The Heart of the Matter

Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13

At first glance, today’s parable is a puzzling one.  Jesus tells us today:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom to appear for a great wedding feast.  The ladies fall asleep on the job – I can only imagine how heavy their responsibilities were leading up to the big day – and are startled awake when the groom finally shows up.  Five ladies, the wise ones, have oil in the jars and ready to light their lamps and party while five ladies, who are foolish, have run out of oil.  The foolish ladies ask the wise ladies for some oil and, in a rather shocking act, the wise ladies refuse.   The wise ladies go to the feast while the foolish ladies go out shopping for oil.   In another startling act, when the five foolish ladies finally get back with the oil, the door is shut and the groom says he doesn’t recognize them.

I can’t help but wonder aloud: What is going on here?  Why didn’t the ladies do a better job sharing their oil?  And why is the groom so mean?

These are questions that I have pondered for the better part of the week.  What I came to realize is that this parable is not about outward actions but inward transformation.  The oil represents inward transformation and the ladies don’t share their oil because, well, you can’t share an inward experience.  Oil is something that is individually created.  No one can give it to you and no one can take it away.  You have to do the work yourself.

It’s like a story I once heard about a precious jewel.  In the story, a wise woman was hiking in the mountains and found a precious stone in a stream.

The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her backpack to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to let him retire and have a good life.

However, a few days later, the traveler came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know the great value of this stone, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

This story teaches about the value not of outward wealth but rather of the wise woman’s inward experience of God, an experience that empowered her to be compassionate and generous to all whom she met.

Yet, it so easy for the outward things to stack up and define our lives. It’s easy to become focused on the shiny gem stones that grab our attention.

One Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, uses a computer metaphor to explain why this happens.  We come into existence with a certain operating system already installed.  Cynthia calls this the ego or the egoic operating system and it is a system focused on comparing itself to others, keeping score, acquiring positions, clinging to what one has, grasping, etc.  It is this egoic operating system that represents the perspective of the foolish ladies who did not have enough oil.

Yet, we each have the choice to upgrade. We have the choice to choose the operating system of the heart.  The operating system of the heart is one that perceives differently.  It perceives in terms of meaning and value and conscience.  It perceives in a deeper and more integral way than our minds can imagine.  Cynthia compares the operating system of the heart to putting on the “mind of Christ”. (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind)

In Philippians 2:5 it says: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The invitation then is to see through Christ’s eyes, feel through Christ’s heart and to learn to respond to the world with the same wholeness, generosity and healing love.

The woman who gave up that precious gem had chosen to put on the mind Christ.  She could generously give of her things because she could see the heart of the matter. This putting on the mind of Christ represents the “inner transformation” that the wise ladies experienced in today’s parable.

The oil lamps themselves are an image of the ladies’ transformation.  In its outer, sensible form, an oil lamp is an object consisting of lamp, oil and wick. But the real secret of the oil lamp reveals itself only when the match is struck and the candle begins to burn. Only then do we see what an oil lamp really is: its outer life is lamp, oil and wick; its inner life is flame.  We are talking here about transformation.   In the words of Cynthia, “The secret of our identity does not lie in the outer form or in how successfully we manipulate the outer forms of the sensible world. Rather, it lies in how we are able to set them (and ourselves) aflame to reveal the inner quality of their aliveness. … We are midwives of the Spirit. Hence we are not here to build nests. The birds can do that. Rather, we are here to take our nests and make of them homes, vibrant with the qualities of kindness, order, and stability. We are not here to amass hoards. The ants can do that. Rather, we are here to take those stockpiles and release them into the energy of generosity and compassion.” (Cynthia Bourgeault, baylor.edu/fcm_journal/index.php?id=59528)

Each moment we are faced with a choice:  Are we going to amass precious gems or give them away?  Are we going to be like the wise ladies or the foolish ladies?  Are we going to operate from the grasping, clinging perspective of the egoic operating system or from the liberating compassionate perspective of Christ?

Nadia Bolz Weber was faced with this very choice and, spoiler alert, she chooses the path of the foolish ladies.  Nadia Bolz Weber is an author and pastor of a church plant in Denver, Colorado.  In the summer of 2009, her church plant was only a few years old, with around thirty-five people attending. During the summer, with everyone traveling, there had been even fewer people.  So, to get everyone to be in church at the same time, Nadia decides that the church is going to celebrate Rally Day.  Rally Day marks the beginning of the new Sunday school year in early September.  Nadia’s church has no children and no Sunday School but Nadia thinks, hey, let’s have a Rally Day anyways.

