Grace in Ordinary Time: A Sermon for Proper 5, 2010

Finally, things are beginning to settle down. We have entered that period of the church year known as Ordinary Time, the weeks after the Feast of Pentecost. We will be in Ordinary Time all the way through November, right up to the beginning of the next church year, which begins on the First Sunday of Advent. Since last December, we have been following, more or less, the life of Jesus from his birth, through his baptism, on to his death and resurrection. With our celebration of his Ascension and Pentecost, when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, we turn our attention away from Jesus’ nature, his life and death, and turn toward his teachings and his ministry among the people of the Roman territory of Palestine in the first century.

Finally, things are beginning to settle down. After ten months of ministry at Grace Church, the first blush of romance is off, you and I have gotten to know each other. Most of our illusions have burst. There are things you probably don’t like about me and there are things about Grace that I don’t particularly like. But we are beginning to do the hard work of being God’s people on the Capitol Square. We are learning how to work, and how to pray together. We are growing accustomed to one another.

Into the midst of Ordinary Time irrupt moments of the extraordinary. Although the liturgical cycle moves slowly in these months, the cycles of our lives may see sporadic moments of feverish pace—as we experience disruptions in our lives—the deaths of loved ones, or the births of new family members; transitions as people move in and out of the parish and our lives, as circumstances change. When that happens, the rhythms of our lives may seem out of synch with the rhythms of the liturgical year.

There are our own rhythms, too. As I sat in the church yesterday greeting visitors and newcomers, I had two such encounters. A woman came in, bursting with excitement. She had stopped by one Saturday in May sat, and said a prayer for  her brother’s job search. She came back today, a prayer of thanksgiving on her lips for the job he had found. She thanked us too for opening our doors and making the spiritual accessible to her.

Another man dropped by. He, too, wanted to pray. After fifteen minutes by himself, he engaged me in conversation. He asked me to pray for him, for healing and continued health after recent surgery for cancer; he sought healing as well, for the broken relationships with his children.

In the lectionary Ordinary Time means a slight shift in focus, especially with regard to the first readings, from the Hebrew Bible. This summer and fall, we will be reading semi-continuously from the Hebrew prophets, beginning with today’s reading which is the very first appearance of the prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings. Elijah comes from nowhere. Unlike other prophets whose stories are told in the Hebrew Scripture, there is no call narrative, no story of how God called Elijah, what he was doing before, and the like. Chapter 17 begins, the word of God came to Elijah the Tishbite. After criticizing King Ahab and going underground for three years, Elijah reappears here, in the area of Sidon, in the midst of a drought.

Whatever the backstory of Elijah and his call, with the reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we are treated to his most extensive discussion of his own call to be an apostle. And it is a call, not a conversion. Paul talks about his spiritual biography not in order to connect with his readers or to gain their empathy, but because his authority as an apostle has been challenged. Paul had founded the churches in Galatia but had gone on to proclaim the goodnews elsewhere in Asia Minor. In his absence, other Christians had come with  somewhat different message. They had also challenged Paul’s authority.

These verses in Galatians are so important because here Paul lays out his version of the events that we call his “Damascus Road” experience. It’s called that because of Luke’s re-telling of the story in Acts, where it seems to be a dramatic conversion narrative. But Paul uses different language. As I said, there is no mention of Elijah’s call except that wonderful phrase: The Word of the Lord came to Elijah. Paul uses the language of a prophet’s call to describe his own experience. In fact, he seems to allude to the call of the prophet Jeremiah: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace.” And he continues his description with a fascinating phrase “was pleased to reveal his Son to me.”

What makes this so interesting is Paul’s word choices—first “reveal” related of course to revelation, the Greek word apocalypsis the same word used of John’s visions in the book of revelation. But the other interesting thing is the preposition: it’s translated “to” but could also mean “in.” For Paul what happened in that encounter with the risen Christ was life-changing, certainly, but at the same time, one could say that what happened was a recognition of who he was, who God was, and who God was calling him to be. He encountered and experienced God in remarkably new ways, through Jesus Christ. Yet, it was not a new or different God he was encountering. It was the very same God he had known and served in his previous life.

In addition to Paul’s call, we have another life-transforming experience in today’s lessons. In the portion from the Gospel of Luke we heard, we have what is a perfect bookend to the Elijah story. Both occur in the same geographical area; both involve widows; had we continued reading in I Kings 17, we would have heard of the death of the widow’s son, and of Elijah’s resuscitation of him. Luke is probably conscious of all of these parallels and shaping this story so his readers can see the connection between Jesus and Elijah, indeed between Jesus and all of the Hebrew prophetic tradition.

Jesus is not just a prophet, either for Luke or for us; and while Luke amplifies the resonances between Jesus and the prophets, he also distinguishes clearly between them. It is here, for the first time in the gospel, that Luke refers to Jesus as Lord. For his readers, that title would have hearkened back to the Hebrew Bible’s use of Lord to refer to God, but it would also have reminded them of the emperor’s title.

Both of those echoes suggest power and might, but Luke rejects implication. After referring to Jesus as Lord, Luke continues, “and he had compassion on her, literally “he was moved in his guts.” Luke is telling us that Jesus’ Lord-ship is recognized not with the trappings of power, wealth, and grandeur, but in his ministry among the lowly and downtrodden. Jesus is recognized as Lord by his compassion and mercy.

Jesus came to the village of Nain, walking with his disciples. As they arrived, they encountered another procession, a burial procession, as a widow led her friends and neighbors out to bury her son. The extraordinary had come into her life, visiting death upon her and an uncertain and challenging future. But Jesus intervened in that procession and in that future, bringing something completely new and unexpected, restoring life and hope. As Luke puts it, “God has looked favorably on his people.”

The same is true in our other two stories. Like Jesus, Elijah comes to a widow, suffering in the midst of drought, facing certain death. First, he miraculously provides food for her; then, when her son dies, he brings her back to life and hope. Paul, too, was on a journey, a mission, according to Luke to persecute followers of Jesus in Damascus. But on that journey, he was brought to a halt and a changed life by an encounter with the risen Christ.

The time may be ordinary, our focus may be elsewhere, but God has a way of getting our attention even when we least expect it. In fact, God’s grace breaks in on us sometimes in quite offensive ways. Imagine that funeral scene again. They are on their way to bury the woman’s dead son. They are in deep mourning, somber as they make their way. Suddenly, someone, Jesus, interrupts the scene, stops the procession and says, “Do not weep.”

Suddenly, the ordinary isn’t ordinary. Everything stops; the rhythms of life are suspended. God breaks in. To be open to God, open to grace, in the midst of the mundane and ordinary, that too is part of what being faithful means. To be open to grace, even when its presence might challenge and change us, that too, is part of what being faithful means. To be open to grace, whether it come from a wandering prophet, a call as we are going about our daily business, or even when things seem most bleak, when God seems absent, that too, is being faithful.

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