Based on the Scripture readings:
2013 November 3
In all the years that I've been in or near a pulpit, only about four times has anyone in any sanctuary yelled something out during a sermon. With the two exceptions of those times that I ask for you to offer some feedback, as well as those times that Rodney Barker may make a policy remark about our ministry, it is very rare for someone to cry out during any sermon anywhere.
One time that it happened to me was here in this sanctuary in 2004 when the Red Sox were, for the first time in a lifetime, contenders for the World Series trophy. And Greater Boston was much more anxious that year than this one since almost no one around had been around for the previous trophy. And in what I thought was a rhetorical passage in my sermon, a rhetorical question even, I asked if anyone really believed that wearing the same t-shirt or hat that they'd worn all through the season and playoffs would actually affect the outcome of any given game, and someone cried out "I do." Someone spoke the same pledge that they would in a wedding or baptism right here in this room, and I had only been here two years, still forming my opinion of the place, and I learned not to ask rhetorical questions involving sports teams and superstition.
But the truth is that the speaker that day articulated an idea that has been at large for millennia and especially so during championship seasons. The idea, in the form of a question, asks, do we really affect cosmic events across distance? Do we really impact this universe, this reality, which is all around us? It's actually a pretty important religious question at the heart of Jesus ministry.
When we're in this sanctuary together, though, it's meaningful to turn this question around and ask whether this cosmos, this universe, whether our God affects us? And how? How does God get through to us and when? Beyond championship seasons. Because the core of our faith is that God can get through to us and does so in many ways.
For millennia our Christian community has claimed that something we are doing here in two ways this morning reveals that God gets through to us. Because at its heart this is the definition of a sacrament -- a place that God touches us. And we have two touches today.
Marcus Borg says this: "A sacrament is a finite, physical, visible mediator of the sacred. A sacrament is a vehicle or vessel of the sacred." And Borg is rather fluid with his definition, because he says that life itself can be sacramental. We can engage everything all around us as vessels of the sacred. Sometimes this is obvious, and sometimes it is more subtle.
Sometimes this is even beyond obvious or subtle. New Testament Greek has a word mystërion, which becomes "mystery" to us. The original root for this mystery meant "close your mouth, there is something beyond words here." In an effort to bring the New Testament Greek to Latin and then to English we get this word sacrament that primarily concerns the sacred to be sure.
Twelve hundred years after the New Testament was penned, Thomas Aquinas said our sacraments are the sign of sacred things insofar as they help make us sacred. Sacraments change us. The sacred changes us. And around Aquinas' time there were many, many things that did this, because in the thirteenth century there were thirty sacraments in the Church including such things as the blessing of a home or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Three centuries later, around the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Church affirmed seven sacraments that only the Church could do. Finally, the Reformation inspired Protestants to know two sacraments since Jesus used the imperative voice for baptism and communion.
But all that is background. The question is, can God get through to us, and are we affected by God somehow at a baptism or when we share communion? Can sacraments fuel a flame within us that is ignited and burns beyond us? Are sacraments thin places somehow where we can perceive God, and God can touch us?
Last week we began our new worship service in the afternoon called Song, Word, and Feast. We started out at a circle of tables around the perimeter of the Parlor with a catered meal. It was mostly catered by Kitty Rieske. And I'd planned about 20 or 25 minutes for us to eat because that's our norm at Annual Meetings. But people were enjoying each other's company so much that I couldn't get them to close their mouths. There was something enormously spirited about being together at those tables. Then, after a time, we all moved inside the circle of tables, surrounded by where we had been fed as we surrounded the communion table at the center of the room. We shared song, scripture, and prayer. Then after this, we stepped closer to the table where the Christ Candle was burning and the bread and cup sat, and we became closer together again and shared the bread of life and the cup of blessing, still singing. We formed community amidst diversity and then physically moved closer and closer together toward the candle and the ancient elements.
Was God there at those tables? Did Christ come in the candlelight? Did the Spirit touch us in our sacrament? I can't say for sure. It' a mystery on some level. But at least for a moment we all became a bit different than we were when we entered the room. And Aquinas asserts that sacred things make us a bit more sacred.
A few minutes from now I'll have the profound and humbling honor to hold Alice in my arms right next to the bread and the cup at the baptismal font. Baptism is as curious as communion. William Willimon says that in baptism we do everything that you can do with water in general. You wash, you refresh, you empower growth, you recreate and enjoy. And, he says further, given the power of water, particularly in the wrong place, you can die, too. So, he says, in baptism you find the waters of birth but also the waters of death. Therefore, he concludes, by connecting with Jesus in life and death we connect also with resurrection leading to the assertion that in baptism you've already practiced life and death, and you don't need to be scared of either one anymore. That's a theology lesson in less than a paragraph. And it's a lot to handle or claim. For what I'll do is greet Alice, talk to Patty and Bill, take her away from them twice, give her back to them twice, and pray to God, all to say that at the font these many things about life and death intersect. The holding, the giving, the giving away, the receiving back, the conversation with one who is beyond us, and the almost inconceivable trust that it takes to encounter all of this and how much better this all is in community and in conversation with the sacred.
Will God touch Alice through this sacrament? It's a mystery on some level. But to my mind for more than a moment she will become different than she was when she entered the room. We all will be. Will this make us more sacred than we were?
All of Christianity presumes that reality is more than the space-time arena of matter and energy that we measure and inhabit and enjoy. All of Christianity presumes that we are more than bodies and brains, chemicals and electricity -- that there is something sacred in our cosmos and that this sacred thing not only loves us from afar but touches us on a regular basis in particular at thin places but also at thick ones and troubling ones and horrid ones and helpful ones and joy-filled ones. What we do any week that we assemble in the morning or afternoon, what we do wherever two or three will gather or when we are absolutely alone is encounter dozens, hundreds, thousands of sacraments through which we approach, appreciate, and even apprehend something of the fullness of God and the call to life.
We do affect our cosmos by our actions. We affect it by what we drive, what we eat, how we govern ourselves and conduct our commerce. But also, our cosmos -- and the one we call creator, God -- affects us. God moves us from tables where we eat and share food to tables where we are fed with a bounty that is not based on amount. Then God moves us to feed others. God touches us with water, if we'll let Her, that refreshes and delights and satisfies and exposes death and affirms resurrection. And then we seek every water of life for others. We can resist these mysteries if we want -- we are creatures of free will. Or we can see how they make us more sacred and how we can live sacramental lives. You can say that out loud every week.