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No Ordinary Time

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Sep 09

Regathering Sunday
Text: Mark 7:24-37

While the liturgical calendar might try to tell us that this season from Pentecost leading to Advent is called “Ordinary Time,” for our First Church community, to say nothing of the rest of the world, this is no ordinary time. Say that phrase with me – No Ordinary Time. No Ordinary Time! In fact, we’ve taken as a theme for this new season now upon us: “No Ordinary Time: An Invitation to Listen and Learn”. To mark this time, we brought into our service today an ages-old symbol of time – an hourglass. I’ll explain that further in a moment but first let me try to ground this No Ordinary Regathering Sunday reflection in our gospel lesson for today.

Talk about no ordinary time! This seems like no ordinary day for Jesus, assuming he had at least a few those in his life. Call it an off day. Call it a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Jesus. Call it what you will but Jesus comes across as downright grumpy in this passage, at least at first. The scripture starts off with a mention that he “went away.” He went away to the region of Tyre and there he entered a house. Some translations tell us “he retired” to this place. This is one of several passages where we find Jesus seemingly needing to step away, to find some quiet time - whether for prayer and for God, or even tending to his own needs for rest or sleep. Though we can only speculate as to why he felt the need to be away, we quickly learn that this kind of a break wasn’t going to happen, at least not in the way that he thought it was. The poor guy didn’t want anyone to know he was there and yet the text tells us “he could not escape notice.” Who here can’t relate? Throughout his ministry, the gospels tell us how time after time Jesus is interrupted from his plans, interrupted from his business as usual, such as it was, or even from a rare moment of rest or repose, often when someone needed him.

No sooner had he arrived and kicked up his feet, or fell to his knees, or started doing whatever Jesus does when he’s by himself, and a woman, a foreigner no less, show’s up knocking. This poor woman is clearly suffering. Her daughter is sick. She’s desperate for his healing touch. His first response is, well…let’s just say, it’s not very Christ-like. In Matthew’s version of the story, he first ignores her with a silence that seems to say “Talk to the hand, sister…I don’t have time for you now.” Here in Mark, he just plain insults her. Our fairest Lord Jesus tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs”. Allow me to spare you all of the scholarship relevant to this highly contentious line and simply say that this is clearly a first century style “dis”. It’s a put down! Nellie’s been wearing a pin lately that says “Don’t put up with put down’s!” After reading this, I wished I could tell her to put that pin right on Jesus’ tunic! Let’s be clear here: this highly uncharacteristic reaction wasn’t just because he was tired. No. There are cultural forces at work here, forces that may have rarely taken hold of Jesus. As a Canaanite, as a Syropheonician, as a seemingly single mom, she was by all counts an outsider, and apparently those first century stereotypes that Jesus learned (about those outsiders being like dogs) somehow managed to find their way right to his very lips.

This moment that begins as an interruption marks a significant turning point in Jesus ministry. For here, just here, the Gospel writers seem to want to show us this radical side of Jesus’ ministry (and purpose), and God’s infinite and inclusive love, that it is not limited to his own kind of people. Here, more than anywhere else in the gospel, I feel as though we are capturing a rare glimpse of Jesus learning. Did you hear that? Jesus learning? Yes, we see Jesus learning that God’s love and his embodying of it must extend to all people. Imagine, Jesus, bone-tired as he surely was, desperate for a little downtime in Tyre. And just then, he finds himself entering into one of the only moments in scripture where he is not in the role of teacher or rabbi but where he instead is a learner, a student even, being called to task by a woman’s suffering. At least he has a quick response time. He hears the woman’s quick-witted come back – at least dogs can eat crumbs from the table and he registers it instantly, as if to say “Ok. You got me. You caught me having a bad day.” And only then does he turn and say what he might have said and what this poor woman was so desperate to hear: “Demons be gone! Your daughter is healed.”

