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Sermon for August 19, 2014

Laws for Living: #6 Peace with the Ordinary

1 Samuel 16:14-23
Philippians 4:11-13
Tao Te Ching 8

The major difference between athletes who win Olympic medals and those who don’t is not talent. It is more mundane. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke University, coaches a basketball team of 9 to 11 year old boys. “They never want to practice,” he says. “They want to scrimmage so they can show off their three-pointers or their spectacular moves.” It is difficult to help them understand a pro basketball player’s commitment to the mundane tasks of repetition discipline and practice. We learn from other excellent athletes, performers and artists about the centrality of repetition, habit, and doing ordinary things day by day. The major difference between athletes who win Olympic medals and those who don’t is not talent; it is, rather, the ability to engage in the mundane activities of free throw after free throw, of laps in the pool hour after hour, day after day that hone the skills that give them the edge.

I’m wondering whether it’s also true of faith. Is the life of faith developed by tending to the mundane? Is it in the routine and the everyday moments of life where we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation? Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that the life of faith is more about showing off our spiritual sills, about proving ourselves to God and others, about correct belief. But, what if it’s really more about engaging in the daily routine that opens us to God’s grace? What if having strong faith is related to our ability to find grace in the grit of life?

Does it feel like a wasted day when all you do is tie the kids’ shoes, wipe a snotty nose, answer the best you can the “whys?” of inquisitive minds, referee spats, dry tears, kiss scraped knees and wounded egos? Living in partnership with someone and making a home together is not so much about falling in love and living happily ever after as it is eating together, fighting fairly, putting the toilet seat down, squeezing the toothpaste at the right end, and accepting each other at their worst. Can we live that reality with acceptance, or do we carry the fear that there might be something more exciting – less ordinary – with someone else? I know there are some rotten relationships out there. I know people are abused and neglected. I’m not talking about those relationships. I’m talking about couples for whom the romance may have faded, but who nurture a deep sense of loving commitment through the mundane minutia of daily living. Quite often, couples don’t realize what practice and attention in their relationship means until one of them is no longer here.

Commitment to the little things is what the life of faith is about. It is not about what we achieve or what we accomplish, or whether we do things better than someone else, or how much we impress God, but rather the attitude that informs our daily routine.

Throughout the New Testament we find Jesus transforming people through daily, ordinary interactions. He sits by a well when a woman comes along that engages him in conversation. He seeks a little rest, and he sees a crowd of hungry people. He sets off on a journey to do one thing and gets sidetracked by people who are disabled, disfigured or dying. We get the sense that he is living life for as long as he has it. When he meets those who are paralyzed, either in body or by circumstance, he shows them another way. Jesus is someone to follow, not just because he did great things, but also because he did small things in great ways.

We get a sense of this in today’s first reading from 1 Samuel. We overhear a conversation in the court of King Saul, a troubled and paranoid ruler. He hears about someone who can play music that will bring peace to his spirit -- a keeper of sheep and virtuoso with the harp. David gets called to court. I don’t get the sense that David had royal aspirations. Becoming King was not on his bucket list. David did not lie or manipulate people to achieve his political ambitions. As far as I can tell, he simply practiced some rather ordinary tasks for his day: feeding sheep, protecting his herd from enemies, and plucking music in the fields where no one was even around to hear him. The story is not about his talent but about his dedication to things he does naturally.  David develops the skills to be Israel’s greatest king in the fields, doing small things in great ways.

What might our lives look like if we approached the mundane tasks of the day as opportunities to develop faith, and stretch our imaginations, and engage us as people of integrity? What might happen if we were to make peace with the ordinary?

Some of you know the story of Brother Lawrence. He was named Nicholas Herman by his parents, living in the region of Lorraine in eastern France. He received a revelation from God at the age of 18. In the deep of winter, Herman looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting silently and patiently for the sure hope of summer abundance. For the first time, Herman understood the extravagance of God's love. Like a tree in winter, he himself was seemingly dead, but God had life waiting for him. At that moment, he said, that leafless tree captured an image of the love for God that never after ceased to influence him. He eventually entered a monastery in Paris as a lay brother, not having the education necessary to become a priest. He took the religious name Lawrence of the Resurrection. He spent almost all of the rest of his life within the walls of the priory, working in the kitchen for most of his life, and as a repairer of sandals in his later years. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his somewhat lowly position, his character attracted many to him. He was known for his profound peace and many came to seek spiritual guidance from him. People collected his wisdom and saying, and it became a spiritual classic entitled The Practice of the Presence of God.

