Jesus taught with many parables, stories that catch attention. Ten young women waiting for a wedding party, waiting into the night. Five thought ahead and brought extra oil for their lamps. Five did not. When the groom, presumably escorting the bride, was late, they all fell asleep.[i] When the couple arrived, those who thought ahead used their extra oil. Those without had to go get more oil. Late, they were shut out of the party and told “I do not know you.” Pay attention. Don’t get left out. Don’t be forgotten. Keep awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
All ten of the young women, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep in the night. Half brought extra oil. It seems like the point is: Be prepared, for you don’t know the timing. Being thoughtful, wise, and planning ahead is being engaged, aware, and alert. Perhaps this is being awake: alert and engaged to God, self, and neighbor for a late parade to the party.
This story comes amid others with a similar theme. The previous story says be at work for the master returns at an unexpected time. [ii] Don’t beat fellow slaves and get drunk. The master will throw that one out. The next story says risk investing whatever amount the master entrusts to you.[iii] Don’t hide the talent you’ve received. The master will throw that one out. Keep awake. Be faithful at work. Be prepared for the best. Invest what you’re given. Be alert and active. Jesus is coming, and you don’t know when.
These stories grab our attention with hard words like the shut door. Some preachers use them to stoke fear. What will happen to you at the end of time? Will you be left behind? Shut out? Thrown out? Stock up on oil, whatever that is, to make sure you get inside, to save yourself.
Over and over through the arc of scripture God says: “Do not be afraid.” God goes to extraordinary lengths to seek and save the lost. Even when it seems too late, God still hears our cries and comes. This parable gives warning but not to fear. It urges to live for the party, not just to plan to attend later, but to live now alert and generous. God’s kingdom, the new way of living, is not a ticket to exit later, but a life of celebrating through sharing now.
In the last part of this chapter, we hear about Jesus coming in glory. [iv] “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.” What? When? “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. And when you didn’t do it them, you didn’t do it to me.” How we live now matters. Be wildly generous like a late groom who parades the bride through every street.[v] Be faithful and give your work your best. Risk using all God has given you for good. Care for the poor, the sick, the hungry. Listen for God’s invitations.
How might you be asleep, distracted, absorbed, or afraid? Keep awake for Jesus is coming. You may not know what you need. Ask for help. Make attention your intention and your petition.
I suggest two prayers. First, we will later sing:
Redeemer, come! I open wide
My heart to Thee, here, Lord abide
Let me Thy inner presence feel
Thy grace and love in me reveal.[vi]
Second, pray the prayer we use in Holy Baptism for yourself:
Heavenly Father, thank you that by water the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on me your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised me to the new life of grace. Sustain me, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give me an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[vii]
Do not be afraid. Live remembering your baptism and dressed for the wedding banquet. Feed. Clothe. Love. Pray. Pray with grateful trust to keep awake.
[i] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, p271.
[ii] Matthew 24:45-51
[iii] Matthew 25:14-30
[iv] Matthew 25:31-46
[v] Bailey, p272.
[vi] Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Wessel (1590-1635); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, p308. Thanks to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde for the suggestion to pray it personally.
Season of Creation
Today, as we enter this fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, we stand at the edge of a vineyard in the early evening light. We stand at the edge of a vineyard, staring in frustration and anger at the small silver coin we hold in our hands.
Life isn’t fair.
Can you imagine yourself as one of the laborers who have arrived early, preparing to work all day, looking ahead to receiving your pay for a job well done? As more and more laborers come into the field over the course of the day, do you feel yourself becoming slower, more fatigued, but assured, at least, that these extra hours among the vines will be rewarded? And as people come in even as the sun is beginning to set, and your feet are dragging and you just want to be home, do you know that at the very least you will have earned your daily wage?
And in this early evening light at the edge of the vineyard, how do you feel when you receive your pay: a small silver coin, the same as everyone else?
Life isn’t fair.
