Year C, Proper 4 May 29, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.”
Good morning everyone and welcome to Ordinary Time! It actually started last week, but the first Sunday after the Pentecost, the first Sunday of Ordinary time is observed as Trinity Sunday, which we marked with that curious Creed by St. Athanasius. But today Ordinary Time is here in its plain old earnestness as today is simply the Second Sunday after Pentecost, and based on the date of Easter this year, we are on good old Proper 4.
There are a couple of roots to the term “Ordinary Time.” The first is simply the word “Ordinary.” It comes from the Latin ordinalis, referring to numbers in a series, from the root ordo meaning ordered. So the Sundays between now and the last Sunday after Pentecost are numbered, they come in order. That’s pretty ordinary.
A second distinction of this time is its plain old ordinariness. We are not in a season of feasting, like Christmas or Easter, and we are not in a season of fasting like Advent or Lent. It is just ordinary. A bit more than half of our year is ordinary. It lasts a few weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and then the long stretch between Pentecost and the first Sunday of Advent.
It makes sense. We spend our lives as we spend our days, and for most of us, most days are not days of feasts or of fasts they are just days. The big wheel turns by the grace of God, each day is a gift and we live it, each day, quite ordinarily. And the shape of the liturgical year frames that, enacts that. I am sure you noticed when you read ahead for the next few weeks in the lectionary that we are back in St. Luke’s gospel after our Eastertide with St. John. It is Year C, Luke’s year, and through November we will walk with Jesus in as ordinary a time as He had, and the gospel readings follow Him in His daily life in ministry, healing, teaching, communing with His friends and followers. The ordinary stuff in the life of our Messiah.
It is good, being in Ordinary Time. It is a good anchor, a reminder of how things actually are. Most things, most of the time are pretty ordinary. That is not to dismiss the fantastic nature of most anything you can think of, a morning in the life of the most ordinary garden is a festival of delights, but that kind of delight is ordinary. In our culture, certainly if you are engaged with any media, nothing is ordinary. Actually, ordinary is a death sentence. Every meal is a feast (indulge yourself), every party is epic, every event is a spectacle. Would you buy an ordinary car? Would you get an ordinary haircut? Would you feed your children, your best friend, your cat ordinary food? No, its Fancy Feast every day for my Fluffy.
But it can’t be a feast every day. Feasts loose their sparkle when they become regular, ordinary. What did Mae West say, “too much of a good thing can be wonderful”? I don’t think so. Too much of anything, even a good thing, is just that, too much.
However, we humans have an immense capacity to know what is right and do exactly the opposite; and with no irony, no consciousness, even. One of the gifts we have, is the knowledge of good and evil; ill gotten perhaps, but there is no giving it back. We have the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong. We also, due to the sinfulness of us and the world, have an immense capability to know in our hearts that something is true, and we have as immense a capability to live our lives as if it were not. It is very, very easy for us to deny the facts of life that are right in front of us. To walk right by immense suffering and really, truly, actually not notice it. The Good Samaritan might be a parable more about noticing then ignoring. How many people flying signs do you actually “see.” As Bishop Barbara Harris often says, (she was the first woman consecrated Bishop in the Anglican communion), “De-nial is not just a river in Egypt.”
So that goes for expecting every meal to be a feast or dismissing any march that is not million man march, but the sin of the ordinary is just as poignant in our ability to make ordinary things that are not, should not, must not ever be considered ordinary. We tolerate, normalize, make ordinary things that ought not be made so.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. It is a day for us to remember and commemorate those who have died under arms in the service of this country. It is a commemoration birthed in the wake of our own bloody civil war, a travesty in which all the dead and ruined were counted as our own.
Every day that I have been a priest our nation has been at war. (Everyday since I started seminary on September 12, 2001 we have been at war). Every day that every child in our church has been alive, we have been at war. Our president said “Yes We Can” end these wars. He couldn’t (at least he didn’t). And I don’t think about it that much, the wars, the untold horrors, the bone crushing human consequences, the trillions of dollars thrown away, the utter failure of every objective we had besides gaining control of the oil. And I am not alone in not thinking about it much. Since I been here, no one has come to me upset about the wars we are waging. Not one conversation. We have our little prayer, a prayer to end the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, in the prayers of the people each week, but I don’t have a prayer for peace on my lips every morning as I should. It has become so incredibly ordinary to be at war. Barrel bombs and IEDs and HVTs and TBIs and enhanced interrogation and drone strikes and the rest of it: it has all become routine, normal, ordinary?
