Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
November 8, 2020
Wisdom of Solomon 6:6-20
The Way of Wisdom
Today we begin a three-week series of Sundays that all take their gospel readings from Matthew 25. Chapter 25 in Matthew’s gospel is the last chapter of Jesus’ teaching ministry. His passion―the events surrounding his betrayal, arrest and death―immediately follow. Chapter 25 is comprised of three relatively lengthy parables addressed to his inner circle, to the community of Christ, that all touch on the same theme from slightly different angles: the theme of judgment; not judgment between believers and non-believers, but judgment on how we convinced Christians live our lives, practice our faith, love our neighbors.
“Judgment” is one of those words that can easily rub us the wrong way. To call someone “judgmental” is to be critical of their overly-critical attitude. Yet when we commend someone for using “good judgment” we are praising them for how well they made their decision. “Judgment” is tricky like that. The right amount, in the right situation, for the right reason: judgment is welcome, even necessary. Decisions have to be made and situations need to be assessed so that we can respond accurately and well. We want and need to be judicious. We want and need to live in harmony with one another, with creation, with God in ways that promote life and well-being for ourselves and others. When any of those barometers―relationship with others, the world around us, our Holy Center―go askew we are called back to harmony sometimes gently, like a good friend with a kind word, and sometimes painfully, like hurricanes whipped up by warming oceans. Living in harmony; living in healthy relationship with God, nature, self, others; living well and living faithfully are what comprise the biblical definition of wisdom. Wisdom, according to the Bible, isn’t necessarily book learning, or intellectual capacity, or scholarship, though those things are commendable. Wisdom, like that we find in the Hebrew Proverbs or the parables of Jesus, is about our relationship to the world around us and the God within us, about our heart and our hands, as much as about our head. And, according to the beautiful text of our first reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is an aspect (a feminine aspect, no less) of the nature of God, a part of God that is accessible, available and generously shared with us. To listen to wisdom, to be “vigilant on her account,” is to live closely with God. As the text read:
The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.
Which loops us back to Matthew 25, and our parables of judgment, that Jesus says, are like the kingdom of heaven, and the first parable which is specifically about wisdom.
Ten bridesmaids. Five wise, five foolish. Ten were invited to the wedding. Ten were in possession of lamps. Ten had to wait longer than expected. Ten got drowsy and fell asleep. Ten were startled awake at midnight when the bridegroom arrived. But only five got into the party. Only five were wise. Because only five brought enough oil to last the whole night.
Upon first reading, this parable can strike us as harsh. The judgment in this judgment parable seems severe. Why wouldn’t the five with extra oil share? Why doesn’t the bridegroom open the door? Why the seemingly unforgiving rhetoric, “I do not know you”? Their only “sin” was being underprepared. That’s something we can all relate to, I’m sure. We have all left something behind, left something to the last minute, left home without “it,” whatever “it” might be– money in our pockets, gas in our tank, a critical, necessary item for our journey.
A number of years ago my extended family went on a family backpacking trip together. To help the trip be accessible to all ages and abilities, we hired a pack service to carry our gear into our base camp about 8 miles up into the Sierra Nevada mountains. The day we set out we had to meet the packers early in the morning at a starting point a couple of hours away. The scurry to get everyone and everything out of our cabin in the predawn hours was hectic and rushed. We got to the trailhead just in time, got our stuff loaded on the packhorses, hiked the 8 miles up into the mountains, and at the end of a beautiful first day, prepared to make camp, only to find that Ron and I had left our tent and sleeping bags sitting on the porch back at the cabin. (We won’t go into details on whose fault it was). But the ramifications of our oversight were significant. We were camping at 9,000 ft elevation. It gets cold at night at 9,000 ft elevation. But unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we were with people willing or able to share and with some clever arrangement of who slept near whom we were able to make do with less than enough.