But where does this sense of unfairness come from? You have agreed, after all, to the usual daily wage—the expected, standard payment for a day’s work. It’s not any less than you’d get any other day. No, the sense of unfairness comes from anticipation—seeing others receive more, you expect to benefit likewise. You imagine a scenario in which—despite the agreement you made and despite everything you’ve come to expect in your life as a laborer—you are paid more because you deserve it.
I’m sure you can think of a time in your life when this has been true for you. You learn about a coworker who gets a bonus or raise, and you say to yourself, “I’ve been here longer than them. I deserve as much or more.” Or you spend more hours practicing your sport or instrument, or perfecting your craft, and you reassure yourself, saying, “I’ve put in more hours than them.” Or, “They didn’t do what was expected, or enough, so they doesn’t deserve that.”
I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have, too. I’m sure we’ve all been there because we live in a competitive society, a competitive world, where we are expected to fight for every advantage, for every advancement that we can. We compete for jobs, we compete for honors, we compete for attention. We don’t necessarily like it, but it’s just the way life is. And not only that. We are also surrounded by a natural world whose very beauty and diversity is the result of competition; those species that are best adapted to compete for limited resources survive. Unlike our nonhuman neighbors, though, when we face uncertainty and factors outside our control, when we strive for whatever possible advantage we can find, we tell ourselves that that effort, that labor, makes us somehow more deserving. And if our expectations are thwarted, we tell ourselves that life is unfair.
Is it any surprise, really, that Jonah feels himself so ill-used? Sent on a long and perilous journey, he arrives in Nineveh and proclaims to the citizens there, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4). The people believe him, God is merciful, and, against Jonah’s expectations, his labor is not even rewarded with the destruction of the city! That he has been an agent of good, of the people of Nineveh’s transformation of heart, does not cross his mind; what is the point of God’s justice if God is just going to relent? I mean, is it really too much to ask that God at least just follow through? If God is always going to be “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2), then what is the point? What has his labor been for? How is this God fair?
God’s answer is to allow Jonah to experience the unfairness of God’s mercy. God makes a bush to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the sun, an act of mercy that is free and undeserved. And then God makes the bush to die back, exposing Jonah to the elements: an act that is similarly free and undeserved. What right does Jonah have to be upset? “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow” (Jon 4:10). We can hear an echo of our gospel passage here: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). Where does fairness enter into this?
God isn’t fair. But God’s unfairness isn’t arbitrary or abstemious. God’s unfairness is universal and prodigal. It’s the unfairness of a landowner who pays everyone the same out of his boundless generosity. It’s the unfairness of a father who welcomes back with open arms and a spread table the wayward son. It’s the unfairness of a God who, in the psalmist’s words, is “faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds” and who “upholds all those who fall” (Ps 145:14-15), whether they deserve it or not.
We experience the unfairness of the world, but we also experience the unfairness of God’s prodigality toward us. The psalmist expresses this, “The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works” (Ps 145:9), but I prefer Shakespeare here: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” So says Juliet to Romeo, but it could be God saying these words to us, God revealing to us our greatest gift: that we are loved, infinitely and unconditionally, undeservedly and unfairly. And through the gift of the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, we are given this love, made aware that we are loved as God’s children, and knit together into a Body. But we are not made a Body to labor for our reward. We have already been rewarded. We are knit into a Body to work is with God. We are knit into a Body to be collaborators, co-laborers with God in the ongoing miracle of Creation. “If I am to live in the flesh,” Saint Paul writes from prison, “that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
And what is this work, this co-labor? If we have been given this great gift of love undeservedly, if we have been given this Spirit, this Comforter, this Advocate, what greater sign can there be than for us to do likewise? What greater confirmation that we are loved than that we can love: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). Experiencing the overflowing bounty of God’s love and generosity, we too can turn toward our neighbors, human and other than human, and love them, and advocate for them, and be the Advocate for them, knitting them into our Body. We can raise up the low, the marginal, the undeserving, the forgotten in our midst; we can make the last to be first. We can respond to the unfairness of life by loving unfairly, as God unfairly loves us.
