Extraordinary Worship During Ordinary Time
We have a large chestnut tree in our backyard. In early spring its blossoms push their way out in profusion. During a few warm days in May its leaves seem to jump out overnight. Soon there's a jumble of twigs, branches, and leaves in teeming disarray. During heavy storms the tree is blown about and battered by the wind. Sometimes the only thing about the tree that seems stable and reliable is the trunk. It remains firm and unshaken—the source that gives connectedness to the twigs, the buds, the leaves, and the fruit, providing continuity from year to year.
The tree reminds me of the church season after the annual Pentecost celebration. From Advent through Pentecost the liturgical year is well defined. We travel through the anticipation of Christ's birth, his nativity and ministry, his suffering and death, his resurrection and ascension, culminating in the sending of his Spirit. And then we come to the double dozen weeks after Pentecost. Even the names we give to the season are a bit vague: Season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time.
And what do we celebrate? Apart from the first week (Trinity Sunday) and the last (Christ the King Sunday), there seems to be no clear theological focus for this season. There's All Saints' Day for those leaning toward Rome, and Reformation Day for those leaning the other way. Thanksgiving is a religious day of sorts. And Sunday School superintendents will remind us that the real beginning of the church year is the start of church school, so we have Education Sunday with commissioning litanies. Dominion Day and Independence Day may prompt patriotic Sundays among the flag wavers. And we can quite easily Christianize Labor Day as well.
The season after Pentecost has a profusion and formlessness that seems like the tree in our backyard. The church and the worship of the church are like the foliage of the tree, and Jesus is the tree trunk. Jesus, the Christ, is the heart, the stem of the diffuse tree. Let's see if the image works.
First, I find the tree image helpful when thinking about the original Pentecost church. Here we see an explosion into languages, races, ethnic groups, countries. And what holds this profusion together is the common source of Christ. Even now, twenty centuries later, with even more twigs and branches giving incredible variety and diffuseness, the trunk remains the common source and power.
Something similar is at work in our worship during the annual season of Pentecost. Look at the options. Even those churches that choose to follow the lectionary have more diversity at this time than in the rest of the year. One year they may choose to follow the Old Testament for a preaching series. The next year they might preach a series from the epistles. Following Cycles A, B, and C, we have a nine-year preaching itinerary that will save any pastor from riding textual hobby horses. But whether preaching on Luke or Malachi, the preacher must always hear the echo of Peter's voice: "Let all Israel [and the rest of us] be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
Other churches engage in mission fests and evangelism extravaganzas during the summer. And, certainly, such mission emphasis follows most naturally after our celebration of Pentecost. But again, Peter's word must ring in our ears and sermons and mission-slide talks: "Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you'" (Acts 3:22). So with other commemorations. Both Mothers' and Fathers' Days focus on Christ's re-creating our families. Labor Day Sunday sermons will remind us that "Whatever you do, whether in word or deed [also our labor deeds], do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:17). The Reformation service does not engage in Rome bashing, but instead celebrates Christ crucified and risen, bringing deliverance and freedom.
The sprawl of the season after Pentecost may seem a bit unruly to tidy liturgists. But we ought to see these twenty-odd weeks as Chaucer's "God's aplenty." During this time we can celebrate the exuberance of Christ's Spirit, feeling the length and breadth of the church as we give thanks for all the saints. We can preach a series on Leviticus and see fulfillment in the risen Christ. We can feel the fragility of our world as we preach earthly stewardship. Through it all Christ is the core that provides cohesion, unity, strength, harmony—shalom.
May your season after Pentecost be a wonderfully ordinary season—a season that leaves you open to the full abundance of the Spirit, to the huge sprawl of the church catholic, to the rich variety of our lives—all centered in the living trunk: Christ the Lord.