Trinity, Mattoon—Matthew 25:1-13
At my age and stage of life, there is certainly plenty that I might complain about if I were the complaining sort. My body certainly calls attention to itself way more than it did twenty or thirty or forty years ago. I spend a lot more time in the waiting rooms of medical facilities now than I did then. But there a lot of things about life in my twenties and thirties that I would certainly not want to go back to. One of these is that the car I drive starts every time I push the start button and I’m virtually 100% confident that it won’t leave me stranded on the side of the road somewhere. That was not my experience in my young adulthood. Car trouble was just a fact of life. Now, part of this, I think, is just that they’re building a lot more quality into automobiles these days than they did then. But the other part is that I’m now blessed with the financial resources to religiously follow the manufacturer’s recommendations about scheduled maintenance. Nowadays, I actually get an email from my car telling me it’s time to take it into the dealer and have them do their thing—stuff that needs to be done not because there’s a present emergency, but, rather, in anticipation of a future emergency. The old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine” applies here. It’s not glamorous, it’s not fun, and it’s never urgent. It can always wait till “tomorrow.” But if we’re smart, we just do it, because we know that, over the long haul, it will cost us less time and less money to take care of things before they become problems rather than waiting until they become crises.
As we slide toward the season of Advent, which begins December 3, three weeks from today, the appointed scripture readings for the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays focus on one of the principal themes of Advent: preparation for the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. Today we have this parable from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel about the wise and foolish virgins, or bridesmaids, depending on your translation. We don’t really know very much about wedding customs in Palestinian Jewish culture in the first century, so it’s difficult to make sense of all the details in this parable. Why were these young ladies waiting for the bridegroom—shouldn’t they have been attending to the bride? Why was the bridegroom so long delayed? Would they really have had a wedding in the wee hours of the morning, just after midnight? Wouldn’t it have been a nice thing for the bridesmaids who had enough oil to share with those who didn’t? Would the bridegroom really have been so cruel as to deny the “foolish virgins” entrance to the wedding banquet just because they were a few minutes late? These and other questions might be interesting to bat around, but they’re ultimately unanswerable, which is really alright, because they have very little to do with the fundamental point of the story.
Five of these young ladies did their scheduled maintenance, and five did not. If the bridegroom had arrived on time, if everything had gone as expected, no one would have gotten into trouble. Everyone would have had enough oil for her lamp. The foolish maidens gambled on the probability that nothing would go wrong, and decided not to take the time and trouble to fill their lamps with oil. “I’ve got enough for tonight,” they said, “I can buy more during the day tomorrow.” For us, it might be like deciding not to take the time and trouble to make sure there’s adequate antifreeze in our cars at this time of year, gambling that there will be another mild winter.
The five wise maidens, however, took the precaution of making sure they had more than enough lamp oil to satisfy the expected demand. They were prepared for a contingency, for an emergency, for a crisis. When the bridegroom was late, it was a crisis for their foolish sisters, but not for them. They took care of routine maintenance, and they were ready for adversity when it hit.
It’s a great thing for us to take care of our homes and our cars and our bodies, not only when they obviously need work, but with preventive maintenance. It’s just good Christian stewardship of the assets that have been entrusted to us. But let us not forget that routine maintenance of the soul is also a good thing, and the reasons are all the same. It’s easier to prevent a spiritual crisis than to fix one. Now, spiritual crises can be fixed; there is a road out. So, if you happen to be in a crisis of the soul today, don’t lose hope. By all means, talk to Fr Jeff, or to me, or to some other Christian who is wise and experienced. But finding that road out is neither easy nor fun.
What do I mean by “spiritual crisis?” A spiritual crisis is when the normal or abnormal stresses of life cause us to lose our grip on what is ultimately important, what is really real. We feel as though God does not exist, or, if he does, is certainly not personally interested in us. Or we’re angry at him for allowing bad things to happen to us or to people whom we love, or are otherwise not deserving of such bad things happening to them. We get jaded, cynical, bitter. We become apathetic toward the development of our own character. We rationalize sinful and self-destructive behavior. If left unchecked, this condition becomes chronic, progressive, and fatal. We become detached from the love of the One who made us, and we end up, put simply, in hell—hell on earth, at first, and then hell eternally. The Second Coming of Christ, which this time in the liturgical year puts us in mind of, will certainly be a spiritual crisis for those who are unprepared.
The fact is, my friends, adversity will happen. It’s a given in human experience. Our capacity to be “faith-ful,” to remain oriented toward Christ, centered and grounded in him, will be tested and taxed. We don’t know when those moments are going to happen; they can come suddenly. Do you have enough oil in your lamp? Are you taking the time for scheduled and routine maintenance of the soul? Obviously, if you’re in this place at this time to hear me ask that question, the answer is, at least partially, Yes. You’ve probably heard me or other priests say this many times before, but attendance every week at the Sunday Eucharist, and making your communion, is the life blood of caring for the Christian soul. There is nothing more basic and fundamental than that, and it is virtually a waste of energy to be working on more sophisticated forms of spiritual practice when that elementary one has not been mastered. It’s like doing calculus when you haven’t learned algebra. It’s like fiddling with the centerpiece on your dining room table when you never manage to get the dishes washed. It’s putting the cart before the horse. When you reach the point that coming to Mass on Sunday is a habit—a habit of the heart as well as of the will—and not a weekly decision, you will have crossed a highly significant spiritual threshold. There are a lot of really good reasons for not coming to church on any given Sunday. I rarely ever hear a bad reason. It’s not bad things that keep us away from worship; it’s good things. But on the Lord’s Day, corporate worship is, as Jesus says, the “one thing needful.” I don’t want to drive this point into the ground; I realize I’m preaching to the choir. But I cannot find words adequate to convey how absolutely important this is.
Routine maintenance of the Christian soul also includes daily private prayer. It’s not as important what or how you pray as that you do it daily, whether you feel like it or not. When I’m working with someone on developing a life of prayer, they sometimes reach a point when they tell me, with some alarm, that daily prayer has become dry and boring. I smile inside when I hear this, because it is a sign of great spiritual growth. It is in the boredom of habit that the deeper things of the Lord can be communicated.
There are, of course, other expressions of spiritual health—acts of charity and service, good stewardship, the development of Christian character and the fruits of the spirit—but these are, as I said, expressions, manifestations. They are the results of routine spiritual maintenance, scheduled care of the soul rooted in Sunday corporate worship and daily personal prayer. With our lamps full of oil, then, we can face adversity without it becoming a spiritual crisis. We can weather the storm, secure in our faith, confident that, though it is often not God’s way to save us from such storms, it is most assuredly his way to be with us in and through them. Taking care of our souls through proper spiritual “diet and exercise” keeps us out of the spiritual emergency room.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.