Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ordinary Time, 11th August 2013.

The children’s story was 

Dr Seuss’s Great Day for UP!  And Bruce Chilton read it fabulously.  

The sermon went like this:

Part One.

So, who knows what today is, in terms of religious festivals?

Today is, unusually, absolutely nothing in terms of religious festivals.

In Roman Catholic and Church of England calendars, today is the 19th Sunday of the second period of Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time.

Not something-special time. Ordinary time.

In church terms, Ordinary Time is those weeks of the year which, basically, aren’t anything else.  It’s not Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter.  It’s just . . . ordinary. 

This period starts on the Monday after Pentecost, and continues until the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent.

The website Catholicism . about . com tells us that Ordinary time is one of the most confusing seasons in the liturgical year.  They’re not kidding:  quite apart from anything else, Ordinary Time starts with the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.  And this is why: Ordinary Time begins on the Monday after the first Sunday after January 6th.  (So far so clear).  In most years, that Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  However, where the celebration of Epiphany is transferred to Sunday, if that Sunday is January 7 or 8, Epiphany is celebrated instead.  Epiphany would displace a Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Thus, the first Sunday in the period of Ordinary Time is the Sunday that falls after the first week of Ordinary Time, which makes the First Sunday of Ordinary Time the Second Sunday of Ordinary time.  

Sometimes I think it must be much easier to lead worship in a church with a fixed calendar.  Sometimes I realise I’m wrong. 

However, here we are in Ordinary Time. 

Having realised today was nothing special in the mainstream church calendar, I turned to the moon-phase calendar which hangs in my kitchen.  

As well as the phases of the moon – more useful than you might think -my calendar lists all the festivals and celebrations from the following traditions:  Baha’i, Balinese, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Mayan, Pagan, Persian, Roman, Sikh, Theravad Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist, Zoroatrianism, and various secular traditions, as well as national celebrations in a huge number of countries.  It tells me about gems such as Excited Insects Day, and National ‘Sorry’ Day, in Australia, International Mountain Day, and the World Naked Bike Ride day. 

And for August 11th 2013, my calendar lists Absolutely Nothing.  Not a single celebration.  All those cultures and traditions, and there’s nothing.  It’s one of not many days in the year where that happens. 

I actually found myself feeling a bit sorry for August 11th.  And then I realise it’s a day in the calendar, not a sentient being, so I pulled myself together.

But today, genuinely, is nothing special.  Just an ordinary summer Sunday. 

I bet you’re glad you bothered to get up and come to church, now. 

Just like in the shock ending of the children’s story – where, although it was, you’ll have noticed, considered to be a Great Day for Up, the main character thought they wouldn’t bother after all: we get days where it just seems a little pointless.  And today – 11th August – International Day of Nothing Very Special, International Ordinary Time Day, might well seem like one of those. 

But, actually, I’ve been a little disingenuous about Ordinary Time in the liturgical year.  The Anglican Liturgy Office website is at great pains to tell us that Ordinary doesn’t mean ‘boring’, or ‘normal’, it just means “weeks which are counted rather than named.”  You may think that’s much the same, and I might agree.  But it also goes on to point out that Ordinary Time is about celebrating the whole of creation, the whole – in Christian terms – of Christ’s work and ministry.  One Catholic website says this (I’ve adapted it slightly):

Ordinary Time is the season of the Church year when we are encouraged to grow and mature in daily expression of our faith outside the great seasons of Christmas and Easter.

Ordinary Time is a time to deepen one's prayer life, read the Scriptures, unite more deeply with God and become a more holy and whole person.

Ordinary Time is a period when average people like you and me strive to become the extraordinary messengers that we have been commissioned to be.

Ordinary Time is this day, this moment.  Now.

So, actually, Ordinary Time isn’t about nothing.  It’s not about not celebrating or marking nothing, it’s about celebrating and marking everything.

So it really was worth getting up for. 

