Giving as a Spiritual Practice
The Rev. Sara Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
Whew, this gospel reading is rich. So many layers of metaphor and meaning. Jesus is talking about when he’ll come back. He’s the bridegroom, delayed, and we his disciples are the bridesmaids, waiting eagerly for the celebration, the wedding that will bring us together again.
None of this is simple. What does it mean for Jesus to come back? Some Christians have combed through the scriptures to try to decipher the exact day of his return, even though this very gospel says, “you know neither the day nor the hour.” Some Christians anticipate a violent apocalypse and have stockpiled canned goods and weapons into underground bunkers. They wait with both fear and anticipation.
But the word apocalypse is simply Greek for a revealing, an uncovering. It doesn’t inherently imply violence or fireworks or upheaval. Jesus’ return is certainly an apocalypse, but it may not be the kind of apocalypse we imagine.
What we do know is that at the heart of this gospel is the call to be prepared. The call to be ready to receive Jesus when he arrives, however late or unexpectedly he may come.
Now a wedding in Jesus’ time was just as big and exciting as it is in our time. Back then, the groom would get ready at his home while the guests would gather at the bride’s home for the celebration. When the groom approached, it was tradition for the guests—and the bridesmaids—to go out and greet him with lighted torches and process to the ceremony together.
Of course the bridesmaids are excited, giddy for the wedding to come and their role in it. They have their lamps, and they’re ready to go. But for whatever reason, the groom is delayed. The excited anticipation fades into drowsiness, and all the bridesmaids fall asleep. The lamps continue to burn their oil.
Finally, at midnight, someone spots the groom coming from afar and the bridesmaids get up to meet him. But, some of their lamps are burning low and about to go out.
You see, earlier in the day, some of the bridesmaids took for granted that they already had what they needed. Lamps with oil. In the rush of the excitement, they let the day carry them away without thought or intention. Without preparation. But the other bridesmaids were able to slow themselves down, to pause and wonder about what they might need for the night ahead. They took the time amidst the franticness and fun of wedding prep to go to the oil seller and fill an extra flask, in addition to what was already in their lamps.
When the groom was delayed, their lamps did not go out.
Preparation is an act of hope. We buy groceries in hopes that we’ll still be around later in the week to need food. We put away money for our kids’ or grandkids’ college education in hopes that’s where their lives will lead. Kathy and I prepare the liturgy and music for Sunday in hopes that you will be here, that we will all be nourished through the Body of Christ worshiping together.
Now we take a lot of our preparation and hope for granted. I’m certainly not thinking about hope at the self-check lane at Safeway. In fact, I’m waiting for that moment when I scan something wrong, and I have to wait for an employee to come help me, thus defeating the point of doing self-check in the first place.
But I think this gospel is calling us to get intentional about both our preparation and our hope.
You’ve maybe already gotten your stewardship packet. If you haven’t, they’re in the narthex. If you’re on Zoom, we’ll mail it to you this week. And if for some reason, there’s not one with your name on it, there are some blank packets, too. In that stewardship packet is an invitation from Jim Stumpf, our Stewardship Chair, and me to make giving to St. Luke’s a spiritual practice.
One of my spiritual practices is meditating for 24 minutes every morning. Most mornings, I do not want to meditate for 24 minutes. I drag myself to the cushion, I sit down with an enormous sigh, and I begrudgingly set the meditation timer on my phone. I mark the time with three bells, one every eight minutes.
Before the first bell, my mind is racing. I can’t forget to send that email. What am I going to preach about? Is so-and-so disappointed in me? I’m so hungry. There’s an itch on my cheek and it’s driving me insane. Scratch it. Get up. Send that email before you forget. Every part of me wants to impulsively indulge every thought.
But my practice is to stay. Stay. Stay.
Before the second bell, I’m noticing how these thoughts are living in my body. How the anxiety about that email is a fluttering like a caged bird in my upper chest. How the hunger is a rumble in my belly. And the itch, well, actually the itch is gone. When did that happen?
Then in the last eight minutes before the final bell, I find myself smiling. Not only is the itch gone, but I find that I’ve totally forgotten about the email. Until I remembered just now, only now it doesn’t seem all that important. There’s more space between thoughts and cravings, more quiet.
After the final bell, I feel peace in my body. I find that none of my thoughts were as urgent as I thought they were. Everything seems to move more slowly. My day seems more open. My flask of oil has been filled. My light is ready for Jesus, if he decides to show up.
And honestly, Jesus always shows up. There’s an apocalypse every day. My neighbor struggling with her groceries and, even though I’m in a hurry, I stop to help. The man on the corner who asks me for a few dollars, and while I have no cash to give I pause and ask him his name. The picture in the news of an anguished father in the Middle East whose child has been killed. Is he Palestinian or Israeli? Does it matter? My heart breaks for him all the same.
Would I have noticed these manifestations of Jesus if I didn’t have a regular practice of slowing myself down? If I didn’t challenge myself every morning to stop and stay? Would I have had enough oil in my lamp to greet him?
The truth is, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m not prepared. Sometimes the oil runs low. But the good news is that there’s always more oil available, if I’m willing to pause, to slow down, to practice.
I know some of you have your own practices that open you up, filling your flasks with oil. Maybe carving out intentional space every day to pray Morning or Evening Prayer. Or practicing the piano. Or making art or writing poetry. Or filling an entire room of your house with a model train world you created. Or setting aside an entire Sabbath day every week when you turn off all your bright and shouting screens and keep them off, that you may see this world more slowly, more clearly.
Those of us who have longtime practices know that it was especially hard in the beginning. To create the habit, the discipline of carving out time in our days or weeks. I started meditating 16 years ago. Back then I sat for five minutes, and it was all racing thoughts and no peace. I jumped off the cushion as soon as my timer went off, relieved that it was over. But I kept returning to it every morning. Well, most mornings.
These practices take intention. Time. Effort. They don’t always come easy. Maybe they usually don’t come easy.
Pledging to give our time, our skills, and our money to St. Luke’s isn’t easy. I’m not sure if any spiritual practice can be. If it’s easy, it’s probably not challenging us, not opening us in new ways, not preparing us for Jesus’ arrival.
It’s not easy for me. For 2024, I’m pledging 8% of my income. I share that with you because I want to be transparent about my commitment to this community. I’m asking you to pledge your resources, and I can’t do that with integrity if I’m not pledging mine.
And that pledge is a stretch for me. That pledge is me staring down at that meditation cushion every morning and deciding that that commitment, that challenge, that intention will open me up. It’s an act of preparation. An act of hope. My pledge is a spiritual practice.
But the thing is, the 24 minutes I give every morning, the money I’ll give every month next year. It’s not my time, it’s not my money. Everything I am and everything I have are resources that God entrusted to me to steward. To use in service of God’s love, grace, hope. For the building of God’s kingdom right here, right now, in this life.
So this year, I invite you into a spiritual practice. I invite you to think of your pledge as a demonstration of how you will steward the resources God has entrusted to you. We may not see the fruits of this practice right away. It might feel hard. But I invite you to think of it as an act of hope—that this St. Luke’s community and all of the love we nurture here fill our flasks with oil, preparing us to greet Jesus whenever and wherever he arrives—in one another and in the world.