Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
November 7, 1999
Matthew 25:1-13; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-28
According to Matthew, the kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids, five foolish, five wise, waiting to meet the bridegroom, whose arrival has been delayed. They all fall asleep. When they awake, the five foolish discover that the oil in their lamps has run low. They ask to borrow oil from the others, but the others turn them down. If the oil is shared, all may run out before the bridegroom arrives. So they go out looking for more oil and, sure enough, while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. Upon their return they are excluded from the wedding feast.
This parable is more like a morality tale. Many commentators do not think that Jesus would have portrayed God’s kingdom on quite these terms. The sharp division between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids, and the final exclusion of the latter, seem at odds with Jesus’ concern to encompass all within the realm of God. Others are puzzled by details in the story. We do not know enough about early Palestinian wedding practices to account for every feature of this story. It makes no sense, for example, to go out looking for lamp oil in the middle of the night.
The point of the story, however, seems quite clear. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast. Ten bridesmaids sound like a lot, so we should probably think in terms of a BIG wedding feast. This is the sort of event you would not want to miss! However, admission to this feast requires preparation. The bridesmaids, who represent the early Church, need oil for their lamps. In Jewish tradition, oil can symbolize good deeds. It can also symbolize Torah, the Jewish law or teaching [cf. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7, 450]. This suggests the importance of a way of life, not just a posture of waiting in expectation. What we have here is a cautionary tale to early Christians to be prepared for the coming of their Lord. They are to be prepared by the manner of lives that they live.
Last Sunday I preached on one of the central teachings of Protestant Christianity, justification by faith. This doctrine insists that our fundamental relationship to God is not accomplished by works of the law, or by good deeds, or by our status or station in life, or by our acceptance of particular doctrines or creeds, or by anything else that we can do. We are set right with God by faith, and only by faith. And faith is a gift, not something we can muster on our own.
Then what is the point about being prepared? Boy Scouts need to be prepared, but why would Christians need to be prepared? And how would we need to be prepared? Why do we have to do anything, if our relationship to God is simply given in faith?
For centuries Christians have been trying to figure out the proper relationship between faith and works. I am not going to try to settle that this morning. Rather, I want to talk about being spiritually fit. Like any other kind of fitness, spiritual fitness is not a one-time thing. Fitness is not a goal you reach once and for all, so that once you’ve reached it you can quit doing whatever got you there and do something else. Fitness is an on-going way of being. In terms of our physical bodies, fitness is a way of being in shape that keeps you in shape. In terms of our spiritual life, perhaps we can think of fitness as a way of being prepared that keeps you prepared. It is a way of being prepared to receive God and whatever God has to give whenever and wherever it is given.
There has been a great interest among Christians in recent years about spirituality and spiritual discipline. I think many Christians have come to realize that there must be more to Christianity that a set of beliefs or teachings about God and Jesus Christ and the Church. On the other hand, there must also be more to the Christian life than trying to be good or measuring up to the tremendous demands of God’s law. Our souls or spirits also need to be nurtured, enriched, and sustained. Our lives need to be centered in a source of renewal and refreshment and transformation. We need to be fed in the depths of our being, so that we can continue in purposefulness and joy, without our lamps running dry.
The result of this new interest in spirituality has been a reclaiming of some of the traditional spiritual disciplines of the church. At the same time, there has been a growing openness to learn from the teachings and practices of other spiritual traditions. Such inward spiritual disciplines as prayer and fasting and meditation, often previously viewed as forms of self-denial, are now seen as possible ways toward re-discovery and renewal of the self. Such outward spiritual disciplines as simplicity, solitude, and service, often previously viewed as world-denying, are now regarded as ways of affirming the goodness of God’s world instead of being consumed by the productions and distractions of the world we human beings have created.
