by the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple
Do you ever find yourself taken up short by a signal of a change in the season?
There’s that day in September when the humidity vanishes for a moment; the dirty haze disappears to reveal that crystal blue Carolina sky and you, ummmm, fall is coming. There’s that night temperature drops to just around freezing and you realize bulb planting season will arrive soon.
And what about those movements that signal a change in the seasons of life?
You know, like when your parents left you home alone with no babysitter.
That first time your parents gave you the keys to the family car? When the AARP card arrives on your 50th birthday and you laugh and cry, “wait, I am too young for this” but, then you see the discounts and think, well, hummm, those are attractive discounts.
These events are like advance warning systems – life is changing, get ready.
They tell tease us out of a business as usual moment and allow us to consider “what do I need to be doing now, to get ready for what’s coming next?” The lectionary for our prayers and readings on Sundays has similar moments. One season has a way of forewarning, maybe foreshadowing what’s about to come next. Like today’s readings for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost. Otherwise known as Ordinary Time. Or the season of green altar hangings and green stoles.
[Let me pause for just a second on the notion of Ordinary Time. Well, there is hardly anything that has been ordinary about time since the arrival of the pandemic, right? What a strange Easter we had. Being in lockdown on Holy Week was strangely appropriate, but Easter Sunday? Well, yes and no. Maybe the most recent Easter was actually more like that first Easter: disciples huddled behind closed doors.
What a strange Feast of Pentecost – but we did it. Speaking in the new and strange tongues of zoom, online worship, live streaming, spiritual communion. What extraordinary lengths we have gone to, in order to be a community of saints who love one another, treasure the lives of one another and strive to seek and serve and preserve the dignity of one another – friends and strangers. So – as one friend puts it, we are worshiping in Ordinary Time in anything but normal circumstances.]
But there’s a shift in the liturgical season in the air for us right now, isn’t there? And, no, I am not referring to Thanksgiving and Christmas – though signs of those occasions are certainly now appearing in all the ads and marketing venues.
So called Ordinary Time is coming to an end. We are moving toward its climatic ending on Christ the King Sunday in a couple of weeks. There’s the hint of something new coming and it’s clearly embedded in the propers – that is, the collect and lessons appointed for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost.
The collect speaks of the Return on the King, the Second Coming of Jesus, and how we are to prepare for it. That sounds like it should be an Advent kind of theme. But this is ordinary time –right. The Gospel lesson is about the return of the bridegroom for the celebration and consummation of a new relationship, long in the making – and how we as the aspiring attendants to the guest of honor are to wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it.
I think this parable – and the ones to come leading up to the grand conclusion with Chapter 24 of the king sitting on this throne – separating the sheep from the goats is is a clever reminder that living in the in-between times is not something we only recall during advent – but is true at all times and in all places. To keep our lamps trimmed and burning is the ordinary work that keeps us prepared when all the extraordinary seasons – pandemics, hurricanes, economic recessions – arrive.
How interesting that Jesus has left us with a parable about what to do in the in between times. And it’s not a comfortable parable in the least. We could blow this waiting game. We could miss the opportunity coming right around the corner to greet Jesus. It might be the “end times.” Kind of a scary thought. But more likely an extraordinary opportunity to meet Jesus in an unlikely ordinary life moment.
We are living in the between times in so many ways, right? We live and move and work and rest during the span of time between the departure of Jesus and his return. For now, during the in between times, Jesus reigns over our lives from a heavenly dimension of time and space. Invisible except to the eyes of faith. Unknown except in the breaking of the bread, the eyes of a stranger, and in the depths of our souls in prayer.
Seasons don’t arrive just at the expected hour on the expected day on the day of a calendar. They sneak up on you, they beckon in the distance and then feel like they crash through your door. Like a slow motion movie that suddenly jumps ahead. It’s how you can be sitting here at your child’s confirmation, a significant move into a new season of Christian discipleship, and a parent thinks – didn’t we just baptize you yesterday? No, technically, its not Advent, and yet, don’t we need to know now, more than ever, the spiritual practices of inviting our hopes for the future – hopes for justice for all, mercy for all, humility, tenderness, into our present reality? How do we weave our dreams and visions of the kingdom of God into our daily practices?
What does it look like to “keep our lamps trimmed and burning” – as the old hymn puts it? It looks like finding time for daily prayers and mediation. It means a ruthless inventory of how can I share more and need less. It means asking what assumptions, prejudices, false teachings do I need to discard.
Today’s collect reminds us of a great truth even if the language makes us/me a little uncomfortable. This world is a mess. The works of the devil- which is a way of speaking about the power of evil – are afoot. It’s active. It’s sneaky and subtle. And I absolutely do not mean anything partisan or political about that. But I do believe there are forces of evil that use situations to create havoc and sew dissension and division. I do believe that there are forces – kind of like viruses – that infect our thinking so much so as to obscure the truth of the Gospel message.
Evil creates a fog of fear where there should be trust.
Evil fans suspicions where there could be just curiosity.
Evil infects us with greed and selfishness where there could be generosity and sacrifice.
Evil quietly, insidiously sows hate where God would have us cultivate love.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning means don’t stand around passively. It means there are everyday practices that prepare us for that majestic time when the Light of the World returns in a decisive way. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning means your little lamp can be in use this very moment to light a path of faith, hope and love. Want to be ready to meet the Lord in a future sense? Then be ready to meet him today, every ordinary day, even if incompletely, imperfectly, inconveniently. Because, after all, it is only by grace and through grace we meet our Lord. Now and forever. Amen.