The World Needs People Who Will STOP

Texts: Amos 5: 18-24; Matthew 25: 1-13

I thought this sermon was going to be about urgency … about getting on with what we so need to be about for the sake of life on the planet, for the sake of the Earth herself. I thought it was going to sound the warning that “time’s up” or very nearly so … that there comes a point when it’s just too late to do it differently.

Why did I think the sermon was headed that way?
Well, if we’re at all paying attention, there are signs aplenty of the world in crisis --the disruption of the Earth’s climate being a big one. And not at all unrelated, and blaring at us all the more this weekend, is the destructiveness of our continual feeding of the war machine.

Why did I think this sermon was going to be about urgency?
Well there’s all of that … and then, there is the bible … with these passages in particular that are given to us for this Sunday.  You heard it, didn’t you … that shrill note of warning.

I know I’m not alone in kind of choking on the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. But then I came upon a piece by Liz Milner[1] that brought something altogether fresh to light. Remembering the advice of her seminary professor to look at a passage in its context before zeroing in on an especially troubling aspect, she takes some time to attend to the narrative that surrounds this parable … and with that in view, she begins to hear a surprisingly different message than what it seemed at first.

A first thing to note is that there would be no drama in this parable if the bridegroom had not been delayed. “The ten maids would all have made it into the party with lamps lit, ready to dance the night away.” But the bridegroom was late. And so the story unfolds around the issue of a delay. This is a big theme in the life of the early church where they anticipated that, very soon, Christ would come again and they would see God’s dream for the life of the world in all its fullness.
So the dynamic at the heart of the parable is about how we respond to this delay. Even now, we have yet to see the fullness of that dream. Liz herself admits that as she works with inmates in the county jail, every day hearing stories of injustice, broken lives, addiction, heartbreak, and violence, she is tempted to give up on faith. “Where is God? Why is God leaving us so long in this dark night, she asks, “where the oil seems to be burning low? Might we be tempted to react with fear … Leave our posts, fleeing the darkness, and rush to another source to keep our light glowing just a little bit longer?”

The final line of the parable admonishes us to “stay awake,” as though the five foolish bridesmaids were in some way asleep. And yet in the story all 10 of them slept. Sleeping was not the problem, but rather the fact that five of them left the room to replenish supplies. The Greek words used for “stay awake” can also be interpreted to mean “stay alert, engaged, for there is a task to do.”

In what way did the five foolish maids lose focus and fail to be alert to the situation? It is here that the stories surrounding this parable help to shed some light. Drawing from those, Liz wonders:
Could it be that it is the maids’ fear of the groom’s reaction to them that causes them to flee to the town?
Could it be that waiting in the darkness, even if their lights had gone out would have been a more faithful way to stay engaged with the task that was theirs?
If Jesus is to be found amongst the naked, hungry, thirsty, and criminal, could it be that he would respond with compassion to the five maids who might come trembling before him confessing they had run out of oil?
We will never know, since those five fled rather than risk waiting on the groom. And yet it seems so much of Jesus’ teaching and ministry reveals it would be better to stay in the darkness rather than flee the scene for fear of being found wanting. …

So maybe these 5 are called foolish not because they were ill prepared.
Maybe their foolishness is the unnecessary fear that caused them to flee, instead of remaining in the darkness and throwing themselves on the mercy of the coming groom.
But the truth is, it is hard to wait with faith in darkness, knowing our own resources have run out.

I can’t help but think of my own experience of a particular time when my resources ran out … all my life energy was spent … ‘burn out’ we call it (which is interesting in light of the imagery of this parable).  I truly had nothing left … so all I was able to do was sit and rest. Not knowing if I would ever experience any sense of vitality again. There were days and weeks and months of doing nothing. And while at first I remember it was pretty unnerving, I came to settle into a kind of watchfulness, for it seemed to me if there was going to be any renewal in my being it would be a gift given … not my doing but the Spirit’s work in me. I was greatly helped one day when I came upon the reminder that was out of the void that God called the whole creation into being; and on another day reading “mercy isn’t a single act, but the sea in which we swim.” It was gifts like these that allowed me to open my heart in the darkness of uncertainty, trusting that somehow God’s life-giving goodness was at work.
It was a time of remarkable receptivity … it happened to be Spring … and from my study window at home, I watched a camellia bush come into blossom … from one day to the next, I actually saw the gradual opening of tightly bound buds becoming pink open-faced beauties.
In this great slowing down time, I came to hear the voice of my own soul ... hear its wisdom, its compassion, its searing honesty. Into my utter emptiness came all these gifts … none of them generated by me. I can’t tell you when it happened because there really was no identifiable “when” … there was just this gradual, almost imperceptible renewing of my whole being.

So here’s what I wonder: it seems to me that as Earth’s people we are nearing this place of defeat. For all we are aware of the massive destructiveness of global warming, we’re not winning … at least not fast enough. In this particular time of darkness we are found wanting. So what would it be for us to stay where we are … not to flee the darkness, get distracted, not give way to fear … but calling on all the resources of our faith, bear the discomfort of being exactly where we are, opening our hearts, our ears, our eyes, to perceive God’s life-giving goodness at work.

Our world, the Earth herself, so needs people who will STOP.
It’s not about being passive, or shutting down, but a kind of stopping that allows for a deep attentiveness, a careful attuning to the Holy.
What I’m describing is in fact what is envisioned for us through the practice of Sabbath-keeping. Stop producing. Stop consuming. Stop the busyness. Stop in order to receive the gift of a great spaciousness in which to see and to savour. Stop in order to notice and to delight in the wonder of God’s creation. Stop in order to make time for one another … to sit down and eat together, to care for and celebrate with each other. A whole day, one in seven, week in, week out … it would be enough for us to taste and see, to fall in love with the Earth and one another, and so commit to another way of being in the world. In this great slowing down time, what gifts might we receive … what inspiration, what life-giving energy, what wisdom might we receive from God who so loves this world?
Our world so needs people who will stop … and throw themselves on the mercy of God’s inexhaustible love.

I guess it turns out that this sermon is about urgency after all … urgency of a different kind … for in those words of Denise Levertov [2]

We have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
-- so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
-- we have only begun to imagine justice and mercy ...

We have only begun
to know the power that is in us
if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture.
So much is in bud.

[1] Fresh thoughts on Matthew 25: 1-13 with thanks to Liz Milner, “My Bad Dream,” posted on Journey with Jesus, November 5, 2017,

[2] Denise Levertov, "Beginners," published in Candles in Babylon, by New Directions Publishers, 1982.