But there are other times when less than enough just won’t cut it. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my family, having just moved to the east coast, made a trip to NYC and being wide-eyed Californians we did all the things tourists do in NYC, including a visit to the Empire State Building. My parents bought us all tickets for the elevator to the top and we waited in line. Being 8 or 9 years old, I evidently didn’t wait very wisely and somehow in the space and time it took to go from the ticket counter to the front of the elevator line, I lost my ticket. There was no time to go back to the ticket counter; no way to hold the elevator; no option to tear one of my siblings’ tickets in half and share. I couldn’t get on the elevator. My parents, kind of like the bridegroom in today’s parable, were not too kindly disposed to my lack. They got in and told me to wait for them in the lobby and then the elevator doors shut. Probably not a parenting choice many would make in this day and age, but I never forgot it. And to this day I have never been to the top of the Empire State Building.
Certainly there are times for sharing, for grace, for making a little go a long way. The gospels are full of those stories! Water made into wine. Five loaves, two fish to feed five thousand. Prodigals welcomed home. Lost sheep sought and found. Jesus is not against sharing, overcoming lack, forgiveness in the face of not being or having enough. But there are some things you just can’t share. You can’t tear your faith, your spirit, your hope in half and give it to someone else. You can shine your own light, as Jesus invites us to, but you can’t shine someone else’s light for them. Just like you can’t live someone else’s life for them. You can’t practice someone else’s faith for them. You can’t fill someone else with Holy Spirit. That’s something they can only do or receive for themselves.
Five bridesmaids were wise, five were foolish. All had good intent. All were invited to the party. But five left their backup flask at home, or didn’t fill it before they left, or dropped it on the way, or were distracted by something else, or were in too much of a hurry when they headed out the door. We have all kinds of reasons and excuses for not filling our lamps. And some of them are good, really good, but that won’t keep us from running out of oil. And counting on someone else to share theirs won’t work in all cases. Some things can be shared, some can’t. There are some decisions, some attitudes, some spiritual gifts that are ours, and ours alone. We either bring the oil or we don’t. We tend the light or we don’t.
Two years ago today, Nov. 8, my 59 year old sister-in-law, Patty, died. When Patty got the news that the cancer in her mouth, throat and lungs was indeed terminal, and being unable any more to talk clearly, she wrote down three words on the pad of paper she used to communicate with others. Those words were: Acceptance, Mindfulness and Preparation. I would suggest that while we can borrow a lot of things from a lot of people, those three are among the things we can only do for ourselves. Acceptance, mindfulness and preparation. Waiting to meet the Bridegroom at the end of our lives, at the end of the age, or (as Jesus will tell us in two weeks) in the guise of the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned or a stranger, will depend not just a little bit on our acceptance, mindfulness and preparation. Are we practicing our faith while we wait? Are we investing in God’s realm here and now? Are we staying awake and paying attention to the 10,000 ways Jesus is showing up all around us, arriving when we’re ready and when we’re not? The good news here in this thorny parable of judgment and accountability is that we are all invited and cherished guests! We all have opportunity and invitation to be a part of the party. We were all handed lamps at our baptism. And there’s plenty of oil to be had, here in this church, in this faith, in this beautiful world that God so loves. But —and here’s the other half of the story of grace—we have to bring it with us. How we do that, how we keep our oil flasks full for the long nights or the joyful days ahead, is a question that every saint, prophet and preacher has been suggesting answers for since Jesus first said, “Let your light shine.” But here are three that you might consider: acceptance, mindfulness and preparation. I don’t want to miss the elevator this time. I want to be clutching my ticket, my feet ready, my eyes open, my ears tuned so that each and every time between now and the end of my age, between now and the end of this day, when the Elevator Operator or the Bridegroom say, “Come on in,” I’m ready to go through that door. That’s going to take some wisdom, some faithful practice of living in harmony, some judicious decisions. But thanks be to God, wisdom is right here. She’s waiting at my gate. She’s already seeking me. If I keep my eyes open, if I stay awake, she’s graciously right here on my path, meeting me in my very own thoughts, if I will turn to her, let her guide me, open myself to the light she longs to share, not in small part through acceptance, mindfulness and preparation.