Rev. Seth Patterson
January 21, 2024
Scripture: Mark 1:16–20
Is it possible that something of extraordinary quality can begin to lose its meaning?
Can we experience extraordinary things with a shrug?
When do we start to take the extraordinary for granted?
When I first started working here, the word extraordinary accompanied so many of the answers to my situating questions. Our music program was extraordinary, the preaching had a history of being extraordinary, our building was extraordinary, the art, children’s programs, advocacy and outreach efforts were all extraordinary. Recently I gave a tour to some folks and when they saw this sanctuary, they all agreed it was extraordinary.
I too use this word in description. For example, the last two weeks’ sermons have been, in my opinion, extraordinary. Two weeks ago, Beth deftly wove together incredibly important messages that none of us travel alone, we can place trust in something beyond ourselves (ie. Trust in God), and the path forward may not be the one we expect to take. I found it to be an extraordinary sermon.
Last week, DeWayne beautifully spoke on the light of freedom for MLK weekend. He said: “We are free. We were called for freedom. God has given us the light of freedom that shows us the way forward. And some obligations are incumbent on those who have been made free: serve one another through love. Free people free people.” What an extraordinary thing to remember as we are being called to action.
Our worship services are filled with extraordinary music every week. Regardless of whether you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ a piece of music, the quality presented regularly is remarkable. If you are comfortable, please close your eyes and listen with some intention as the musicians give their gift:
[At the 9 a.m. service, the Jazz Trio played at this point; at 11 a.m., the Plymouth Choir sang Rutter’s Amen.]
Extraordinary, isn’t it? The thousands of hours of practice and experience, the talent that was required to give that short bit of mastery is staggering to think about.
And yet, I have been wondering for the last several years, what does this claim of extraordinary do for us? Has this extraordinariness become ordinary? I am not implying that we have stopped caring or thinking that things are good, but rather that while we label ourselves and our community as extraordinary, what does that mean to us?
A few weeks ago, I heard this question named aloud in a new way by Dan Dressen who is currently chair of our Fine Arts Board. As a Board chair, he is a member of our Leadership Council and in his report about the Board’s work he wisely said this:
In teaching music to students, I have often asked if there is simply too much music? Is it possible to have too much music? With the constant barrage of musical sounds incessantly around us, sometimes two or more musics sounding simultaneously, do we reach a level of saturation that we no longer hear anything…and we lose the ability to really listen. In a parallel manner, when we enter Plymouth Church are we blessed with so much beauty that we become blind to its presence and its transformative power? We might likely be aware of it, but are we in-tune, engaged and moved by its presence?
“…are we blessed with so much beauty that we become blind to its presence and its transformative power?” Thank you, Dan, for articulating this important question.
So, are we? Does this feel like it might have some truth for you, for us? Are we so blessed with what we describe as extraordinary that we are no longer able to be transformed?
And if it is the extraordinary that we seek, are we also saying, intentionally or not, that the light and love of God is found more in the extraordinary than the ordinary?
If we struggle to hold onto the power and beauty of the extraordinary, how will we ever see the power and beauty in the ordinary? Our scripture today comes from the beginning of the Book of Mark. Mark begins not with a birth story, but with an adult Jesus beginning his work. Let us breathe together as we open our minds, hearts and ears to the words from our spiritual ancestors:
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
How very ordinary! Here is a story of Jesus calling his first followers and it is without anything extra. Jesus says ‘come along’ and Simon, Andrew, James and John all said yes without hesitation and went along.
There are many stories in the books we together call the Bible and many of them follow a certain ‘call narrative.’ This call narrative, rooted in the calling of Moses, follows an extraordinary pattern: God identifies the person to be called to action, the person says ‘no thank you,’ God shows a great and extraordinary sign and the person relents and assumes their given task. None of that happened here with Jesus! It is portrayed as such an ordinary event.
And we are not told why Jesus chose these two sets of brothers. Were they extraordinary and talented, special in some unstated way? The narrative says nothing about their qualifications to follow Jesus other than they said ‘yes.’ But what followed was not ordinary and the followers were extraordinary in their love and support of Jesus and their resilience and bravery in the oppression that they all faced.
So, what makes something or someone extraordinary?
Is extraordinary linked to talent or quality or likability?
Is extraordinary always an external factor?
I certainly do not have answers to these questions. Philosophers have argued about this for millennia. But I do wonder if, for our purposes today and confronted with this particular scripture, if we can begin to play with the idea that extraordinary may be as simple as saying yes to the ordinary. We have heard about these sets of ordinary brothers saying yes to an ordinary request. Saying yes created the opportunity for the extraordinary.
Saying yes to something or someone is a way to actively consider the possibility that the ordinary may become extraordinary for us. It is a way to deeper listening. Saying yes to something detaches us from the simplicity of whether we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ something. Saying yes opens us to the possibility of beauty, meaning and transformation. We are constantly being invited into moments and relationships that hold great possibilities, and if we say yes, we may create a foundation upon which the extraordinary might be found.
So, what happens if we detach ourselves from the idea that quality is the primary indicator for what is extraordinary. Many quality things can be without meaning. And many ordinary things can become extraordinary when we say yes to them, when we listen more deeply.
God is found within everything, surrounds and connects us all, so we may consider all that is ordinary to be part of the experience of God. When Jesus saw these fishermen, he saw the presence of God in these ordinary people doing ordinary things. And by saying yes to the call, they opened themselves up to the possibility of extraordinary. It takes love to take the risk of saying yes.
What would it mean if we no longer sought out the extraordinary, but instead created it by saying yes to what is ordinary around us. What if, with love, we said yes to those we that we see as being other, yes to the poor and unhoused, yes to our children and grandchildren, yes to actions of basic justice and peace, yes to joy and laughter and hope. By responding with love are we better able to see and experience all that is special in the mundane? Better able to see the presence of God in the ordinary?
Beth’s sermon 2 weeks ago was extraordinary to me because I said yes to her invitation. I have been transformed by her words because I opened myself up to them. I have been changed by DeWayne’s sermon last week to serve all people with love and be a free person who helps free other people. I said yes to his invitation. I am changed by Dan’s excellent questions because I said yes and am listening deeply. I am transformed by the music we hear this morning not merely because of the quality but because I said yes to the invitation to receive it with love. Saying yes is active and engaged and transformative.
Maybe one of the gifts of God is that anything can be extraordinary when seen wholistically and with a lens of love? Maybe we can avoid the trap of having “so much beauty that we become blind to its presence and its transformative power.” Maybe we can be followers of these followers of Jesus—each of us like them, ordinary folks filled with the extraordinary love of God—and say yes to the ordinary moments around us trusting that we can be transformed into the extraordinary.
May it be so, friends.