This parable has always unnerved me. Ten bridesmaids await the groom. Five have oil for their lamps; five don’t. The bridegroom is delayed; the bridesmaids fall asleep. At midnight, there’s a shout: “Look! The bridegroom! Come meet him.” All ten women trim their lamps.
When the lamps of the five who’ve come without oil begin to sputter, they ask the 5 with oil to share. Here’s the part I find unnerving: the five wise sisters don’t share. They send the foolish women away to purchase more oil. While the five foolish ones are out shopping, the bridegroom comes and they miss the whole thing.
All things considered, I like the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 way better than this one. In that story, you’ll recall, a whole mob of people was fed with two fish and five loaves. In one interpretation of the story, the crowd wasn’t actually fed by so small amount of food. Rather, that child’s generosity inspired others to share, too, so that, what you ended up with was a potluck dinner like nobody’s business.
In today’s story, those five wise bridesmaids aren’t sharing anything. And because they don’t, the other five miss out. Maybe what unnerves me is this sinking feeling that I’d be one of the ones who forgot her oil. I don’t want to miss the bridegroom’s arrival! Do you?
No. Of course not! Nobody wants to miss the bridegroom’s–we know that’s Jesus, right? Nobody wants to miss Jesus when he arrives! Jesus’ word to the wise? Be prepared. Keep alert. You never know when Jesus–or whatever or whomever bears God’s presence–You never know when God’s going to show up.
The thing about being prepared for whenever God shows up…that’s not something anyone else can do for us. That’s the message of this parable. No one can see Jesus for us. No one can say, “I’ve just had this wonderful encounter with the Holy One. Here! Take some of my experience and have it for yourself.” No, in order to see Jesus in the world, in order to encounter the Holy One, we have to prepare ourselves. There’s no riding on anyone else’s coattails into an experience of the Holy.
The Benedictines get this business of keeping alert and always being prepared to meet Jesus. The line from Benedict that guides everything they do is: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” If the person banging on the door at 3:00 in the morning is the Christ, you’re going to treat him differently than if he’s just a weary traveler looking for shelter, right?
If you’ve ever tried to do that–receive everyone you meet as if they are the Christ–you know it isn’t easy. In fact, it takes lots of preparation…not so much an external preparation as an internal one. That’s why the wise bridesmaids are unable to share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids. It’s not because they’re stingy. It’s because the oil in the parable represents an internal preparation for meeting the bridegroom. No one else can give you that internal preparation. That’s something you have to do for yourself.
So, how do we? How do we prepare ourselves always to be ready to meet the bridegroom–the Christ–whenever and wherever and in whomever he might show up? In a word: we practice. We meet the Christ in others by training ourselves to see it.
My friend Janell was in a car accident last Spring. Her brain was injured. She spends most of her time these days going to physical, occupational, speech, and vision therapy. Yes. Vision therapy. Janell does vision exercises every day. She reads through a prism for one and works with a piece of string for another. Some exercises require special glasses. One pair is light blue. Another pair she calls her “Christmas glasses”—one lens is green, the other is red. The exercises were exhausting at first, Janell reports, but after a few months, she is making good progress. Because of her practice, Janell is re-learning how to see.
The process of learning to see the Christ in others? It, too, can benefit from a little vision therapy. By exercising a little every day, we might find—eventually—that we, too, are making good progress in our goal of learning to see the Christ in others.
But where do you go for a list of those exercises? A couple of stories…
Several of you have asked about the high points of my sabbatical. (Be sure to come to our Thanksgiving dinner on 11/23. I’ll be giving a full report then.) Besides traipsing around Ireland with Allen, the absolute highest point was attending John McCutcheon’s Songwriting Camp at the Highlander Center just outside Knoxville, Tennessee. I’ve told you a little about the experience of writing a song for the kitchen staff at Highlander. The experience of writing a song for folks who usually aren’t seen at all, much less serenaded with songs written just for them? That was a powerful experience…
…and continued to be throughout the sabbatical. I believe in this idea of seeing the Christ–or, as the Quakers say—“that of God” in every person. I’ve preached it on many occasions. But actually looking for and finding the Christ in others? Who has time for that?
On sabbatical, though, I did have time to look and see–really see–people. You know what I learned? It doesn’t take as much time as I thought.
One of my favorite encounters was at a Days Inn in Budd Lake, New Jersey. I stayed there several days while visiting my friend Nancy. An older couple from India took care of cleaning my room. I’m not sure why, but we took a liking to each other. They didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak any Hindi, but we communicated well enough.
On the last day of my stay, I was there when they came to clean….I guess I should say, when he came to clean. He cleaned; we women chatted. I didn’t understand anything the woman said except that they were from India and when she pointed to the man working hard at something on the carpet, smiled and said, “My husband.” I don’t know if this is a done thing or not, but I hugged that woman when I checked out.
It might be confusing to say that I “met the Christ” in a woman who likely was not Christian. (Next to the Gideon’s Bible in the bedside table was a copy of the Bagadgavita.) What I mean to say is that I saw in her “that of God,” something holy, something that felt like kin. I don’t know that I would have seen that in her if I hadn’t had the experience of writing that song for the kitchen staff and practiced seeing those who aren’t usually seen.
The other thing I learned about seeing that of God in others is the fact that, deep down, we WANT to see and be seen by each other. We heard it in that story last week about the protester in Ferguson who hugged a law enforcement officer and said, “I want to hate you, but I just can’t.” The officer hugged her back, with tears in his eyes. When we take the time to see each other, the ability to hate subsides. Why? Because we don’t want to hate each other. We want to be seen by each other. We want to be connected. We want to get along.
I hope you’ll get to meet John McCutcheon someday. He sees everyone. John tells the story of waiting in his dressing room to be called on stage for a concert at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, back in the 70s or 80s. He was doing what he usually does prior to performing–reading–when a woman from the janitorial service came to clean his room. John offered to leave so she could work.
What happened instead was they started trading jokes. One would tell one, then the other would try to outdo it. That went on until it was time for John to go on stage. The woman said, “Okay. I got one.” It wasn’t funny, she said, but it was one of the best stories she’d ever heard.
It happened on Christmas Eve 1914, in the early days of World War I. Soldiers from Belgium, France, and England were hunched down in their trenches, trying to find some warmth in the bitter cold, no doubt missing their families…. when what should they hear, but a lone voice singing a Christmas carol. It took a minute for their war-focused minds to decipher the strange sound…but once they did, other soldiers joined in.
Then, during a break in the singing, one brave soldier emerged from his trench, his handed extended. After a silent minute, another soldier emerged from another trench, walked up and shook the hand. And with that gesture, the chill of the winter night began to thaw, and soldiers–enemies–began talking with each other and sharing photographs and telling stories of home. They even played a game of soccer.
This Christmas Eve will be the centennial of what’s come to be called “The Christmas Truce.” The event illustrates well what can happen when we take the time to see that of God in others, to see them as holy, to see them as kin. It also demonstrates just how badly we WANT to see that of God in others. Even when we want to hate them, we can’t.
I guess what I’m trying say is that when we see that of God in others, when we take the time for ourselves to see God, when we practice for ourselves seeing that of God in others, the world can change….tensions in a riot-riddled city can subside, war can take a breather, and a cleaning lady can inspire a songwriter to tell a story that needs to be told again and again and again.
[“Christmas in the Trenches”]
25“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014