As if to underline the point, Mark’s very next story has Jesus healing a deaf and mute man. Here, he’s far more like himself, or maybe his new and improved self! He touches this man, his ears and his tongue, and as if he were preaching to himself (always the best kinds of sermons). He says, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Those around him were were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak." We can imagine Jesus response – “yeah, right, even my own deaf ears! Even my own careless tongue! You know I needed that taste of my own medicine, thank me very much!” I’ve shared with some of you before what Peter Gomes once said was one of key lessons he had learned about God over his then 30 plus year career in ministry. He said he learned that God keeps getting bigger and bigger. It seems that here, Jesus, from his year or so in public ministry, had learned much the same thing. Indeed, thanks to that Canaanite woman, God and God’s love grew within him that day, and grew out of him and it eventually came to touch the ears and the tongues, not only of a deaf and mute man, but a deaf and mute world so that even we too may learn to listen for and speak out of God’s ever widening love.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I find this story a cautionary tale as I prepare for my own sabbatical, which will begin after our services on September 30. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale for us all. The point, I hasten to mention, is not that we all should expect to have our rest interrupted the moment we catch our breath (though for some who are entering September and wondering where the did the summer go, what about all my plans for rest and renewal, that may well ring true). The point, I hope, is much different and much deeper. If we can get beyond the passing fun of catching Jesus on an “off day”, this passage is an invitation to wonder what can we learn, what can we hear, who or what can we heal, when we stop from our sometimes strident business-as-usual and enter into even a few moments of repose. And the answer may have as much to do with the growth of God in our souls. The theological rub here may well be that Jesus let his divine guard down just enough to be human and in that being human he learned exactly the gift of how to be more truly and authentically and lovingly divine! Imagine that – Jesus learning how to be more human, learning how to learn and grow into his God-given calling.

This brings me to our symbol for this Regathering Sunday! The Hourglass. The hour-glass is no stranger to the traditions of Puritan divines in whose line we stand today.

Walk into any New England church, meeting or gathering house during colonial times and you would find at least three things -- a bible, a candle and an hourglass. Practically speaking, the candle was there to aid in the seeing and reading scripture. Interestingly, we now have two candles to connote the at once divine and human nature of Jesus. Practically speaking, the hourglass was used as a timepiece for the services and more specifically for the sermon. (I know…I’m watchin’!) If it wasn’t sitting right on the pulpit, it might be held aloft from the pulpit on a brass or iron standard so that all could see it but so that the preacher could flip it at his discretion.

Alice Morse Earle, in her book Sabbath in Puritan New England writes: “an irreverent caricature of the colonial days represents a phenomenally long-preaching clergyman as turning the hour-glass by the side of his pulpit and addressing his congregation thus, "Come! you are all good fellows, we'll take another glass together!" Indeed, turning the glass, or having another glass, was an oft-heard expression in those times. There’s a story told of another preacher who was “at one time declaiming with great vehemence against the sin of drunkenness, and in his ardour had fairly allowed the hour-glass to run out… Unable to arrest himself in the midst of his eloquence, he exclaimed, 'Brethren. I have somewhat more to say on the nature and consequences of drunkenness, so let's have the other glass.” You laugh, but I bet his listeners would not have dared to flinch! Our own third minister, Rev. Urian Oakes, who went on to become the fourth President of Harvard College, is said to have turned the glass four times during one of his sermons. Just remember that whenever you think I’m going on too long!
Practical uses aside, both the hourglass and the candle served more meaningful purposes in those days. Indeed, they were considered to be “mementos mori” or reminders of the shortness of human life, the imminence of death, and the eternity of God. Hourglasses would sometimes even appear on 18th century gravestones. On the Cape Cod tomb marker of Elisha Bourne, the sand grains are all shown to be in the bottom portion of the glass. His time had run out! Candles burn down and out. Sands run through the hourglass. Our time in this world is precious, and short.

