Saturday, July 4, 2009

B: Proper 9

Mark 6:1-6

As most of you know, it’s possible to have almost any manner of conversation with the person who cuts your hair. Some years ago, I had a barber who revealed, as he was snipping away at my locks, that he had, just a couple of weeks earlier, fallen asleep at the wheel while driving 75 miles per hour, and driven his car off the road. The car was totalled, he said, but neither he nor his wife nor either of his two children suffered as much as even a scratch. He attributed his good fortune to someone watching over him, “the man upstairs”, as he expressed it. (Why is it that people are so often afraid to just say “God”?) It was a dramatic and extraordinary escape from a brush with death, and it was easy for him to recognize and name, even if by euphemism, the hand of God in that moment of his life.

But I wonder—I don’t know, but I wonder—whether he would be equally ready to recognize God’s presence in, say, the voice of one of his children, or in the task of sweeping up hair from the floor around his work station, or in the long wait at a red light—in other words, in the ordinary routine of his daily life.

But, then again, I also wonder the same things about myself. We all, it seems, have a tendency to perceive that unless an experience is dramatic and extraordinary, it must not have anything to do with God. Old movies have reinforced this notion, with shafts of light appearing suddenly through the clouds and choirs of angelic voices singing in the background whenever the director wants to invoke the divine presence into the story. God is present only in the miraculous, and the ordinary is simply--well--just that: ordinary.

This was certainly the attitude of the residents of Jesus’ home town, Nazareth. He came back to town after having made something of a name for himself elsewhere. He had cast out demons and healed the sick and demonstrated his power over even the forces of nature. He even had a small band of followers as evidence that others really did take him seriously, followers who had heard him speak with the kind of authority that was the unmistakable mark of God’s presence. But to the Nazarenes, he was just Jesus from down the street, the carpenter who until recently had supported himself by making ploughs and yokes. What’s all this talk about him being the messiah, the savior of Israel? Why, we watched him grow up! His mother lives over on the next block, and he’s got relatives all over this town. We don’t understand why those out-of-towners are so impressed with him. He’s just an ordinary guy!

Now, it’s easy for us to read this story and feel smug and condescending toward those poor stubborn Nazarenes. Hindsight is always 20/20. But I suspect that many of us would have reacted in precisely the same way they did. A God who is present to us in the ordinary time and space of our lives is as threatening to us as Jesus the carpenter being the messiah was for the Nazarenes in Mark’s gospel. We all want God to be there—very few people, I believe, are actually attracted by atheism. We all want someone who will let us fall asleep at the wheel and walk away without a scratch. But we don’t want that God to be with us, to show himself to us, to speak to us, through the ordinary things and events of our lives. If God is with us in the ordinary, then, well, God is with us—all the time!

A sobering spiritual exercise is to climb into your bed at night, and before you drift off to sleep, review all the events of your day and then imagine Jesus by your side, hearing everything you say and watching everything you do. There is, to be sure, a large measure of comfort in that thought, but there’s also a large measure of shame. Most of us say we want an intimate relationship with God, but we want to be choosy about when and how that intimacy is expressed. If God is as close to us as the grass under our feet and the raindrops falling on our head, then we cannot escape his claim on the entirety of our lives, his gentle but persistent call to follow Jesus, to leave all else behind and follow him. And we’re afraid of what that might mean. We’re afraid of whatever it is that such a God—a God who is as close and familiar as the ordinary stuff of life—might ask us to be or do.

And so we put our spiritual blinders on. We choose not to see God who is right here with us, too close and familiar to be taken seriously. We even blind ourselves to the God who is present with us here in this beautiful place, at this time, as we do what we’re doing this morning. For most of us, the liturgy is so familiar, so routine, that we have a difficult time believing that God could actually speak to us in it or through it, just as those first century townspeople in Nazareth couldn’t believe that God could actually speak to them through someone as familiar and ordinary as Jesus. They wanted a messiah who would be larger than life, riding on a stallion and driving the Roman legions from the land of Israel. We want a God who will protect us from traffic accidents and violent crime and cancer, or whatever it is that we feel the need to be delivered from.Both we and the Nazarenes of old run the same terrible risk. In our stubborn refusal to accept God on his own terms, we run the risk of rejecting God altogether. And if we lose God, we lose ourselves.

What we need, my friends, is to listen less to the God of Hollywood, with his thunderbolts, angelic messengers, and heavenly choirs, and listen more to the scriptures and to the tradition of Christian teaching. The truth is that not only does God reveal himself in the familiar and the ordinary, but that is his preferred method! What is more routine and familiar than a human being, born of a woman, starting out as a child and growing to adulthood? Yet, that is precisely the form God chose to disclose himself fully and definitively to the human race. What could be more ordinary than a family, a community of people bound together by ties of common blood, common ancestry, shared heritage?

Yet, the family is one of the primary biblical images for the Church, those who have been adopted by God, made fellow-heirs of God with Christ. What could be more common and routine than taking a bath or eating and drinking? Yet, these are the means by which God unites us with himself and nourishes us with his own life, in the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist.

God has deemed it fitting and proper that the normal channel of his operation in our lives is the very structure of our lives. Our habits and preferences—the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the route we take to work or school, the music we hear, the books we read, the movies we enjoy—the very patterns of our coming and going, our working and playing—become the means by which God speaks to us.

This truth, of course, is applicable to all Christians—indeed to anyone who would seek and find God—but it is a particularly integral part of our own Anglican spiritual tradition. John Keble, the priest and poet of the last century, spoke of seeing God in the “trivial round, the common task.” This applies, of course, to the ordinary and familiar religious observances that we engage in as well, like the Sunday Eucharist. Let’s face it, nothing that you do fifty or sixty times a year can be an extraordinary, awe-inspiring, spine-tingling spiritual experience every time. It sometimes is, but that’s just gravy, a bonus. And on top of that, many of you, I’m sure, are faithful in your daily prayers, whether that takes the form of the Daily Office or something more uniquely personal. I’m sure that get’s pretty repetitive and boring as well. I know it does for me.

Is God present and working in the midst of all this religious ordinariness? You bet he is!—just as surely—no, more surely—than he was with my sleeping barber as he drove off the road. So I, for one—and I hope you will join me—intend to continue with my routine and ordinary religious practices, even when they’re dry and boring. And I’m also going to make an extra effort to keep my eyes wide open in the other ordinary aspects of my life, for there is where the God who made me and loves me and wants to make me like himself will show himself to me. There is where I will hear his voice calling me and inviting me to follow him. There is where I will find the only truly lasting peace and fulfillment.

Have a ordinary day!

Amen.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

Thanks for this sermon, there is some real good stuff to help us on the way.

Thanks for this reminder:

"Most of us say we want an intimate relationship with God, but we want to be choosy about when and how that intimacy is expressed. If God is as close to us as the grass under our feet and the raindrops falling on our head, then we cannot escape his claim on the entirety of our lives, his gentle but persistent call to follow Jesus, to leave all else behind and follow him. And we’re afraid of what that might mean. We’re afraid of whatever it is that such a God—a God who is as close and familiar as the ordinary stuff of life—might ask us to be or do."

Today I was again thinking about the fear of the Lord when I read the lessons from Samuel about Saul's disobedience of the command to slaughter the entire enemy even the livestock. A fearful command from God to be sure, and then in Acts 9:31 I read:

"Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers."

Living in the presence of the Lord should be a fearful thing should it not?