WHEN TIME IS NOT SO ORDINARY
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
November 24, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Today is the thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary time, so called because it is one of those numbered Sundays that falls between the great feast of Pentecost and the start of Advent. Next week we will celebrate the First Sunday in Advent, the liturgical equivalent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. The term ordinary first meant numbered, that which you could count, sepa-rate from the special feast days of the church. Regular Sundays were those that were ordinary, that is, they fell into a regular pattern and the feast days began to be known as out of the ordinary, the origin of our word extraordinary.
“We do not live in ordinary times,” the politicians tell us, that is, we do not live in times that can be counted, thought of as regular. Those times, the extra-ordinary ones, are times in which prophets appear, such as the Third Isaiah, with his vision of peace; that time, an extraordinary one, was the one in which Jesus brought God’s presence to the world.
These times, we are told, are not ordinary because of the threats we face abroad from ISIS and other forms of terrorism and the challenges of white suprem-acy and hatred here on the home front.
Not to downplay any of the threats or challenges we face now, I wonder if any time has ever been “ordinary,” or as we like to think, ordered, countable, secure. As we move in our church calendar from ordinary time to a feast day — Christ the King Sunday is the traditional feast day prior to the Season of Advent, not an ordinary time, I wonder: Have we not always been in an advent, a time of waiting and watching?
The time when I was born was not an ordinary time. We were in the midst of a great war. The same is true of most of you: during a horrifying war in Europe or its aftermath. When have our times ever been “ordinary,” in the way we use the word outside of the liturgical sense? I daresay that our times have always been challenging, even though they may not have seemed so.
Well, you may say, I remember a time of quiet, of peace, when times seemed ordinary. Nostalgia is like the fog in the early morning, obscuring reality so what we get is a splash of color on a warm fall morning. We like to remember a past when times were good, when we were happy — or at least not told to be constantly fearful.
We like to remember our past loves with happy memories rather than the trials we had to face. We like to remember a world when life seemed less compli-cated, less hurried.
Although I do not think that the simpler time ever existed, I do believe that there was a time when life was less hurried. At the corner of Broad and Court Streets in Newark almost every day I see people speeding past the light which has just turned red or this past week honking at a man trying to cross in a wheelchair and I have to wonder, what is the hurry? Well, that’s Newark,, you say, but I see the same lack of courtesy here on Route 35 and even on Kings Highway.
In the past, I usually associated “hurry” with New York, but the need to get there faster, cram more information into our minds more quickly, to rush to beat the other guy has really taken over our lives.
Take the cell phone, for instance. Granted it is a really great device, an instrument that has saved the lives of countless individuals — so important that battered women’s shelters and my local Y collect used ones to deprogram and give to women who face real life threatening situations — but it is also a device that forces us into the instant, the thing that just can’t wait, a really obnoxious sense of “You’ve got to answer this now, and right now.”
I can’t tell you the number of times that I get a call on my cell from someone at my office about something that can really wait the one hour until I get there because when I’m in court or at someone’s hospital bed, I don’t have a file with me to answer the question that my staff is calling about. Last weekend I did a wedding — no ordinary time, to be sure — and wouldn’t you know it, the groom’s cell phone rang. I’m thinking, I am not going to stop the ceremony so he can answer his blasted phone!
No time is ordinary for us, measured or counted in a liturgical or regular sense because we are living in that time. This morning’s readings give us two greatly different views of a future time. Isaiah’s dream of peace, when the wolf will feed together with the lamb, is contrasted with Jesus’ prediction of strife when even family will betray family. How do we put these contrasting images together?How can we reconcile them, if at all?
Although we may not be able to reconcile them in any ordinary — ouch, terrible pun — sense of the word, we can see how they cast time out of the ordinary. Our faith and the way we live our lives in response to God’s call to faithfulness will pit us against others, perhaps not in our immediate family, but certainly within the larger family of our community.
I know one pastor who because of his change in faith orientation his congregation, a group of people he had considered family, is ready to throw him out. In fact, it may lead to a real break and he may leave ministry because of it. Not too long ago, this church faced conflict with the North Shore Association over its commitment to diversity. These statements in Luke’s Gospel, warning the community of the conflict that their faithfulness would engender, were certainly on point.
Isaiah’s vision of peace is one that needs closer examination. It says that the wolf will feed together with the lamb, not that we will all become lambs — or wolves. The vision is one of diverse elements sharing life together in their diversity, of respecting each other even though they are different species.
We face this challenge in America today. We need to find a way for the diverse elements of our society to differ and even oppose each other but with-out the idea of “destroying” the other. Look at our political language as an example. It is so polarized and destructive. It does not permit us to talk, or, even more importantly, to listen, to others who do not share our opinions.
This is not to say that all opposing groups, such as white supremacy with its racism, misogyny and homophobia, should stand on an equal footing, but unless we understand the roots of this kind of thinking and acting, we cannot contain it, we cannot move people out of it.
The hope is, of course, that through the struggle of living faithfully, even though the family of human-kind may rise up against one another we are able to develop even in our differences a measure of the vision of Isaiah. Whether that is possible I don’t know, but I do know that if we do not live faithfully, it will not be possible.
Let us pray: God who encompasses all human-kind, we pray that we are able to live faithfully in these not so ordinary times so that we can fulfill the vision of peace given us through your Holy Word. In the name of him who came to show us how to live faithfully, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.