When ordinary becomes extraordinary

Mary Magdala Community

When ordinary becomes extraordinary ©

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time —  January 14, 2024

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Pastor,  Mary Magdala Community,  maryofmagdala-mke.org

In the past I think I have made it clear that when I find myself in need of a poem to settle my unsettled thoughts, my first recourse is to pull down from the shelf a volume by Wendell Berry.  And sometimes, as today, I do violence to his perfectly crafted lines and verses, thereby offering you my miscrafted assault on his art.  (Sorry, Wendell)  Nevertheless, I hope it drives home the point I want to make – apologies so noted.  You will find the example of what I am talking about at the conclusion of this homily.  Please, be patient.

My point today is about recognizing the extraordinary in the ordinary, how it so often happens that the ordinary, the mundane, the regular, the dependable, maybe even the boring plays a large role in hiding what is actually extraordinary.  It’s then that tribute must be given before the ordinary simply covers over the rarity in our midst.  Here’s an example of just such.

At last Sunday’s Eucharist, as we offered Petitions, in her understated way Jean asked our prayers and offered thanksgiving for the David School, which she co-founded, in eastern Kentucky’s mountains.  Near as she can recall, January 7 marks the official first day of David School’s existence. It was 1974 when Jean and her staff discovered dropouts long before the federal government did with its passage of the Education Act’s Title I.  The local county school district administrators in eastern Kentucky knew about their dropout student population.  It was easily above 60%, and as high as 75-80% when you counted the Juniors and Seniors who simply walked away. 

In those days state funding for schools depended on the number of students who showed up on one certain day in early Fall.  The result of that count on that day became the official student population for the year.  Administrators cared that the students meet the highest number possible on that day.  Following that day’s count there wasn’t much caring to go ‘round.  But David School staff drove around the county to gather the students who were not attending school and took them, if they were willing, to David.  One of the stops was the pool hall in the county seat of Prestonsburg.

I bring up the David School because 2024 is the 50th year of its existence, a truly extraordinary anniversary.  Extraordinary made possible by way of ordinary, day-to-day acts of caring, teaching, and so much more.  The ordinary acts of getting students who were thrown away by the system to attend school were, and still are, acts of caring, of tutoring, of listening, of being there.  Jean didn’t say last week how her, underpaid and meals-challenged staff of idealistic and committed individuals ate meals of rations brought home from Viet Nam by one of her teachers who was a recently returned veteran.  She also didn’t ask us to pray in thanksgiving for the students who were able to receive a High School diploma, rather than a GED, because that’s just an ordinary thing one does for one’s students.

It is extraordinary that the David School exists 50 years later.  I call it the power of an idea.  Jean’s idea included that the school would eventually be staffed and led by local residents of eastern Kentucky.  When we visited the school a few years ago, the Principal was a David School graduate and the teachers were all local.  Jean’s idea has powerfully and extraordinarily become real.

Which gets us to the beauty as well as the message of today’s gospel passage (John 1:35-42).  We too easily pass over the point I’m offering about what is ordinary being the building block of the extraordinary if we do not acknowledge the simplicity of Jesus’ invitation.  John’s two disciples leave John because he has pointed out to them that they may not want to let Jesus pass by without catching up to him.  Listen carefully.  The disciples ask:

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and see,”  Jesus says.

On the basis of this exchange what is revealed to us is the ordinary becoming extraordinary.  The experience of these three men forms the basis for gathering in the Word.  One of the men then goes on to tell his brother, “We have found the Messiah, the Anointed One.”  Now this is not an ordinary title.  So much hope and anticipation lies behind this title.  The brothers go to see where Jesus lives.  They do not receive a book to study, no guidelines are issued for them to put into practice.  This Jesus who invites with the directness of “Come and see,” embraces these followers with a mundane show of interest.  The followers respond with the kind of trust that, in time, grows into something miraculous.

Someone who has a keen eye on earthbound existence as a revelation of the miraculous is Wendell Berry.  This poet, essayist, farmer, novelist, social critic, and Kentucky native sees in the newly ploughed field of his hillside farm that overlooks the Kentucky River as just such a revelation.  In his collection of poems, “Sabbaths,” he shares with us how we, too, can love the “little song to keep us unafraid, an earthly music magnified in air.”  A little of the ordinary that reveals how the extraordinary is magnified.

Here’s the full excerpt that I promised earlier from, “VII, 1979 – Sabbaths:”

What if, in the high restful sanctuary

That keeps the memory of Paradise,

We’re followed by the drone of history

And greed’s poisonous fumes still burn our eyes?

Disharmony recalls us to our work.

In… healed harmony the world is used

But not destroyed, the Giver and the taker

Joined, the taker blessed, in the unabused

Gift that nurtures and protects.

When field and woods agree, they make a rhyme

That stirs in distant memory the whole

First Sabbath’s song that no largess of time

Or hope or sorrow wholly can recall.

But harmony of earth is Heaven-made,

Heaven-making, is promise and prayer,

A little song to keep us unafraid,

An earthly music magnified in air.

A Prayer   (JR)

You and I are also invited by Jesus to “Come and see.”  This direct connection becomes the ordinary act of shaping our understanding that what is or becomes extraordinary is really no more than a lot of ordinary.  May we pray, then, that you and I will continue to commit to the daily routine of life, the dependable acts of what needs to be done, so that we will magnify in air the “Glory of God which is the human person fully alive.”  (With thanks to St. Ireneaus)

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