This is adapted from a sermon preached at the hospital chapel on Sunday, January 15, in Lexington, Kentucky. It was an especially meaningful service for me, marking the first time in nearly 20 years that I was privileged to preside at communion, which was offered in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., those who passed away at our hospital the previous week, and, in keeping with a promise I made in 1998 in exchange for the gift of a cheeseburger from JT’s, Thomas J. “Sidewalk Tom” Egizio.
This time of year, as winter sets in, my mind is always taken back to Christmastime as a child. I know that for some people, Christmas conjures up hurtful memories, but I’m blessed in that, at least as a young child, all of my Christmas memories are joyful As the holiday drew nearer, I’d wake up each morning more and more excited, anticipating the coming awesomeness that was Christmas. Yes, part of that was because I knew Santa was coming, and I’d have me some sweet new stuff, but I also really looked forward to the family time together.
Then Christmas would come and go, and I’d wake up the next morning with this sense of emptiness inside. I’d spent so long drawing energy from the holiday I was looking forward to, that on the next day, all I could think was: now what? A sadness, a darkness, even, would set in over my young soul.
If you look at the Church calendar that many Christians use, you’ll see the same dynamic at work. We have our high points in the Church year: Advent and Christmas, just past. Lent and Easter later on. In the Christmas season, we have that great holiday, then we follow up by celebrating other extraordinary moments: Epiphany, when the presence of God is revealed to the nations, the Baptism of the Lord, when Jesus is anointed as Christ and launches his mission.
That’s all done, so now what? Well, we just start counting. The first Sunday after Epiphany, or the second Sunday, as it’s sometimes called, of “ordinary time.” And it feels that way, doesn’t it? All this joy and celebration, and now we’re left to taste the cold reality of the ordinary.
That word, “ordinary,” comes from our “ordinal numbers”–that’s the name for numbers like 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. In other words, this ordinary time is all about, well, one thing after another.
When I think about my childhood post-Christmas malaise in the face of the ordinary, it’s really not something I’ve ever gotten over. Even now, I’ve still got that same childish attitude. I want some big event to look forward to, and while I’m looking toward the future, I fail to notice the gift of the every day, the gift of the ordinary.
What is the ordinary? It’s feeding the baby at midnight, then changing the baby at 2, then feeding the baby again at 4, then going to work, then filing this report, or hauling this load or feeding this cow or fixing this leak. It’s paying bills and filing taxes and arguing with our loved ones over nothing. It’s flat tires and root canals and stopped up toilets. It’s shoveling snow and stubbing your toe and paper cuts and spilled coffee. It’s looking in the mirror one day and thinking, “I hope nobody notices that I’m faking it” and in what feels like a heartbeat later, looking in the same mirror and wondering where the young woman or man we used to be has gone.
It’s in between all this everyday stuff, all this one thing after another, that life happens. It’s in between taxes and stubbed toes that we make friends and fall in love, in between changing diapers and cutting the grass that we tell stories, sing songs, breathe in fresh air and take in the beauty of nature.
With my attitude, I’m in danger, by always looking off in the distance to some great milestone in the future, to some Epiphany, of missing out on my entire life. The day will come—and here in a hospital we see it all the time—the day will come when I would give anything to have my average, everyday, boring, routine, ordinary time back.
In our reading from Isaiah (49:1-7) God says, “I knit you together in your mother’s womb to be my messenger.” That means God is found, that means God works in every moment of our lives, womb to tomb. Every second we breathe is an opportunity to breathe in the Spirit of God. Every moment has the potential, no matter how ordinary, to be sacred. Sometimes, we’re called to do extraordinary things for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But most of our time is ordinary, and it is in the ordinary that we do God’s work. Loving our families, doing our jobs well, extending the smallest kindness to the lonely and the stranger.
Jesus is no stranger to the extraordinary. Our Christian story celebrates amazing events from his virgin birth through calming the seas, healing the sick, raising the dead, and conquering death itself in his own glorious resurrection. But what does he do today (John 1:29-42), when he calls his closest disciples, the ones who will be his apostles and launch this great, world-changing movement we call Christianity? He says, “come and see,” y’all come on over to my house and stay the night. Sitting around the house, sharing a meal, swapping stories from the fishing boat and the woodshop. That’s about as ordinary a time as you can get, and from that ordinary night of friends spending time together was born the faith that has touched the hearts and shaped the lives of millions and millions over 20 centuries.
Of all the special gifts that taking time to be ordinary offers us, none is more sacred than what we are doing here in this chapel, gathered around this sacred altar, this open table. Here we will take ordinary stuff of bread and the fruit of the vine, do the ordinary thing of sharing a meal together, and, united in faith, in hope, and in love we will break through illusion of the ordinary, and for a moment be transported beyond time, beyond space, into the mystery that connects us all, that great mystery that Jesus named “Father.” The bread that we break, the cup of blessing that we bless, are a communion with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who heals the wounds of the world and feeds us on his very self. All are one at this table. All are welcome at this table. By the grace of God, no one is unworthy to dine here except for him who would try to exclude others. We are offered bread from heaven, having within it all sweetness, bread for the journey, giving us strength to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves as we move forward through our everyday, ordinary time.