|When Ordinary Is Extraordinary
Sermon at United Ministry of Aurora July 10, 2016
Easter is over; Pentecost is past. We are deep into Ordinary Time. The 15th week. Nothing to look forward to until the next major season in the church calendar, Advent. Ordinary time. Sounds like being becalmed in the Sargasso Sea or the Doldrums. But, Ordinary Time is our time. It's extraordinary time.
During the Church seasons, we in the pews are nourished by rehearsing and replaying the great events of Christianity; The Annunciation and expectation, Jesus' birth; His Passion, death and Ascension, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all believers at Pentecost. Those are the special seasons of the church. These times in between are called Ordinary Time.
But, here's the secret: Ordinary time is what rehearsal of the great events is for. This is our time, the people's time. Ordinary Time is when we put into practice what we've learned. The special seasons are teaching times, teaching and rehearsing the basic principles, the ABC's of the Faith, as Hebrews calls it. Now it's Ordinary Time. These are the times when we go to work. Now we do the hard work - overcoming our selves, our instincts, our passions. Transforming from "me" into "sons and daughters of God." The reward? As Jesus said, I have come that you might have Life, and Life more abundantly.
Our readings today are full of teaching about life and living in Ordinary Time - hints and glimpses of how to live in the kingdom of God, which as we all know, is at hand, right here. Today's readings are food for adult Christians. Moses, in his final sermon to the whole Jewish people exhorts them to... turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
God wants us to be prosperous in all the work of our hand, our families and our crops - he takes delight in prospering us. But, he wants us to choose to turn to him with all our heart and soul and strength. God doesn't make it hard for us to understand. It's right in front of us, all the time. In his letter to the Church at Colossae, Paul prays for us ...to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. Paul prays we may be... strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father...
Moses wants us to prosper by turning to God and loving him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might, and Paul wants us to please the Lord daily, from the first day we hear the gospel, strengthened with power, with endurance and patience and at the same time, with Joy. These are prayers instructing us how to live in Ordinary Time.
But what's this about needing to be strengthened, needing endurance and patience. Isn't everything pleasant and comfortable every day for the Christian? Isn't ordinary time a piece of cake for the believer? Once we're Christians isn't everything peachy?
Our Gospel lesson today is also about ordinary time. We usually remember the parable, but overlook what comes before, setting it up. A lawyer confronts Jesus, testing him. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers with a question. “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer answers correctly using Moses' words. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But, scrambling to recover the initiative and look good, the lawyer then asks Jesus, "And who is my neighbor? This is the context for teaching what we usually call the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Let's flip the story and call it the parable of the Robbed and Beaten Traveler. After all, the poor Jewish guy in this terrible fix is the central character in the story. He was traveling from the sacred heights of Jerusalem to Jericho, an ordinary town down in the valley. Leaving the sanctity and safety of the Temple area, he proceeds into Ordinary Time, down the road of ordinary life. He finds traveling companions, but they turn out to be bad guys. They rob him, even strip him of his clothes, beat him senseless and abandon him by the side of the road - half dead. Yes, bad things happen to good people as we travel through life. The Prince of this world, after all, is the Devil. So here is our semi-conscious traveler lying at the side of the road. A Priest comes by, but careful to not make himself impure by touching what might be a corpse, he preserves the letter of the Law by moving to the other side of the road, passing by our bleeding and beaten everyman. Then a Levite, sort of a deacon comes along. These guys get their hands dirty with slaughtering and carving up animals in the Temple, burning some parts and cooking others. This religious worker shouldn't have to worry about getting a little soiled or bloody helping a suffering parishioner. But, he too, passes by on the other side of the road.
Finally, a Samaritan traveling the road comes by. The Samaritans were sort of "half-Jews," the product of forced intermarriage by one of the earlier occupiers of northern Israel. They were considered impure by their Judean neighbors in the southern kingdom, who could trace their own lineage back to Eden. The Samaritan extends compassion to our hero. The beaten traveller stirs to find his wounds being disinfected and bandaged, then feels himself being hoisted onto a donkey and carried to shelter and food. He hears his unknown benefactor arranging for his care to continue until he is healed. We aren't told what the beaten traveler thought, but we can imagine several possibilities: maybe he felt gratitude and relief, and even joy and peace that he was not dead, but alive, lovingly cared for by an unknown stranger. Or, perhaps our unfortunate traveler was overcome with anger and bitterness at his circumstances. Was his focus on the evil and bad luck that happened to him? Or was his focus on the undeserved, unexpected compassion being shown by strangers? Then, when got up and left the inn his wounds healing, his bill having been pre-paid, and he continued on his journey to Jericho, was he more embittered at the betrayal by his traveling companions - or thankful for the compassion shown him by an unknown benefactor, or neighbor - or angel.
