Q: Who can tell us how the date for Easter is determined each year?
A: Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Why does this matter to us today? Oh, it doesn’t matter so much, other than to explain why we’re reading out of the end of the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark this morning, and not, say the second. You recall that last year Easter fell on March 23rd, which is almost the absolute earliest date on the calendar that Easter can fall. This year it was April 12th, next year it will be April 4th. And the reason that matters to us this morning, a morning when we thought we were all done thinking about Easter, is that the date on which Easter falls determines where in the lectionary, the organized list of readings for each Sunday, we begin reading after Easter. Because the date for Easter can come early or late, the date for Pentecost (which means “the fiftieth day” and falls 49 days after Easter) can also come early or late. But whenever it comes, early or late, the next Sunday after Pentecost will be Trinity Sunday – for which Pastor Frank was here with you at the beginning of this month. Then, finally, we begin a season of the church’s calendar known as ordinary time.
Ordinary time, contrary to what it’s name might suggest, is not a period of time in which things happen in ordinary ways. It’s a time when we hear the highlights of whatever gospel we are reading from that year, and we pick up the story of that gospel earlier or later depending on how far into the summer an early or late Easter has pushed us. This year we are reading from the gospel of Mark, and because Easter came later this year than last, we missed the first few episodes. Already Jesus has called sinners to be his disciples, he has been chastised for healing people on the Sabbath, and has been charged with being demon-possessed. We picked up the story last week with one of his parables of grace, a story about seeds. This week we hear how he calmed the stormy sea, and we will continue on, reading from Mark, for four more weeks before switching to the gospel of John for five weeks, and then we’ll pick up where we left off in Mark at the end of the summer through the end of October.
I’d like to think one of the meanings of the term ordinary time is that we come to think that reading scripture together is the ordinary work of the church. During the festival seasons we cherry-pick scriptures that underscore the meaning of the season: during Advent we hear stories that prepare us for God’s coming into the world; during Christmastide we reflect on what it means that God took on flesh and dwelt among us; during Lent we examine our lives and acknowledge the world’s need for repentance; and during the season after Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles how the empty tomb propelled the followers of Jesus into the world and marked the formation of the church. The scriptures match the season. But ordinary time, there is no underlying theme needing illumination, we just read scripture together starting as close to the beginning of the book as we can and working our way forward.
Ironically, what we discover when we do this is that the God revealed in Jesus is no ordinary person. He comes with power – the power to heal, the power to command nature, the power to cast out demons and feed multitudes; and he comes to confront those who think they have power – those who value keeping the law over caring for the sick and the needy. The God revealed in Jesus during ordinary time is not ordinary at all, and we are led to believe that following this Jesus means that our lives might become similarly extra-ordinary.
Take this morning’s reading as an example. There we find Jesus resting peacefully on a boat as it cuts across the Sea of Galilee. Midway through the voyage a terrible storm kicks up and threatens to sink the ship. The disciples fear for their lives and call out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus rises from his slumber and speaks to the storm, “hush!” and the storm subsides.
The story connects the God revealed in Jesus to the God Israel had known all along. The psalm we recited together this morning also spoke of the God who calms the stormy sea; and, of course, in the beginning it is the voice of God that stirs like wind over the waters and creates order out of chaos, causing the creation to spring forth. This, too, is a feature of ordinary time, that each we as we read from one of the gospels, we hear stories from Hebrew scripture that remind us that the God revealed in Jesus is the same God the people have known all along, not some new divinity on the scene, but God behaving quite ordinarily, which is to say rescuing, redeeming, restoring, renewing, reconciling.
What is ordinary for God, however, is not so ordinary for us. No, we seem to be the ones who constantly find ourselves on boats in the middle of the sea, waiting out a violent storm with fingers crossed. That seems to be our ordinary condition. It is always happening to us, individually or collectively – and often both. Measured against the long arc of history, our lives can seem too short to see and to trust God’s emerging presence, God’s unfolding peace and justice, God’s salvation. We skip from one crisis to the next crying out, “do you not care that we are perishing?” It is on the lips of the child soldiers in Rwanda and the Congo; it is the cry of those who are trapped in their homes and terrorized by domestic violence; it is the silent scream that issues out of the depths of depression; and right now, close to home, it is the thousands of people in Illinois who will lose their jobs because of state budget cuts, and the tens of thousands of people who will lose access to life-saving and community-building programs that feed the hungry, educate the young, care for the elderly and protect the weak. Those things that our God has ordinarily lifted up as the ultimate concern for those who would be faithful to God’s cause.
“Do you not care that we are perishing?”
These are tough words, a harsh accusation. They come from a place of fear and pain, a place I think we all know, or will know if we live our lives sensitive to our own experiences and the situation of others.
“Do you not care that we are perishing?”
This is the charge God’s people have held against God from the beginning. The book of Job, from which we also appropriate read this morning, puts the question to God early in the scriptures. Why do bad things happen to good people? What responsibility does God have for the suffering of God’s people? How are faithful people to interpret their own suffering and the suffering of others? Do we actually get what’s coming to us, or is that a myth we cling to both here and in our imagined hereafters in order to justify the pain and violence of an ordinary life?
“Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Perhaps it is only by living our lives inside the lectionary, by the seasons of the church’s year, that these questions and answers come to make sense. Yes, during ordinary time we read the gospel in progression, reviewing the teaching and the miracles of Jesus, the story of the first half of his ministry; but our year begins with Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – with Lent and Easter and Pentecost. Our year begins in festival time, showing us the end of the story, so that we know who Jesus is – God wrapped up in flesh and living our painful, glorious lives with us; and what God in Jesus is doing – saving the world and restoring to life people and places left for dead. We need to know that first, we need to be reassured that though “the arc of the moral universe is long, it does indeed bend toward justice.” We need to know that God’s ordinary nature is quite other than the world’s business as usual. We need to know that God’s presence with and intentions for us are altogether extraordinary.
Knowing that, as we do living on this side of Easter, we understand that when the people cry out, “do you not care that we are perishing,” God is already where we have learned to expect – right beside those in danger of drowning, in the middle of the storm, on the cross, sharing our fate. God speaks to the storm, to the violence, to the disordered economic priorities that rule our common life and says “hush.” God speaks to us, asking “why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Q: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
A: It is Emmanuel, God with us. It is Christ, the Lord, the empty grave and the wide open sky. Amen.