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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Virgins, Foolish and Wise

Pentecost XXII – Proper 27A – November 9, 2014
All Saint’s Episcopal Church – Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Let us pray: 
(sung) “Mother said, 'straight ahead, 
Not to delay, or be mislead.' 
I should have heeded her advice. 
But he seemed so nice.”  
In the name of the Triune God. Amen.

So, that little ditty is from a song sung by Little Red Ridding Hood in the Broadway Play, “Into The Woods”. I thought of it as I considered this Gospel of the Five Wise Virgins and Five Foolish Virgins.   

Well, “virgins” is the King James translation. Today’s translation refers to them as “bridesmaids,” who, as we know from the tradition of that ancient culture, were all supposed to be virgins.   

So, right off the bat, I have issues with this Gospel text.

It goes downhill from there.

I mean, who the heck has a wedding in the middle of the night, anyway? How in heaven’s name are you supposed to be prepared for that?

And, what kind of groom turns up late? I have to tell you, I’ve done more weddings in the past 28 years than I care to remember and not once has the groom been late. A few have been a little tipsy, maybe. Others arrived with a bit of a hangover. 

But, late? No, not once.

The bride? Well, that’s a different story.

In one congregation I served there were a lot of Africans and Afro-Caribbean people who, I learned, operate on a different sense of time than we Westerners do. Things were always running late, it seemed. 

It got so bad that I foolishly felt compelled to establish a policy that I would allow the wedding to begin 15 minutes late; after that, I charged $25 more for every 15 minutes the wedding was delayed.

I told that to one couple and the bride-to-be rolled her eyes, nudged her husband-to-be and said, without any emotion in her delightful Caribbean lilt, “Paay da wo-mon.” 

He pulled out a crisp Benjamin, shrugged his shoulders as he handed me the $100 and said, “Back home, the bride is at least an hour late, lest anyone think she’s too desperate to get married.”

Brides? Late for a wedding? Even in the middle of the night? Check! 

Bridegrooms? Well, not so much.

So, there’s all that in my way, even before I get into the context of the parable.  The best thing I can say about this is something my dear friend and colleague Bob Morrison told me. “What I always remember about this parable,” he said, “is the notice I saw outside a Scottish Church many moons ago: “Would you rather stay awake with wise virgins or sleep with the foolish ones?”

Okay, don’t answer that, because that’s not the point of this Gospel.  

 Which – surprise, surprise – is something else with which I have difficulty. 

Apparently, Jesus likes weddings. You may remember that it was at a certain wedding feast in Cana in Galilee that Jesus chose to perform his first miracle – changing water into wine. There are two instances where Jesus talks about weddings as a way to talk about getting ready to meet God.  

In another wedding story, he talked about the guests who didn’t show up and the strangers who were brought in suddenly, and how even they were expected to prepare themselves for the occasion so as not to insult their host.

In this wedding story, it is clear that Jesus is saying that, if one does not prepare to be ready at any time – even in the middle of the night – to meet God, one is “foolish” and will not be allowed into the festivities.

I’m sorry, but, I’m having a  really hard time here, believing that those words came out of the mouth of Jesus. I’m thinking that was something his disciples preached to the early Followers of The Way to underscore the point that they felt that Jesus was coming back at any moment and they needed to be ready for his return.

Reminds me of a refrigerator magnet someone once gave me. It reads: “Jesus is Coming! Quick! Everybody Look Busy!”

I mean, didn’t Jesus tell other stories, other parables, about being overly prepared? 

How about the parable about the priest and the lawyer who were so busy traveling to the temple on the road to Jericho that they totally missed the opportunity to care for the stranger who was laying half-dead on the side of the road? 

You know, the one where the Samaritan stopped what he was doing and took the risk to stop and help a stranger – even though it was costly – and, in so doing, became a symbol of the way to get to Heaven?

Or, how about the parable of the so-called prodigal son? Remember how his prodigal father spontaneously prepared a feast for his returning son? Remember how it was his other son, the one who had been so faithful and careful that he missed the big celebration for his brother because his blind obedience to duty had snuffed out the love he had for his brother and all he could feel was resentment and jealousy?

I’m reminded again of a line from that song from Little Red Ridding Hood 
And he showed me things, many beautiful things, 
That I hadn't thought to explore. 
They were off my path, so I never had dared. 
I had been so careful, I never had cared. 
And he made me feel excited.. 
Well, excited and scared.
Sometimes, you know, we can be so careful, we can forget how to care. That’s a danger, you see, of being overly prepared. It can be paralyzing. In 12-Step Programs they have a term for it that I love: “Paralysis by Analysis.”

Then again, maybe this whole Boy Scout “Be Prepared” thing is my just my issue.  Maybe it’s yours, too. I have no trouble with being prepared. In fact, I’m the one who always ‘over packs’ for a trip. 