Nadia decides not only to celebrate rally day but to do all the work herself.  She rents a cotton candy machine and buys a hundred paper cones, a milk carton-shaped container of pink sugar, burgers, sodas and all the fixings.  She arrives at the church already in pain. One of the discs in her back has the same reliability as a piece of cardboard and makes so she cannot stand long periods of time without being in pain.  Nadia, whose church meets in the evening, had preached in a morning service and now can barely stand up.  Not only that but she is now out three hundred dollars.

“It will all be worth it,” she think, “When everyone is together at the same service.”

As Nadia enters the church kitchen to prepare the food before the service, she thinks, I hope six dozen burgers is enough.

Upon finishing, Nadia goes upstairs for the service and sees that there is only 26 people at the service.

Twenty. Six. People.

With great effort, Nadia manages to get through the church service without scowling.

After the service, they fire up the grill, assemble the cotton candy machine and place a collection basket for donations on the soda cooler.  Forty eight burgers are cooked up, wrapped in tin foil and given to hungry people in a local park.  Every car that rolled by the stop sign was offered a cotton candy cone.

With her back in searing pain, feeling like it might snap in half at any moment, Nadia gets to work cleaning up.  All she can think is, the sooner we get cleaned up, the sooner I can go home.

“Nadia, you’re not okay are you?” Stuart, one of her congregants asks, interrupting her work.

“My back’s really hurting today,” Nadia confesses.

“Hey all, we are going to pray for Nadia right now,” Stuart calls out to the folks around him.

And so Nadia stand there, in a black clergy shirt warmed by the Colorado sun and the hands of her parishioners and submits to the blessing of being prayed for.  And then something happens.  As Stuart’s hands rub lovingly on her lower back and he asks God to heal her, the muscles in her back go from being a fist to an open hand.  The spasms releases.

Nadia’s parishioners help her clean up.  One of them grabbed the collection basket and asks her what it was … it was in fact a completely empty collection basket, noticed angrily. No one had bothered to donate money. It is midnight that night before Nadia can finally shut out the resentment and self-loathing enough that she could sleep.

And then suddenly, at 2 a.m., Nadia startles awake. The force of the realization hits her:  her back doesn’t hurt … it didn’t hurt after her congregants had prayed for her and it doesn’t hurt now … she received a temporary healing … and she was too wrapped up to even notice.

Nadia also realizes that she hadn’t really noticed the joy people had in being together and handing out cotton candy in the street.  She hadn’t noticed that the hungry people in the park got to eat iron-rich burger.  Nadia had been so busy keeping score and comparing herself to others that she had missed the heart of the matter. (Nadia Bolz Weber, The Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint)

She had missed the Kingdom of Heaven in her midst.

In the parable today, when the foolish ladies finally gets to the feast and the groom tells them that he does not recognize them.  I wonder if what this passage is really saying is that the banquet is right here and now and when we chose to operate from the egoic operating system – when we chose to operate from the system that is about grasping and keeping score – that we totally miss the ways that the Kingdom of Heaven has broken into our world.   When we are busy grasping and acquiring and are without oil, we don’t see and recognize the Kingdom in our midst and it doesn’t see and recognize us!

That is what happened to Nadia.  She was so caught up in her scoring keeping and comparing that she completed missed the presence of the Holy.

The Good News is that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in all around us. It is breaking in in iron-rich burgers and cotton candy cones.  In the bread and fruit of the vine.  In the beauty of sunsets over the Connecticut River.  In our love for the stranger and for one another.  In our generous giving and sharing of our talents.  In the ways that we find holiness in the ordinary and the common and the forgotten.

Today Jesus invites us to awaken from our spiritual sleepiness to see what is going on all around us.  Early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus invites people to “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).  The interesting thing about the Greek word for repent, metanoia, is that it literally means to “go beyond the mind” or “go into the larger mind”.  In the invitation to repent, Jesus is inviting us to go beyond our little me-first operating system and to put on the larger mind of Christ.  That our sight and touch and heart and lives might never be the same.

Amen.

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