Year B, Pentecost 2 (Proper 4)
June 3, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”
Happy Second Sunday after the Pentecost! Today is the first in a long string of “plain old Sundays.” There are 26 of them, half of the Sundays in the year. It is Ordinary Time. Well, Ordinary Time began the day after Pentecost, but the first Sunday after the Pentecost is a feast day, it has a name (Trinity Sunday), and the color wasn’t green (it was white), but today, the first in a long time, it is just a plain old Sunday.
Ordinary Time is just that, ordinary, ordered, regular, unchanging. It is not a feast season like Christmas or Easter, nor is it a fast season like Advent or Lent. It is ordinary. The calendar is patterned on the life of the world, starting with the life of Jesus. Take a look over here. This is the liturgical season wheel. I borrowed it from the Godly Play classroom. Advent is the preparation for His arrival. Fast. Wait. Clothe the church in the deep Marian blue. Then He’s here! In the snowy white of Christmas we celebrate. Then His presence is revealed to humanity in the Epiphany. He has a life in Galilee; teaching, healing, gathering followers, ticking off the civil and religious authorities; you know, generally spreading the Good News. That is represented by the little green bit of Ordinary time following the Epiphany. The purple of Ash Wednesday marks the point in Jesus’ earthly life that He begins the movement towards Jerusalem and His Passion. Lent, followed by the oxblood red of Holy Week and the dark-night-of-the-soul black of Good Friday. Then, as He promised Resurrection, celebrated in the finest Easter whites. For the fifty days of Easter we celebrate and then that whole age ends with the coming of the Holy Spirit in the red flames of the Pentecost. Which brings us to today, and the cool green of Ordinary Time, the representation of human history since.
Our story is told in the stories, the scripture readings and the text of the Mass and the Daily Office. It is told in the hymns and chants we sing, in the anthems our musicians bathe us in. In children’s songs. “This Little Light of Mine” and “He’ Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Don’t discount that pedagogy. Karl Barth, the giant of 20th century protestant theology, when pushed to describe the Christian faith in one line, sang “Jesus loves me this I know…” Our story is told in art, in every conceivable medium, maybe most importantly in the stained glass that instructed the illiterate for a millennium. It is even told in the haute priestly couture! Altar frontals and chasubles (high fashion in the Roman imperial court), in blue, white, purple, rose, ox blood, black and green like this one and its fish. And it is told in the movement of time, how we mark the progress of time.
There are a lot of ways that we mark the movement of time. We just talked about the seasons. That is our primary pedagogue of Christian progress. Colors, and what we have hanging from the Cross here is one way me represent those changes, but there are others, primarily in the conduct of the Mass itself. Right off the bat, how we greet each other changes. The salutation, the first words of the Mass are “Blessed be God” or “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins,” or “Alleluia Christ is Risen” depending on the season. (Can you guess which is which)? Whether we say a confession or not depends on the time of year. The beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, the preface varies. “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you…” that is always there, and then, depending on the season, an extraordinary Proper Preface is inserted. We also change the service music, the setting of the psalms, the sequence hymn (what we sing when the gospel is processed), the tune we use for the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). All of that comes together to move us purposefully, mindfully the spiraling and seemingly perpetual cycle of time in which we live and move and have our being, mimicking not only the narrative trajectory of Holy Scripture, but the natural cycles within which our species evolved. That’s pretty brilliant.
It gets deeper, though. This movement is not just annual, not just seasonal. The week itself has a ritual, a liturgical rhythm. From the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, the week is defined and organized in terms of remembering our relationship to God and the act of creation. That is what our readings are about today, the Sabbath and its keeping. Quick note, Sunday is not the Sabbath. That was a misguided innovation of English Puritanism, codified in this country by our Puritanical ancestors. The Sabbath, Saturday, was the day to rest; church going was something different, that was Sunday, and that is supposed to be a party.
The early church gathered on Sunday to celebrate. Even on a plain old Sunday in ordinary time, we gather to celebrate the superabundance of God on the first days: “Let there be light!” the first day of creation; the Resurrection, the Lord rose on the first day; the Pentecost, the first day of the new age. In the early church, the Eucharist itself was less a memorial of the Last Supper than it was a celebration of the royal banquet of the parables, the wedding feast at Cana, the feedings of the thousands and the fish Jesus ate with his friends after the Resurrection. As the historian Boone Porter writes, “Enjoying life on the Lord’s Day, we know that earthly existence is not meaningless or futile – neither is it final or ultimate. God has prepared something better for those who love Him (sic).”
