Some years ago, when we were living in Guildford, I was asked to take the evening service in Guildford Uniting Church. It was a dark Autumn night with rain bucketing down and the wind howling outside. Not many turned up for the service at the best of times and that night was the lowest of low attendances. There were six of us, me, the organist and four others, two of which had come because we had arranged to meet there and go for a coffee and a chat afterwards.
The Church, built to hold about 300 was hollow and empty and I remember feeling somewhat put out when I and the elder processed in and found that hardly any of the seats had been taken.
"What is the point" I thought while we sang the first hymn, which sounding shrill and off key. "Whats the point of a handful of die hards coming out at this time of night for this? Half of us are over eighty and come because its what they have always done and the other half is here because they either have a role to play in the service or were going out to meet over a cup of coffee anyway. Wouldnt it have been much easier to just meet over a cup of coffee and forget about heating the Church, lighting it, preparing a sermon and getting an organist to play?"
Gloomy thoughts that didnt lift the Spirit and they didnt really help with the presentation of what I had prepared. My mind was more on the coffee afterwards than on putting some enthusiasm in the proclamation of the gospel .....
Until, shortly after the sermon, a silence fell. Not that we stopped singing or praying or saying things, but there was a silence around that, a special quality to the atmosphere that was quite eerie. As if we were, suddenly, in the eye of something whirling around us. It is very hard to explain unless you have heard it yourself sometime, somewhere. I suddenly heard my voice formulate prayers I had not prepared and when we prayed the Lords prayer together the silence intensified. When we celebrated communion I noticed I was trembling by the time we got to the breaking and sharing of the bread. It was really profoundly odd!
After the benediction I wandered to the door to shake hands with my congregation. Two left, quietly, hardly acknowledging me, leaving me feeling Id seriously screwed up the service. The other two and the organist remained seated. I sat down too.
"That was weird" said one of them after what seemed an eternity to me. "I cant believe what I saw", said the other, with awe in her voice, "I just cant believe what was here." We waited.
"The Church was full" she said, "full with people, all praying and singing with us. I dont know who they were. I didnt know them. I assume they are those who have been here before us, those who have handed down the light to us, who have looked after this place, after our message before we were here to hand it on further".
When I looked up I saw tears glistening on her cheeks: "I felt so downcast when I walked in tonight, sad because of the Church being so empty, of so few coming nowadays and now I know there are many, many more than we can see."
I have never forgotten that service and I probably never will. It had shown me something I had never before understood properly: that there is more to worship than the current community sitting in the pews, but that there is a whole host of others worshipping with and through us. That it is not only us tending the light of Christ today, but that it is generations before us who have tended that light who lend strength to the continued longing for Gods Kingdom on earth to finally take shape.The light of their life adding to ours, fuelling it and giving it extra burning power.
The parable of the bridesmaids is a parable about that: about waiting, about faithfulness, about tending a flame even if the night gets dark and the outside storms are raging, about keeping our hearts and minds open and ready to receive the bridegroom at any minute, even if we feel increasingly desperate about him turning up.
Why bother? We might as well go to sleep. Who cares if the light goes out?
He has given us that light to tend, he has asked us to nurture love, and peace and healing in a world that needs it while we wait for the fulness of time to come. Faithfully.
That light that has been handed on to us through the ages, by people we know and by people we dont know. Some of them have passed away long ago, some are still with us, but all are part of that host which is keeping Gods light burning in this world.
Those ancient oil lamps were not easy to keep going. They needed constant and very vigilant attention. The wick needed trimming all the time, they didnt hold much oil, so refills were needed regularly as well.
Is it worth it? Wouldnt it be easier to go for a cup of coffee and forget about worship, about Church, about the gospel, about the long history of saints who have gone before us and join others who have given up on the waiting? Why bother? What difference can a handful of stubborn fools make?
"Let us not fall asleep" says Paul, "let us not fall asleep and give in to the night, like so many others, but keep awake and alert".
Sometimes there doesnt seem to be much point in keeping faithful and tending to the light of faith in our life and our world. Why bother? is a legitimate question to ask in a time where the Church as we know it seems to be dying. In a time where it is no longer clear what it means to be light bearers and witnesses to the gospel. Who cares? What difference can we make?
We wait in the night, uncertain of what is to come, a handful huddled together against the storm, tending our lights, faithfully waiting, handing on the light we received, the love we received, the light we received, so others can join the host of people who have, over the ages born the image of Christ in their hearts and hands. Who joined Christ on his journey through this world and its history. Some times there have been many lights, burning brightly, some times there have been only a few, flickering. But it is only because of the faithfulness of so many that the light is still burning, loving, healing and caring in this world. Amen.