Today is the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost, the longest season of the church year.
At one time the church referred to the season of Pentecost as “ordinary” time. From May through the end of November there are no big festivals or celebrations on the church calendar. Just the ordinary day in, day out of church life.
There is a temptation to become bored with ordinary time, to quit paying attention to what begins to seem mundane. Of course, even extraordinary events and places, when seen often enough, begin to seem routine, mundane, ordinary.
That was the case for me on a trip to Burma, now Myanmar, many years ago. One of the places we visited was the ancient city of Pagan, considered one of Buddhism’s holiest cities. There are more than 5,000 pagodas – or Buddhist temples – in this small town.
The first day we were there we looked at each pagoda with great fascination, taking in every detail, comparing one to the other. Each seemed wildly exotic, unlike anything we had ever seen before.
By the second day our interest was not so keen. When we contemplated hiking up a steep hill to see what was at the top, my friend said, “We don’t need to hike up that hill. I can already tell you what’s up there.
“It’s just another pagoda.”
Sometimes by this point in the season of Pentecost I begin to feel the way I did on that trip to Burma.
For week after week now we have focused on the stories of Jesus’ daily life – his teachings, his run-ins with the religious authorities, his healings and miracles.
And I must admit that after a while one story begins to sound a lot like another story. One healing blends into another. Haven’t we already heard that one before?
Maybe Jesus’ disciples even felt that way as Jesus began to tell the story we hear in today’s Gospel.
By this time the disciples have been traveling with Jesus for three years. They’ve seen him perform many miracles; they’ve heard him tell many stories. They have been an intimate part of his daily, ordinary life.
“What’s he talking about?” you can imagine one of the disciples asking another. “Oh, it’s just another parable.”
Just another pagoda.
But in this last parable, this last story Jesus tells before he is betrayed, arrested, and crucified – Jesus gives us an extraordinary message about ordinary life.
There will come a time, he says, when I will judge all of you. And the criteria for judgment is this: Not what extraordinary accomplishments you have achieved in your life, not what knowledge you have amassed, not even what faith you have professed.
None of these things are what matters at the day of judgment. What matters that day are the ordinary acts of kindness you have shown to people in need. When you truly see them, then you have seen me.
Surely the main character in Ernest Gaines’ short story, Christ Walked Down Market Street, is familiar with these words of Jesus.
“It is raining, it’s windy and cold,” the nameless character recounts. “Twelve-thirty, maybe one o’clock in the afternoon. Umbrellas all over the place, but doing little good against the wind. Must be 50, 60 people on the block, all in a hurry to get out of the weather.
“I saw him maybe a hundred feet away. But I’m sure he had seen me long before then. There were probably a dozen people between us, so he didn’t have much trouble picking me out.
“And you have never seen a more pathetic figure in your life. Barefoot. Half of his denim shirt inside his black trousers, the other half hanging out. No belt, no zipper – holding up his trousers with one hand. They were much too big for him, much too long, and even holding them up as high as he could, and as tight as he could, they still dragged in mud on the sidewalk.
“From the moment I saw him, I told myself that I was not going to give him a single dime. I had already given a quarter to one who stood out in the rain in front of the post office.
“As we came closer, I saw him passing the other people like they weren’t even there. And they were doing the same to him, avoiding him like they didn’t even see him. I could see from 25, 30 feet away that he was angling straight toward me.
“Then at a distance of about six feet away he reached out his hand in slow motion. The palm of his hand was black with grime, his fingers were long and skeletal, I went by him without looking into his face.
“I made two more steps, then I jerked around. Because I had seen something in the palm of that hand that looked like an ugly sunken scar.
“But as God be my witness, He was not there.” (At this point in the story, the pronouns referring to the beggar are capitalized.)
“He was not there; He was not there. No one was within 10 or 15 feet of where He should have been.
“I had not made more than two or three steps before I turned around. And I should have seen Him as clearly as I’m seeing you now – but He was not here. Just this empty space between me and all the other people. Just empty space.”
The man goes home, but he is haunted by what he now believes is the Christ he passed in contempt on the street. He returns and walks up and down Market Street a dozen times, looking for the Christ. Each day after work he goes back, searching, searching, searching.
“For a couple of years, day or night, I would walk down Market Street. When I didn’t see Him again, I got the idea that maybe He would not come back in that same form. Maybe He had already returned in a different form and I hadn’t recognized Him. Maybe He was one of my neighbors.
“Now I searched the face of anyone and everyone I passed. I also looked closely at the palm of all hands I came in contact with, whether it was black or white, whether it was the left or right hand of a store clerk, a bus driver when I got my transfer, or the butcher who gave me my change – I looked at all their hands.
“And I have searched thousands of faces. I have been insulted, threatened with violence for looking too closely in the face of man, woman, or child. You have no idea what names you are called for looking people in the face.
“At least half a dozen times in the past 30 years I’ve been arrested for soliciting. And do you know what that means, soliciting? It means looking into someone’s eyes, hoping that He’s Christ.”
The endless, obsessive search for Christ turns the character into a bum himself. The story ends with him telling his saga to a bartender, who responds by throwing him out on the street.
“Just get out of here,” the bartender says.
“I’m on my way, sir,” the character replies. “If I hurry, maybe I’ll see Him again!”
Of course, the irony is that in his searching the man has seen Christ thousands of times and failed to recognize him. And the sad thing is that we have, too.
The homeless person we ignore as we dash into the store for our Christmas shopping, the checkout clerk we treat with impatience and contempt, the co-worker whose problems we cannot bear to listen to one more time, the elderly neighbor or relative we don’t have time to visit – all of these may be missed opportunities to see and serve the Christ.
This week is the end of ordinary time in the liturgical year. But we know that no time is truly ever ordinary, that any time may be the moment when Christ is revealed to us, if we only slow down, look, and respond.