Saturday, September 6, 2008
Second after Pentecost, 2008
Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Peaceable Kingdom
May 25, 2008 2 Pentecost (RCL Proper 3A)
In the cycle of the Church Year we have moved into the long “green season.” In the older calendars we called this Trinitytide, stretching from last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, out across the rest of spring and through the summer and fall and all the way to Advent Sunday, when our observance of St. Andrew’s Day and then Thanksgiving Day will be memories, and when we’ll all be busy moving ahead with our Christmas shopping and all the customary holiday preparations and celebrations. A long stretch indeed, and I can almost feel a hint of crisp autumn air around us on this Memorial Day weekend Sunday morning.
The calendar of our new (1979, is that still new?) prayer book calls it by this kind of generic , less poetic name, “the Season after Pentecost.” Our friends in the Roman Catholic branch of the family go even further in their modern calendars and call these months, along with the weeks between the Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, simply, and I love this, “Ordinary Time.” Just plain old “ordinary time.” A few saint’s day celebrations, perhaps, national holidays, and so on, but otherwise in the great cycle of Christian observance, a time to move from the special interests and highlights of Advent and Christmas and Lent and Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost, a time to settle back into the routines of our lives, day to day. After Pentecost: Ordinary Time.
For those who think no day is complete without a little excitement, a festival or a mountaintop moment or a crisis or calamity of some sort, this all may sound a little dull. Change, drama, conflict: that’s why we became Episcopalians, after all . . . . Which you’d think by reading the papers, and some folks seem like they thrive on this. One “red letter day” after another. Adrenaline and turbulence, controversy and confrontation. But this morning we’re directed to a deeper place. Down below the rough surface of waves crashing and storm winds blowing. A quieter place. To the place where things settle.
The Collect for this Sunday is one of my favorites. It appeals to me as a reflection of a kind of Benedictine temperament. We have it on this Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 3 in the Prayer Book calendar. In the earlier English Prayer Book tradition, it was appointed for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, translated from an early Latin prayer and shaped for the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer with his elegant simplicity of expression (and you can compare the version printed in our leaflet this morning to see just a light bit of modern editing, but here is Cranmer): “Grant, Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by thy governance, that thy congregation may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I remember a friend of mine told me in seminary that he wanted to be a parish priest because “that’s where the action is.” I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I think for him it had to do with being on the cutting edge, engaging the hot issues, bursting with prophetic enthusiasm in conflict with the powers and principalities of a society in turmoil, changing the world. Where the action is. And I wonder what, back in Berkeley, where the fading aroma of burning draft cards still sometimes seemed even in the early 1980’s to be hanging in the air--I wonder what he would have said, my friend, to a vision of Church expressed this way: “that thy congregation may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness.”
Now in all this I don’t mean to suggest that Christian lives aren’t sometimes shaped in cataclysmic circumstances: thus the lives of the martyrs, of many in many generations who have been and who are being now subject to violence and persecution on account of their faith; thus the lives of some of the great saints and heroes, St. Paul or St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the great martyred Archbishop Janani Luwum, who defended the Christians of Uganda against the violence of dictator Idi Amin, and paid for it by being fed to the crocodiles. When these moments come, as they do come to some, and as they may to any of us, we would pray for the strength and the courage and the vision to be faithful to the end in our Christian witness.
But that said, there can also be a tendency in us to be drawn toward that in unhealthy ways, toward drama and conflict and turbulence. Which for some of us can be a kind of drug, actually. And an addictive drug at that. Perhaps because it makes us feel more important, perhaps because it will nourish our sense of pride, even of self-righteousness. That it will provide for us that too-delicious sense of an urgent grievance. I’ve even heard it said that some of us may have “control issues.” Not me personally, of course, and not clergy in general. But some other people. We would see this around us too, in our own current situation, in many contexts, on all sides of conflict and controversy, grounded in the belief that the Promised Land is just over the next hill, and that we can get there today, now, urgently, if we would all just stir ourselves up to a higher pitch of action, if we would just push a little harder.
When I feel myself from time to time sliding along this way, I am helped by remembering the title of a great book about the life of the Christian and the vocation of ministry written back in the 1970’s by the Presbyterian pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson, called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. A view of Christian life and ministry not about the urgent crisis, or forks in the road, or crests of the mountain, or breathtaking 100-yard sprints, but as the life of the long-distance runner, and about the days and the weeks and the months and the years of the accumulation of moments and experiences, one at a time.
Two friends sharing a cup of coffee at a kitchen table, to share a moment of conversation about the events of the day. A mother tells a story about what Family Christmas was like when she was a girl, as she sits in traffic with her own kids on their way to do some shopping at the mall. A young couple make plans for their wedding. A brother flies in from North Carolina to be godfather at his nephew’s baptism. I think of Lily Buchanan’s wonderful Godly Play sermon last Sunday. The choir members work out their schedule for musical offerings in the summer season. One friend comes home after a successful surgery and finds the mailbox full of get-well notes from folks down at church. We sit together to plan for a family gathering and service at the time of the death of one we have loved. Sacrament, song, prayer. The patterns unfolding Sunday by Sunday of Bible stories and offerings, the kids in their classes and processions, coffee hours and potluck suppers. Year after year after year, as the kids grow older, and we do too, as the seasons change, high moments and low moments, good days and bad days. Year after year.
A reminder of an image that I love, that in the old Benedictine monasteries of Europe when the novice made his first vows of obedience and stability in community he would be assigned on that day his bed in the dormitory, and then his place at the table, and then his desk in the workshop or scriptorium, and his grave in the cemetery. The message was, “We’re in this life together, for the duration. “ Growing in faith, spiritual depth, maturity in Christ--sometimes by leaps and bounds, but more often by smaller steps. Day by day, year by year. The life of faith not about buying a house on speculation and hoping to throw on a coat of paint and flip it in six months, but about settling in, planting trees, going deep, making a home. In it together, for the duration.
“That thy congregation may joyfully serve thee in godly quietness.” Not to say that we don’t have our noisy and dramatic moments, our depths of despair and dark nights, our mountaintops and sudden revelations of grace. The Holy Spirit will do whatever he will do. But this morning, as our first Sunday morning of “ordinary time,” I would give thanks for the ways we find Christ and the way he finds us in the “ordinary time” of our lives day by day, week by week. His cross, his resurrection body. He appears and transforms our lives and our world in such deep and unexpected ways. Gradually, and sometimes so quietly. So this morning, this morning I would give thanks for the spiritual gifts of patience, of endurance, of consistency, for the saints and heroes who roll up their sleeves and set out to do the good work God has given them and given us, most of the time without spotlights and trumpet fanfares. With such generosity, and such grace. For you, for the lives we share. The miracles of God’s presence and God’s love in everyday life. That thy congregation may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.