the reality in whom we live, move, and have our existence as Paul told the Athenians in the story in Act 17. The challenge for us is allowing the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ – to fill and pervade and direct our lives.
Now, today when I talk about meeting God I am talking about becoming aware of God, of being conscious of God and encounters or experiences of God. And sometimes these experiences of God are life changing and mind altering. The renowned Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, tells about an experience he had in 1958 that had a transformative impact upon his life. He had just been to
to see a doctor. Then standing on a busy intersection at the corner of Fourth
and Louisville Walnut Street,
in the center of the shopping district, Merton had something of an epiphany. He
says, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those
people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one
another even though we were total strangers.” In describing this experience
Merton says it was like waking from a dream of separateness. Through this
experience he realized that all these people that he knew nothing about were
his sisters and brothers, and that they, like himself, were all connected to
the Divine Source that sustains all life.
William James, who was both a psychologist and a philosopher, wrote about such experiences in a now classic book titled, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Though published over a century ago, it is still in print, and some have argued that is one of the most important nonfiction books published in English in the twentieth century. James observed several things common to these experiences, which he called mystical experiences. He noted that they are extremely difficult to talk about, to try to explain or put in words. They are usually very brief. They involve a vivid sense of knowing and seeing reality, that is, seeing “what is” more clearly than one ever has previously. And one cannot make them happen. These experiences cannot be programmed or planned. They can only be received. They fall “upon” the recipient. Religious persons who have had these experiences often speak of people and things having a kind of radiance or luminosity. And they speak of feeling a sense of union with the Divine and a connection to everything. One might say something like, “I felt at one with the One.” It’s practically impossible to put into words.
I don’t know if you have had an experience or experiences like this. If you have you probably haven’t told anyone, simply because such experiences are so hard to explain and put into words. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone simply because of the many ways it could be misunderstood. Such experiences are hard to talk about. So then, we can’t make these happen. However, there are some things we can do, like the maidens in our parable, to prepare for, to be ready for such “meetings” or “comings.”
One thing we can do is be watchful. The parable ends with this admonition: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” These meetings with God cannot be arranged, but we can be ready to receive them. Certainly spiritual practices help ready us. We are engaging in one right now – participating in community worship is one spiritual practice that most of us engage in on a regular basis. We can nurture an inner life. We can give observe times of silence and solitude, quieting the clamoring voices of our maddening culture so we can hear God’s voice, which actually is the voice of our true self. There are spiritual guides who can help us do that. The writings of Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr have guided me and helped me to hear the still, small voice in the midst of other voices.
Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about a festive day in the early 1980’s, when Bernie Glassman Roshi, a Zen teacher who is known for his commitment to social justice, was being ordained as abbot of Greystone Mandala in New York. Zen teachers from far away had come for this sacred ritual. All sorts of holy symbols were on disiplay and filled the place. Between the chants that were part of the service there were times of sacred silence. Into this silence, suddenly a beeper went off. Steindl-Rast said he felt sorry for the one who had forgotten to turn off the alarm, because it seemed such an eruption into this holy service. But Bernie Glassman, the teacher being ordained spoke up and announced, “This was my alarm. I have taken a vow to interrupt whatever I am doing at high noon and think thoughts of peace.” He then invited all who were present to join him for a sacred moment of thinking about and praying for peace. He said, “Our world so needs it.” That’s a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines keep us focused so that the mind and heart of Christ might be formed in us.
Another thing we can do besides being watchful is wean ourselves of negative habits and patterns in our lives that cause us to be unloving, frustrated, preoccupied, and divided. Much of our growing and becoming and allowing the Christ image to be formed in us is connected to our “letting go.” Other teachers describe this as dying to our ego, or renouncing the little self, or relinquishing our false attachments. Basically it involves a letting go of our inner defense mechanisms that we use both consciously and unconsciously to protect our egos. These negative responses keep us bound to our fears, anxieties, and insecurities. It takes some inner work to do this: to first, recognized and confront our negative patterns and inner fears, and then second, to let them go.
What fear is holding us back? What frustration is controlling our thoughts? What are we afraid of that keeps us from being the courageous truth tellers we are called to be? What is it that keeps us preoccupied with our little, ego dominated self? What causes us to be self-defensive, or angry, or feel so empty or bored or burdened? There are habits, attachments, ways of thinking, attitudes, and behaviors that we simply need to be weaned from, that we need to let go of so we can grow and become more God-like (which, paradoxically, means to become more fully human).
