Church is a very rhythmic place with predictable seasons and scripture, celebrations and remembrances. November 12 is one of the last Sundays in the church season called ordinary time. Seasons are funny things – not just the unpredictable weather of North Texas, but the leaning that we tend to do toward the exciting seasons. All of our stores and malls have already moved on to the Christmas season. Most of us already have well-planned Thanksgiving agendas. What do we do in these big stretches of time between the feasts? How do we spend our ordinary time?
What does that word ‘ordinary’ mean anyway? What defines ordinary for you? Is ordinary the routine days between excitement? Is it the time when we are called upon to be patient in waiting for the next thing that is exciting or meaningful? Is it the dull stretches between holidays and vacations while we are waiting for that next event or get together? Life may certainly feel that way, but in church world, the Ordinary Time is to be one of preparation and readiness. And, that is what today’s parable is all about. The church in Matthew’s time did not expect to go back to their ordinary – they were anticipating Christ’s return any day. They couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t already occurred. Matthew writes several parables in a group in this part of the gospel all about the Kingdom and our readiness to enter the Kingdom.
Today’s parable is especially challenging for many of us. Ten virgins – bridesmaids who would have been between the ages of 10 and 13 are waiting for the bridegroom to return for the wedding feast. For this to occur at night was normal, but the delay to midnight was unexpected. Five of the bridesmaids were not prepared for the wait and get left out of the festivities. This is challenging to us because if taken too literally or broken into pieces, it can sound like a God who is represented by the bridegroom is harshly slamming the door in the face of foolish teenagers. Expecting teenagers to be prepared ahead for an unexpected wait. Having my own teenager at home or even thinking of my own frantic routine, this seems like a lack of preparation that could all too easily happen to a majority of us.
To find meaning in this Matthew text, I feel that we need to move past trying to match the parable literally and pick apart the roles. And instead look to what should we be doing in the waiting. Waiting is our ordinary, but after more than 2000 years, we are not so good at being aware.
What is our ordinary that we are aware of? For me as a guest pastor, one of the things I get asked is if I can re-use sermons since it is a completely different congregation from week to week. My response is no because so much of a message relies on context – what is going on in the life of the community or nation. Unfortunately, large parts of my last sermon could be re-used this week because our context in the new ordinary is recurring with horrible frequency. My last sermon was the week of the Vegas shooting, and this week another tragic shooting, but closer to home. Looking at the news reports, our normal seems too often dismal – not at all what I pray for ordinary to be.
I woke up Saturday morning, and I was pondering normal when I heard an ominous rumbling. My heartbeat quickened, and I was a bit afraid before I remembered that it was Veterans Day. This was likely an airshow that brought planes over my house at lower than normal levels – older planes or military versions that made more noise. For those of you who are old enough to remember, before 9/11, planes were very common. Our air traffic was congested and frequent. On the day of 9/11, I remember an eerie feeling beyond the devastation of the day’s events. The sky seemed too quiet. This wasn’t ordinary. We were used to planes, helicopters – private and commercial. The skies were full. Those few weeks of total lock-down were too quiet. Over time, I don’t think that we have gone back to the same level of traffic in our skies, but we have a new norm. We adjust to the ordinary and are only tuned in if something differs. We move back to our routine.
A heavy part of my routine is social media. I am a social media junkie – spending crazy amounts of time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. One of the memes that I have seen and even that was picked up on by the PC (USA) clerk was the idea that ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ are not enough. While I get the concept, I find this horribly troubling. I think that what is meant is that action is needed. Indeed – Pope Francis says, “We pray for the hungry, then we feed them – that is how it works.” Popular media has warped the idea of prayer – prayer has become either an acceptable platitude where if you say you will keep someone in your prayers, it is simply an excuse to do nothing else. Or, praying is seen as all that can be done because if we pray properly – God will grant us our dearest wish like some magic genie in the sky.
I want to argue that prayer is enough, but prayer encompasses our actions and our thoughts – not just words and platitudes. Prayer is how we are in relationship with God. God truly desires relationship with us. A colleague at presbytery describe it well – prayer is how we get all intertwined with God. Prayer is inviting God into your life, into your very being to become a transformed person.
As such, it is simply impossible to separate what we feel called to do from our prayers. We can’t keep our actions in one bucket and our prayers isolated from our lives. Prayer should be what ordinary is all about. And, we should not let ordinary prayer be defined by society. Christ is counter cultural often expecting the opposite of what our society expects.
Ordinary time is the time when we are charged to prepare the kingdom here on earth for the coming of Christ. That coming at a time that is not known to us. The best comparison that I read this week was that the oil in the lamps of the bridesmaids in today’s parable is the Holy Spirit. If we are actively engaging God in our ordinary, we will be welcomed in to the extraordinary. The Holy Spirit fills our lamps and brings light to our darkness. The darkness that otherwise might overwhelm us instead demands our thoughts and prayers in order to overcome. Oversimplifying that these are not enough is selling them short.
Genuine prayers will include a response. How are we waiting? How are we using our talents as part of the body – each with a different and unique gift called to be used toward God’s Kingdom. If you think of our Thanksgiving feast, very few people are just called to come celebrate – most of us are called to prepare, to contribute. Everybody has a unique time and role in which he or she is called to serve.
For some this may mean serving to protect others as those who we honor with Veterans Day willing to lay down their lives to protect the weak and stand up for others. For each it is something different – teaching, building, helping or offering kind words, a shoulder in support or sitting together in times of grief. The gifts that make up the body of Christ are boundless and all equally needed. The Holy Spirit moves through each of us in different ways empowering and expanding what we alone would be able to be and do.
What are we to do in this ordinary time? How do we make sure that our lamps are full? For me, the words of Micah are summarize well when asked what God requires of us: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
It is easy to get into the routine of our daily lives and forget that there is something amazing that we are a part of today. Even when the amazing seems hard to remember or we feel that we are in a position of helplessness, I keep these words from Micah in mind.
It is easy to bail because we feel small and like we can’t make a difference. It is easy to get into the ruts of day-to-day drudgery of chores, work or school. But all we have to do is invite the Holy Spirit in, and our lamps will be full. Patience has certainly never been my strong suit, but I don’t imagine that these bridesmaids just sat around with no preparation before that night for the wedding feast. And yet, even in this parable, they all fell asleep. An unrealistic diligence with no rest is not what is required either. As we begin to lean into the season of Advent and Christmas, what will our prayers look like? As we are intertwined with the Holy Spirit in a relationship that breathes new life into us, we are empowered in ways that might surprise and amaze us. In a world where we feel helpless and overwhelmed too often as the new norm, small actions, prayers and deeds add up to a true display of the Kingdom in our Midst.
God desires a relationship with you – to walk alongside us and share in our joys and sorrows. God desires us to pray without ceasing – with words and deeds. One of the great ends of the church is the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Building the kingdom in the here and now. We do this through loving justice, showing mercy and walking humbly with our God. And, we pray constantly. That is how we are prepared – that should be our ordinary.
'We pray for the hungry, and then we feed them' – that IS how it works. Amen.