Text: Matthew 25:1-13; Preached at St Andrew Memorial Church, London Ontario
When you are offshore sailing, the 4 to 8 watch is possibly the worst shift to have.
Four hours. Twice a day.
It doesn’t seem like much when it is 4-8 in the afternoon: there are people milling around on deck, the sun is out and there are things to look at. The shift is broken up by the appearance of the evening meal on deck for you to eat.
But the hours from 4 to 8 in the wee hours of the morning: that is the hard part.
You are dragged from your nice warm bunk in the middle of a wonderfully deep sleep. Up onto the cold, probably wet, deck. No cover. No protection from the elements. Just you and two others responsible for steering the ship through the night until morning comes. Those hours until dawn can seem like an eternity.
And the sky is black – as far as you can see.
If it is a clear night, the only light is the millions of pinpricks of stars that cover the sky from horizon to horizon to horizon. And it is those stars that let you know when you have dozed off at the wheel and gone off course.
All are sleeping.
All is silent except for the rhythmic slap
Of the waves against the hull of the boat.
And you wait
You wait some more.
Shift partners sometimes talk to try and keep each other awake. But in the dark of early morning, it is far too easy to be silent, lost in your own inner world, dozing off while on watch.
You wait for the sun to finally peek over the horizon – because you know it is going to eventually come – and offer some light to the brand new day.
Waiting is hard work.
It is hard to remain alert and expectant when it is dark or when there does not seem to be much hope for that which is expected.
It is even harder when you do not know the day or the hour when that for which you wait will come to pass.
The sunrise is expected: it happens every day whether we are waiting for it or not.
The Lord’s coming? Who knows?!
This is what we have in our readings this morning: We have people who have grown tired in waiting. Who could blame them?
The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus says:
It is like ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the bridegroom to appear.
They wait, and they wait, and they wait some more.
They wait so long that the oil in their lamps runs out.
Some – they are called the wise – are prepared to wait for a long time and have more oil. Others – they are called the foolish – are not prepared to wait that long and their lamps go out.
Then the bridegroom comes. Those who have thought to bring extra oil go with him; those who have run out of oil are left out.
What are we to make of this?
I must admit to being a little uncomfortable with the idea that being unprepared can result in getting shut out of the bridegroom’s wedding banquet. There are times in life where I have felt more than a little unprepared or ill-equipped for the task at hand and have had to rely on collaboration or cooperation with others. I am sure that you have experienced those moments as well. We all have.
The reverse is equally discomforting. The idea of being like one of the wise bridesmaids who refused to share or cooperate is also an uncomfortable one.
And then there is the bridegroom who says that he does not even know the foolish bridesmaids and shuts them out. How do we understand THAT?
What if the more important part of this parable is something else entirely?
What if it is about that one little line in the middle of the parable: “As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.”
Perhaps the point of this parable is actually about trying to remain alert in the moment – awake, aware, and keeping watch. If we keep our eyes open, keep looking around us at the community we journey with, what will we see?
If we are intentional about our relationships then we will see who amongst us might be running out of oil. What if, right from the beginning, the wise bridesmaids had said to their foolish sisters, “Hey – did you think to bring extra oil? We might be here awhile, maybe you should go and get some more so that you can be ready.” Instead of cultivating relationships with their companions, helping each other out, they all fell asleep waiting.
Life doesn’t always go as planned. The folks in the first century after Jesus’ resurrection were pretty sure that Jesus was going to come back any minute. They were so sure of this that they did not think they would die before Jesus returned.
Two thousand years later, we are still waiting. But that doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep, saying, “We’ve got all the oil we need. We are all prepared.”
Waiting for Jesus’ imminent return is difficult for many of us to understand or entertain. Life happens and we can’t just put that on hold.
But opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us every day if we keep watch:
Each time we work for justice, we reveal the presence of Jesus.
Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we reveal the presence of Jesus.
Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world a better place, we reveal the presence of Jesus.
This is hard work, and we can admit that this kind of waiting, this kind of alertness, this kind of preparation can be hard to sustain. We can grow tired in our work. We can get frustrated by not seeing any outcomes or distracted by all of the obligations that fill up our days. On any given day, we can be the foolish bridesmaid who feels ill-prepared or unequipped. Or we can be either of the bridesmaids who fall asleep.
But this is why we have each other. That is why we have this community where we can find help and support in all the different kinds of waiting that we face each day.
More important than who has the oil is that we as a community have oil. We are those who wait with each other – the wise and the foolish together, helping, encouraging, and sustaining.
We are those who sit awake with and for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement.
We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment.
We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid.
We are those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith.
In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be in the wedding party – then and now.
With much appreciation for the many online commentators who helped me put this together and whose ideas I shamelessly borrowed in a few places.
Karoline Lewis, Matthew L. Skinner, Sharon L. Blezard, and David Lose,