Life isn’t fair. Thank God for that.
 Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.140-42.
Money is not the problem. Money is neutral in itself; it’s simply a means to facilitate commerce and trade in our daily lives. Having money is also not the problem: there are many examples, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, of people who considered their wealth a gift from God, and used their wealth to help and benefit others. It’s not money itself, but the love of money that poses a dangerous threat.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul is criticizing a group of what he calls “false teachers” whose “love of money” taints and motivates their behavior and teaching. They are supposedly teaching the Christian faith, but they are doing so for their own personal gain. They are more interested in profits than in people.
Lest his hearers fall into a similar trap, Paul outlines some of the dangers of an excessive love of money. First, he says, we should recall that “we brought nothing into the world… and we can take nothing out of it.” Our lives do not revolve around money or possessions or the status that they may bring us.
Preaching is always an intimidating task, but seldom more than on a day like today when we hear Jesus criticizing those “who like to walk around in long robes.” For a monk, that strikes pretty close to home.
That being said, I truly believe that today’s gospel lesson is about something more substantive than the wearing of robes. But it does begin there. Jesus criticizes the ‘scribes,’ important religious leaders of his day, for “liking to walk around” in long robes, for enjoying the respect they received when greeted in the marketplaces, and for relishing the privilege of having the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets. For them, Jesus suggests, it’s all about being seen, honored and admired by ‘ordinary folk.’ They delight in this kind of attention.
This, of course, is exactly what Jesus has already warned us about in the Sermon on the Mount. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;” he cautions, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” (Mt 6:1-2a) Did you catch those two important phrases: “in order to be seen by them,” and “so that they may be praised by others”? Jesus expects that we will share what we have and give generously to the work of God in the world, but he asks us to consider why and how we offer alms or do good deeds. Whenever we posture and pose in order to impress others with our holiness or our goodness or our generosity and selflessness, whenever we actively court their flattery and praise, we sacrifice the good favor of our Father in heaven for the cheap and fickle praise of human beings.
Occasion: Birthday Celebration of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Place: Chapel at the end of the Long Gallery, Gardner Museum
There are a number of words that we might use to describe Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose birthday we are celebrating today. We might use the word audacious. We could describe her as scandalous or provocative. We might call her stubborn. We could call her eccentric. We could certainly call her rich. I am sure that she was called these, and many others besides. But there is one word which we might not normally associate with her. That word is courageous.
I saw that word downstairs in the gallery where the works of one of the Museum’s artists in residence are exhibited several years ago. The works, a series of miniatures, included an excerpt from a letter written to Mrs. Gardner by her friend Matthew Stewart Prichard an art historian and one time assistant curator of the neighbouring MFA. In the letter to Mrs. Gardner, Prichard he wrote: Be generous, generosity is a symptom of courage. If you fear; you are selfish.
We are all here today, because of Mrs. Gardner’s courage. She had the courage to be generous and by her generosity both the Monastery in Cambridge and the Museum here on the Fenway continue to thrive as important cultural and religious centres in the Boston area. Without her generosity neither Museum nor Monastery would exist.
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
Hosea 10:1-3, 12
There is a new fence going up. So far it is just the posts. They are taller and more robust. The perimeter expands further, and—fittingly—it is beautiful. There is a new fence going up at the Monks’ Garden at Emery House. Everything grown there is given away. The first beets were just harvested; 100 pounds will be distributed this week at the Newbury Food Pantry.[i]
The garden is in partnership with Nourishing the North Shore. We provide the land and water. They grow, harvest, and distribute. We also host land for the Organic Community Garden. We Brothers share in Nourishing the North Shore’s mission: “to ensure equal access to healthy, local food to all members of the North Shore communities in a manner that builds community, fosters connection, and promotes dignity and self-reliance.”[ii] Food justice is expanding step by step in further work with local schools and with a bigger garden: mission in action.