Part Two:

You’ll probably all know that song “I wish it could be Christmas every day”? 

If I’ve just given you an earworm – and a very nasty one at that – I apologise. 

But you know that feeling, that if it was always Christmas, or always your birthday, or you were always on holiday, or, basically, it was always carnival, everything would be super and lovely and you’d never be bored or frustrated again.

It’s something we definitely think when we’re children, and I think at the back of our minds we still think it as adults.  If you’re having a particularly lovely holiday somewhere peaceful and your whole family is getting on well and you’re relaxed and happy and feeling healthy and you’re not stressed, of course you’re going to think ‘I wish this could last.  I wish I didn’t have to go back home.”  It’s normal.

But of course it can’t last.  And even if it could, it would soon stop being special. 

A few years ago, my then-partner and I were evacuated from our flat because of subsidence.  It was all terribly exciting and we had two hours to get out and no one in the block knew, for several days, what was going to happen.  But the powers that be handled it brilliantly, and we were accommodated in a rather nice hotel for the full eight weeks (apart from the two we decided to go to Spain).  And the first, maybe the first week or so, it was rather nice.  Meals were provided, someone else made our bed, our bathroom got cleaned, it was sort of like being on holiday – admittedly, a holiday where you’re waiting to hear if your home is going to be pulled down with all your possessions still inside it, but still, a holiday of sorts.  But after that first couple of weeks – the normal length of time of most holidays, we – and our other neighbours who were in the same block, all started realising that we wanted to go home and hoover something.  We wanted to make our own breakfast the way we wanted it.  We wanted to not bother with breakfast and not have anyone know. 

Nothing awful was happening.  In fact, lots of it was rather nice.  But it wasn’t ordinary.  And we need ordinary.  We all know, after all, that when the Chinese say “may you live in interesting times” it’s a curse, not a blessing. 

Does anyone know much about theory of carnival?  Carnival is about those ‘other’ times.  It’s about literal carnivals, but it’s also about festivals – Christmas, Easter, holidays – and about the fact that they only work because they are temporary. 

In a lot of classic carnivals things are turned upside down.  The powerful are made foolish, fools are put in charge, rules are deliberately and joyously broken, and there’s a licensed madness.  But that licensed madness is strictly limited.  Just like Christmas has Twelfth Night, carnivals have an ending. 

We have to go back to normality.

And more than having to go back to it, we have to learn to love it.

Psalm 118, verse 24 says (anyone?):  This is the day which the Lord hath made.  We will rejoice and be glad in it. 

That’s actually a good thing to wake up and think to yourself – and it does, actually, form part of my morning prayer practice.  Again, if you’re not that theist, just “oh good, another one!” will do.

But I think there’s another interpretation of that verse, rather than the one we tend to think of.  We tend to think it says “this day is glorious, this is another wonderful day which God has given us, and we will therefore, because it’s easy and obvious, rejoice and be glad in it.”

And on a glorious day – on your birthday, when it’s sunny and you’re only expecting good things and everything seems fabulous in your world, it’s very easy to wake up and be glad in the day the Lord made for you.

It’s not so easy when it’s the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time and it’s a bit overcast (or pouring with rain, or too hot to think) and there’s nothing to celebrate particularly and you’re probably going to have to pay a bill and everyone’s a bit grumpy with you and you with them, and it’s absolutely months til it’s next Excited Insects Day and even more months til World Naked Bike Ride Day. 

Those days, it’s a bit harder to rejoice and be glad in it.  We don’t tend to rejoice at the ordinary.

But the other way I think that Psalm can be interpreted is this, and it only needs a change in how you say it.  I find myself wondering if what the Psalmist meant was something less like “wow!  What a glorious day!  Rejoice!” and more like “Okay, this is the day the Lord hath made.  This one, this not particularly glorious one.  This slightly difficult one.  This very ordinary one.  This is what God has chosen to give us as our today.  So, we will rejoice and be glad in it.  Because we might as well.”

