Running on empty
November 12, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Friends, I’m tired.
I’m sad and I’m tired.
I’m sure many of you are as well. We’ve absorbed quite a few shocks in the past several weeks.
I’m sad and tired on a personal level, and on a more global—existential level. Many of you know that Monica’s father died in early October. We’ll be traveling back to California in a couple of weeks for his memorial service. And then we’ve had a wave of sudden and unexpected deaths here in the parish. Of course we also had the sheer joy of baptizing 5 children last week. But then again last Sunday a man terrorized a Texas town by walking into a church with an automatic weapon and killing 26 people, and this was just a month after another man shot and killed 58 people and wounded over 500 more in Las Vegas.
All of this makes me incredibly sad, and very tired.
Fortunately, I have a very good system of support…I have family, and friends, and colleagues whom I can talk to…I have well established practices of self-care—daily prayer, journaling, taking a sabbath—time to unplug and recharge…and I hope that you all have similar kinds of support, and ways of healing…certainly, Anoma and I, and Kathy, and Chris, and Jessica are here to be part of that support system for you.
But even with all of the support I have, I’m feeling more drained than usual…like there’s not a lot of oil in my lamp right now.
And so I found both comfort and challenge in this parable today.
Comfort, in that all of the bridesmaids—both wise and foolish—got tired and slept. This isn’t a parable about “constant vigilance” it’s about the 10 bridesmaids not the 10 Mad-eye Moodys—. All of them get tired and go to sleep. Resting—just taking a break—is not what keeps you out of the banquet.
So that’s comforting—the challenge comes in what does keep us from the banquet.
And what does keep us out? It’s not a parable about constant vigilance; but it is a parable about being prepared. About the need to be well stocked enough to make it through a pretty long wait. Which is fine except, as I said; if the bridegroom where to come right this very minute I would be worried about my own stock of oil.
But then, is their lack of oil really the problem?
When they knock to be let in upon their return, he doesn’t say to them, “Truly I tell you, the door will be shut upon you because of your dismal organizational skills.” What he does say is WAY more disturbing: “I do not know you.” Why doesn’t he know them? Maybe because they weren’t there when he arrived. They didn’t show up. Maybe their lack of oil isn’t the problem…maybe their absence is.
What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of running around looking for oil, they had just stayed there and threw themselves on the mercy of the bridegroom when the he showed up. “We’re sorry. We really thought we had enough, but I guess we didn’t. And I know it’s not customary, but oil or not…lamps burning or guttering…we wanted to be here to welcome you. We wanted to be here to celebrate with you. Even if our lamps are running low.”
Would he have let them in?
There’s no way to know for sure, given this particular parable; but given everything else we know about Jesus, I at least hope I know how that kind of appeal would be answered.
Maybe part of what this parable is telling us is that, yes, being prepared is important, but even more important than being well prepared is simply showing up. Being present. Being there at the right time…ready or not.
And I think the real challenge of this parable, for me, and I think for many of us, is not letting our fear of not having enough…of not being enough—not being good enough…not smart enough…not spiritual enough…to not let our fear of that prevent us from showing up.
Because it’s that fear of never being good enough, that sends us running off to find more of…whatever it is we think we need…whatever it is we think we lack…And while we’re off desperately hustling for more of…whatever…we miss it when God actually does show up.
By all means we need to be prepared. We need to take good care of ourselves and our spiritual lives. We need to be “prayed up” as they used to say in the south. Going into a difficult situation? Are you prayed up? Make sure you’re prayed up? And we also have to remember that prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer is a prelude to action. Prayer is what we do to get ready…fill our tanks. Prayer is what spurs us to action…because prayer changes us. As the Bishops United Against Gun Violence said in their statement this week: “Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action: we resolve to amend our lives….One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”
We pray and we act. We do what we need to do to get prepared, but just as important as being prepared is showing up…being there…being present…being agents of God’s transforming love. Even if that means—especially if that means—being there in our poverty. Being there in our need. Being there in our “not-enoughness.” Not chasing after the things we fear we lack…but staying there in the gathering dark with our guttering oil lamps. Being there in our doubt, with our halting half-formed prayers to weep with those who weep, to laugh with those who laugh…to welcome the bridegroom…to welcome God…whenever and however God choose to arrive.