This sermon is about emptying ourselves of all the junk inside us so there is more room for God to fill. And boy do I have a good example to start with. My family moved this week. We bought a house here in Mystic and moved out of the rectory. Our new house is quite a bit smaller than the rectory, so we needed to downsize in a hurry. Every Tuesday and Friday for the last few weeks, we have filled the garbage and recycling cans and watched the truck’s grabber arm scoop up all our accumulation. We’ve made several trips to Goodwill with books and toys and games and clothes. We’ve put pieces of furniture up on Facebook Marketplace. And still our new house is full.
How did we end up with so much stuff?! When I moved out of my dorm after grad school, I could fit everything I owned in my compact car. But I needed the 17-foot U-Haul for the move out of my townhouse in West Virginia, then the 20-foot U-Haul for the next move, then Leah and I needed the 26-foot U-Haul when we moved to Mystic. Then the kids were born, and our stuff, you know, **Explosion Noise**.
Sermon for Saturday, December 24, 2022 || Christmas Eve || John 1:1-14
Tonight, I’d like to share with you a great mystery. It is the mystery of God’s movement in creation in the singular way that we call the Incarnation; that is, the presence of God coming among us in the flesh and blood person of Jesus of Nazareth. Notice, I said I’d like to share this mystery with you. I’m using the verb “share” on purpose, because it is way above my paygrade to try to “explain” this mystery.
This isn’t the type of mystery one can explain. This isn’t like the kinds of mysteries my mother loves to read – Whodunnits. In those books, a mystery is set forth: say, how does the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolves around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid is replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.
The mystery of God’s presence in creation is not this kind of mystery. The mystery of God cannot be solved. It cannot be grasped. But the mystery of God can be embraced. My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we embrace this mystery of God’s movement, even as God embraces us with God’s love.
Sermon for Sunday, June 6, 2021 || Proper 5B || Mark 3:20-35
At the end of the Gospel story I just read, Jesus broadens his family to include everyone who does God’s will. His relatives either think he is in danger or think he has gone mad, so they come to collect him. But Jesus won’t go with them. Instead of hewing to his blood relatives, Jesus looks out at the crowd and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? …Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Whoever does the will of God. Jesus expands his family to include everyone who does the will of God. When I read that this week, I found it extremely unhelpful. I found it unhelpful for two reasons that have nothing to do with the reality of God’s will, but with our all-too-fallible human use of God’s will as a concept. Let’s talk about God’s will this morning. We’ll start with the two reasons I find it unhelpful, and then we’ll take a stab at how we might conceive of God’s will as a way to enliven our walks with Jesus.
In her last sermon with us Pastor Stacey Kohl reminded us that stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. Today, I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.
Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second…where are the baby and the manger and the shepherds and the angels? I know it’s late, but I don’t think I nodded off during the Gospel reading.” Now, I don’t know whether or not you nodded off, but I can assure you that I didn’t say anything about the baby or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. Tonight, I read a different version of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Allow me to explain in brief, and then we’ll get to what I really want to talk about on this most Holy Night, which is God making a home here.
But first: yes, we are used to the Christmas Pageant version of the story of the Nativity. Most of that story is found in the Gospel according to Luke. I say “most” because a few bits come from the Gospel of Matthew and a few others bits are made up entirely. Tonight we read another take on that same story, a take so vastly dissimilar that it seems to be a different story entirely. But it’s not. The story is just condensed. The story of the Nativity is distilled down to a single, yet powerful verse of scripture: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
That’s it. That’s the Gospel of John’s Nativity story. That one verse; half a verse really. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Pretty concise, right? But even in their brevity, these words pack in a whole lot of meaning. They are pregnant words, so to speak.
The Word that becomes flesh is the main character of this prologue to John’s account of the Gospel. In just eighteen verses, John explores some pretty weighty theological ideas, and he does so using poetry. Indeed, these verses are best understood as a poem: John uses special words and rhythm and imagery in an attempt to get to the very heart of God’s making of and presence in Creation. The weightiest of these special images is the word “Word.”
