Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ordinary Time (Sermon)

“Ordinary Time”
Mark 1:29-38
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (NRSV)

We are currently in the liturgical season known as Ordinary Time. Each year has two intervals of Ordinary Time, a short interval occupying the several weeks between Christmas and Lent, and a longer one spanning the months between Pentecost and Advent.
Ordinary Time is just that – ordinary. The color is this lukewarm green. During Ordinary Time we plod along with Jesus as he travels about the countrysides of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. It follows his interactions with his disciples, with Jewish leaders, and with the impoverished and forsaken people to whom Jesus pays the most attention. Sometimes the stories are interesting and compelling. Other times they’re, well, ordinary. Maybe today’s text contains your favorite scripture passage. And that’s wonderful. To me, though, it’s one of those all-too-ordinary texts. Tell me if this summary is basically accurate:
Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and she gets up and gets to work.
By evening, the street outside Peter’s house is lined with sick folks. Jesus helps as many as he can.
         Early the next morning, Jesus slips away to pray. His disciples hunt him down and tell him that folks are looking for him. And Jesus says, We have to keep moving. So they do.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
How numbingly ordinary…
A true story: Sam was eagerly involved in the life of his congregation. He came to small group studies. He served as a deacon. He got excited about learning and growing as a Christian. Then came a moment of foreshadowing.
Sam’s pastor became aware of a nearby family who was experiencing an acute need for warmth. He asked a study group if they’d like to help this family by getting a space heater. Sam jumped at that. He contributed money and volunteered to help purchase and deliver the heater.
During the delivery, Sam and his pastor talked with the woman who had a young son. They lived in a small house that was sealed about as tight as a screened porch. While describing other issues her family faced, the woman was clearly asking for more help. The pastor told her about other resources, then he and Sam wished her well.
Driving away, Sam was bewildered by the experience. “She barely said Thank you!” he said.
“No,” the pastor said, “but they’ll be warmer.”
That didn’t mollify Sam. He seemed to need recognition more than that family needed heat. Or, maybe when expecting an extraordinary experience, he found it ordinary and unsatisfying.
Over the next couple of years, Sam’s church attendance and participation grew sporadic. He said it was getting monotonous. He climbed on the contemporary worship bandwagon, and while he found the music livelier, he said it was still “just the same old same old.”
In his early forties, Sam had more discretionary money and time than most people his age. Discipleship became no match for the allure of shiny things and opportunities to use them. He spent more money and time satisfying his desires. He got divorced, again. Within three years, Sam had completely abandoned his communal faith practice.
I can understand Sam’s struggle. When something that’s supposed to be transforming and life-giving feels numbingly routine and imprisoned by the way we’ve always done it, it feels dead.
It seems to me, though, that the real problem was Sam’s sense of entitlement to being entertained, to being constantly excited and stimulated. He lost interest in a church that spends most of the year following Jesus on the plodding journey of Ordinary Time, tending to commonplace needs piling up at the door. Jesus may take a few minutes here and there to pray, but for the most part, he just keeps moving. Lumbering ahead. Day-to-day. Town-to-town. Person-to-person.
It doesn’t take a linguistic savant to recognize that the words disciple and discipline are related. Discipleship is the discipline of following a leader in the midst of tedium and stasis as well as excitement and change. Aware of how ordinary life will be even after Easter, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor with you.” (Mt. 26:11) Following Jesus means tending to those whose needs often seem tiresome and interminable.
When Christian practice, which is voluntary, begins to feel tiresome and interminable, why bother?
We all have to wrestle with that question. And one reason I continue to bother is because I continue to find blessing and purpose in the midst of the ordinary. I continue to recognize God in those reaching out for acceptance, assurance, and healing in places like Family Promise, the JAMA food pantry, Loaves and Fishes, and ASP. I experience the same-old clamoring for holiness and hope right here in worship, Sunday school, committee meetings, and on CL&M outings.
Now, if fewer and fewer people look to the church for experiences of holiness and hope, that’s partly our fault. The more the Church considers itself extraordinary, the more Christians separate themselves from ordinary reality. The more the Church turns inward, the less we go out to seek and help those who suffer. We even blame them for their suffering. Spiritually, we reduce Jesus to personal savior. He’s no longer our Lord who leads us into the world’s ordinary brokenness and hurt with words of kindness and deeds of love.
“Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary,” said Mother Teresa. “What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that [our] strength lies.”1
When reflecting on his own life, Frederick Buechner began to experience God’s presence in ordinary places he never thought to look. And he summed up his understanding of Christian practice this way: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”2
On the table before us is grape juice from a grocery store, and bread baked in someone’s home this morning. Now, those gifts sit in shiny silver trays that date back to the mid-1800’s. Such heirlooms are more expensive and needy than they ought to be when offering what Jesus offers in his ordinary, human hands. That means we have to distinguish between the gift and the giftwrap we put around it. The gift feeds us, and it sends us out to recognize the presence of holiness and grace in the ordinariness of life, and to share the redeeming love of the risen Jesus.
So, come to the table. And come what may, let’s keep moving.