The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s065g11  Sunday 32  6/11/2011

‘all of them became drowsy and slept.’   Matthew 25.5

There are at least two messages here, the injunction to be prepared and the injunction to keep awake.  I point this out because both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids slept.  The foolish were not excluded because they had slept, they were excluded because they were not ready.   God hasn’t made a cardinal virtue of insomnia :-)!

One of the ancient petitions in some litanies was that we might not die suddenly and unprepared, surely echoing this parable.   However I suspect that the sort of preparation envisaged by the composers of the litanies was about being adequately prepared in the devotional sense.    They feared death which was not preceded by confession, receiving mass and extreme unction; yet I wonder just what proportion of people there were for whom this happened so very nice and neatly.   Perhaps for Popes this is possible, but hardly for the billions in third world countries.   What hope does this pious petition offer them?   However the wise were prepared by bringing flasks of oil along with their lamps.   To have flasks of oil one needs to be involved with the world, to be familiar with the dealers in oil.   It also denotes an enthusiasm for life as it is and an enthusiasm for what might be just around the corner.

The foolish bridesmaids seem diffident about their contact with the world and content with how things were.   Perhaps the sleep to which Jesus refers is not the natural sleep we all need but the sleep that makes us oblivious to those around us – in the same way as those who are blind were those who could see but for whom the poor man at the gate of the rich all but was invisible.

I note that all ten of the bridesmaids set out to meet the bridegroom, so each wants to be a participant at the marriage feast.   So it is NOT simply that we want eternal life, surely everyone wants this; it is that we need to make it for ourselves, here and now.   And this is reinforced when we are told that the late-comers are not admitted after the door has been shut, despite their pleading.   It is in our buying and selling in the real world, it is in our enthusiasm for life as it really is, that we make eternal life our own.

Now clearly there are people who suffer depression and anxiety, and just as clearly a compassionate parent does not want anyone who suffers to be excluded.   It is those who make a cardinal virtue of their separation from the world who effectively exclude themselves.

Recently I read the article: ‘Reflection: What Steve Jobs Can Teach the Church’ by: The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi and three quotes stood out for me:
‘He didn’t drive his company by looking into the rearview mirror.   He didn’t settle for doing what others already knew — only better.’
‘In January 2007, while unveiling the iPhone, he made a very telling comment about his business philosophy.   He said, “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love — ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.‘   And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple, since the very, very beginning.   And we always will.”   Could the church do the same?’
And ‘In a world going at warp speed, only the fast survive.   Steve Jobs knew this.’    For me Steve Jobs could be the icon of the person Jesus would commend when he says: ‘keep awake’ and admits those who have brought along extra oil.

Some other reflections about this passage.   The first is that those who are about to be admitted are not charitable towards their foolish sisters.   There is something more going on here.

And the second is that the Lord replies to the latecomers: ‘I do not know you’.   This is echoes those other words of Jesus: ‘On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?'   Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'  Matthew 7.22,23 and  ‘Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?"   He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.    When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then in reply he will say to you, 'I do not know where you come from.'   Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'   But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!'   Luke 13.23-27

The first group of people were separate from others because they were so accomplished.   The second group of people claimed a special relationship with Jesus, rather than the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus associated.   So it is obviously a little more than a passing acquaintance that we need.   This speaks to me again of separateness and incarnation.   Each and every one of us is able to be incarnated into the society in which we live, for there is no lack of poor, marginalised, alienated and seemingly damned in every generation, so the first century folk were not at all privileged above others of earlier or later generations.

Every Friday I read the headlines in ‘Church Times’ and then look at the St Gargoyle’s cartoon by Ron.   Each issue he pokes gentle humour against the Church of England.   A long time ago the cartoon was of a vicar, Rose, who ‘invited everyone to the blessing of the oils’ and there were three men lined up – a mechanic with an oil drum, a painter with a palette, and a cook holding a wok :-)!   Oil is useful in so many ways; for healing, for denoting how special something or someone is, as well as for providing illumination.   And we need lots of oil to show up the beauty in those around us, something fairly irrelevant if we are asleep.   We need lots of oil for there is so much suffering in the world.   We need lots of oil to use to show how special others are.   This oil is not necessarily carried about in containers, it is carried about in our attitudes to others.

And so we meet the bridegroom in this life in our manner of life towards others, for it is a waste of good and precious time to wait until later.   For if we are banking on an afterlife where those with whom we wouldn’t care to be associated with in this life are absent, then I have no doubt we will be disappointed.  

Dr. Gary Nicolosi concludes his article on Steve Jobs relating his encounter with John ‘Sculley, the one that brought him to Apple?   Sculley, who then worked for Pepsi-Cola, told Jobs he could not accept his offer to join the company.   Jobs confronted Sculley with a crucial choice: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”   Translation: Do you really want to spend the rest of your days on work that fails to inspire, or stuff that fails to count, for reasons that fail to touch the soul of anyone?’   We are here in this life to be a positive influence on the lives of others – to lift them to their feet rather than grovel before anyone or anything – and to encourage and enable others to use the brains they have been given rather than complying to human or divine pontifications.   And the choice is ours, for the divine will not force anyone to do anything.

And a final reflection on the door being shut; it seems so final.  And for me this says that we make eternal life now or never.   The door to eternal life is always open, right here and right now.   The invitation to be a blessing to others is ever present until the hour of our death.   It is then that the door is shut, because there is no longer any opportunity to be a blessing to others.  The door is shut because it is a door to nowhere.

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