How do we handle these situations? We are bound to find ourselves figuratively lying by the side of the road during our own ordinary time. Will we reject God and curse our bad luck? Look for revenge? Will we thank God for life and the help and prayers of unknown benefactors, and continue on our journey. We're all here this morning, on our own road to Jericho. We've all been the traveler, and we've all been the Samaritan. We try not to be the priest or the Levite - or the bad guys. Let's be patient, enduring - even joyful travelers. We are each other's neighbors.
I've been telling people about my God-daughter Rebecca, who just returned from two years service in a third world country in a medical mission sponsored by Samaritan's Purse. She served in a hospital at Tansen, in the west-central part of Nepal. She's an MD, an internist. Becca is also a deeply committed Christian. Last month she had the family and some close friends over to show some pix, as you might expect, but more important, to share some things she learned - as well as experienced during her two years in Nepal - which included living through the massive earthquake that destroyed so much and killed so many.
This was the first chance I'd had to see her since she was back, and I immediately noticed a change. Rebecca had a acquired a new gravitas, a solidity. She was the same beautiful person who left, but she moved and spoke more slowly; and she used fewer "God-words" like "justification and sanctification." During her time in Nepal, she wrote a blog, an online diary of reflections. In addition to writing about new friends, the natural beauty of the mountains and the chance to serve, as time went on she couldn't help but reflect on her frustration with conditions, her irritation and occasional fear at always being the only white woman with blonde hair in a world of shades of brown faces. She wrote of her bursts of anger at how little she and the others were able to really accomplish in a region of enormous need. Yes, she loved the people and the joy and resignation many Nepali felt; but her help was barely a drop in the bucket of need. And, after all, wasn't she on a mission to convert these heathen Hindus and Buddhists to Christ? The country was 1% Christian when she came, and 1% Christian when she left.
But, her story was different from the stories we often hear from missionaries. She realized a difference was being made; an enormous change was taking place. But, she slowly became aware the mission was to herself. She was being changed. She began to realize that despite her energetic and skilled work, God was showing her how little she herself could do, and the power of what God can do. She also began to see a new and ugly picture of herself - her short-temperedness, anger, fear, frustration, her envy at what other hospitals had and her unrealistic, prideful expectations for what she and the medical mission could actually accomplish. As she reflected, she started to see that God was working on her. Chipping away her rough edges. It hurt. She began to see. First, God shows us our sins; then burns them away. This is what taking up our cross and dying daily means. It was painful, but a new deeper joy began.
Rebecca intended to be the Samaritan, on a medical mission to others, but she was, like us, in Ordinary Time. Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is at hand. It's right here waiting for us to reach out and grasp it. Moses said it's not up in heaven, nor across the sea. We don't have to go on a foreign mission. The kingdom of God is not found in success or accomplishments or material wealth. We want these things because we think having them will give us joy and peace. What we really want is the joy and peace we think these things will bring. The kingdom of God, his peace, is found in joyful, humble acceptance of the sovereignty and wisdom of God.
Here in our Ordinary time God may give us all the things we think we want, or as likely, we may find ourselves lying beaten by the side of the road. Our Creator wants us to have joy and peace. God can give joy and peace even during a rough trip. Rebecca slowly became aware God was working on her, burning away her old self with it's short-temperedness, anger and disappointments. She is coming to recognize a growing sense of peace coming out of this "service project on herself." We, too, can choose gratitude as our rough edges are burned away; or we can choose bitterness and anger. If we trust that God is at work in all things, God will provide the joy and peace we are all searching for. Not just later in the life to come, not just in the drama of the high holy seasons, but right now, in this Extraordinary, Ordinary Time.