"Evolution’s Most Critical Role"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 09, 2008
Psalm 78:1-7; Matthew 25:1-13
When there was a
marriage in Jesus’ day, everyone in the village became involved in
following the couple to their new home. They took the longest road
possible so that more people would be given the opportunity to extend
glad tidings to the pair. Rabbis reported that men would even abandon
their study of the law to share in the joy of a wedding feast. Marriage
was a major social event for every village.
The point of the story lies in a Jewish custom that is very different from what we experience in our culture. Couples in Jesus’ day did not go away for a honeymoon. They stayed at home and kept an Open-House for a week. Only their chosen friends were admitted to their dwelling. Attendees treated the couple like royalty, and the newlyweds were even greeted as a prince and princess.
In his story, Jesus had divided the young women who attended the wedding festivities into two groups -- the unwise and the wise. The unwise women missed not only the ceremony but also the Open House that followed because they had come to the event unprepared for a future that was uncertain – the exact time of the groom’s arrival.
A number of years ago, Dr. J. Alexander Findlay wrote about an experience he had in Israel. As he was approaching one of the gates to a Galilean town, he witnessed ten young women dancing in the streets to the beat of a musical instrument. When he inquired what was happening, he was told that the women were heading toward the home of a bride to keep her company until the groom arrives.
Findlay asked if he could witness the wedding. The man shrugged and said, “You might be able to, but no one knows when the ceremony will take place. It could be today, tomorrow or a week from now.” The Israeli continued, “In a middle-class Israeli wedding, one of the things that grooms like to do is to catch the bridal party napping. He tries to come at a time they least expect and sometimes that means in the middle of the night. The only thing required by public opinion is for the groom to send a man ahead of him who exclaims, “Behold the bridegroom is coming!” The bridal party has to be prepared for the ceremony all the time.
Even during more recent times no one was allowed on village streets at night without a flashlight. Those who fail to have such a light were not admitted to the wedding or the feast that followed. In the twentieth century when Findlay was writing about his reflections, the entire substance of Jesus’ parable was being re-enacted just about as it had taken place nearly 2,000 years ago.
There are two universal lessons that were embedded in Jesus’ story. The first is that there are certain things that we cannot have in life by trying to get them at the last minute. Five of the maidens discovered that they were running out of oil because they had not planned ahead.
When we were living in West Virginia, there came the time when our daughter was to enter West Virginia University. After our final meal together we got her belongings into the car and drove to Morgantown. Freshmen are usually relegated to living their first year in “The Tower” which is a high rise apartment-style dormitory. We gathered her articles and headed for the elevator.
When we boarded the elevator, I began to realize how much college life had changed since the days I attended Albright. We found ourselves in the elevator surrounded by stereo systems, golf clubs, tennis rackets, skis, televisions, and unique pieces of furniture. There was hardly any room in the elevator for people.
I recall remarking, “Have you students come to the University to study or to play?” My comment brought nervous laughter. One student said, “There really is time to do both.” Yet, students will either learn through pain or pleasure that they cannot procrastinate until the night before the final examination to possess a thorough understanding of a subject. Students have to plan ahead.
This is the way it is with life. Character, for example, is built one day at a time and not at the end of our journey. Our skills of spirit evolve throughout our life-journey one day at a time. We cannot put off developing such qualities until the moment we need them. Most of us are very familiar with people who have learned this lesson the hard way.
We know from the rather extensive media coverage leading up to our national elections, that candidates were held accountable for articles they wrote many years before, for friends with whom they once consorted, for a pastor who was once a candidate’s mentor, for pricey clothing one of them purchased while on the campaign trail and for comments one of them made when he assumed that his microphone had been turned off.
Perhaps many of us have known people who were being given a unique opportunity for a job of great responsibility only to have it revealed that a number of years earlier they had been involved in potentially embarrassing circumstances.
For example, Vanna White poised for Playboy magazine many years ago and her photo shoot was not printed. However, once Vanna became a nationally recognized name on the Wheel of Fortune game show, she learned that she would be featured on the front cover of the May 1987 issue along with twelve pages of pictures and copy from her interview.
She was horrified and begged Hugh Heffner not to print it. He said, “I’m sorry Vanna, your request is beyond my control. You were paid and you signed off on the photos. Now that you are a well-known personality, your pictures are an asset that will help us sell more magazines.” Vanna was fortunate to retain her job. Many women are terminated from their positions after appearing in such magazines.
Many of today’s young people are not aware that what they post on MySpace, Facebook and You Tube, during their carefree days, might come back to haunt them as they enter their future. In fact, numerous Human Resource executives routinely research people whom they are thinking of hiring by examining the content of their personal web sites. Today, with the capabilities of Information Technology, cyberspace has made our lives very transparent.
As a college senior, I awakened one morning to find a famous icon to the citizens of Reading, Pennsylvania lying on the living room floor of our fraternity house. Some of the guys had their minds clouded by too much partying the night before and had stolen the large totem pole of a Native American that was located outside of a well-known restaurant.
I was horrified that this happened on my watch. I was the president of this normally sane group of young men. My imagination brought to mind what such a heist would look like in the Reading newspapers how such coverage would be an embarrassment to Albright College. How would an arrest or being expelled from college look on a resume? Of course, the guys that took the piece had not been thinking about the potential consequences of their prank.