A bigger garden could be used for exclusion and greed, to horde and squander. In today’s text, the prophet Hosea shows bad and good images. God’s people were like “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” With more fruit, they built monuments to idols, like self-praise, ignoring God. “Their heart is false … The Lord will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.”
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
When gardening or farming, one plans what to plant and where with preparation, precision,, irrigation, and protection so seeds may thrive. Jesus catches our attention with this one who casts seeds recklessly such that some fell where birds ate them, where shoots sprang up but quickly withered, where thorns grew alongside and chocked them, as well as where they bore fruit. No one plants like this, in places with little chance of survival. No one is so reckless.
God is no ordinary gardener. God is reckless with generosity, sowing love everywhere, including in the face of rejection.
My guess is you, too, have loved like this. There are times you continued to show up, listen, and provide even when a person wouldn’t turn toward you or did so only briefly before turning away. Remember doing this with children, family or others.
1 Kings 17:8-16
In our Old Testament lesson we read of Elijah’s encounter with the widow at Zarephath. She lives in the face of imminent starvation. She pours out her heart to the prophet Elijah. She has only a handful of meal and little more than a drop of oil which will form the last supper for her and her son. And you know what happens. She shares her paltry rations with Elijah, and the meal jar and oil never thereafter give out. It’s a beautiful story. I’m not sure, though, that it literally happened. I mean, if we could somehow bring a CNN camera crew back some thousands of years to this particular incident, I have doubts whether this exact story, as it’s been told to us in the scriptures, could be captured on film. This particular encounter between Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, as it’s recorded in the First Book of the Kings, is too isolated, too exceptional a story to “make history,” to be remembered down through the centuries… and to show up in the Canon of Holy Scripture and in our Sunday lectionary every three years or so.
The reason the story about the widow’s oil has been passed down, generation to generation, is not because it literally happened. Maybe so; maybe not. The story has been remembered because it’s true. I suspect most every one of us here has our own version of this story: that when you don’t have what is required, you are given what you need.
What might be your version of this story? I think you have one. When you’ve come to your end. When the cupboard of your imagination is empty and you cannot, for the life of you, figure out how you can make it, how you will make it, given where things are with you financially, or emotionally, or spiritually, or physically; given where things are for you in relationship to your spouse, or partner, or employer, or children, or neighbor, or relative. When it all seems a dead end preceding a kind of death. Death, literally, or simply the death of hope, the death of a dream, the death of a possibility or of a chance. I don’t know how your story has come out… but it surely has come out, and in some amazing ways, because you’re here. You’ve made it to today… which is probably nothing short of a miracle. (It probably is a miracle.) The reason this story about the widow’s little jug of oil has been saved and shared down through the centuries is because it’s our story. It’s a true story, and on two levels.
On the one level there is the reminder about the miracle of provision. When what is absolutely essential for you to live, when what is crucial for your surviving the day (literally or metaphorically), provision somehow happens. It’s maybe in the form of finances or food. Sometimes it’s no more than almost crumbs of attention and care. This past week, one day I was having a particularly tough day. I found myself on kind of a roll… downhill. I mean, I was not about to literally die… but the day was really killing me. It may sound a little melodramatic, but there was a line from Psalm 116 floating through my brain at the time:
“The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me;
I came to grief and sorrow….”
And then late in the afternoon I passed one of my Brothers in a hallway here in the monastery. He spoke to me, just as we were passing one another. He said a few words to me that were exceedingly kind, and he smiled at me. And we parted … And I was a new man. Absolutely transformed. In the instant. From that moment the whole day – what had already transpired and what was to come – the whole day looked different. I could now see the day’s being the most amazing series of events, for which I was almost immediately given the grace to be thankful. That’s a word for it: grace. When you absolutely haven’t got what it takes, and you’re given what you need.
If your life is anything like mine, I suspect you have had a lifetime of experiences – big and small, so many they are without number – where provision and goodness, God’s provision and goodness, have come out of both the surest and the sorriest of situations. That sorrowful Psalm 146 about “grief and sorrow” that was on my mind the other day takes a turn for the better. The psalm continues:
“…Then I called upon the Name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’
Gracious is the Lord and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.”
Recently I was listening to someone who was talking about how bad things are in so many places around the world, and in our own country, and their own town, and – some days, because of it all – in their own heart. Bad stuff. This person asked for my “take” on things. I could not find any argument with what they were saying. But I had to add that what amazes me even more, with each passing day, is how good things are, and often times in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways: where you discover abject goodness, greatness, beauty, nobility, provision in ways which you could never have even asked for or imagined. Like being surprised by joy. The widow at Zarephath would not have known the word, “grace,” but we do. We as Christians do, and grace is amazing. That’s one thing about this story of the widow’s bottomless vial of oil that is worth saving and savoring: life is positively amazing. When you think you’ve come to the end there is more.
Another reason why this story about the widow at Zarephath is true is because it’s a kaon about generosity. There is a risky principle about life which may seem counter-intuitive until you’ve tested it: what you give away seems to be in direct proportion to what you receive. And I don’t even mean one-for-one. It’s much more than that; it’s like a hundred-fold. There’s a de facto principle in life that in giving you receive. As if to say the one makes the space for the other. St. Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.” Marvelous! There is something about participating in life as a gift, not clinging to it, not hoarding it, but cherishing it, participating in it, then sharing it with a kind of reckless abandon that is the real deal, because that’s like God. It’s for us to be generous with the things in life to which we’ve been entrusted. But it’s deeper than just about things. It’s to be exceedingly generous with our kindness, attentiveness, gratitude, gentleness, and interest for others.
This generous predisposition certainly can have an effect on our custody of things – on our stewardship of money and property and other things; however the a priori principle is that life gives us the invitation to participate in God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God, whose opening act in creation in the Book of Genesis is generosity. The words “genesis” and “generosity” spring from the same etymological source.[i] We have been created in the image of God, who, from the beginning, is generous. Long before death pulls from our grip what you cannot take to the grave, acknowledge it all as gift, and gift it back to God as an offering for God’s use. Collaborate with God. It’s a prayer that we re-present God in all that we are, and in all that we have: God, who from the beginning is generous.
The scriptures appointed for today herald widows. There is this wonderful story about the widow at Zarephath in the First Book of the Kings. There’s also a tender remembrance of widows in Psalm 146, appointed for today: “the Lord sustains the orphan and widow.” And then today’s Gospel lesson recalls the poor widow who shares two pennies, “the widow’s mite.” This, too, is a story that is bigger than life and, it’s also a true story. Jesus’ point is not that this poor widow, in giving her two pennies, gave a better gift than the rich person who gives large sums. They both are benefactors, and both are giving from their personal treasury. What’s distinctive about the widow’s mite is simply in her willingness to give her gift, her little gift.
Life is not so much big events; life is a lot of little events which can become profoundly significant. The story of the widow’s mite is quite similar to the story of the widow’s vial of oil in terms of a generous availability in even the smallest of ways. From these widows’ stories, we are reminded about the greatness in small things, which we also see lived out in Jesus Christ who, as we read, “… emptied and humbled himself….”[ii] I recall Mother Teresa’s saying, “We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do little things with great love.”
There’s a moral in these wonderful and true stories about the widow’s oil and the other widow’s mite:
- In the beginning, from the genesis of life, we witness God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God whose essence is generosity.
- Giving opens the door to receiving… beyond what we might imagine.
- There is no such thing as a small gift. All gifts are great.
- There will be provision. God will provide. God will provide for you, and God intends provide through you. We are an answer to God’s prayer.
[i]The root gene-means “give birth, beget,” which forms both the Greek and Latin words, genesis, yielding engender, generation, genetic, genuine…
[ii]See Philippians 2:1-11.