Matthew 25:1-13 Sometimes we wait in darkness Reflection by Mart the Rev
Last weekend The Village hosted a small workshop where Dunedin singer Malcolm Gordon led some reflections and songs on grief and lament. It was a rich time. It became obvious very early on that among the small group who gathered were some pretty wounded people who had come along seeking solace. People from two unrelated families were trying to handle the aftermath of their children taking their own lives within the last few years and another person was still trying to attend to the loss of a child who accidentally overdosed twenty years ago. Another person was still struggling with the depression that came on from his brother’s death in a car accident many years ago. These poor people were so loaded up with grief, but remarkably they were people who were hanging in there faith-wise, even though the church was often ill-equipped to help them bear their burdens.
The richness was in Malcolm’s drawing on the lament psalms in the Bible and how their presence in the scriptures legitimises the experiences of those who struggle with various forms of darkness in their lives. The great sadness was how that lament tradition has been quite poor in the life and worship of the church. How often do we minimise or even negate the pain people hold in the way we do worship? Malcolm identified how this has been a pattern for many centuries. The Presbyterian Scottish Psalter, the hymn book of weekly sung Psalms, has a lovely version of Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is the one that has the words Jesus cried out from on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The early part of that psalm has a raw and bleak edge to it where the writer lets it all hang out. Later, as the psalm progresses, there is a more hopeful tone. In the Scottish Psalter, the only verses used are those hopeful ones. It is as if we are being taught that we are not allowed to give voice to the pain and the darkness in life, as if that is not to be named before anyone, let alone God. It is as if we believe God can’t handle it! Isn’t that strange? Actually, maybe it isn’t strange – isn’t that how most if not all of us have been brought up? We’re to hold the pain within, we’re not to express our anguish and our anger, we’re to press it inwards…we’re to depress it… and in so doing we lose our words for it, we bottle it up, and it finds another outlet in bursts of anger, in hidden weeping, in our bodies which get all knotted up, and in sometimes in a struggle to maintain functional relationships.
I remember an experience I had in Gore when I was minister there in the 90’s – one Sunday the student minister working with me conducted the service and I was able to sit in the congregation for the first time. In celebration of this opportunity I positioned myself three quarters of the way back, right in the middle of the people. What amazed me were the tears. I had been aware that sometimes there was some reaction to things but I hadn’t sensed the degree of it, and the gentle rightness of it. The tears were present and acceptable and kind of beautiful. I remember later thinking about the dynamics of this large congregation – there were, on an average Sunday, 165 widows at worship! I observed that the Sunday hour was able to be a space when they seemed to have found the freedom to attend to their losses and loneliness. After that experience I was careful to leave room in the service for the sorrows people carried. Times of silence in the prayers, room for remembering, acknowledgement of loved ones no longer with us, the communion of saints, and so on.
One of the songs Malcolm led us through last week had these very simple words: ‘Something beautiful comes to an end. A closing chapter, a loss we can’t mend. We wonder will the sun rise again? We wait in this darkness for you. We wait. We wait for you. Something beautiful comes to an end. We wonder, will the sun rise again? We wait in darkness for you.’ I want to take that line into the way we interpret the parable for today – ‘we wait in darkness for you.’
Let’s be clear, this is an odd kind of parable. Having ten bridesmaids is odd – can’t you imagine the tensions involved in getting their hair and dresses and flowers all in sync? Who would want to be in the house when they were getting themselves ready? Men, run a mile! And, how will they all fit in the photos?
There are other oddities – like, the late hour of the wedding, the bridegroom being the host as well as the one to welcome or turn away. Maybe the strangest part is the reaction when they heard that he was finally arriving. The strangeness is not the unwillingness of the ‘wise’ five to share their oil – isn’t such clinging a deeply ingrained part of human behaviour?! We see such meanness in all walks of life – even in the church where there can be quite an ‘I’m in, you’re out’ tone. Those who seem to have it all together can indeed have a cultivated tone of ‘I told you so’ about them! So no surprises there! No, the strangeness is that the foolish five run off to purchase more oil. They missed the bridegroom and they missed out. Why didn’t they wait in hope that he would be gracious towards them in their predicament? Who suggested they run away? Why did they fear him? I think that we are to see the bridegroom as being the Christ-figure in the parable, it is hard to fathom what the parable would be about if we didn’t see it that way. So why the fear of disappointing him? Isn’t it clear what he is like? Doesn’t he stand beside those who are weak and humble? Why didn’t they trust his grace?
Have you had times of wrestling in the darkness? Have you ever got to point where you haven’t got anything left? Have there been times when your light has gone dim and is simply not working well enough when the darkness comes? How do you understand God in these moments? I’ve heard people express their disappointment in God – as if God was only a fair-weather friend, as if their faith and trust was built on a transaction where God has to deliver a lovely care-free life in exchange for their faithfulness. The disappointment in God is when bad things happen to them and they find that they have been splashing around way too long in a far too shallow pool, and they haven’t learned to swim in the depths. I wonder if there is quite a lot of shallow-water living in modern people’s lives, and with that comes sizeable discouragement when calamity comes. I’ve met people who dart off to get more oil in their lamps to maintain the flame as they think they are meant to have it; they don’t want to be seen to ever get caught out or unprepared! I’ve met plenty of others who simply walk away because they have no capacity to handle a God who behaves differently than a benevolent Father Christmas-type God from their Sunday School years who only showers them with good things.
How about waiting in darkness? How about trusting the darkness? How about even befriending the darkness? I know it is easy to say these phrases and quite another thing to live in them when it is you who is up against it. But I think that that was what Malcolm Gordon was offering as part of the treasure-trove of the lament and grief Psalms – there is room for the darkness to be named and entered and trusted, because the kind of God we have is not one who abandons us or stands over us as an angry judge in a court of law. Also, we don’t have to prove ourselves by running off when our lamps go dim and thinking that we have to have it all together when he comes to meet us. Isn’t God more of a loving father, good shepherd, and coin hunting widow than a stern, forbidding, angry, ledger-balancing master? Isn’t God ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’? [Psalm 103:8]
There’s a playful, but kind of revealing greeting card that someone with a twinkle in his eye once sent me – on the front was a message: ‘Jesus is coming, look busy!’ It is funny, and also sad, in that the reason it is funny is because of how many people actually live as if they believe they have to prove something to God lest God will judge them and dismiss them. In their fear I wonder if they don’t really get to know God, thus, like the bridesmaids in the parable, they run off to purchase oil because they think they have to have maintained a certain look. But that doesn’t stack up with the witness of Jesus.
‘Something beautiful comes to an end. A closing chapter, a loss we can’t mend. We wonder will the sun rise again? We wait in this darkness for you.’
When darkness comes (when, not if!), when we struggle and wrestle with that which comes our way in the night, we are to wait in the darkness and trust. We don’t have to prove ourselves by looking busy or getting all tied up in the business of thinking we have to save ourselves by what we have to do. Thinking we have to do that is the foolishness!