Being spiritually fit is a way of being that defines our personal existence, but it is also a way of being that defines our existence with others in community in the world. In terms of our personal existence, one important approach to spiritual fitness involves what the 17th century monk, Brother Lawrence, called “the practice of the presence of God.” Brother Lawrence believed that God was present in all times and places, and that we ought to do our daily work always with a sense of the Divine presence. He thought that we should converse continually with God, and go about doing our common business, not to please others, but simply for the love of God, “for God regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
All of life, when viewed from the perspective of a Brother Lawrence, is infused with God’s presence. This is, of course, a very biblical view as well. It is also a view that resembles the teaching of some Eastern religious traditions. Here the idea of “attentiveness” is very important to spiritual practice. We live in a world of many distractions. We are often driven in several directions at once. We are so busy being busy. We are so often caught up in the agendas that others have set out for us, and those that we have constructed for ourselves, that we simply do not take time to attend to much of what is going on around us. We do not attend to the natural world. We do not attend to the interactions and relations among our companions, even other members of our family. We do not attend to the hunger and pain and discontent that resides in our own souls. Spiritual fitness demands that we learn how to pay attention, that we take the time to learn, and then take time to attend, to open ourselves to the world around us, to look for the evidences of Divine Presence.
Theologian Howard Thurman described his own experience of the practice of the presence of God in these terms:
Whenever my mind . . . has been uplifted; whenever I have frustrated the temptation to deny the truth within me, or to betray a value which to me is significant; whenever I have found the despair of my own heart and life groundless; whenever my resolutions to be a better man have stiffened in a real resistance against some form of disintegration; whenever I have been able to bring my life under some high and holy purpose that gives to it a greater wholeness and a greater unity; whenever I have stood in the presence of innocence, purity, love, and beauty and found my own mind chastened and my whole self somehow challenged and cleansed; whenever for one swirling moment I have glimpsed the distinction between good and evil courses of conduct, caught sight of something better as I turned to embrace something worse; whenever these experiences or something like them have been mine, I have seen God, and felt God’s presence winging near [DEEP IS THE HUNGER, 144-145].
The practice of the presence of God, by whatever means we may seek to make it part of our lives, is not a call to passivity or inaction. It is a call to awareness, to attentiveness, to discernment of God’s presence within the commonplace and everyday, but also at the critical junctions and decisive moments of our lives. The spiritually fit person is one who finds ways to be attentive, to become open, to allow his or her life to be formed and shaped and guided by the Spirit, who is present in the midst of all things.
Spiritual fitness not only places individual and personal demands upon us, however, it also claims us in our corporate and communal existence. It is difficult to lead a physically healthy life if all the food that you eat, the water that you drink, the air that you breathe, the work you do, the time constraints upon you, the daily regimen you must follow, and all the other material conditions of your existence are not conducive to proper care of your body. It is perhaps just as difficult to keep spiritually fit if you are not part of community that challenges and supports and struggles together with you to live and work and relate to the world in a spiritually disciplined and healthy way. Unfortunately, this corporate or communal dimension of spiritual fitness is missing or understated in so many contemporary approaches to the spiritual life. In its various practices of worship, preaching, teaching, and pastoral care the Christian Church has sought to give shape to a spiritually fit community. This is, however, an enormously difficult task. Church members spend relatively little time together and when they are together they have so many other matters on their agenda. They are preoccupied and distracted by a multitude of conflicting expectations. And they are so captive of the values and incentives of the larger society in which they are immersed, with which the requirements of spiritually fit community run so much at odds, that many people who sincerely desire to be spiritually healthy believe it is easier to attain spiritual fitness on their own.
One of the most poignant commentaries on the challenges of Christian community is to be found, not in the New Testament, but in our Old Testament text. This text is about the making of a covenant between God’s people and God. Joshua has led them across the River Jordan and into the Promised Land. They have all been allotted a place in which to dwell. It is time to take up residence, dwell in the land, and receive its benefits from the hand of God. At this critical point of transition in the life of the people, Joshua reminds them of their history. He reminds them of all that God has done for them to bring them to this decisive moment. And then he presses upon them the challenge of what lies ahead.