For Brother Lawrence, "common business," no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God's love. The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task but the motivation behind it. He said,
“We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of [God], and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before [God], who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."
Do you want to make peace with the ordinary? Then learn to draw water from the kitchen sink with a sense of awe for what water means to our lives, giving thanks for the privilege of having clean, drinkable water at your finger tips. Tend to your work, your study, your worship, your family, your community, doing small things in great ways.

That’s step one. Step two of making peace with the ordinary takes us deeper. Because life is not just about practicing the presence of God in the mundane tasks. Life is also about dealing with pain and distraction. Pain is quite commonplace, really. Pain is part of that ordinary landscape of what it means to be human. I appreciate how Marie Howe describes it in her poem “What the Living Do”. She writes:
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss--we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
Don’t you just know that feeling, when sink has been clogged for a week and you just don’t have time to call the plumber? Or the toilets back up on overflow onto your new carpets? Or just when you thought you caught up financially, something knocks you right back down?  Have you ever thought, “Wouldn’t life be so much better if things just worked, if people listened, if I could get through the day without something unexpected or uncalled-for getting in the way?” But no, life happens. And pain happens, especially in little ways. We drop our groceries in the parking lot. Our coffee spills down our wrist and stains the shirt sleeve we just had laundered yesterday.

We tend to think ordinary means interruptions like these don’t happen. But actually, this IS the ordinary. This is what the living do. It’s quite normal for things to fall apart and not quite work. This is what the living do. It’s a built-in element of life itself. It’s part of the package of being alive. The imperfections of the day are the very things that make us human.

To find God in that which is imperfect is not something that comes easily to some of us. In Japan, there is an entire worldview that appreciates that which is imperfect, unfinished, and ordinary. It’s called wabi-sabi. Wabi comes from a root word referring to harmony, tranquility, and balance. Wabi has come to mean simple, un-materialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. It reminds me of the words of the Tao that I printed in the bulletin. Lao Tzu talks about someone who is content to be simply one’s self without need to compare or compete -- someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else. Such a person would be described as wabi.

Sabi by itself means "the bloom of time." It indicates tarnish and rust. Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly, mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn tree, an old car left in a field to rust as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, an abandoned barn as it collapses in on itself. There's an aching poetry in things that carry this patina.

So now we have wabi, which is humble and simple, and sabi, which is rusty and weathered. Together, wabi-sabi has to do with taking pleasure in what might first appear to be mistakes and imperfections.

What might it mean to cherish the ordinariness of the life you’ve been given – the life that is not built to last, the life that demonstrates a weathered elegance, the life that remains tranquil when it falls apart? What would it mean to love life filled with clogged sinks and spilled coffee – to know that, as aggravating as it is, it is all well and good? It’s all worth it, because it means we are here. We are alive. And God is with is.

So, praise the ordinary.

Praise the tedium of an ordinary day;
    Getting up in the morning,
    Spreading butter on bread,
    Dishes to wash and laundry to fold,
    Bickering children with beautiful, faces that need a wash cloth.
Praise the busyness of jobs;
    Meetings and emails,
    Papers to write,
    Sticky notes to stick and desks to dust.
Praise the familiarity of friends,
    the faithfulness of pets,
    the tedious requests of people who want something from you.
Praise the ordinary at Christ Congregational church;
    The usual faces and the habitual greetings,
    Good moods and bad,
    Grumbling about this or admiring that,
    Yielding to the familiar rhythms of worship.
Praise, praise the monotony of an ordinary day.

It is what the living do.

Sources:
Roger Housden, Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again and Again, 71-78.
http://newenglandchurch.org/sermons/020310gm.htm
http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence
http://thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com/2010/11/poetry-friday-ordinary.html

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