Remembrance Day Service – 10am service – Revd Sally Bedborough
Today, we will hear two distinctive notes of music. What we know as the Last Post. Most of us hear these particular notes played in this distinctive way on this one day of the year: Remembrance Day and in the festivals surrounding the marking of this day. Occasionally, the Last Post is played at a funeral, especially the funeral of a military person. And indeed, if you are familiar with life in the military, you would have heard the Last Post every evening as this is the bugle call that signifies the end of the day’s activities.
The Last Post is one of a number of bugle calls in military tradition that mark the phases of the day; in a similar fashion, Reveille, is the signal that starts the soldiers’ day.
So we have in this music, ‘punctuation marks’ for the end of the day and for the day’s beginning. The first call is a kind of ‘time out’, an ending; the second a call to begin. Both herald a need to be ready.
Our gospel reading describes the kingdom of heaven, and we notice the themes of time and of readiness within time. The ten bridesmaids are about to meet the bridegroom, but there is a clear difference in their state of readiness. The clever ones bring a back up bottle of oil; the not so clever ones do not. Time goes on, and at midnight, they hear a shout. This is a signal to get up and get ready – a bit like Reveille. That shout is music to the ears of the wise women – they look to their lamps, they’ve grown dim and they need to be replenished with oil, so they reach for the reserves they have thoughtfully brought with them. The less wise women scrabble for more oil but the wise ones won’t share; so the dim ones have to go to the dealers and buy some more. While they are gone, the bridegroom arrives and the party begins. The less wise ones turn up late and are denied entrance.
The big challenge in this story is that life is not predictable.
All ten of the bridesmaids are prepared for the party. It is the delay of the bridegroom that causes the problem. All ten set out fully prepared, as they thought; but isn’t it just like life to throw up the unexpected. Humanly speaking we anticipate the future, we lay our plans, we make our assumptions, we expect life to be, and to progress, according to a certain pattern. But life has a habit of getting disorganised and messy. As the great bible teacher Oswald Chambers often said: ‘Life is more tragic than orderly’. This is a truth, never more apparent in these times when again we find our lives constrained within a different pattern from the one we imagined. Surely, we said a few months ago, ‘all this’ – meaning the Covid restrictions – would be over and we would have a normal Christmas. I can recall a cartoon in our paper depicting a box office scenario and a person was booking for a Church Christmas Carol Service; the idea seemed preposterous at the time; sadly it may become a reality for us this year.
Life does not go according to orderly, expected patterns. Like the rest of life, it is flawed – sometimes to a heartbreaking and devastating extent. Are we ready for the unknown curve balls that come our way? There is no way of knowing because that is the nature of this mysterious quality of life. But we can be ready with our flasks and ensure that we have these reserves in hand. This is what the wise women do. They may be considered too cautious and careful. I wonder if the less wise women scoffed at them for being over-prepared. But it paid off. How can we learn from them?
Let’s consider this oil.
First, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Just last Sunday we read of Jacob pouring anointing oil onto a stone of all things. He made that stone special and holy, in order to return to it in memory or in deed, because it was there as a new chapter in his life. And anytime we use anointing oil – whether for the anointing of the sick and the dying, or in baptism, confirmation, ordination of priests, consecration of objects or dedication of buildings – we remember the oil is a symbol for the making holy of ordinary objects and people. Most often the anointing oil heralds a new role or chapter in the life of that person or object, or building. A Reveille, a new day.
Secondly, this oil doesn’t ‘go off’ – there is no sell by date to this oil. Unlike the bread for today that we are urged to ask for in the prayer that Jesus teaches us, oil can be held in reserve. All the goodness that we have learned in our formative years, comes with us and can be a reservoir for us in difficult times. We are to reach back to the goodness of life, including bible verses, words of prayers and hymns that we can remember. Including the words and the ways of people we have known; these can continue to enrich us even when those people are no longer in our lives. We each have resources from our past - these can help to see us through difficult times.
Thirdly, the oil cannot be shared; it is ours alone. That’s quite difficult. In the face of the generosity of God to which Jesus introduces us, to read that the ones with the oil don’t give just a bit of their supply to the other, seems out of kilter with the gospel of Christ. But they don’t. Oil, it seems, is not for sharing. But I wonder if we are right to think that this holy oil can be increased and added to? I think not. If we have Christ – the name means Anointed One – then we have all the oil we will ever need. Any ‘adding to’ will involve sitting at his feet and listening to, and learning from, him.
The end of the day will come and will we be ready? On this Remembrance Sunday, we honour those whose lives have come to their end in wars or as a consequence of war. But we give thanks for a new day – the reveille – of all that we have learned through wars and conflicts. Keeping these lives and lessons as our reservoir, we are urged to continue the efforts towards peace and harmony between nations and peoples. May peace begin with each one of us.
The ends of our ways, as we’ve lived them, and the end of our days will come at some point in the future as well. But we have the oil of the spirit if we belong to Christ, who is himself the anointed one. By attending to Jesus in all our ways – our worship, our personal prayer life, our everyday lives – our flasks are filled; we will be ready; we just have to notice and live in the light of Jesus’ dedication and consecration of our lives. In that way we will join the party and welcome a new day. Amen.