It is the challenge, first of all, to put away the gods whom they had served beyond the River and in Egypt. It is the challenge to put away those lesser loyalties that they had served as final ends, in order to serve the LORD, Yahweh, the God who has been their deliverer from bondage and oppression, the God who has blessed them and protected them and promised to them a great inheritance. Of course, when Joshua puts this choice before them, the people say, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods.” But Joshua knows that it isn’t going to be that easy. He says to them, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.”
These are very harsh words, but they speak of a very harsh reality. You see, the historical author of these words has the subsequent history of the people of Israel in view. They did indeed become faithless, they did indeed forsake their God for other gods, they did indeed suffer the devastation of their land, the dispersion of their people, the captivity in exile in Babylon. In our text Joshua speaks not only the promise of God, but also God’s warning, so that later generations, when they look back, will understand that God did not mislead them into thinking that all would necessarily be well. Indeed, they have received nothing from God that they had not bargained for. For despite Joshua’s warning, the people say, “No, we will serve the LORD!” Then Joshua says, “You are witnesses against yourselves, that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And the people say, “We are witnesses.”
The people of Israel, by virtue of their promise to serve God, became witnesses against themselves. The promise was not fully kept. At times it was badly broken. One of the ways in which it was seen to be broken came about when the tribes of Israel formed themselves into a monarchy, a kingdom with a king. In the eyes of the author of I Samuel, the demand for a king meant the people had rejected God from being king over them [I Samuel 8:7]. They wanted a king like the kings of all the other nations. Their allegiance to an earthy kingdom and its king supplanted their loyalty to God and to God’s reign. All sorts of social corruption, injustice, immorality, and faithlessness were seen to follow.
What does this have to do with spiritual fitness? It is hard to be spiritually fit if one is at odds in one’s own soul. And it is hard not to be at odds in one’s own soul if one lives within a community that is at odds in its ultimate allegiances. One of the fundamental obstacles to the spiritual health of every religious community is the reality of our conflicting and divided loyalties. We worship at many altars. We devote ourselves to the service of various gods. In modern times these other gods have borne many faces and names. Perhaps the most powerful and destructive has been the nation-state, but there are many others: racial and ethnic and class identities, political and economic ideologies, the culture of consumerism, the exaltation of individual rights without regard for community needs and values. These various gods lure us with promises of success, respectability, power and influence, individual freedom, personal happiness and professional acclaim, the justifications of various kinds of superiority and self-righteousness.
Why are we so spiritually fragmented, so driven, so busily distracted, so burned up and burned out, so hungry and weak and impoverished of soul? Not simply because of individual choices we have made, but also because of the choices our community and our society has made regarding the values, priorities, and terms that will rule our lives. Every day claims are made upon us, our time, our energies, our loyalties, our allegiance, our devotion, that pull us in all directions. Every day we are called upon to decide Who, or what, we will serve.
Spiritual fitness requires a form of self-criticism that is also a form of communal and social criticism. We are constrained not simply by our own individual limitations, but by the larger social realities that bear down upon us. To what, or to Whom, will we seek to conform our lives? The question must be raised in terms that recognize the competing claims upon us, the “other gods” that exercise dominion in our society and culture. These “other gods” show up more clearly, and more powerfully, in our social and communal existence than they do in our personal lives, though they are present in both.
In other words, we can hardly become spiritually fit simply by going off by ourselves to meditate in the woods, by escaping from all the distractions and pressures of society. We will surely find some very valuable spiritual resources in solitude, in mediation, in prayer. But if our lives are to be serviceable in the world, we must also finds ways to support one another in locating the spiritual center of our communal existence as well. How is it that God is present in our midst, calling us as a people, not just one by one? How is it that God wants us as a people to manifest in our life together those signs of spiritual wholeness and health that, in the Old Testament, are denoted by “shalom”. How can we live out this shalom, this peace of God, which is also justice and compassion, kindness and faithfulness, mercy and love?
A spiritually fit people must be willing to examine and test themselves, and if necessary bear witness against themselves, for the sake of the God whom they have promised to serve above all other gods. AMEN.