Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Recognising where we are

Matthew 25.1-13

This Gospel reading is about our spiritual journey. It’s a story that gives a young woman’s perspective on the ups and downs involved. It’s like being a bridesmaid. Perhaps other religious communities, like the Muslim community, have a closer experience to the one Jesus recounts than a typical Christian or secular bridesmaid might have. Muslim bridesmaids might have to get dressed up to the nines and then hang around all day with the bride on about five separate occasions because in the build up to the wedding there could be a party every night of the week. No wonder then that it might be necessary to take a whole week off work just to get ready, psyche themselves up and then perform their appointed role.

A Christian or secular bridesmaid has to support the bride on the hen night, perhaps at some sort of eve of wedding party nowadays, and - of course - on the big day itself. There’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong - losing the bride on the hen night would be bad, for instance. Failing to take the flowers from the bride in church - or at the register office - and help her remove her veil if she has one are pretty bad omissions too. Assisting the bride in and out of her dress might be a bridesmaid’s responsibility, depending on whether her mother gets involved.

But essentially Jesus’ story is an illustration about the ups and downs of the spiritual life. The message, as in a number of his other stories, is about remaining alert and ready to do our bit when the opportunity arises.

‘Recognising where we are’ is another way of depicting the same idea, and I thought of it because the Guides have been talking this morning about their trip to Switzerland.

'Recognising where we are' is a picture which depicts the spiritual journey as a mountain climb. At the bottom of the picture we find the start of the journey - sitting at the bottom of the mountain and wondering how we’re ever going to get up to the top, perhaps feeling in two minds about whether even to make the attempt, or else - like the wise bridesmaids - planning our route carefully before we set out so that we take the best route and know what to expect.

The picture also depicts some of the foolish climbers, people who were not properly prepared for the rigours of the journey. One person seems to be sliding down the mountain. Are they on the way back from the summit? Are they a risk taker, who enjoys the thrill of the quick descent - like mountain bikers who slog all the way to the top of a mountain, or ride up in a cable car, just for the thrill of hurtling down again at fifty miles per hour? The look on the face of the would be climber suggests otherwise - that they have lost their footing and are making an unintended descent. They are like one of the foolish bridesmaids. perhaps they were too busy looking at the view instead of watching where they out their feet. Or perhaps they just tried to take too perilous a route.

Then there’s a person who’s on their hands and needs. Are they watching their partner sliding down the mountain side or are they just completely out of wind? And another person is hanging from a ledge by their finger tips with no toeholds to help them, but at least they’ve managed to rope themselves to the mountain side so all is not lost. I’m not so sure about a person lowering themselves from a horizontal tree trunk. The tree has leaves growing on it, so perhaps its roots are firm and the climber is like one of the wiser bridesmaids who was well prepared. That certainly can’t be said for one man shivering in a t-shirt and another who’s laid down in the open and seems to be taking a nap.

The picture shows people who are doing a bit better. One of them has taken shelter in a cave, one is in the rain - but at least she has an umbrella. And others look well prepared and confident about what they’re doing.

Finally there’s the summit. But are we all climbing the same mountain? is the person far away on a different mountain top jumping for joy that they have made it to their goal, or furious at finding they have climbed the wrong peak? Are they wise or foolish?

What do these parables have to say to us? Each of us are on our own personal pilgrimage with God. Are we going the same way, or do we all have our own unique direction of travel? Does it matter if we are going to slightly different destinations? or should be going to the same place, even if we take different routes?

The answer to those questions will depend on how you understand the Christian faith. Some people think there is really only one way to the top of the mountain, and certainly only one mountain to climb. They will say that we have to do x, y and z - probably in a very precise order - if we wish to be put right with God. But other people will say that there are different ways of believing and following Jesus, and we must all find the way that suits us. Or again people will say that we each have our own personal vocation - something that God wants us to do to make complete sense of our lives and get the most from our experiences. And, then, of course there will be other people who say that Christianity, or our understanding of what it means at any rate, is not the only way of reaching the mountain top and that - however we get above the clouds - reaching the summit of our particular mountain is still cause to celebrate.

It’s also interesting to ask what this story has to say to our church at this particular time. We have completed the refurbishment, which some people saw as a staging post on our way to the mountain top and others saw as a wrong turn or even a backwards step. We’re now thinking about future patterns of worship. Should we be promoting different ways of worshipping to help people find the way up the mountain which suits them best, or should we be roping ourselves together and trying to go up the mountain in one group by the same path?

The church is also thinking about how we can best serve the local community, and who we need to guide us on the next part of the journey. How can we be sure that we’re making wise choices and not foolish ones?

Because the stakes are high. The spiritual life is not just a personal indulgence, something we cultivate purely for its own sake or because we happen to enjoy it. And the church is not just a club for like-minded travellers.

Young women don’t dress up as bridesmaids just for their own amusement. There is a wedding day looming. And, in the same way, we are asked to make progress - as individuals and as a church community - not just to suit ourselves but so that we can be ready to play our part whenever the opportunity arises to serve God.

I have always found that ministry is about being open to opportunities. They have a habit of coming along, and we can either grasp them and use them to help us make further progress in our vocation, or we can miss them and perhaps find ourselves imagining that we have already reached the summit when it is still actually a long way off, or - worse still - we can end up sliding back down the way we have come. So, in the final analysis, being prepared is the crucial thing. If we’re always ready - or even sometimes ready - to recognise an opportunity when God places it in our way we can make our way to the top of the mountain or gain admission to the wedding banquet.

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