If Sunday represents the first day, the creation, the Resurrection and Saturday marks and is the Sabbath, the other days of the week have meaning, too. Monday through Thursday are a mini ordinary time, just plain days. And then Friday, we hold, in our calendar too, as a day of special devotion is commemoration of??? Good Friday. Yes, every week has a Odd Friday. Roman tradition is to abstain from eating meat on Friday in observance of this. (The eating fish part, it seems, was actually from Edward VI in 1547 who wanted to prop up a faltering English fishing fleet). We mark it here each Friday morning with Contemplative Prayer at 8:30 and Morning Prayer at 9:00. Because weekly, in the shape of the week itself, we remember and celebrate the cycle of creation and death, of productive lives and mandated rest and then resurrection back into this new creation, new each and every week, and practicing that, through celebrating and working and fasting and resting, that practice reminds us, reminds us of who we are, of what we believe is important but is really hard to remember in the meat grinder our weeks and months can sometime feel like.
All of this, our Christian life together, defined by the stories, the language, the history, the practices… by the very way we understand and mark the movement of time in our liturgy, be it across the whole of the seasons of the year or the perpetual cycle of Sunday to Sunday, all of that serves to give us a reference point in the soup of time and space. It is a reference point so that we, brothers and sisters in Christ can meet on common ground, and is a reference point for our relationship with God in God’s self. God transcends time and space, but most of us, most of the time don’t. We gotta start somewhere.
Today we’re talking about the movement of time, one discrete category of human experience. Time does progress: it began, it continues, it ends. There is only this present moment, that is the only real time, but there was a past and (likely) there will be a future. Maybe it ends back at the beginning like the Moon orbits the Earth and the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun orbits the supermassive whatever it is in the middle of the galaxy, but as far as we are concerned, from a human perspective, it progresses. As the scatty creatures we are, a-swirl in our own daily, monthly, yearly, lifelong cycles of seasons, it is very, very helpful to have something to hold onto, something to share across the barrier of the self with another self; a common experience to bring us together, just that much closer. How many altar guilds across the world were ironing green things this past week? How many organists were practicing new service music? How many of us right now, on this “just plain Sunday” are thinking about the importance of the tradition of seasons in our worship if God and the living of a common life together? That is it happening. That is the stuff of community. That is the stuff of a people, that makes people a people.
Does that mean that God cares what color we wear or which proper preface we use or whether we rest on the seventh and celebrate on the first of each week? No. (I’m pretty sure about all of that, but let’s not put the Lord our God to the test). I’m joking just joking. God doesn’t care, but I do. The Church does. I think you should, too. It is not important in and of itself, but it is important to us as a people. As a people in relationship with each other and in relationship with a God transcendent and immanent, seen and unseen, fully human, fully divine. Just like Jesus teaches, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” I didn’t talk about the need for or meaning of Sabbath itself today, but of the need and meaning of marking time, of the practice of doing so. These are pedagogical tools, ontological handrails, metaphysical training wheels, that, when practiced, even on another just plain Sunday, help.
And in this moment, this chaotic moment in our human and natural history, the gift of marking time is the chance to experience the very ordinariness of time itself in an increasingly disordered time. Things seem to be moving very quickly now; from news cycles to melting glaciers, it seems to be changing faster and faster. (Well, the glaciers are melting faster, I’m not sure about the rest of it). But we are moving from one crisis to the next, faster and faster. One outrage, one injustice followed by another. Locating ourselves in time and place as our practices around time do, season to season, Sunday to Sunday, we can perhaps slow down, and take the time to better notice ourselves and how we are; how the world around us is, and how those around us are. From the reality of common experience, we can better sense when things are askew. When things are changing for the worse. Because they are. And we need all hands on deck.
So welcome to Ordinary Time. Summer it seems is here. I am not sure whether to be happy or worried. Sunday school is slowing down as of today. I think I’m going to start some outside building work here at church on Saturdays, Summer Saturdays in Service (or something like that). Planning for next year. Taking it a little easier week to week, enjoying the sun, finding a center in a new season. And finding new ways to “let the light shine out of darkness”, because despite how dark it seems or seems to be getting, the darkness will not over come it. AMEN