A colleague once shared a story about hosting an Eastern Orthodox Bishop for a joint worship gathering in Montreal at the chapel at McGill University, where I also studied. I was unable to attend, but I remember him saying that burning incense was a big part of Orthodox tradition and so a thurible was prepared for the occasion. A thurible is what is used to burn incense in Christian liturgy. Think of the psalmist’s refrain: “my prayer rises before you like incense.” My friend was to serve as the thurifer, the one who shares incense with the people. Except something went wrong. There was incense but no coals to burn the incense. Not wanting to delay any longer they simply took the thurible, which was very much not burning incense, and went though the ritual motions of censing the people, although there was no smoke and no smell. It was a bit like serving communion with no bread and an empty cup. Perhaps today with worship livestream they could have gotten away with it, people would not have noticed as much viewing at home. However, the Eastern Orthodox friends must have been very aware there in fact was no incense, but no one said anything. Everyone understood the gesture, trying to include the guests’ worship practice. It is the thought that counts, despite the feeling of disappointment of the worship planners.
The lack of coals to burn the incense reminds me of the five bridesmaids in the gospel reading who didn’t bring oil. An important element was missing, but they did show up with a lantern. Reverend Daniel Brereton, an Anglican priest in Toronto, tweeted whether we give these five bridesmaids too hard a time. The parable divides them between the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids, but what if the foolish decision is to leave to look for more oil? What if the they had simply stayed and met the groom in the darkness? On this read the critique is more that they panicked rather than simply that they were unprepared.
Thinking of my friend in Montreal, it would have been far worse had they cancelled the joint worship, rather than proceeding without the burning incense. It is never explained why the five bridesmaids who have oil do not share what they have with the others. Perhaps there was not enough to share.
This parable resonates with us today because many of us feel like the five bridesmaids who are low on oil. We hear people say fairly regularly they just don’t have the reserves of energy given a six month pandemic. There has also been the stress of the US election, which has now been decided and many of us feel a sense of relief.
Some friends in the US, especially people of colour and queer folks, are afraid we feel so much relief, we are just going to go back to sleep. We received a top up on oil, so we’re good now. It doesn’t matter that some of our neighbours are still waiting to receive any. Neighbours who still struggle with voter suppression or who live in Trump-friendly neighbourhoods in which Black and queer folks fear backlash and reprisal with Trump losing. It’s hard to remember a more bitterly fought election in recent history. And the acrimony is far from over.
I read one account in the New York Times of a twenty-six-yearly old white man who still envisions the Trump family beginning a twenty year reign as head of state. That perhaps the country would be split in two and one half ruled by Trump and his children, while the other half of the country engage in democratic elections. These kinds of sentiments are not going away anytime soon. And not that the way forward is to appease white folks who want authoritarian rule in order to trample on the rights of queer folks, women, immigrants, and refugees.
But rather the question is how collectively do we find a way forward both for folks in the US and also those of us in Canada and the rest of the world. I know people who would entertain this young man’s idea here in Canada. People who would rather have a strong man authoritarian ruler who represents their values, than a democratically elected leader who represents different values. We see it in the anti-science comments among Canadians who are anti-maskers, who think we are denying people freedom asking them to follow Covid protocols.
However, I think there is a way forward together. But that way forward is not going to come through partisan politics. It’s not going to come through ideology. It’s not going to come simply by meeting in the middle between hate and love. Instead as a church we are in a unique position to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ that is not wedded to political ideology.
Individually as Christians we all need to vote for who we best think will make the world a better place.
Collectively we engage in politics as Christians as the body of Christ, seeking to bring justice and love to people on the margins and liberate the oppressed. That frees us to criticize and hold accountable any political party who is in power. For example this gives freedom to the Truth and Reconciliation committee to hold governments and nation accountable for the treatment of the Wet’suwet’en in BC and Mi’kmaw in Nova Scotia. We might have different partisan leanings as individuals, but collectively as a congregation, we witness to uphold Jesus’ love in the world.
At times we lament the diminished role of church in society, and it is okay to mourn a way of being church that has declined, but we shouldn’t miss the incredible opportunity that is at our doorstep. We are called to go out in the world, both immediate neighbourhoods, and the on-line neighbourhood, and share Jesus’ love in concrete ways. There are so many people hungry to hear about this good news, sometimes we’re surprised people find us and say, “I’ve been looking for a church like this for awhile.” We ought to be proud of this shared ministry, trusting the Spirit is at work in our midst.
And we do this work EVEN THOUGH we feel like the five bridesmaids whose lamps are empty. We wonder whether we have enough to give because we feel tired and sometimes a little beaten down by a pandemic and by life. The answer is a resounding YES. What we have to give is enough. Even if we need time for rest, even if we need to step back and care for family and ourselves, our gifts and our prayers matter.
This is grace and right now we all need more grace in our lives. We’re all beating ourselves up for not doing more, for not having more energy, for not being more on top of things. And yet even in the gospel parable there is grace. Commentator Dirk Lange notes that traditionally the bridal party would venture to the groom’s home, but in the parable the groom shows up unexpectedly where the bridal party are staying. This reversal is consistent with what we know about God’s grace. God meets us where we are. Christ meets us where we are, rather than waiting for us to journey somewhere else.
Know that is true for us in our lives. God has already come to us, already sitting with us, mourning with us, celebrating with us, being anxious together with us. Jesus is here with us, alongside us, lifting us up, being with us no matter how we feel. Let us receive this grace and not feel guilty about receiving this gift.
And let us share this gift with one another. Understanding things will not function as per usual in a pandemic. Sometimes we try to will things back to the way they were before March. Instead God is preparing us for a different way of being awake with one another. We’re going to have a lot of chances to talk about waiting and watchfulness as we prepare for the Advent season. For now let’s just say it’s okay if you need a nap. It’s okay if you need to rest. We’ll wake you up when Jesus returns. We’re not going to leave you asleep.
Wrapping up, I want you to think about all the times you’ve raised an empty glass at a gathering. We’ve all done this. Someone calls for a toast and our glass is empty. We don’t want to interrupt and walk across the room or ask someone to fill our glass. So we raise our empty glass. We might even clink it with people near us. Maybe we even pretend to take a sip. Have you done this? I know I have and it’s a bit ridiculous. Like we’re playing tea party with kids but everything is just made of air.
It’s okay if you’re raising your empty glass in a toast. We don’t have to leave the party and go to the store because we didn’t bring a beverage. We can admit our glass is empty and it will be enough because God’s love is enough for us. Amen.