Preached by Rev. Todd Weir
This is a parable about my life. When I jolt awake at 3 AM, my nightmares involve a lack of preparation. I’m scrambling to find the Biology text book at the last minute before the final, or my brain is gridlocked in some stairwell that leads an unknown pulpit where I am about to preach an incomprehensible sermon. I’m at the starting line for the mile run, heart pounding already because I know I did not practice enough. And it goes on to piano recitals, planting the garden too late, you name it. Be prepared! I was never a Boy Scout, but that motto would be on my coat of arms.
At the same time, I realize my most valuable experiences were when I was thrust into situations totally unexpected for which I felt unprepared. Prepare all you want, but things don’t go according to plan. So what is Jesus’s point here about having the oil at the ready, being prepared at midnight for the coming of the Bridegroom?
The parable is often interpreted to be ready for the second coming of Christ, make sure you are in right relationship with God, you don’t want to be Left Behind. Jesus is coming back, look busy. People can get too caught up in this end of the world sort of thing. It is embarrassing to be sitting on a mountaintop the day after the world was supposed to end. Remember James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, who didn’t care about preserving the environment, because Jesus was coming back at the end of the world, so why bother? I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. What we say or sing the communion affirmation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” it is not about waiting for the world to end, but an affirmation that history matters and its meaning is understood in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
So to be prepared doesn’t mean stocking up for the apocalyspse, with lamp oil, canned beans and ammo. It means we spiritual prepare ourselves for those moments when Christ is revealed in the midst of life. Henri Nouwen expresses this well:
Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.
Hears a story that illustrates the point:
A young law student waits in a ten by ten visiting room, on one side of the dividing wire mesh. He is nervous because he is totally unprepared for this visit with a death row inmate. He is scheduled for an hour visit about the inmates case and he doesn’t know if he can even talk 15 minutes on what he knows.
I sat down on a stool and waited until I heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door. The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me and quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He was a young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair — clean-shaven, medium build — wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar, like everyone I grew up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to on the street. As the guard left, the metal door banged loudly behind him.
I walked over and offered my hand. The man, who had been convicted of murder, shook it cautiously. We sat down.
“I’m very sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, O.K., I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer.” Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. “I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”
He looked at me, worried. “Is everything all right with my case?”
“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”
He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”
“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.
“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”
The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.
“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”
I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, he almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. But he kept on singing.
His voice was filled with desire. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. But that day, I could hear him as he went down the hall, until the echo of his earnest, soaring voice faded. When it had gone, the still silence of that space sounded different from when I entered. Even today, after 30 years of defending death-row prisoners, I still hear him.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of “Just Mercy,” from which this essay is adapted. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/the-man-on-death-row-who-changed-me.html
Not everyone young law student goes into prison for the first time and experiences the grace of a life-changing moment. Grace by definition is unplanned. But this moment would not exist if either of these two men had not learned this hymn in church. Without the experience of this hymn, you have one man marking time to die for his crime, and another climbing the success ladder to a law career. The hymn is the oil in the lamp, it flows into their lives, allows for the light of Christ to shine.
A faithful reading of the Gospel today is that we need to prepare our hearts and souls to be ready, ready for the in-breaking moment where Christ has come again. This is why we have a Sabbath. This is why we pray and sing, and read ancient texts and have a Children’s Sunday School. This prepares us to see when we need it most.