Ordinary Time

We understandably seek an extraordinary experience of the divine. The stories we like to tell each other over coffee, for example, are those strange, inexplicable even miraculous moments of life. It’s as if we can know God only through these extreme, irregular events: How by some fluke we avoided an accident waiting to happen, or how we were so fortunate to win a prize, or how we happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something incredible. 

These expectations of experiencing something spectacular of the divine translate into our religious observance. We will come to church at Christmas and Easter – when all the stops are pulled to put on a good show – in order to fulfill our longing for God, for something better than the norm, something more entertaining and stimulating. Aren’t epiphanies supposed to catch our attention after all?

It is so tempting to set religion apart from the ordinary, making of it a sort of “fairyland amusement park.” This leads to an ancient heresy of the church – the split between God and human, the ordinary and the holy, the sacred and profane.[1]And when this split entrenches in our minds, how is it, we wonder, that we would deserve such a God? A God who is made known only to an elite few who will have these extraordinary, divine epiphanies more than we ever can.

But today we find ourselves in ‘ordinary’ time of the church year. According to the church calendar, these times are marked by the colour green. The largest chunk of ordinary time follows the numerous Sundays after Pentecost, running through the whole summer and into late Fall.

But, ordinary time also has a place early in the year, a shorter chunk of time between Christmas and Easter. Combined with the season after Pentecost, ‘ordinary’ time makes up mostof our time – thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of every year.[2]It is not, therefore, the time during which the church is engaged in preparations for, or celebrations of, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is the time during which we are called, like Simon and Andrew in the Gospel for today, to follow Jesus. Not because of the star that announced his birth. Neither because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem. But simply because Jesus said, “Follow me.”[3]

It’s ironic that in church history and doctrine we have minimized Jesus’ life and ministry in comparison to his birth and death. Some of the ancient creeds jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his death. But the reason for which Jesus lived on earth cannot be minimized. “Though it is not untrue to say that Jesus came to earth to die, it is more true to the Gospels to say that he came first to live.”[4]

In fact, Jesus’ death is truly significant only in connection with that which he lived for and proclaimed – God’s kingdom. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. While we go about living, here.

In these weeks between Christmas and Easter we are reminded that, for all their wonders, neither of these great celebrations is sufficient to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our ordinary lives. How can we do that?

In addressing this question let’s be aware again not to be always so taken by the WOW factor —the exceptional even unbelievable nature of the disciples’ response:

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”[5]

Again, we may tend to focus only on the extraordinary act of obedience on the part of the disciples. All we see and read here is this immediate response by Simon and Andrew to follow Jesus. They don’t think about it, they don’t talk to anyone before agreeing. They just drop everything and go. Wow!

But what has been going on leading up to this moment, this encounter between Jesus and the disciples he calls? You get the feeling that there has been something brewing beneath the surface, even of their consciousness, which then presents in this radical behaviour. What has been going on in their lives preceding this moment? And, over the long haul of their ordinary living?

Saint Augustine from the fourth century opens the first book of his Confessionswith the prayer and statement that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[6]It might very well be that even those four fishers had restless hearts – so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. 

Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey. Their hearts were already prepared over time, to respond to that moment of invitation.

Our hearts have been prepared through every experience of our lives, prepared to hear God’s voice when it happens. Our lives, every ordinary moment, is holy ground in which God is working in us to be prepared for when that moment of realization comes.

We may be our greatest enemy in recognizing the work of God in our ordinary routines, as we go about our lives—washing dishes, or walking to the office, or talking on the phone. We can give up the search for extraordinary experiences to validate our relationship with God and service in Jesus’ name. It is obvious. It is right here. In our ordinary lives. Salvation happens in everyday, ordinary experience.[7]

An old man was making rope. Someone came to him and asked him, “What is it necessary to be saved?” Without looking up from his work, he replied, “You are looking at it.”[8]

An episode on one of the nature documentary channels was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The show focused on a mother and her seal pup, who had just been born. Soon after birthing her baby, the mother, now famished, abandoned the pup on the shore so she could go feed in the rich waters off the coast. 

After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby. Other mothers had done the same, and all had returned at a similar time. It was hard to believe they would find each other. 

The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and her pup were reunited. The host of the show explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory; and, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.[9]

That’s how it is between God and each of us. We are imprinted with a memory, a longing for God. And God is imprinted with a memory, a longing for us. And even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.

No bright stars. No earthquakes. Just a voice that strikes our ear amid the ordinariness of our lives and announces that God has found us and God is among us.


[1]Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996), p.105

[2]David Toole in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.284-286

[3]Matthew 4:19

[4]Troy A. Miller in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p.287

[5]Matthew 4:20

[6]Cited in Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.286

[7]Gregory Mayers, ibid., p.105

[8]Ibid., p.97

[9]Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.284-286

Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

Trust the down

I hate roller-coasters. It’s about the fear of letting go of control on the way down, that’s the problem. The couple times I’ve had the guts to go on a roller-coaster, I didn’t enjoy the experience because I couldn’t let go on the way down. Someone took a photo of me and my friend in the middle of one of those rapid descents: My friend who loves roller-coaster — his arms were up in the air and a big smile beamed across his face.

