I cannot remember ever preaching on Jesus’s Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins; what a good friend of mine yesterday described as, “Not one of Jesus’ better parables!”. Forty years of parish ministry and no sermon on this text. As with all parables it’s important to get the thrust of the message as Jesus describes it; it’s ok to wander a little but, ultimately, everything has to serve what Jesus himself describes as the core message.
I struggled with this Gospel reading for several days and, when the sermon was almost ready, it suddenly occurred to me (i.e. the Spirit led me) to understand that in this parable “enablers” are permitted, if not encouraged, to take care of themselves first.
The sermon text follows the sermon audio.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI, Sunday November 12 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale, “An End to Enabling”
Last Sunday Wendy and I returned from a vacation in the great state of Texas. I return without Texan drawl, Texan hat and (I know sadness to some) Texan boots!
Two connecting flights transported us from Providence to Charlotte to Austin; from Dallas Fort Worth to Charlotte and back to Providence. And so on four occasions I heard these rehearsed and classic words, “In case of emergency, air masks will drop the ceiling. If you are traveling with a minor, please put on your own mask before helping the minor.” Usually at this point, Wendy smiles at me… and the smile eloquently comments, “Don’t worry, dear, I’ll help you with your mask once I’ve donned mine.”
Something of the same dynamic, though without comedic accompaniment, occurs in our Gospel reading for today – the story of the five wise, five foolish virgins; the story in which the five see to their own “oxygen masks” first but then, wretchedly, have no time nor resources to assist “the minors and less capable.”
Please do not read an icy indifference, a wanton selfishness, on the part of five wise virgins. They are not smug and indifferent, they are not self-centered and careless. They urge their companions to hurry to the hardware store and to join the procession before it enters the house of the bridegroom but this they know… their reserves of oil are sufficient for them alone and they dare not risk the ignominious indignity nor the painful plight of carrying dead torches, doused lamps.
These five wise virgins are perhaps the first Biblical model of a refusal to be enablers to those who are refusing to seek their own functional health and well-being. All too sadly with the very best of intentions family members, friends, colleagues and voters collude with and enable those who will not seek their own health and, in so doing, bring ruin and harm upon many.
Though this parable is unique to Matthew, it requires the same treatment as all other parables in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) – we serve the parable best by reading Jesus’ own emphasis upon its teaching… and His emphasis is this… watch, be prepared, take responsibility.
This is the burden of the message in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom. The individual disciple, the single worshiper is enjoined to “rise early to seek wisdom”… “to fix one’s thoughts… to be vigilant” in the pursuit of wisdom.
This is the burden of the message in today’s second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian Church. “Be informed…” about the last days, “be ready…” to meet the Lord in the air.
Watch, be prepared, take responsibility.
The Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, has for many decades stressed the community, the family of the church; our interdependence, our synergy and yet… as so often happens, the tide towards this one major theme has caused us to surrender another theme… that of personal and individual responsibility.
We inhabit, we are part of a society that seems not only indifferent but actually averse to the acceptance of personal responsibility. The readiness to step forward and say, “I am responsible and for this I express my regret” is rare… whether in the realm of nation, church, workplace or family.
Friends, with all the grace of Christ, I urge myself and you to hear this parable today and be stirred to accept personal responsibility in the care of our own spiritual lives and in the care of this spiritual community.
There comes a time when we cannot survive on the prayers, the voices, the giving, the service of others.
Sunday by Sunday, week by week I spend a little time reading and reflecting on the lives of those commemorated in the plaques that adorn the walls of this holy place. They did much, they did so much, to conserve this edifice and to give to us a platform for ministry but they cannot be a substitute for my vital and living faith in and experience of Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The message of this parable is not to be selfish and indifferent but rather to be responsible and diligent for our own spiritual welfare.
Last week Wendy and I were in San Antonio, a few days later some 25 miles south of that city, hell broke loose and a massacre took place in church. Life indeed is precious but increasingly we come to accept that life too is fragile.
We serve ourselves, we serve our loved ones, we serve our church by intentionally taking care of our own spiritual lives; our walk with Christ.
So, take even a second to consider… is your company, maybe by default, with the foolish or the wise?
What will you do, what will I do, to enlarge reserves of spiritual energy?
We will pray… as best we can and as often as we can.
We will worship… as best we can and as often as we can
We will read Scripture… as best we can and as often as we can
The foolish virgins carried their lamps doubtless burnished bright but had no fuel with which to light and maintain the flame. We too carry our own lives, burnished bright at least for public view… God give us wisdom to seek and conserve the experience of Her/His grace to light and maintain the flame.
While in Austin we visited the LBJ Presidential Library; this prompted me to begin reading a biography of President Johnson written by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In her first chapter she writes, “The man I saw in his retirement… had no inner resources left to commit himself to anything… he was drained of all vitality. Retirement became for him a form of little death.”
The five wise virgins urge us to take seriously the charge of nurturing inner spiritual resources and, by the grace of God, it is never too late to begin. Thanks be to God. Amen