I was trying, while I was writing this, to come up with a far more elegant way of saying “this one, this day, this is the day the Lord made, so suck it up.”  But I sort of failed.

These Ordinary days are really important.  They’re also glories in their own right.  Whether you believe God gave them to us or not, whether you believe there’s any intention in there being a today, you can’t deny that today happened.  You can’t deny that you woke up and saw today. That there was food for you today, and clean water, company, if you want it.  That you are well enough to have come here, that there is a here to come to, that we are free to worship here together, that however Ordinary it might be, today is happening and you are here to witness it. 

Like the poem reminded us earlier:  there are people longing for an ordinary day.  For what we, in the pampered west, think of as an ordinary day.  There are people, close to us here and on the other side of the world, who are not having an ordinary day.  Who are having a terrifying and hungry and pain-filled day, and who would give a lot to be able to be slightly bored by the humdrumness of this one. 

So let’s not find this Ordinary Time to be too much of a boring nuisance.

This is the day which the Lord has made – or which, anyway, has happened.  So let us – however Ordinary it is, and however Ordinary we are – rejoice, and be glad in it. 


We sang:

The spirit lives to set us free
Now we sing to praise love’s blessing
The harvest of truth
For the splendour of creation

(this isn’t one really bizarre Unitarian hymn, by the way:  it’s the titles of four non-bizarre ones).  

Our readings were:

And an adaptation of Let Me Hold You While I May, by Mary Jean Irion:

It’s been a normal sort of day — common, like a rock along the path. Nothing about it would make one stop suddenly, pick it up and exclaim over it as one might do with a shell or a glistening piece of quartz.

What was it really, this normal day? It was routine mostly.

It was pleasant now and then.

It was irritating now and then.

It was deeply joyous now and then.

It was sobering and frightening now and then.

It was blessed with love throughout.

Just a normal day.

A normal day?!

Holding it in my hand this one last moment, I have come to see it as more than an ordinary rock.  It is a gem, a jewel. 

In time of war, in peril of death, people have dug their hands and faces into the earth and remembered this.
In time of sickness and pain, people have buried their faces in pillows and wept for this.

In time of loneliness and separation, people have stretched themselves taut and waited for this.

In time of hunger, homelessness, and want, people have raised bony hands to the skies, and stayed alive for this.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.

Let me learn from you, love you, savour you, bless you before you depart.

Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.

Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.

One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky, and want more than all the world your return. 

And then I will know what now I am guessing:  that you are, indeed, a common rock and not a jewel, but that a common rock made of the very mass substance of the earth in all its strength and plenty puts a gem to shame. 

The spoken prayers went like this:

Please join with me, now, in a time of prayer, and reflection.  Call it what you feel the most comfortable to call it.  This time is for drawing closer to the eternal. For communicating with that which you may call divine.

Be comfortable.  Be calm.  Be wholly within your own being. 

Let us think, for a moment, of the glories of the ordinary.

Of the minute, invisible, unthinking miracles that take place a million times even on this most mundane of days.

Let us think of the birthing, and the growing, and the flourishing and the developing and the showing.

And let us think of the love, and the companionship, and the community and the caring, and the praying.

And let us think of the air, and the light, and the breeze and the rain and the warmth.

Let us think of the talking, and the laughing, and the hugging, and also of the weeping and the mourning

Let us think of the seeing, and the touching, and the hearing and the tasting and the smelling. 

Let us think of the reading, and the learning, and the debating and the meditating and the thinking.

Let us think of these ordinary, commonplace glories, and the blessing that comes to us from ‘normal’.

And let us, too, think of those for whom these days are not ordinary.  For those who long for ordinary, as a break from heartache, and sickness, and misery, and imprisonment. 

And let us think, now, our own thoughts, and pray our own prayers, together, in the quiet of this sacred space and in the company of our beloved community.


And I think it was a good service . . . 

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