But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
(Preached on Sunday, November 12, 2017)
In an act of corporate cooperation, AT&T reached an agreement with the power company in New York City, Con Ed. The contract stated that whenever power demands exceeded the utility’s grid, AT&T would lessen their demands on the electric utility by throwing a switch, unplugging some of its facilities, and drawing power from internal generators at its 33 Thomas Street station in lower Manhattan. On September 17, 1991, AT&T acted in accordance with their agreement. But when AT&T’s own generators kicked in, the power surge kicked out some of their vital rectifiers, which handled 4.5 million domestic calls, 470,000 international calls, 1,174 flights across the nation carrying 85,000 passengers, and the total communications systems linking air traffic controllers at La Guardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports. The alarm bells at the 33 Thomas Street station rang unheeded for 6 hours. The AT&T personnel in charge of the rectifiers were away attending a one-day seminar on how to handle emergencies.
It is right for us to prepare for emergencies. It is right for us to prepare for the future. But sometimes, oftentimes, we become so caught up in preparing for the future that we do not experience the present. We are so worried about being ready for life to happen that life moves right on past us and we miss it. The bridegroom comes, and five were ready to meet him. They are called wise and the others foolish. This parable is often interpreted as a warning about being ready for the coming of the Messiah, the return of Jesus. Some see it as a warning about being ready for death.
But look closely at the story again. While the foolish do end up missing the party, the main focus of the story is not on judgment or accountability. It is more about being ready for the party when it comes time to celebrate. It is about an invitation to a wedding! The question really is, “are we ready for God’s love to embrace us? Are we ready for eternal life?”
Now, whenever you speak about eternal life people immediately think you are talking about heaven. Stories like this one from Jesus certainly appear to be about heaven. But Jesus was much more concerned with the present world than with some future reality. Jesus always calls us to live in the real world. He certainly did. Jesus was not searching for the pure life through withdrawal from the everyday, gritty, painful and risky lives of ordinary people. His life has meaning that echoes through the centuries, not just because of his death and subsequent resurrection, but because when the authorities crucified him they were putting an end to a human being who participated in life to the fullest. He was one who was so deeply involved with his sisters and brothers in the human family that he died rather than lie to them and lead them astray.
Jesus lived life fully, not because he knew what was coming, nor because he was worried about what was coming but because he knew that eternal life was available to him now. And it is available to each of us, now. The question is, are we ready for it, now?
Other deep thinkers have also recognized this truth about the nature of eternal life. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein commented that “if eternal life is really timelessness, not duration, the one who possesses it is the one who lives in the now.” And Abraham Heschel said: “Eternity is not a perpetual future but perpetual presence. The world to come is not only a hereafter, but a here-now.”
The parable, then, may not be about watchfulness or even preparedness, so much as it is about being committed to living fully and doing whatever is necessary to allow that to happen. To live fully in the present moment is to be ready and alert for the appearance of God in our present reality. It is about fully embracing each moment given to us by God for the gift it is, cherishing it, fully tasting it and treasuring it. It is about being ready to join God’s efforts in the world to bring about joy, compassion, and fullness of life when we see God’s Spirit at work.
How do we do this? We do this be living each moment as if it were eternal and by living each moment ready for God’s presence NOW. We do this most importantly with attention to the small moments in our lives. Like sharing a cup of coffee with a trusted friend, and giving them our whole, complete, entire attention. Like rocking a crying baby to sleep with tenderness and patience, not irritation because we wish we were watching the end of the game or that favorite TV show. It is stroking the fur of a cherished pet and returning to her the unconditional love and devotion which she gives to me. It is taking time to search for the smile on tired old faces and celebrating that it is there and that there is reason for that smile. It is truly focusing on the food we eat when we sit down to a meal; cherishing each bite and giving thanks as we eat, not just quickly before we begin, for each creature or each plant that is providing the nourishment with its own life and for each laborer who gave their sweat to bring this food to our table.
One way to begin to cultivate this approach to life is to do what poets do. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “To write poetry is to be alive.” It is to be alive to both our external and internal surroundings. Just think about the way poets engage life: they pay very close attention to everything from the inside of a flower to the inside of our hearts.
Plus, poets do something else so many of us don’t: they use their senses. They savor the spices in their supper, one tiny bite at a time. (This is a practice I have embraced in recent years. I have always loved to cook, but I used to cook primarily just to satisfy my hunger and to make sure I got the nutrition I needed. My cooking was very practical and not all that creative. But in this past year I have changed that approach and I now cook more to satisfy my taste buds rather than my stomach. I experiment with a variety of spices, herbs, and flavors and meal time has become much more interesting.) Poets also smell the rain (and maybe even taste it). They look at the angles of a room, at the angles of a face. They stare at the sky, and linger longer at the library, feeling a book’s firm spine, running their fingers over their favorite words. They catch conversations in cafes, grocery stores and doctor’s offices.
Poets essentially explore their everyday with a magnifying glass. They peer into every cabinet, every nook and cranny. Poets are masters of observation, akin to Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot. They put life under a microscope, peeling back the layers, one by one, of big and small things – of love, lunch, lackluster emotions, and early mornings.
When we gather our attention onto a particular object or experience and stay with it as it changes, we develop concentration and a certain mental pliancy. The growing stability of mindfulness predisposes us to more beyond superficiality, to penetrate experience and investigate it in order to have a deeper understanding.
Alice Walker remembers her mother’s garden as it was when she was a child and the power it had to nurture them and move them beyond the poverty that depleted their lives:
My mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country strand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens – and still does – with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November … Because of her creativity with flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms – sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena … and one and on.
After all these years of waiting we have lost much of the urgency that accompanied the original telling of the parable. But each of us has our own personal urgency. We are invited to the feast that is taking place all around us right now. Our torches will last only so long, no matter how well oiled we keep them, and then it will be too late. The party is terrible and wonderful, but we don’t want to miss it, for there we will find Jesus.
Are you ready for the Bridegroom to arrive? Are you ready for NOW? The question is not about the future. It is about the present. Let us fully embrace life. Let us cherish each and every moment we live.