The hourglass, or any ancient time piece for that matter, a sundial, a water clock, a pendulum clock, a candle clock, casts into stark relief the way we consider time in our digital age where time and with it our own business-as-usual that is constantly measured by phones, electronic calendars and computers that are synchronized to the millisecond and that you never have to touch or turn or wind. By virtue of its simple, unplugged beauty, by virtue of its need for attention and the reminders that time, or least our measures of it, can stop, perhaps we too can remember what a gift time is. Since the beginning of creation, since God created and measured the day and night and said they were good, since God stopped from six days of business and on the seventh day rested, time has been a gift and invitation. As we spend some Sabbath time together today, we are invited to turn away from business as usual and listen for God’s word, whether made known through scripture, through the interruptions of so-called outsiders, or by the stirring in our souls. By the way, did you know that the length of an hour in most hourglasses is actually an hour give or take a few minutes! God bless who ever it was who is once said to have given their preacher a 48-minute hour glass! God bless the Syrophoenician woman who enlarged Jesus appreciation of the limits of his time, and by so doing enlarged both his humanity and his divinity!

Throughout this sabbatical season, especially on Sabbaths and Sundays, we…. and then you…will be invited to gather and re-gather with ample opportunity to listen to God, in moment or hours of worship and prayer. There will be opportunities to listen for the voice of God carried through each of us, through friends and old new, and through those voices within us and beyond us we would just as soon ignore. There will time and space to come and let your guards down, to be our tired human souls and to see what we can learn by stopping, and listening. There will be time to here at Jesus invitation, his demand, to himself, to the deaf man, and to each of us -- Be Open! Be Open! Friends, this is no ordinary time! The Sabbath is no ordinary day!

Let me wrap up by saying, until earlier his week, I would have given Doris Kearns Goodwin credit for that phrase “No Ordinary Time”. Some of you may remember her best selling book from the mid-nineties called No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. In an especially timely reading this week, I learned that she was quoting from a speech Mrs. Roosevelt gave at the 1940 Democratic National Convention. It was first convention speech ever to be given by a First Lady. And if you think the recent conventions of either party got a little crazy, apparently there was utter pandemonium in 1940. Less than a year into World War II, delegates were filled with anxious anticipation, not only about what was happening in the world around them, but about whether or not FDR would break with centuries old tradition and go for a third term, talk about extending the limits of time. Into these troubled waters, and before FDR had breathed a word of his own intentions, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a stem-winder of a speech. A headline the next day read: “Mrs. Roosevelt stills the tumult of 50,000!” Kearns Goodwin writes:

“Her words were simple and brief. In her message, she pleaded with delegates to understand that “this is no ordinary nomination in an ordinary time,” that the president could not campaign as he usually did, because he had to be on the job every minute of every hour. Roosevelt continued. “This is no ordinary time … no time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole.”

She could have just as easily been speaking to delegates of either party today, for indeed, this is no ordinary time, not for our church, not for our nation, politically nor economically, not for our planet, and God forgive anyone who like Roosevelt, feels so indispensible that that they need to be on the job every minute of every hour. And still, as nominations are sealed, as new semesters of learning and life begin, this is no ordinary time. As we face myriad reasons to retire into exhaustion, apathy, fear and despair and choose instead to seek out the truth of God’s timeless hope and love for all, for the whole world, this is no ordinary time. As we strive to turn the back the clock, indeed to turn the glass on recent decades of ecological devastation and as we seek to ground ourselves in more sustainable ways of living, this is is no ordinary time. Thanks be to God for this sweet and precious hour of prayer, and for what it may inspire in us when we walk out these doors. Thanks be to God for regathering us together in this community of human and divine love!

Before we enter into our hymn, we have a gift for each of you. Before there were watches or cellphones, people would carry mini versions of hourglasses to be mindful of time, and perhaps also of rest! In fact, they were used not only to measure sermons but to measure breaks from labor. Our gift to you, funded in part by a sabbatical grant, is a mini-hour glass. May it be for each of us a ‘no ordinary time” piece, a reminder of the gift of Sabbath and of our sabbatical season. May it call us all to be more human and so more divine. Place it on your desk, or next to your bed. Put it in your bag or even in your pocket and pull it out when you need a few moments of repose, or a few minutes minutes of prayer, a few minutes to be human, to listen and to learn about God’s eternal and infinite Love for you and for everyone. It’s just a three minute timer, but if that’s not enough, take it from the old-school preacher who said “Come now…shall we have another glass?”

Our ushers will help us share this gift – a gift of time, human and divine!

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