Sitting beside him, I was the opposite: My hands were glued to the bar in front of us, and my lips were pursed tightly and my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. It looked as if I were staring death in the face, going down that roller coaster.

I read this week: “Humans are the only creatures who have knowledge of their own death. Its awareness creeps on us as we get older. All other animals, plants, and the cycles of nature themselves seem to live out and surrender to the pattern of mortality.

This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years. We know on some level that whatever this is that we are living will not last. This changes everything, probably more than we realize consciously. So our little bit of consciousness makes us choose to be unconscious. It hurts too much to think about it.” (1)

We humans find ingenious ways to avoid this journey, especially through Holy Week, that invites us to contemplate not only human death but the death of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder, especially among Protestants, attending services through Holy Week is not popular. This is not easy work, to face Jesus’s and our own mortality. No fun in that.

One way we avoid and deny this awareness of our own mortality is to find a scapegoat — by focusing all our negative energy on something or someone else. Our scapegoat is that which deludes us into believing that its destruction will somehow solve all our problems and make everything better again. Our scapegoat also shields us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our own problems.

Today, the scapegoats are easy to identify: The immigrants, the newcomers to Canada, the Muslims, the gays, the corrupt politicians, the government, the media, the church hierarchy — you name it. The blame game is alive and well, even in the church.

And then what happens is what many wise teachers through the ages have said: When we deny our own suffering we make others around us suffer. Which is unfair and unjust. Because the Gospel was given first and foremost to the followers of Jesus. 

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” The Gospel Mark thus records Jesus’s first words to his own people in Galilee. And to them he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We are the ones addressed by the Gospel — those who are already in the church, in the family of God. Not those so-called ‘bad’ people out there.

Jesus was the scapegoat whose destruction would solve the high-priestly authorities’ problems. By having Jesus put to death, the religious authorities could maintain their power and privileged position in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor’s fears of insurrection would be temporarily alleviated, and the Pax Romana (the Roman rule) would continue in the land.

As unjust as killing Jesus was — for many even in authority including Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent — Jesus was the convenient scapegoat whose death on a cross would make it easy on those in power. And maintain the unjust status quo in the land.

After hearing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, the high priest, Caiaphas, advised the rest of the leadership in Jerusalem: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Rather than do the right thing in the moment, the end — a false peace — justifies the unjust means. Classic scapegoat -ism: Jesus became the convenient victim in the human power play of first century Judean politics.

It’s ironic that our fear, denial and avoidance of death is actually that which keeps us stuck in scapegoating, in blaming others, in all the motivations for war and violence in the world. You could argue that all of what is bad in the world today stems from humanity’s continued ambivalence and denial of death.

What’s amazing is that Jesus, knowing all along this human condition, chose to become a victim to it. From his privileged unity with God the Creator, he chose to connect with humanity. The reading on Palm Sunday from Philippians 2:5-11 describes this downward movement of God in Christ into the “enfleshment of creation” (2), and then into humanity’s depths and sadness, and final identification with those at the very bottom, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), to death on the Cross.

Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and love of, the human situation. It’s as if God is saying: “Nothing human, now, is abhorrent to me.” This is incredible.

The Cross represents the divine choice to descend. It’s almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, justify and prove itself. The witness of the Cross is the divine invitation to each of us to reverse the usual process.

Christians worldwide have a great gift and witness in the Gospel of Christ crucified. The divine union with humanity suggests that everything human — including death, losing and letting go that is so much a reality in all our lives — is embraced by God’s love. The reason God loves even our shadow sides, is because God experienced the fullness of its brutal and unjust consequences, in the death of Jesus.

Jesus is like the human blueprint for our own transformation. Because who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Saint Paul writes, “the secret Mystery” (Romans 16:25).

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. Because Jesus went to the bottom of all that is human, “God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Of course, they say the joy of a roller coaster’s twists, turns and rapid descents is knowing and trusting that the ride eventually and surprisingly goes up. What an incredible rush! Carl Jung wrote: “Not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die.” (3) The roller coaster analogy suggests that when we refuse to descend, when we avoid facing our own mortality, and avoid taking responsibility for our own suffering, we also don’t really live.

Conversely, we can only truly live when we have faced and come to terms with the reality of our own mortal, imperfect human lives. Being fully human is being fully spiritual, faithful and alive. Saint Irenaeus was first to say in the second century that the glory of God is human being fully alive.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. When challenges, disappointments, defeats and failures come your way, don’t rush into avoidance techniques, distractions, denial of the problem or blaming others for the circumstance you find yourself in. What do these events have to teach you? Where is God in the midst of your suffering? What are the signs of grace therein? Christian faith asserts that God is revealed precisely in those lowest moments. Jesus believed this. It was trust in his Father that got Jesus through his passion, suffering and death.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Resurrection was just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Cincinnati Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.100.
2 — Rohr, ibid., p.123
3 — cited in Rohr, ibid., p.123.