November 28: “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”

By the Rev. Kathryn Pocalyko
Preaching texts: the RCL’s texts for Advent 1C

One of the last times I felt seen, really seen, was riding to the Columbus, Ohio airport in a family’s cheerio-laden minivan. Our driver was my spouse’s best friend from college, whom we had stopped to see while in town for a wedding.

Conscious of arriving in time for our flight home, my beloved looked at the clock on the dash. “C,” he said, “your clock is 20 minutes fast.”

“I know,” his friend explained. “I set all my clocks to different times because I’m really bad at gauging time. I’m always running late or unable to tell how much time is passing. So I set my clocks all over the place. That way, I never really know what time it is, and I have to check my phone for the actual time. I think it’s my way of getting myself to pay better attention to what time it truly is, to check the time more frequently.”

“Dude, that doesn’t make any sense.”

I practically jumped out of my second row bucket seat.

“YES. Yes it does absolutely make lots of sense,” I said. “Because I do the exact same thing.” 

The clock next to my bed is somewhere around five minutes fast. The clock in my car for commuting lags behind, but in the car I use to drive my kids, it’s about 45 minutes ahead. At church we have battery operated wall clocks, and it doesn’t bother me one bit when they slow down because of low juice. That’s because, like C, I’m strategizing to give myself one and only one way to follow, closely, the time. 

What this strategy does not do (aside from make anyone who reads my wacky clocks feel sane) is change any markers of time that I cannot reprogram.

Like natural signs: the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Earth’s own timepieces, like plants, or a fig tree.

“There will be signs” Jesus says in Luke 21 about our redemption, “in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” You won’t be able to fool yourself out of people fainting from fear and foreboding. You can’t reprogram the fig tree and all the trees, for “as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”

These are signs of the time, Jesus says. The actual time of redemption. The definite nearing of the Reign of God. 

The sun doesn’t care what time our clocks say when it rises. The moon is going to come out regardless of the numerical hour. The fig tree may seem like the battery-depleted clock on the wall in the sacristy, running slow. But not so. Even if we think we can speed them up with fertilizer or rush them to bloom with extra water and sun, nope. Figs keep their own time, waiting until the last minute to leaf out. Not even the best gardener can reprogram a resolute seasonal fruit.

Planetary bodies, sunlight, nighttime, seasons: these are signs of time that God controls, not you. Signs that you cannot change, because God sets them. Signs that you must only  watch for. “Be alert at all times,” Jesus instructs. God will use the signs to tell you, on God’s time, that … it’s time.

The hymn chosen for today’s texts is “Keep your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” in part because of its ending line, “the time is drawing nigh.” This hymn was undoubtedly developed and sung by African-descended communities of enslaved people in North America. 

Time and chattel slavery have a complex and dark relationship. In Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South, Mark M. Smith examines how the clock gained acceptance in the South as “the legitimate arbiter” of time because of how slave masters used them to control enslaved people (8). Enslaved people in the fields had no clocks. But give a timepiece to the master, and suddenly you can change how fast, how frequent, how much, and how hard your laborers worked. Watches became the evil accessory to the whip in the taskmaster’s hand.[1]

What the popularization of clocks and watches could not change were the natural signs of time, which we Christians know to be the purview of God. The enslaved people knew this too. The master’s clock might tell them when to work, but it couldn’t change the horizon’s setting sun, the land’s winter dormancy, or the stars’ routes to other lands. Those are the signs of God. Markers of the time that God, not the plantation master, controls. They are the signs that tell it’s time for redemption, for freedom. 

When we hear “The time is drawing nigh” in terms of God’s time, in utter contrast to the slave master’s grinding time, we hear our ancestors in the faith asking us about our control on time, time’s oppressive control on us, and the freedom God grants us from both.

As you prepare to preach, consider how your own (and your community’s) hyperfocus on time. How do you try to master the clock? Do you overschedule to optimize? Procrastinate in unhelpful ways? 

Consider time’s oppressive control over you and your community. How does time demand unreasonable standards? Which tick-tock causes you anxiety? 

Then consider God’s time as God’s grace. How does God’s redemptive time–which is uncontrollable, and coming near–free you from oppressive time? Free you from your hyper control of time?

If you are thinking of preaching with the African American historical reality of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” in mind, you might consider how God’s breaking oppressive time is linked to dismantling racism today. Time still exhorts control over black bodies (think minimum sentencing requirements; NICU stays due to racial maternal health disparity).  What does waiting for God’s time, with lamps trimmed and burning, look like in modern times?

Now forget what the clock says. It doesn’t matter. God’s time is already in motion, like the sun, moon, and stars. Like sweet fruit blossoms, God’s redemption will come. 

[1] Much of my summary of this book relies upon my memory of reading it in college ten-plus years ago, and this review by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel: 

The quoted phrase is from page 8 of Smith’s book, as quoted in Hummel’s review.

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