I was involved in resisting the call for war back in 2002/3 up in Portland. Got myself arrested up there; the police singled me out and scared the stuffing out of me. But even then, even the most pessimistic, the most dire, the most blown out of proportion, hair on fire radical prediction about how few weapons of mass destruction would be found and how much suffering and death would come pale in comparison to how bad it has actually been. How not one speck of WMDs were found, and now what, 56 or 57 thousand American dead or wounded, not counting the 18 veteran suicides per day, the 200,000 the VA estimates do or will suffer from PTSD. Being exposed to war is a core source of trauma. We’re not a trauma in-formed nation we are a trauma formed nation. This is ordinary?
And non-American casualties? Those we call enemies or collateral damage… the numbers are intentionally murky, in Iraq alone the casualty counts range from 110,000 to 1,033,000. (The latter number from those radicals at The Lancet, the British version of the Journal of the American Medical Association). This has become ordinary.
And we have combat troops in 134 countries according to the U.S. Special Operations Command and drone attacks are ongoing in at least six countries. This is ordinary.
War is the most extraordinarily horrible thing that we as humans do. It is us, in every way, at our absolute worst. The most base hatred, violence and corruption that each of us carries within us is released in the black fog of war. Or it can be. It far, far too often is. Think the Somme. Nanking. Armenia. Bataan. Mei Li. Hadaitha, and what’s been in the news all this week: Hiroshima 130,000 dead with the pull of a lever. Horror upon horror. The things we do. The evils we ask others to do on our behalf. War takes good people, decent, kind people and invariably young people and forces them into impossible situations of life and death where no good options exist; maybe there are lesser evils to choose between but that is just the slow train to hell. Even that Centurion in St. Luke’s gospel today. “He loves our people,” the elders told Jesus. And Jesus himself says of him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” But he was a soldier, “a man set under authority” as he says, and when he gets an order from the Proconsul to put some rancorous Galilean village to the torch or the sword, or to oversee the crucifixion of some messianic revolutionary troubling the Pax Romana, like soldiers across the ages, what a terrible situation to be put in, what a horrible thing he would invariably do.
We need to remember the casualties of war. Woe be it to us that we forget, that we forget what it means to kill and die and rape and pillage in war, because that is what it is, governments organizing us to be at our very, very worst. We need to remember those who died doing what they thought was right, doing what they thought they needed to do, doing what they were told to do and couldn’t see any other choice. We need to hold tenderly in our hearts and prayers those who died thinking about the soldier, Marine, sailor or airmen on their left and on their right, a very different calculus of what is right and wrong then most of us have to consider. We have to remember and feel the burning shame that we ever put any of our young people in that position. In the position not only of having terrible things done to them, but being put in the position of having to do terrible things to other young people against whom they hold no grudge other then the one our leaders cultivate and the self-fulfilling ones developed in the course of war itself. War must never be ordinary.
John Paul Merton was on a bomber crew in England during the Second World War. In April of 1943, he took off on a mission to bomb the German city of Mannheim, a city about sixty miles from where I was born. The plane crashed in the North Sea. The surviving crew got him into their flimsy rubber dingy, but he was terribly injured and he died three hours after the crash. They remember him being very thirsty, but the water cask in the lifeboat cracked open in the crash. The crew was rescued five days later, but only after having buried him at sea on the fourth. His brother Thomas Merton was a novice at the Abbey of Gethsemane at the time and he wrote this poem with which he ends his masterwork The Seven Storey Mountain. This is in atone for appropriate for a Christian observance of memorial day:
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep My eyes are flowers for your tomb; And if I cannot eat my bread, My fasts shall live like willows where you died. If in the heat I find no water for my thirst, My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.
Where, in what desolate and smokey country, Lies your poor body, lost and dead? And in what landscape of disaster Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?
Come, in my labor find a resting place And in my sorrows lay your head, Or rather take my life and blood And buy yourself a better bed -- Or take my breath and take my death And buy yourself a better rest. When all the men of war are shot And flags have fallen into dust, Your cross and mine shall tell men still Christ died on each, for both of us.
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain, And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring; The money of Whose tears shall fall Into your weak and friendless hand, And buy you back to your own land: The silence of Whose tears shall fall Like bells upon your alien tomb. Hear them and come: they call you home.