The Common Good
August 2011

No Ordinary Season

by Enuma Okoro | August 2011

During Ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, it might appear that not much is going on, ecclesially speaking.

During Ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, it might appear that not much is going on, ecclesially speaking. There are no appointed fasts, no calls to paschal celebration and feasting. It is an appropriate play on words, this ordinary time in which we merely count the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent. In some ways the selected lectionary passages are a good, albeit sometimes dismal, reminder that, as a general lot, we humans are pathetically ordinary. There is nothing new under the sun. Our hearts have been deceitful for millennia, our tendency and eagerness to exclude others is an age-old problem. Our plotting and planning for most things less-than-good raises few eyebrows. It is to be expected. A glance down history’s memory lane shows that humans are actually quite ordinary in our sin.

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What is far from ordinary is the reality that we are in a post-resurrection, post-ascension, post-Holy Spirit in-breaking season. It could be quite mind-blowing if we took the time to dwell on it. We are in the season that witnesses to a unique fullness of God's extraordinary lengths to love, reclaim, and redeem creation. We are invited in our very ordinariness -- warts and all -- to join in what God's about this season. God has equipped and will equip us to bear witness to God’s extraordinary love and power for the benefit of God's diverse and scandalous family.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

We have to remember the historical horrors humans have committed against one another. Remembering is necessary to remind ourselves how easily we reject God's invitation to receive love and to turn and love one another. Remembering is key to recalling our ongoing need for grace, forgiveness, and salvation. As the world marks the 66th anniversary of the U.S. dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, the difficult memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one more extreme example of how we turn away from God, how we convert blessings into curses. In this case, using the gift of science and human intelligence, we created atomic bombs. Sadly, humans all too readily turn God's gifts into something that encourages our own harm. It's an ancient dilemma.

In Genesis 37, young Joseph is blessed with the gift of prophetic dreaming. Instead of meditating on his holy visions, he turns the privilege of being privy to God’s future work into a childish opportunity to boast to his older brothers about how they would one day serve him. We know how his brothers respond to this: They sell him into slavery. Perhaps Joseph’s downfall was simply being too immature to know how to use his gifts.

Why is it so difficult for us to participate in both the love and the work of God? Why do we struggle so much to respond to the ever-extending reach of God, one who is eternally positioned toward us and whose purposes are always bigger and better than our own? The psalmist sings faithfully of God's steadfast love toward God’s creation, of God's unchanging intentions for creation to recognize and respond to God’s initiatives for peace and reconciliation.

In Romans 10, God comes so close to us in Christ Jesus that we are now able to hold the eternal God in our hearts and lay a mystical claim to God with our human lips. But we still find ourselves in the position of Peter in Matthew 14. Peter recognizes God, yet for every step he takes toward Jesus, he sinks in an ocean of doubt, pride, arrogance, fear, envy, and a myriad of other human failings.

[ August 14 ]
God Redeems
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

God's will for redeemed relationship and God's desire to see God's children live into their unique gifts and callings have more sustaining power than anything we might wish for, or commit against, one another. Yet we can understandably believe otherwise given the current global context, ongoing political and violent conflict between southern Christian and northern Muslim factions in Nigeria and Sudan, relentless acts of undocumented sexual violence committed against Congolese women, and countless problems within North America. Still, the truth is that no human intention for ill is too devious for God’s victory over darkness, and no circumstance too devastating for God's merciful and incomprehensible in-breaking.

It remains fascinating and perplexing how God fleshes out holy intentions from abominable human abuses and inexcusable ignorance. In Genesis 37 and 45, we witness two beautiful testaments to holy intrusion. First, God does not let go of God's own, even to the extent of crafting life from seeming death (Genesis 45:4-5). Consequently, the second testament is that, despite the trials that Joseph endured, he maintained a God-centered perspective on his life, presumably by faith and trust in God's prevailing purposes (Genesis 45:5b, 7-8). Throughout his years in Egypt, Joseph matured (rather painfully) into his calling, using his gifts of dream interpretation and wise discernment to reap blessings for countless Egyptians and eventually Israelites. (One might poignantly note through Joseph's example that living and growing into our gifts and callings might stem from passing through a refiner's fire.)

Joseph's redeemed relationship with his brothers mirrors God’s redeemed relationship with humanity, including the Israelites, of whom Paul writes in Roman 11. Joseph mimics divine mercy. He refuses to reject his people, despite his history. When we enter into covenant with God we recognize that it is God who is the constant and loving restorer, in spite of repeated human foibles. Such a God deserves the psalmist's praise.

What is even more astonishing and scandalous, as the story of the Canaanite women begging Jesus to heal her daughter boldly notes (Matthew 15:22-28), is that when God redeems, when God's flamboyant love floods out, everything and everyone can get caught in the wake, even those we foolishly imagine have no business petitioning or hungering after God in Christ Jesus.

Where are we willing to join in God's fleshing out of holy intention amid people and places we would rather deny than own?

[ August 21 ]
Behind Enemy Lines
Exodus 1:8 - 2:10; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

How reassuring it is to be reminded that God's ways are not the ways of the world. We see ample evidence that "worldly ways" show little interest in addressing the needs of everyone, but God not only welcomes all, but starts with those who have the greatest needs.

Moses' birth narrative (Exodus 1:8 - 2:10) is the template for all the other passages. God saves. God remembers the lowly. God's purposes prevail. God’s work is always for the wider community. God uses human agency. God trains us for the work of the kingdom.

Of all the things to highlight in this story, the role of Pharaoh's daughter, one of the women whom God asks to save Moses, cannot be bypassed. We are surprised to see God active behind "enemy lines." Our job is to train ourselves in knowing God's character so well that we can spot God's work wherever acts of mercy, hospitality, compassion, love, and justice are revealed.

As North American Christians, we are tempted to position ourselves as God's "chosen ones," and to name our contemporary "Egyptians" as enemies, based on cultural and religious difference. Yet in Matthew's gospel (16:16-17), when Peter says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," we recognize the importance of divine revelation and permitting God to open our eyes to the holy presence. We affirm the fullness of God in Christ, but fortunately we do not get to determine through whom glimpses of God are manifest. Rather Psalm 138 invites us to focus on being grateful and praising God’s steadfastness and faithfulness.

If only, as Paul urges in Romans 12, we would present our bodies to God to use as God intends for the benefit of all God's children. What would it look like for the church today to humble herself in a way that recognizes that she is equipped by the power of the Triune God to effect God’s purposes in the world (Romans 12:6), but also that her role is that of servant, not master (12:3)?

[ August 28 ]
Dangerous Dwellings
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

"Oh Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides," sings the psalmist (26:8). There is costly beauty in seeking out where God abides. To dwell with God is to willingly open ourselves to God's burning and seemingly dangerous love for justice. To walk in faithfulness like Moses, and ultimately like Christ, is to be open to the descending way of suffering, humility, and perseverance that is required if we are to live with compassion, with forgiveness, with the radical foolishness of loving our enemies, and with the pursuit of justice. It is not easy to choose the servant’s way. It is not easy to sing of loving the house in which God dwells.

Yet the testimony of the burning bush and the call of Moses in Exodus 3 is that God equips those whom God calls. The testimony of Paul's letter to the Romans (12:9-21) is that in the midst of the descending way, the faithful disciple still finds room to rejoice, hope, live peacefully, practice hospitality, and mimic God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit. Our human challenge is to recognize that the descending way of Christ is actually the ascending way away from the evils of the world. Christ reminds us in Matthew 16:24-26 that seeking the place where God’s glory abides means losing our life to truly gain it.

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