This is my candidating sermon for First Congregational, UCC, in Asheville, NC. Happily, after last week’s worship service, FCUCC voted to call me as their next Senior Minister.
Hypothetical situation. After two years of meticulous work, a congregation in, let’s say, the Appalachian Mountains, finally has a candidate for Senior Minister. Hypothetically, said candidate is ecstatic about the prospect of serving the congregation. She consults the assigned Scripture reading for her candidating Sunday, eager to see through what great story of our faith congregation and minister will begin the process of getting to know each other. Then she reads it. A reading from Matthew.
‘Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten attendants who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. 2Five of them were wise, five were foolish. 3When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them; 4but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. 5The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. 6At midnight there was a cry: “Here comes the bridal party! Let’s go out to meet them!” 7Then all the attendants rose and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.” 10While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. 11When the foolish attendants returned, they pleaded to be let in. The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.” So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.
Do you find this parable unnerving? I sure do. Ten attendants await the bridal party. Five have oil for their lamps; five don’t. The bridal party is delayed; the attendants fall asleep. At midnight, there’s a cry: (Kevin: “Wake Up, Little Susie”) “Here comes the bridal party! (“Here Comes the Bride”) Let’s go out to meet them!” (Kim looks at Kevin. Kevin shrugs his shoulders.) All ten attendants trim their lamps.
When the lamps of the five without oil begin to sputter, they ask the five with oil to share. (Choir: “Give Me Oil in my lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, Give me oil in my lamp I pray”) Here’s the part I find unnerving: the five wise ones don’t share. They send the foolish ones away to buy more oil. While the five foolish ones are out shopping, the bridal party 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, a whole mob of people was fed with two fish and five loaves. In one interpretation, 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 people don’t share 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 bridal party’s arrival! Do you?
Of course, you don’t! Nobody wants to miss the bridal party! Nobody wants to miss the arrival of the holy! Jesus’ word to the wise? If you want to experience the holy, keep alert. Stay awake. Be prepared. There are many things in this life we can share—food, money… kindness. What we can’t share is preparation for meeting the holy. If we want to meet God, we have to prepare ourselves.
That’s one of the things I’ve learned from the Benedictines. For the last ten years, I’ve participated in a program called Women Touched by Grace. Once a year, several of us women pastors descend on Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, for a time of support, reflection, and prayer. While at the monastery, we pray three times a day with the sisters.
It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Every time we go to the chapel for prayer doesn’t result in some big spiritual “woo-woo” experience. In fact, sometimes you’re grateful for Sr. Sylvester’s talking watch that loudly declares the time just when you’re about to doze off.
What going to prayer three times a day does do is it prepares you to meet God. We quickly learned that giving ourselves over to rhythm of prayer sharpened our senses and attuned us the presence of the holy in every aspect of our lives, not just when we were in the chapel. The practice of preparing for the holy paved the way for actual experiences of the holy. It wasn’t something someone else could do for us. We had to do that work ourselves.
We’ve all been in preparation mode for what feels like forever. Profiles. Meetings. Prayer. Meetings. Heartache. Prayer. Meetings. Prayer. Moments of deep joy and gratitude. Prayer. Meetings. You’ve done your work. I’ve done my work. All of us doing our not-so-glamorous work has prepared us for what’s starting to feel like a holy moment.
Of course, a better preacher than I could walk in the door any minute (Could someone lock the doors? Thanks. J) and sweep you off your feet and convince you to take a vote right then and there. Or, I could walk into another congregation and they could take a vote right then and there. Should either of those things happen (the doors are still locked, right?), it likely would be exciting…but would it be holy? Would it be deep? The five foolish attendants were wise enough to know something big was happening. They were all about the excitement. But they weren’t prepared to experience the holy.
Anticipating today’s service, I got excited. Oh, man! I was going to preach it! Some great prophetic, memorable social-justice oriented sermon that was going to inspire us all to go out and change the world! Goodness knows the world needs changing, doesn’t it?
