God in Ordinary

 

A sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, Fairacres Convent.

God in ordinary – we have had the superlative experiences of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday – and now it is back to Green liturgical colours here at least. The week of Chapter has concluded, elevated thoughts about the sacrifice of religious life offered in superlative terms of Russian monasticism, has given way to getting back to the kitchen, or to the bursary, or to the laundry. The ordinary is where our life is lived, where grace is to be found, though it may not feel an elevated or excellent path.

Our gospel this morning [Mark 2:23-3:6] has Jesus living, healing and confronting in ordinary time – well, actually, the sabbath. The point of this story helping early Christians struggling with the balance of keeping cultural norms of the Law, and the needs of living mission to gentile communities. The stories in the gospels model a respect for the Sabbath which doesn’t imply that humanity or creation is made for the Law, but the Law given to make human society godly. The first lesson points this out – the Sabbath is not merely a cultural signal, nor an exclusive possession of Israel. Slaves, foreigners, aliens are all to be protected by its care, too. We are not made for any religious obligation, but they are stepping stones on the path to God.

Jesus heals in today’s gospel deeply hurt and angry at the hardness of heart of those who resent healing coming to another. If we want an insight into ‘the wrath of God’ look no further. God’s wrath is not a fury that possesses him so that he stomps around in destructive bullying. He doesn’t get so angry that he goes off and leaves the situation unresolved, the person unhealed – what we might do, when we let ourselves get personally offended and ‘spit our dummy out’ as the saying goes. But he is truly angry, as Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics observes:

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.

Jesus is moved in the pit of his stomach for all involved – the blindness and arrogance of those opposing love comes from somewhere ungodly. He wishes of course to heal the whole situation. His passion cannot be hidden – he yearns for a new ordinary state of human beings – where we don’t make our religious life a theatre for our egos to play out. Where we don’t diminish another person by humiliating or manipulating them. And he is hurt and angry because he loves the sinner and sees us as sick, even as we are sickening!

What is it that makes us want to put another down and defend our own position – putting ourselves in the right? Is it just an inevitable function of being an imperfect creature, of being ordinary rather than extra-ordinary, of being at best ‘good’ rather than ‘excellent’? Oxford University rather idolizes excellence – after all it’s about reputation. But isn’t the notion of excellence really a terrorizing fantasy? It is a distraction from the wonder of God in ordinary – his power and purpose deeply woven into the whole creation – there in everyone and everything.

The notion of excellence seems to be propaganda to justify ourselves and make us special. While excellence in art and music and character and work and love is beautiful and inspiring, can this ordinary time open our eyes to the wonder of the ordinary?

There was a popular TV programme recently, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet – a careful filming of the ordinary life of our oceans – seeing whales and squids and octopus and conger eel in their beauty and rather frightening power. That is the ocean’s ‘Ordinary time’ – the programme managed to pay attention in patience and wonder to the ordinary, to what would normally pass unobserved.

Might this ordinary season challenge our disappointment in ourselves and one another, and rekindle deep down in pit of our stomachs a sense of awe – that we and those around us may not be Einstein or Karl Barth, but wonderful all the same? It’s a time to look, really to attend to the things that are most near to us but which we are most likely to miss.

“Learn to be content in the Ordinary.” In our drive for excellence and talk of constant improvement, we never learn that gift of contentment, indeed we can despise it as smugness or laziness. Many graduating students are set on a career trajectory of excellent achievement. Will they know what to do when they reach it? What will be the cost to character or family in the process? Like bankers working all the hours they have to spend enormous bonuses in champagne parties – it’s as if they learned everything apart from how to live.

Contentment is far from ordinary – but a gift to be enjoyed and a source of healing grace. It means “finding God’s sufficiency within yourself.”  Everywhere and in all things – in Eucharistic language ‘At all times and in all places’ – αὐταρκεία priompts us to find God in our ordinariness, where we are, who we are. This morning’s gospel shows us that the drive of life in society has always always distracted us and emphasized what we are not and what we want to be. There has always been communal neurosis and anxiety which implied that our real, ordinary lives are not adequate.

The heart, the moment, the ordinary, this second is a wonderful, miraculously ordinary place.

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius

With that wonder, with this as our ‘ordinary’ – let us rejoice and be glad in this ordinary day, which God has made.

 

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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