A sermon preached on November 9th, 2008 based upon Matthew 25:1 – 13, entitled “Recovering the Soul.”
For most of us, the initial response to this parable is to say that it sounds distinctly un-Christian. What’s with the so-called “wise maidens” refusing to share some of their oil with the maidens who forgot to stock up, thereby dooming them to be locked out of the bridegroom‘s wedding feast? That sounds pretty harsh.
But what if the oil represents something that simply can’t be shared.
Well, what might that be?
What if the oil represents that mysterious substance we refer to when we speak of our souls? When it comes time to present our souls to God at the end our lives, I can’t give God your soul, and you can’t give God my soul.
For me, the key to this parable is at the end when the foolish maidens show up to knock at the locked door of the bridal party. They cry out, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” to which the bridegroom responds, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
“I do not know you.” This response is so telling. They are unrecognizable to the Lord of heaven and earth who gave them their souls in the first place. They’ve lost their souls, and are living instead a pretense. They’ve become frauds. As such, the response of the bridegroom seems less harsh — more matter of fact. “If I recognized you, I would let you in. But unfortunately, I don’t.”
Truth has this often uncomfortable way of being paradoxical, which is to say, truth holds
together two seemingly contradictory parts. Here is one such paradox regarding human beings: We are all the same. We are all absolutely unique. It is essential that we hold onto both sides of this paradox.
We are all the same: We all start off as helpless little babies who wouldn’t have any chance of surviving if not for the love and protection of grown ups. We all live in these remarkable human bodies with so much in common, capable of doing so many amazing things, and yet, at the same time, the bodies we all live in are so very fragile as well.
Everyone of us lives in a body that is destined to die.
All of us have the same need to love and be loved, to rest and creatively work. We all grieve when we lose our loved ones, or something that reminds us of home. We have so much in common, and if we see this fact, we recognize that we are, on the deepest level, all family to one another. No one can be truly alien to us.
And yet, even as we have so much in common, each of us is absolutely unique as well.
No two of us is exactly the same. We have different gifts and different weaknesses. Each of us perceives the world distinctively, and each of us has a different story to tell. The path chosen in life by one person will not necessarily be the right path for another; we can provide assistance along the way, but each of us has our own path to find, and simply copying the path taken by another will not do.
It is helpful to keep in mind this paradox — that we are all alike/we are all different — as we listen to the Gospels.
Just like everybody else, Jesus is born into this world a helpless little baby in need of protection, though the story of his birth is quite unusual. When he first appears as an adult at the River Jordan, he enters the water of John’s baptism just like everybody else — affirming his solidarity with all human beings. He is just another human being longing to find his way.
And yet he is, at that moment of identification with all persons, an absolutely unique soul, distinctive and recognizable as witnessed by the voice heard from heaven: “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
I know you. I recognize you. Contrast this to the voice of the bridegroom who does not recognize the foolish maidens.
Following his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness where the devil tries to convince him to take a path that would not be true to his soul. When he begins to teach, the people are amazed, because, Jesus “spoke with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”
They are accustomed to hearing teachers without any originality, any soul.
When you are in touch with your soul and acting out of the originality of your soul, your words and actions will have an inherent authority.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually came in conflict with the authorities because he wouldn’t conform to their expectations, and he continually challenged these same authorities about their own personal fraudulence — their hypocrisy.
To large extent, Jesus’ healing ministry involved restoring in people a sense of themselves as someone in whom God delights, someone for whom God values their uniqueness after the pressures of social conformity has crushed their spirit within.
In the end, however, Jesus dies a death — a very painful, and all too human death — which again reminds us that he remained, to the end, just like everybody else, even as he was absolutely unique.
And yet when he is raised from the dead, the person encountered in his resurrection is recognizable as the very same Jesus who they knew and loved. He is no generic eternal spirit.
At times, however, the Church has turned this upside down. Conformity often becomes what its all about; originality gets discouraged.
There’s this poster that I’ve seen in which it says across the top in big letters: “Jesus is cool.” True coolness, I think, isn’t hard to define. It means being oneself and not a mere copy of every body else.
Jesus is truly cool.
The poster shows a half dozen or so of what appears to be “good” church-going people, each with an identical dazed look on their faces, almost zombie like, each precisely resembling the others in expression. Underneath the words, “Jesus is cool,” it goes on to say “but some of His followers give me the creeps.”
Let us remember who we are. In our mission statement it says, “In a world where people feel they can love only those who are like themselves, we seek to celebrate the uniqueness of every human being.“
Here are couple of thought provoking quotes I came across while writing this sermon:
“Few are those who think with their own minds and feel with their own hearts.” Albert Einstein
“We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people.” Arthur Schopenhauer
“There are no dittos among souls,” Baron Friedrich von Hugel
We can’t avoid labeling people, and labels have their place, but in the end, every label covers up the originality.
When we get to the end of our lives, when we stand before God, God will not ask us, why weren’t you Moses, or why weren’t you that remarkable person you know who lives down the street who seemed so incredibly gifted and accomplished so much?
God won’t even ask us, why weren’t we Jesus?
God may ask us, however, why weren’t you yourself?
Why weren’t you the person I created you to be?
No one gets to live your life except you.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine.” God gives light to all of us, and in this we are all the same, but the expression of that light is absolutely unique in every single person, and the attempt to copy somebody else’s light simply diminishes our own.
We are all different, which among other things means we all have our own levels of comfort in regards to being alone and being with other people. And that’s fine.
But one way we are all the same is that we have a God given need to be productive and creative, AND we have a need for rest, for stillness — for what the Bible calls Sabbath.
Without some Sabbath, some stillness, we will lose touch with who we are in that unique self that is separate from all the roles we play in life.
There is a story I’ve told before that involves an overworked minister on the verge of a nervous breakdown who went to the great pyschologist Carl Jung for help.
The minister was putting in 15 hours of work a day. Jung gave the minister specific instructions: For the next two days he was to put in 8 hours of work, come home, have his supper, and then spend the rest of the evening by himself in his study. Three days later the minister came back to see Jung, no less distraught. Jung inquired about whether the minister had followed his instructions. Minister went on to describe how in his estimation he had; following supper he had gone into his study. The first night he spent the evening listening to classical music. The next night he had read a great work of literature. “You misunderstood my instructions,” Jung said. “I didn’t tell you to spend the evening with a great composer, or a great author. I told you to spend the evening with yourself.” A look of horror came over the minister’s face. “I can think of no worse company to keep!” said the minister. “And it is precisely this same company,” Jung responded, “that you are inflicting upon the world 15 hours a day.In stillness, the soul — the deep reservoir of oil that lights the lamp of our life — once more is found.