A few trips to England, Europe, Africa and Thailand pretty much cured me of that. There’s nothing like “discovering” that there isn’t a working elevator in a “developing nation” (Duh!) and ending up lugging a heavy suitcase up a train platform to convince you that there is a real cost to being prepared. 

Or, perhaps, if I’m honest, being ‘over prepared’.

Truth be told, there are so many gestures I’ve wanted to make and not gotten around to, there are so many risks I meant to take and shied away from, there are bold steps I failed in and ordinary moments I’ve missed. All because, ironically, I was so carefully prepared. 

It seems to me that most of us spend a lot of time nagging at ourselves that we should be doing more.  Often it’s hard to sit down and relax because that’s when the self-nagging really shifts into high gear. We get so wrapped up in being busy that we miss opportunities to be good. Or, better. And, lose the occasion to, say, commit random acts of kindness.

Of course, most of us try to err on the side of wisdom, but oh, my goodness, aren’t some of the sweetest moments in life brought to us by the amazing  foolishness of serendipity?

I remember one of the first weddings at which I was privileged to preside. The bride was 19 and the groom was 20. Both students at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Poor as church mice. Too young, I thought, to be married. 

So did their parents, who decided to show their disdain and disapproval by boycotting the wedding. The bride and groom decided that they would get married, anyway, and walk down the aisle together and give each other away.

I remember the morning of the wedding, looking down the aisle and watching the two of them nervously sharing a cigarette at the entrance to the church and, just as they put it out under their shoes and clasped hands to walk down the aisle, their parents appeared at the church door. 

There was a great emotional greeting and many happy tears. And then, as if we had rehearsed it, I cued the wedding march –Handle’s Water Music, as I recall – and the six of them locked arms and processed squeezed themselves up the aisle, laughing and giggling and smiling, with more than enough joy in their hearts to fill heaven and bring joy to the very heart of God.

Oh, BTW and PS. Last time I checked (a Christmas card last year) that couple was still married. Twenty eight years later. Three kids. He’s a musician with the Boston Symphony and a successful and sought-after music teacher. She illustrates art for medical text books. And, they said it wouldn’t last!

I have other wonderful memories of the grace that comes from spontaneity, but one doesn’t need an “event” for serendipity to happen and to get a glimpse of heaven. 

Can there be anything more wondrous than turning a corner and finding a tree – one that you had never particularly noticed before – completely ablaze in the colors of autumn splendor? 

I regularly experience having my breath taken away when I gaze out my window to see what the weather is like outside and, to my utter amazement, watch a Blue Heron taking flight over the marsh.

Our youngest daughter and her husband are expecting their first child – our sixth grandchild – in April and, each week, she sends us a text message of the life developing in her womb. 

Yesterday’s message was this: 
“19 weeks! Could be halfway if this baby comes on the early side of full term! The baby is at least ½ a pound now and 6 inches curled up or 9 inches full length (that’s a tomato or eggplant according to my apps). Sensory pathways are being developed in the brain, hair is sprouting on the head, and movements are becoming more intentional ;). This coming Friday is our anatomy scan when they look closely at every single organ, including all four chambers of the heart, and we get to find out the baby’s sex.”
I’ve gotten one of these texts every week since she told us of the pregnancy at 10 weeks, and I can tell you that I weep at every single one. I weep with unexpected joy at the miracle of life, even though, I, myself, have experienced it several times myself. 

I weep at the mystery of deeply loving someone who isn’t even yet fully formed and is not legally a person. 

I weep that even though I have imagined each development of this new little being that I will be totally unprepared for the joy I will feel at the moment of birth, just as I did for her mother.

It is a mystery and a miracle to me how your heart can expand to be filled with so much love for each and every one of your children and grandchildren. It’s not something I was ever prepared for and did not know I could ever achieve. 

And yet, this surprise and mystery, to me, is a sign and symbol of what Heaven must be like.

Apple founder, Steve Jobs, who once memorably described death as "very likely the single best invention of life", departed this world with a lingering look at his family and the simple, if mysterious, observation: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." 

That, to me, is the joyful hymn of a man who is totally prepared to be unprepared for the inestimable joys that await us when we see God face to face.

It’s scary and exciting, as Little Red Riding Hood sings, to be prepared to be unprepared. 

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about being scared and being excited. The body’s response to fear and excitement are exactly the same. Palms get sweaty. The pulse quickens. The B/P increases. A lightheaded feeling can lead to dizziness.   

Scared or excited. Your body responds the same way. It’s your brain that decides how you are going to respond. Wise or foolish, scared or excited, whether you are prepared or unprepared, know this: we’re all going to heaven.

So, I’ll leave you the way I began, with the wisdom of a foolish little girl, Little Red Riding Hood (“I know things now”)
And I know things now, many valuable things, 
That I hadn't known before. 
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you the way that they should. 
And take extra care with strangers, 
even flowers have their dangers, 
And though scary is exciting, 
Nice is different than good. 
Now I know, don't be scared.   
Granny is right, just be prepared. 
Isn't it nice to know a lot?
 ..And a little bit.. not.

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