25 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. 4 But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil. 5 “When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 “Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. 8 But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’ 9 “But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.
11 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’ 12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ 13 “Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.
Be a Light
There’s a Bruce Cockburn song that’s been in my head these last few weeks:
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight
While a violent image, we’re reminded on Remembrance Day of all that is worth having that was gained because of the conflicts and quest for peace in our world. And while we would pray for new solutions to old conflicts, we know how easily daylight is clouded over, or overpowered by the growing shadows in our world.
Four years ago just about this time, the world watched as the U.S. went to the polls and things seemed to be heading in a good direction: Barack Obama was completing his 2nd term, and as a black man in America, one would have hoped that old hurts and lasting injustices were on their way out. But now, as we’ve watched two old white men vie for power in a deeply divided country, with misogyny, racism, and elitism emerging from the shadows – it just seems same old, same old. In these dangerous times, it’s easy to feel as if love is a crime. We’ve got to ensure that we’re doing all we can to share light with the earth.
In response, Jesus tells this story (one that’s difficult for us to relate because it tells of traditions and beliefs different than we’re used to). There are ten bridesmaids awaiting a groom – five of them are well prepared and ‘wise’ and well stocked of oil for their lamps, and the other five not so much – they’re labelled as ‘foolish.’ Everyone falls asleep waiting for the groom. When he finally shows up, the ‘prepared’ five whose lamps are still lit escort the groom upon his arrival, and the other five are shut out of the wedding because they were off buying oil.
First – we need to acknowledge how this passage could become painful in the wrong hands – saying women are either selfish or ‘mean girls’ if you’re the “prepared” type, and ill-prepared or neglectful or forgetful if you’re in the other camp. These words come off harsh no matter which one you relate to. But it’s good to remind ourselves that women were rarely referred to in stories, and so their presence is the more important here, because the ‘wise’ ones aren’t maligned because they didn’t share – in fact- the reason why Jesus is telling this story is reminding his followers why you can’t read this passage too literally. This story isn’t really about who is in and who is out – it’s about being prepared in moments of crises.
It’s easy to become complacent, to sit back as I know I did in the Obama era and think ‘there, the world is getting better,’ to ‘fall asleep’, and think the old patterns of our behaviour just disappeared into the night. But when that oil runs low – when that oil of faith or persistence or resilience runs out – such as during times of pandemic, or political unrest – it reveals how important that light is. We need to keep those lamps lit particularly for times like these as white terrorists and misogynists and racist and nationalist voices are given centre stage. For even though it’s happening south of the border, the minute it happens there or anywhere around the world, likeminded people decide that it gives them permission to be hateful or dismissive. Shadows move in when lamps aren’t kept bright enough.
And carrying that image further – it’s easy to be critical and say the ‘wise’ ones should have shared their oil with the ‘foolish’ but non-literally you can’t just pour faith from one person into another (trust me – I try it every time I preach a sermon) just as you can’t take oil out of a lamp to put in another. This is work that each of us need to do. For each of us carry a lamp – and some have oil (or faith or persistence or resilience) in abundance and some feel like they’re running low – but each of us have an individual, personal responsibility in ensuring that we are awake and ready when our light is needed by the world.
Years ago, as war raged across the planet, Roy Knight (member of St. James’~Rosemount United Church who passed away just a month ago) offered his light in service of others. He did so following his own father, who offered his service
Veterans Guard, [which was] setup so ex-soldiers who were able and willing could guard German prisoner of war camps being established in Canada…
In Roy’s memoir, he talked about the service mindset that was passed down to both Neil (Roy’s brother) and Roy himself. Like we do at Christmas, the light of hope and peace was passed from one generation to the next, as Roy tells of Neil joining the air force after finishing high school, and regretting himself having to hang back to finish up. Remaining behind enabled Roy to sign up to a special course in maths and physics which eventually led him to army training and being present to a lecture presented by Albert Einstein. It was a difficult course of study and life change, but Roy appreciated the similarities to his farming upbringing particularly the need to be early risers and punctual. As if training for military service wasn’t enough of a struggle – Roy even contracted scarlet fever in the midst of it all, slowing down his hope to serve…but it didn’t deter him – he worked the harder to ensure that he would not lose any more time.
I wonder what kept Roy’s light burning so brightly – for his light burned in his passion and call to serve and it was strong enough for him to recognize his own personal responsibility in being a light-bringer to others. I wonder how the bridesmaids realized the important role they played to bear that light so that others could celebrate. I marvel at those fueled by a sense of justice and reconciliation that continue the fight even when the shadows of hatred and division and death seem to overpower the light. Because it didn’t get any easier for Roy (as he wrote in his memoir:)
While on manoeuvres … I was advised by a wire from Mom and Dad that my brother, Neil [just a year older than Roy] was missing in action, having been shot down over Germany. I was given a 2 day leave [from training] that weekend to go home.
Imagine following your father and brother into service, and all of a sudden losing a significant reason and motivation for being there. Call it service, or stubbornness, Roy realized his light was needed more than ever. He returned to training, where he was made an officer in charge of training others. And in the best of all circumstances, thankfully, the war ended before Roy headed overseas, for daylight began to dawn again.
As we remember this year, and honour the lives of those who offered the precious gift of service, and light, and even their lives, Jesus reminds everyone else – you and I – that the light of faith has ignited our lamps – and we are to tend that flame as precious as the gift of peace. When we fall asleep, when we become complacent or sit back on our laurels, when pandemics burn up what little faith, persistence, and resilience we have, we allow the shadows of hatred to grow. For the World Wars didn’t start in an instant – they were the culmination of poverty, misogyny, racism, elitism and nationalism, that were allowed to grow in the shadows until all that was left was darkness. And so we keep the faith alive by the lives we lead – as we keep peace with one another, that fuels our strength. As we pray, and gather for worship that fuels our faith. As we offer to God moments that seem too complex, too destructive we find we have the persistence to endure. As we seek God, in each and every moment, we become resilient enough to stay awake and ensure that our lights and the lights of those seeking good in world, might keep the shadows at bay.
Thank God for those who worked valiantly to ensure that daylight would dawn again.
Thank God for those who allowed their passion and service to stand in for that light in the nighttime of our fears.
Thank God for the trust that has been given to all of us as we tend the light that has been passed to us.
Thanks be to God.