Extra/Ordinary Time

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

If you were to ask your congregation this Sunday how many of them know what “ordinary time” is, how many hands do you think would go up? Which makes me wonder — is this just one more archaic, and maybe arcane, liturgical tradition. Or is there something more here worth retrieving?

To be honest, the term “ordinary time” used to really bug me. Maybe it’s my democratic sensibilities going into overdrive, but it annoyed me that some Sundays were considered only ordinary and others were, what, extraordinary, special, the Sundays that really matter? I realize that “ordinary” is intended simply to describe those Sundays that aren’t part of the cycles of seasons connected with Christmas and Easter, but it still seemed like a silly designation.

Until a week ago, when my colleague Matt Skinner mentioned during one of our Sermon Brainwave podcasts that he loves ordinary time. When I asked him why, he replied with answer that was as profound as it was simple: “Because that’s where I live.”

So now consider the readings for this Sunday. In both of the Old Testament readings (RCL and semi-continuous), you have two scenes from Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zeraphath — one in which he provides food during a time of famine; another in which he raises to life her dead son. In the second reading, Paul recounts his conversation from persecutor to apostle of the gospel of Christ. And in the gospel reading Jesus raises the son of another widow, this one from Nain.

The temptation will be to look at the extraordinary — miraculous food, conversation, resurrection — and that’s understandable. But I’d encourage you to start first with the ordinary, because that’s where we live. Look around your congregation, your community, and our world and you’ll soon see there is no shortage of scenes of profound need, of acts of violence driven by religious prejudice, of death.

Jesus’ encounter with the widow of Nain is particularly instructive. We may think of funerals as extraordinary because they are occasional events even for us who are clergy. But because death is the persistent, unavoidable factor marking human existence, there is nothing more mundane, more common, than the ordinary grief of a mother mourning her dead son. How many times, do you think, this same scene is being played out across the globe in the time that it takes you to read this article. From the cornfields in Iowa to the hills of Afghanistan to the savannas of Africa, there are countless mothers grieving the deaths of their sons even now.

No wonder we love feasts and festivals — they break not just the monotony but the relentless, even merciless inevitability of the ordinary. As poet W. H. Auden laments, “the Time Being” — the ordinary time between festivals — is “the most trying time of all.”

Which is just what makes these stories so important. The God of Elijah, Paul, and Jesus will not abandon us to the ordinary. Because we are so accustomed, even resigned, to the ordinary, God’s intervention will not always at first be welcome. Consider again the scene with Jesus, of just how intrusive and insensitive he must have seemed to those caught up in their rituals of grief as he breaks into their funeral procession and orders the bereaved mother, “Do not weep.” Yet Luke tells us that he is moved by compassion — a chief attribute of Jesus in Luke — and so will not leave well enough alone but intrudes in order to combat death with life and mourning with joy.

So it always is. It may be hard to detect at times, but God is amongst us, breaking into the ordinary, the mundane, the Time Being, in order to encourage, support, restore, and eventually to redeem. We will not always welcome the promise of life, either because we have grown accustomed to death or simply fear having our hopes disappointed one more time. But deep down, underneath the numbness and fear, there is nothing we need and want to hear more.

So preach the extraordinary grace of this God, Working Preacher. Remind us that God is just as present to us during the ordinary times in our lives as the extraordinary — during times of planting as well as harvest, during times of loneliness as well as contentment, during times of scarcity as well as abundance, during times of mourning as well as rejoicing. In fact, if you read these texts carefully, it may be that God is even more present during the long, lean times of waiting, wanting, and worrying than during the luscious times of celebration. Why? Because that’s when we need God present the most. After all, for so much of our lives, ordinary time is exactly where we live.

So tell us the good news, Working Preacher. Tell us that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has come to redeem the ordinary — ordinary time and ordinary people alike. Tell us, indeed, that for God there is no such thing as ordinary time, only each precious and extraordinary moment in which God’s mercy and grace seep into and restore, redeem, and recreate the world God loves so much. And remember, dear Working Preacher, that as you share this message with us, you are not only witnessing to God’s redemption of the ordinary, but actually participating in it as well! Thanks for your extraordinary work!

Yours in Christ,