An immediate return of the piece had to be negotiated. I called the restaurant and told the person who answered the phone that their totem pole was safe and that a mistake in judgment had been made by those who took it. I apologized profusely and told them that I would personally see that it was returned within the hour if they asked no questions. The staff was most grateful for the information and we took it back. When I returned it, the manager confessed that he had not noticed that it was missing. What a relief! No police report had been filed.
During the years when our highest priority is to be needed, wanted and accepted by our friends, if we never set boundaries for ourselves during those days, we may not have them in place to guide us in the future. We are like the five foolish maidens who were not prepared; they had not thought about their future. They brought no extra oil with them.
The second universal lesson is that there are certain qualities of life that we cannot borrow. In our lesson, the foolish maidens said to the wise ones, “Please, let us have some of your extra oil. Our lamps are going out.” “No,” said the wise ones, “if we share what we have, we will not have enough. Go to the store and buy some for yourselves.” When the five had gone to the store, the bridegroom arrived and the door was closed. They were excluded from the wedding celebration.
Many years ago, a colleague of mine and his wife were traveling to a meeting in their VW Beetle. A car traveling at a high rate of speed entered their intersection on a red light and hit them broadside, driving their car into a telephone pole. Both were killed instantly.
Keith and Charlotte were loved by their congregation. There were lots of questions about God’s nature, about the justice in such a tragedy and about the reality of both of them being suddenly killed at the same time. Situations like this reflect Kenny Chesney’s song, “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven, But No One Wants To Go Right Now.”
There isn’t anything that tests the quality of our faith more fervently then when someone we are attached to is suddenly swept from our world. What compounds our grief is when we realize that their death could have easily been avoided. What is the real cost to us of becoming a lot more courteous in our driving habits? Why are we in such a hurry? Few authorities can answer that question. We are in a hurry because that is how we choose to live not only on the highways but in other areas of life as well.
When our life-experience suddenly stops being the routines that we can normally manage, we cannot borrow from someone else the faith and trust in God to see us through when tragedy truly shatters our reality. Helping us get to this level of awareness is our spiritual evolution’s most critical role.
We honestly may not know where we are with our level of faith and trust until we are confronted with what is unfathomable and we rise victoriously by making no judgment of the experience. We simply say, “It is what it is and this too shall pass.” Why no judgment? Any other response to a circumstance over which we have no control would be like pouring acid on our soul. Anger, resentment and lingering bitterness are very revealing bitter fruits.Think of the families, indeed, entire communities that have been devastated by what has happened to America’s big three automakers. The plant closings, the uncertainty about pensions and medical benefits, and the eventual inability to buy groceries and make house payments are on the minds of everyone. It does not help to know that Americans have survived ten economic down turns since 1929, when we are the ones who find ourselves wandering in the valley of uncertainty. Again, we cannot borrow the faith and trust we need at that moment, if we have allowed such fruits of our discipleship to remain undeveloped.
We are material beings who have realized that we have control over very few aspects of the physical world. Jesus’ point was that we can only exert control over the quality of our thoughts and emotions that fuel our spiritual growth.
What we see with our eyes is a parade of changing images. When we cling to any of them, we also need to remember that we may need to release them in a moment we least expect. Will we be ready? Will we be like the wise maidens who entered their uncertain future prepared? Marriages dissolve for countless reasons. Close friends move on and develop new relationships when their circumstances change. The value of our homes and financial assets will one day cease to have the meaning they once held.
The aspect of life we can control is the spirit with which we greet change. This is our spiritual evolution’s most critical role. Are we grounded in the Kingdom of God or in the environment of changing images found in our material world?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, as we gather for worship, we are aware how often our lives reflect our culture rather than our faith. There are times when we remain blind to the consequences of what we do. We confess that often our best judgments can become flavored by the spice of self-interest. Our tongues speak of our trust in you, while our deeds can easily reflect our need for acceptance by others. Help us to learn, O God, that we cannot live courageously by character-strengths we do not have. We cannot trust your daily presence by borrowing such awareness from those who have spent their lives knowing that you always lived within them. Lead us toward what will heal the areas in our lives that separate us from the empowering, enduring awareness of your presence within us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and always loving God, what a joy it is to be among our church family this morning. Our country has just concluded a very dramatic shift in our nation’s leadership and all the while the world watched. They were watching and listening to the fault finding, the pointing of fingers, and the blaming that is all part of the dance we Americans do just prior to an election. Yet, when it is over, winners and losers join together because we are very fond of our country, its rich diversity of cultures and the challenges that come with working together for the good of all in spite of many different points of view. Use our example, O God, to illustrate to the world’s cloud of witnesses and listeners what is possible. Jesus taught us well how to be the leaven for the loaf. Indeed, to many others, that is what we have become.
As we approach Veteran's Day, all of us pause to remember those in all branches of our military. The day has not yet come when humanity is willing to turn its swords into plow shares and its spears into pruning hooks. We still live in a world where communication is difficult and where community is not understood. Our veterans were the ones who struggled with Great Britain to win our independence. Now, former enemies are friends who can sit at the same table. Our veterans are the ones who always stand between our way of life and those who fear freedom of the people, by the people and for the people. For their past, present and future courage to give away everything they have to protect our tomorrows, we give you thanks.
Inspire us this day, to nurture the spirit by which we live to guide, serve, heal, and encourage others who may still be searching for the path many of us have found. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .