The Extraordinary Within the Ordinary

We are settling deep into the long stretch that the church calls "ordinary time." Our readings span the "Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time" to the "Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time." That feels like enough to get a yawn out of anybody. No startling birth, no earth-shaking resurrection, no wild Pentecost wind to stir us up these days.

But the pocket of Earth in which most of us reading this live is about to enter its most beautiful season, by my estimation. Leaves are turning, birds are moving, an expectant chill is setting in. Our task this season is to see the truly extraordinary within the ordinary; to know that behind the splashes of color and crispness of days is the invisible hand of a God who lovingly keeps it all in motion-and who calls us always to faithfulness.

September 3: Filling the Emptiness
Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Jeremiah 2:4-13, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Ah, what forgetful people we are. God needs to keep reminding us-"Remember that thing I did back at the sea when I parted the waters and led you to freedom?" The psalmist recounts the deed here, as other biblical writers do again and again throughout the scriptures.

The people of God have a tendency to forget, to run off in other directions. As the prophet Jeremiah recounts it, they "went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves" (Jeremiah 2:4). What an indictment! We become what we follow; we turn into what we love.

Jeremiah uses the metaphor of the people forsaking the fountain of living water offered by God and turning instead to cracked and leaking cisterns. They chased after emptiness.

The letter to the Hebrews gives some clues about how we should be filling up our days: living in mutual love, showing hospitality, remembering those in prison or being tortured (as though we were in prison or being tortured ourselves!). It exhorts us to keep ourselves free from the love of money and be content with what we have, to do good and share our resources, to "continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God" (Hebrews 13:15).

I recently preached at a youth conference involving 400 United Methodist teen-agers. One evening I listened to the lamentations of their parents and adult counselors. Most of them registered anger that young people in the United States today are barraged with trash talk shows and raunchy music lyrics and spectacles like the O.J. Simpson trial.

"What's the appeal?" one asked, puzzled.

"Filling up the emptiness," another replied.

Are we lapping up the living water of God? Or chasing after cracked cisterns? With what do we fill up our emptiness? The warning bears repeating: We become what we follow; we turn into what we love.

September 10: Wonderfully Made
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Jeremiah 18:1-11, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33

I suggest that you go outside under a favorite tree with a friend and have him or her read Psalm 139 aloud to you. Just close your eyes for a while and listen. Be bathed in the knowledge of God's intimate love for you.

This psalm is my favorite, the one I turn to again and again when I'm in need of comfort or rest or reassurance. I need to keep being reminded that "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." I need to remember that the God who created all the universe chose to make me-knit me together in my mother's womb, intricately wove my being in the depths of the earth, and spun out before me all the days of my life.

Our lives are clay in the hands of the potter. What a gift that when the edges start to droop, or a flaw spoils the vessel, the potter simply cranks up the wheel and remakes us. Perpetual grace and rebirth and renewal!

May we honor God for her choice to make us with awe and wonder by being pliant in her capable hands. And may we always allow ourselves to be shaped by her gracious and merciful love.

September 17: Judgment and Mercy
Psalm 14, Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah is getting revved up now-no ordinary guy to accompany us through these ordinary days. He is both poet and prophet, proclaiming the oracles of God to the people.

Jeremiah was called by God, according to the first chapter of the book that bears his name, before he was even conceived (1:5). And-as perhaps many of us do-he resisted his calling. "I am only a youth," he protested (1:6)-shades of Moses and his "But I don't know how to speak" argument with his Maker.

Never mind. Too young, too old, a halting speaker? God knows what he's doing. Trust. The words will be given, the courage will be found, the Word will be proclaimed.

Jeremiah tells of a "hot wind" that will swirl out of the desert and overtake the people. A wind not meant to refresh or cleanse-too strong for that. It is a wind of destruction aimed at the faithless ways of the people, who have turned toward foolishness and evil. The prophet announces that the Earth will be laid waste, its cities in ruins, its fertile land turned to deserts, its birds fleeing for survival. The psalmist echoes the curse: The people have gone astray; they have become corrupt and perverse, eating up the poor like they eat bread.

Our New Testament passages enter like a refreshing breeze to chase away the hot wind. Paul proclaims not the judgment, but the mercy, of God. He pronounces himself the foremost of sinners, a blasphemer, persecutor, man of violence. "I received mercy...and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:13-14). God, says Paul, exhibited the "utmost patience" in his case.

Luke gives us the parables of the lost sheep and coin. What rejoicing when a lost soul returns to God! "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10).

God's judgment is as searing as a hot wind. And his mercy is as sure as a cooling breeze.

September 24: Hope and Healing
Psalm 4, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Last week's Old Testament theme is continued here. Joy is gone, the heart is sick. "Is there no balm in Gilead?" the prophet asks. "No physician there?" (Jeremiah 8:22). Nothing to heal the foolish idolatry and rebellion of God's people?

The balm referred to is an aromatic resin from a Styrax tree, particularly abundant in the mountainous region of Gilead, east of the Jordan River. It was used widely for medicinal purposes because of its curative powers.

Jeremiah's plaintive cry is for healing and restoration. His grief is unquenchable. In poetic hyperbole, he wishes that his head were a spring of water and his eyes a fountain so that he could weep without ceasing over the sin and suffering of his people.

But hope comes with this week's psalm. God gives us room when we're in distress and grants safety for peaceful sleep. God bestows gladness more abundant than a plentiful harvest of grain and grapes. God is promise and protection.

And, most amazing of all, God is among us-not keeping distance from our suffering but bearing it right along with us. As Paul proclaims with confidence, "For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

Healing and salvation are available to all. No fancy medicine needed-just faith in the power of Jesus Christ to bring us all to wholeness. Slaves in this country understood this power, singing about its hope:

Sometimes I feel discouraged/And think my work's in vain/But then the Holy Spirit/Revives my soul again. If you can't preach like Peter,/If you can't pray like Paul,/Just tell the love of Jesus,/and say he died for all.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;/There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

October 1: Love of Money
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

No missing the point this week. We encounter that unsettling and uncomfortable story about the rich man and poor Lazarus. The rich man arrayed himself in purple, the color of royalty, and feasted sumptuously every day. I picture him as a rotund man, draped in a bright robe with big cuffs, smacking his lips as he polishes off another turkey drumstick. Poor Lazarus lies outside his gate, hungry, covered with sores that the stray dogs lick.

Both men die-Lazarus likely of starvation, the rich man of a heart attack or stroke or other fat-and-cholesterol-induced condition (read "microcosm of today's world"). Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man, well, he goes to that place of torment and fire.

"Send Lazarus," he cries out, "to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony" (Luke 16:24). No go. Lazarus has found rest and isn't going to be anybody's lackey. And there is this insurmountable problem of a chasm between the two men that cannot be crossed.

In an apparently uncharacteristic burst of altruism, the rich man worries about his five brothers back on earth and asks that Lazarus be allowed to go and warn them about what has happened to him. No to that, too. If they aren't willing to listen to the prophets' calls for justice, scaring the hell out of them (or into them, as the case may be) won't do any good. It's a little jab at the "fire and brimstone" preaching that seems to be so in vogue where I live these days, in the South's Bible belt. Invitations to mercy and justice always speak louder than shouts designed to frighten.

As Lazarus was stuck with his lot in life, so the rich man is stuck with his lot in death. His sin? He refused to cross the chasm between him and Lazarus in their first life. His inability to walk outside his gate, to share his abundance, doomed him forever. He kept himself apart, and such is his sentence for eternity. He became what he loved.

Paul addresses the same issue directly: "We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains....They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life" (1 Timothy 6:7-10, 18).

October 8: A Spirit of Power
Psalm 137, Lamentations 1:1-6, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

In 587 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the temple, forcing the Jews into exile. Our psalm paints a poignant and tragic portrait of harps hung on willow trees, silent in the face of suffering, and of captors demanding songs that cannot be sung.

Lamentations is a series of poems mourning the destruction and grief. The first four chapters are acrostics, with a stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The poems are traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, although they differ dramatically from his usual style.

Lamentations compares Jerusalem to a widow who weeps bitterly in the night. It is an apt metaphor for devastation. The phrase "widows and orphans" appears throughout scripture as the primary paradigm of victimization and vulnerability. The familiar story of Ruth and Naomi recounts what happens to women suddenly made widows-forced first to glean remnants of grain in the fields for survival, and eventually to work the system to find a man for security.

In Paul's greeting to Timothy, he applauds Timothy's faith, "a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice" (1 Timothy 1:4). The strong grounding in the faith that was passed on from grandmother to mother to son laid the seeds for Timothy's character as a man. With great courage and devotion, he traveled on missionary journeys with Paul, who referred to him as "my loyal child in the faith" (1:2).

Today's version of "widows and orphans" is the "feminization of poverty," as women and their children are dropping into poverty in enormous numbers. Many live a modern form of exile from battering husbands.

But all around us are examples of the strength of women who, like Lois and Eunice, pass on the faith. More and more, their witness is emerging from the shadows, as sisterhood brings empowerment.

"For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (1:7).

October 15: A Joyful Noise
Psalm 66:1-12, Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

Once more we have the reminder of God's great deed: "He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot" (Psalm 66:6). Keeping the memory alive brings strength for surviving the days of exile and trauma.

God hears the grief of the exiles, but she also invites them beyond it: "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters....multiply there, and do not decrease" (Jeremiah 29:5-6).

This passage brings to mind a story that was recounted to me by Yvonne Dilling, a church worker from Indiana who spent time in Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras. One group of Salvadorans fled from their village and across the Lempa River, while helicopters strafed the shores. Many people died in the crossing, including several children.

But the refugees immediately began to build a camp. The first task was to form three committees: a construction committee, an education committee, and the comite de alegria-"the committee of joy." Celebration was as basic to the life of the refugees as digging latrines and teaching their children to read. Even in exile, they remembered to build and plant-and to dance.

"Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise" (Psalm 66:1-2).

October 22: Persistent Widows
Psalm 19, Jeremiah 31:27-34, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

In 1976, a military junta took over rule of Argentina. Soon men in unmarked cars began arriving in the night at homes, restaurants, and workplaces to take away people involved in the struggle for peace in that nation. Before long there were thousands of people among the ranks of the "disappeared."

Lines began to form in front of government offices. Mothers of the missing came day after day, begging for information about their sons and daughters. When they were turned away, they got together and drew up a petition, listing the names of their disappeared children and demanding that they be returned. When the government refused their petition, they began a silent, illegal protest.

Every Thursday they marched in a circle in front of the government offices that ring Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo. Each mother wore a white handkerchief embroidered with the names of her missing children. Many carried pictures. As the number of disappearances grew, so did the group of silent, walking women. Despite beatings and arrests, the mothers persisted. Their vigil went on for years.

In 1952 in South Africa, 20,000 women converged on the prime minister's office in Pretoria, demanding justice. In the decades since, mothers have marched, compiled affadavits of torture and murder, and helped children into safe exile-all under the rallying cry, "You have struck the women, you have struck the rock."

In El Salvador, mothers and widows fasted at the tomb of the late archbishop Oscar Romero and occupied the cathedral in San Salvador, demanding an end to repression. In Detroit, mothers whose children were gunned down in the streets have banded together to demand gun control and an end to drug violence.

All these mothers display the persistence of the widow in today's gospel parable. They confront the "unjust judges" of today-whether they come in the guise of prime ministers or police, mayors or military officers. These women demand to be heard. And they invite us to join them in taking a stand for justice.

"And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" (Luke 18:7).

October 29: The Bounty of God
Psalm 65, Joel 2:23-32, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector brings to mind a conversation I had with Blake Byler-Ortman at the Jubilee Partners community in Comer, Georgia. Blake and his wife, Sue, had spent several years in El Salvador working with refugees before moving to Georgia. They often participated in base-community style worship in which everyone was invited to offer their reflections on scripture.

In that context, Blake had an eye-opening encounter with Matthew 25, the passage that recounts the nations being separated into sheep and goats, based on their treatment of the "least of these." Those who fed, clothed, and visited the hungry, naked, and imprisoned are ushered into eternal life with the sheep; those who neglected Jesus by neglecting these works of mercy go with the goats to eternal punishment.

Blake was near Santa Cruz Berlin, a town where a month earlier a group of refugees had fled from an army scorched-earth operation, carried out with the help of U.S. military aid. The refugees had constructed shelters with leaves for roofing and had almost nothing else. Soon another group of refugees arrived, fleeing heavy bombing in a nearby area. Though the first group had only two weeks' worth of food left and no assurance that they could get more, they began sharing their tortillas with the new arrivals.

Blake and others were there investigating the bombings, and the refugees also shared their food with them. "They were ashamed," Blake says, "because all they had was tortillas for us. Their response afterward was, 'I'm sorry we have nothing to give you.'" Within a week, about $10,000 worth of food, used clothing, and tin roofing arrived from U.S. churches.

Reflecting on it later, Blake said, "I can see the refugees before Jesus getting in the wrong line-the goat line-because they didn't have anything to give away. They gave away all they had, but they'll feel bad. The scary half is that I can see myself and those churches saying, 'Look, we sent a lot of help down there'-and we'd get in the wrong line, too. And Jesus would ask us, 'Who paid for the bombs that fell on their houses?'"

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is about recognizing and confessing sin. It's about avoiding self-righteousness and not taking pride in such gestures as turning over a tenth of one's income to God's service. It's about the reality that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

As we ponder the abundance in this week's Old Testament passages-years crowned with bounty, wagon tracks overflowing with richness, meadows clothed with flocks and valleys decked with grain, vats overflowing with wine and oil-let those of us who see our own nation in these images remember from whom the bounty comes. And if we do not share it, living in justice toward the earth and the peoples of the world, we have God's promise-and warning-from Joel: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (2:28). The likes of Jeremiah and Joel-and some Janes and Jills-will rise up to remind us to whom we, and our abundance, belong.

When this piece appeared, Joyce Hollyday was a Sojourners contributing editor in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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