The story is told about a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”
What we need to do is whittle away all those parts – all those attitudes and actions, all those prejudices and biases, all those ego centered patterns that don’t look like Jesus. Some of the questions I can ask: Am I unbiased like Jesus? Am I compassionate like Jesus? Do I love like Jesus? Do I have the courage to speak truth to power like Jesus? Do I care for the marginalized and disenfranchised like Jesus? If not, then what is hindering me from being more like Jesus – having his mind and heart? What is keeping me from participating in his dream for humanity and for the world? What do I need to be weaned from? Some of us may need help, particularly when we are unable to identify or see what it is that is keeping us bound. Some folks may need to join an AA group. For others it may mean being part of a faith community like ours. We may need to find a good spiritual guide or maybe a psychotherapist. We need to do whatever we can to identify the things that are hindering us from living the Christ life and let them go.
I love the way Paul or a disciple of Paul puts this in Ephesians: “Put away falsehood . . . put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice,” [because none of that looks like Jesus right?] rather, he says, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We take off the worst of our humanity, so we can cloth ourselves in the best of our humanity, and Jesus, is our definitive and quintessential example and guide. He is the Son of Man par excellent. The title Son of Man simply means the human one. He is the human archetype of what we are called to be and he represents what is possible for each of us to become.
So what can we do to ready ourselves? We can watch, we can wean ourselves of our fears and negative patterns, and one more thing we can do is engage in works of mercy and justice. Almost always one’s engagement with the world takes on new energy and vitality and zeal after an encounter with God. After Merton’s experience of God in downtown Louisville Merton began to pour himself into relationships with some of the leading peace activists of the day. Some, like Daniel Berrigan, would visit him in his hermitage. He corresponded with Martin Luther King, Jr. He also reached out to leaders of other religious traditions, such as Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. But even if we have never had an experience like Merton, or what William James calls a mystical experience, our calling as followers of Jesus is to act mercifully and graciously toward all people and pursue restorative and social justice for the most vulnerable. And when we engage in works of mercy and justice we are readying ourselves for such an encounter with God.
In colonial New England a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse, during which many of those present panicked and others moved to adjourn. But one of them said, “Mr Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought”
For disciples of Jesus, our duty is to love God and love others as we love ourselves. Our duty is to engage in deeds of mercy and kindness, and to pursue justice for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable. And that’s our duty regardless. Even if we cannot point to any experience of the transcendent or the ineffable, that is still our duty. And when we do our duty we ready ourselves for whatever God wants to show us.
So then, sisters and brothers, we cannot will or plan these special encounters with God. There is a great mystery to it all. But we can be ready and whether we have an encounter like Merton’s or not, we can still grow and allow the Christ image to be formed in us.
So first, let’s be watchful, let’s be awake and alert to the divine presence that fills all things. And we can do that by nurturing a life of prayer and by giving attention to our inner life. Let’s learn to listen to the still small voice of God, which calls to us out of our true self. Second, let’s wean ourselves of negative attitudes and habits and all those negative patterns in our lives and relationships that quench the Spirit and hinder the Spirit from completing the good work of conforming us to Christ. And third, let’s work the works of God – works of mercy and justice – trusting in the power of love.
In the parable the oil for the lamps is “the” important commodity. It’s the lack of oil that makes the unwise maidens unwise. The wise maidens brought extra oil, so they were prepared. I see the oil as a symbol for the energy, the inner power that that keeps us moving and engaging and serving others. It is the power of the Spirit, which is the power of love. The Spirit is always enlarging us, moving us beyond our little selves, and empowering us to love better – to love inclusively and unconditionally
I have no idea why some people have these unique encounters with God, these mystical moments, and others don’t. But I do know that if we will pay attention to how God is working all around us and in our world and give attention to developing an authentic inner life in Christ we will be ready to see God’s image in others, perhaps even in our enemies. If we will learn to let go of the negative biases and attitudes and behaviors that diminish rather than enrich life, then we will be ready to grow and mature and become more Christ like. If we will give ourselves to doing the compassionate and loving thing, the merciful and just thing, then we will be ready to be instruments of God’s peace and justice in the world. And these are the things that really matter.
Gracious God, create in our souls a thirst for the living water and a hunger for the bread that is life enriching and sustaining. May Christ be formed in us so completely that what we will is what you will. May we share your heart, O God, O living Christ and be ready for anything that you want to show us and teach us. As we eat the bread and drink the cup in both remembrance of love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus and in celebration of the Christ’s living presence among us and in us, may you fill our lives with the love of Christ that our lives might be a source of blessing and help to others. Amen.