Pathways to Prayer
Psalm 78:1-7 & Matt 25:1-13
November 12, 2023

November is our special time to remember Thornwell, and a time to take up a special offering this month.  You will find envelopes in the pews provided for your special offering.

For those not familiar with Thornwell, their mission is to prevent child abuse and neglect, build and reunite families, and support healthy communities in the name of Jesus Christ.

Thornwell was founded in 1875 in Clinton, SC, by a Presbyterian minister to care for orphans from the Civil War.  Thornwell still cares for children who’ve experienced trauma while providing innovative ministries to strengthen families throughout Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, and their theme this month is “Pathways to Prayer.”

Looking at our scripture today, I’m always amazed how the scripture provides the word needed at the right time.  It is obvious God still speaks to us from these pages when we allow ourselves to be open to receiving the word that God is sending.

Have you ever had that dream where you were running and running from something or to something, but you just could not get to where you were going, and when you woke up, you were just exhausted.  That’s how I picture the foolish bridesmaids in our parable today.

When we are wise, we plan and we prepare.  In those instances when we have prepared well, we can be at ease for the upcoming event for which we have prepared, and we can even enjoy what is going to take place.  It can be a joyous celebration as it was with the wise bridesmaids.

Ultimately, we have a choice when it comes to following Jesus, we can allow ourselves to be prepared and equipped so that we are on alert and stand ready to be Jesus in the world, or we can slumber through life missing all the opportunities to be in relationship with Jesus.

If we use the example of runners, they have to prepare for a marathon.  In this parable, if we consider the 10 bridesmaids as runners, all dressed in their sports gear, complete with the newest running shoes, they are ready to run the marathon, but are they?

As it turns out, only five are ready for the marathon, and the other five are only ready to sprint before they are out of breath.  They are out of fuel. 

Runners know that you have to prepare, build up your stamina, to complete the marathon.  Training is an essential part of the completion of the long run.  They can encourage each other, they can be coached; however, they can only train and prepare for themselves.  They cannot share their training, body strength and stamina to run the long race with another person.  The long run depends on what comes from within, and how prepared one has worked to prepare.

In the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time, oil is a symbol for good deeds.  New Testament Professor M. Eugene Boring says that oil represents “deeds of love and mercy in obedience to the Great Commandment” —- feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.

These deeds are not a quick fix, a sprint of good works, rather they require the marathon mentality.  When we prepare for the marathon, are we thinking of how we can help others? 

When we prepare ourselves as runners or as Disciples of Christ, it is hard work.  It’s not something we can just do for an hour on Sunday morning in order to run the marathon.  If that’s what we are doing, then we are only sprinting.

Jesus teaches us in the parable of the bridesmaids to prepare for the kingdom of heaven by performing deeds of love and mercy again and again and again in order to be prepared for the long run.

Eugene Boring says, “Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.”

Jesus challenges us to prepare for the kingdom through a regular discipline of loving and merciful actions.  We need to train for the kingdom of heaven as a runner prepares for a marathon, running short distances, that builds to longer sprints that end in a marathon.  Little by little we study the scripture, we sit quietly for the presence of God for direction and discernment, and then we open ourselves to the possibilities that we meet in our life’s journey day after day until we arrive for our final rest in God’s kingdom.

This church has a good reputation for running the marathon.  For example, running with the Father Daughter Dance for 25 years, we are celebrating Break Bread Together on December 3rd for its 50th anniversary, we have been participating in Rise Against Hunger now for over 10 years, the Bun Run is well on its way to 13 years, and we have been supporting Thornwell since before I came to this church in 1991. 

When we do these works of mercy, we are providing for bodily needs of others, and equally important is the fact that these deeds require our bodies —- hands to feed, arms to clothe and legs to visit.  Unless we train our bodies to do these things, we will never succeed in the work that Jesus challenges us to do.

This sort of training requires a kind of meditation, an opportunity to think, dream, pray and solve problems.  Pathways to prayer cuts through the clutter of life and gives us the gift of simplicity for a few hours each week.  In a world filled with busyness, an exercise of meditation and prayer can help cut through the clutter of life and gives us the gift of simplicity for a few hours each week.

Acts of love and mercy can cut through the clutter of life as well.  They remind us of the elegant simplicity of the words of Jesus:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Additionally, they illustrate the truth of the letter of James:  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Our Psalmist reminds us to teach the children so that their hope is set in God, not things of this world.  Do not forget the works of God and keep God’s commandments.  Translated into today’s language, do God’s will.  Being prepared means being faithful and showing God’s love and mercy to others through our actions.

After all these years, Thornwell, with the help of your dollars and prayers, still continues to care for children and teach them what it means to be cared for through love and hope.  A love and hope inspired by God.

We have heard the scripture reading of the bridesmaids many times, and the message is very clear that we are to be prepared, be ready, and be alert at all times to receive God’s presence, because we don’t know what day or hour God’s presence will lead us or direct us on a path to complete a mission that is ours to do.

Thornwell shares a story about a child who needed special medical care and was placed with her aunt, who felt she was called to take care of the child as her kinship placement.

The child’s support system, through the help of Thornwell, was continually reminded that God has a plan and wanted them to trust Him faithfully.  They were reminded that God knows everything on the pathway we are traveling now and what will come.  They were reminded that the Lord asks us to follow his path and trust that God knows best.

Is this a path that we are following today?  Does our path lead us to trust God fully?

Sometimes we are so frantic with blinders on that we only see the path that we see, not the path that God wants us to be on.  Maybe we are trying so hard to make the path we want to be on work, that we fail to trust where we are being led by God.  We fail to have our lamp lights full of oil and turned up and ready to follow God’s path.

Where do we find the oil?  We find it in the scriptures we read, and we find it through prayer and meditation as we nourish our souls with the word revealed to us as we prepare ourselves to show love and mercy to others.  The more we seek God’s presence, the more oil is poured into our lamps so they are shining bright to meet the bridegroom when presented to us.

Thornwell’s theme, “Pathways to Prayer,” as stated in their flyer, “highlights the embodiment of faith in Jesus.  Through our prayer and submission, Jesus can use us to guide vulnerable children and families to know Him and experience His goodness.”

A good Proverb they include is one we could all repeat daily, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Are we trusting God with all our heart, or are we trusting half-heartedly?

Are we leaning into God’s direction for us, or leaning into our own understanding?

Are we being foolish or wise?

Have you checked your oil lately?  Is your flask full, and your lamp ready for what great things God has in store coming at an hour you do not know, or is your light burning out because you have not prepared properly?

We are invited by Jesus to join him in a marathon, not a sprint.  We are invited on pathways to prayer so that we keep our lamps full of the oil of love and mercy.  Let us run the race on the pathway to prayer so that our lamps shine bright.


*Cover Art by Unsplash; used with subscription