But this story of the five wise and five foolish attendants and their lamp oil kept bringing me back to the nuts and bolts of preparation. If we’re going to have authentic and deep experiences of the holy, we’ve got to prepare for them. If we clergy are going to find the church God is calling us to serve, we’ve got to prepare. If a congregation is going to find the pastor God is calling to serve with them in ministry, they’ve got to prepare.
I’d like to tell you about Martin’s preparations during the Civil Rights Movement. Not the Martin you’re thinking of, but Martin England. This other Martin was a representative of the Pension Board of the American Baptist Churches in the 1950s and 60s.
For many years, Martin and his wife, Mabel, served as missionaries in Burma. After completing their missionary service, Martin began working for the Pension Board. He was the guy who went around getting ministers to sign up for pensions and life insurance.
By 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong. Death threats against the other Martin were frequent. While Martin King worked for freedom, Martin England, Pension Board Guy, had other things on his mind.
All through the summer of 1963, Martin England followed Dr. King around the south trying to get him to sign the enrollment forms for Pension and Life Insurance. The Board wanted to make sure Coretta and the children would receive a pension and benefits should Dr. King be killed. A benefactor already had paid the premiums; all Dr. King had to do was sign.
Try though he might, the people around Dr. King wouldn’t let Pension Board Martin in. In Albany, Georgia, in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin England always got the same response: “Get out of the way. He doesn’t have time to deal with you! Martin King is worried about justice and freedom; he isn’t worried about a pension.”
Years later, when he recalled Martin England “showing him a list of the places he had been trying to track down the younger, famous Martin, Dr. Samuel Proctor said, “I couldn’t believe it. A man born and raised in South Carolina, a white man 65 years old, following Martin King around to sign him up for a pension and death benefit plan.”
“Martin finally met Dr. King in Birmingham after King had been released from prison and had returned to that city. Martin England relates what happened. “I told Dr. King, ‘I met a man last night at my motel, drunk or crazy or both, who threatened to kill you. He may be here in this crowd.’” King replied that he lived with this kind of threat every day and had decided he could not let fear paralyze him and keep him from his work.
“I reminded Dr. King that I had followed him around a good bit that summer. All he had to do was to sign his name. Standing next to Dr. King was his co-worker Ralph Abernathy, who already had joined the pension plan. ‘If Ralph says sign, I’ll sign,’ said Dr. King. Abernathy said, way down deep, ‘Sign.” So Abernathy bent over and Dr. King used his back as a desk. I had a stamped envelope in my pocket,” Martin England said. “I pushed my way out of the crowd, went to the nearest street mailbox, mailed the application, got to the nearest telephone and called the pension office to tell them the paper was on its way.”
Nearly five years later, in April 1968, shortly after Dr. King’s assassination, Mabel accompanied Martin England to Atlanta to see Coretta Scott King about the death benefits and the pension the family would receive.
I suspect most of us have been impatient for this search process to end so we can get on with the important work of living the Gospel here in Asheville. Our world is a mess. It needs us to work for peace; it needs us to speak truth to power; it needs us to bind up the wounds of the broken hearted and to care for and speak in behalf of the least of these. For those of us committed to living lives of justice, attending to all these pesky administrative details—like, I don’t know, a congregational vote—can be annoying.
But, as Martin England knew, administration can be prophetic, too. Dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “t’s” often is what makes justice work possible. Preparing ourselves to meet the holy often is what paves the way for actually meeting the Holy.
So, here’s the good news for today—our preparation work is nearly done. We’ve dotted the i’s, we’ve crossed the t’s. We’ve met and prayed and met and prayed. We are ready. We’re so ready, in fact, I propose we edit the sermon title in the bulletin. First, cross out “be.” Next, add an exclamation mark after “prepared.” Because that’s what we are. We are prepared. Thanks be to God!