This is the Greek word logos. We get the English suffix “-ology” from it; you know, biology, zoology, paleontology. We also get the word “logic” from it. When something is “logical,” it is orderly, organized, it makes good sense. So when John claims that Creation “came into being through [the Word],” he’s stating that God was organized about the act of creating, that God had a plan for the universe and wasn’t just creating all willy-nilly. You can see how John’s poem goes all the way back to before anything existed, all the way back to when there was only God. John needs this cosmic perspective in order to demonstrate the extraordinary specialness of what happens next.
This organizing principle, this logic behind Creation, this giver of all life, this Word became flesh. This Word took on the very meat and bones and skin and breath and soul that had evolved over untold millennia within the Word’s own orderly Creation. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man of seemingly humble origin who had a knack for helping people live better, fuller, and more authentic lives, serving one another in love. This Word became flesh, which means he got dirty and tired; he grieved and wept and sought comfort; he ate and drank and laughed with his friends. He was homeless at times; he was also a refugee. He was welcomed and excluded; he was loved and hated. He touched and healed so many people, but sometimes he needed to go off by himself to recharge. He took a first, newborn breath. He took a last dying breath. All this to say: he was one of us.
In fact, he was the best one of us. He was the best one of us because he was so much more than simply one of us. He was the Word. He was life as life is meant to be lived, as God dreams for life to be. As so many theologians have said, this Word became like us, so that we could become more like him.
And this thought brings us to the last important word in John’s brief Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us. I don’t like this translation. It’s about as weak a translation of the original language as you can get. I prefer this: “And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Made his home among us. This gets much closer to the intent of John’s original poetry. The Word didn’t just live here for a time. The Word settled here. The Word made a home here.
I think this second translation impacts me so much because I have lived quite a nomadic existence. In my nearly thirty-three years on this planet, I’ve lived in ten different states. The longest I lived anywhere was six years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The second longest was four years at college. I’ve lived a lot of places. But I never, ever felt like I was making my home anywhere. Until now. I live in a real house with my wife and two children. We brought the twins home to that house. In their short lives, they have never lived anywhere else. That is their home. We have made a home.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. God made a home here. The Nativity we celebrate this night marks not a brief dalliance with Creation, not simply a passing through, but a commitment to be present, to be active, to be here. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, this commitment continues long ages past the Word’s earthly walk. The home God made is no longer just in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem. The home God makes is here, in each beating heart. And the home God makes is also out there, within the whole of Creation. As the Godly Play stories so aptly put it: “All of God is in everyplace.” That’s God’s home. We are God’s home. And God is our home, now and into eternity.
So this night, we celebrate not only the first, newborn breath of the babe in the manger. We celebrate the deep reality that God made a home here in order that we might have a home in God.
(Sermon for Sunday, September 1, 2013 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)
Stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. You may have read in the Carillon that this year at St. Stephen’s we are going to practice sharing our stories, so I thought I’d get a jump start – a sneak preview, if you will – during this sermon. I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.
We’ll start with Jesus Christ “yesterday,” and we’ll start as many Godly Play stories do. Once there was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. This someone was called Jesus of Nazareth, and he came from seemingly humble beginnings, though his mother knew better. At his birth a disreputable cadre of outcasts claimed him as their savior, and that’s what he was. His very name means “God saves.” When he grew up he left his mother’s house as sons often do, but that was perhaps the last normal thing he ever did.
“Change your hearts and your lives,” he preached to any who would listen. “Because the kingdom of God is so close you can taste it.” This was his good news, his Gospel. But that was not all. Every day he revealed what it was like to live in God’s kingdom, God’s dream for all creation. He healed those who were sick and those who couldn’t walk or see. He renewed the broken to wholeness, he gave hope to the despairing, and he welcomed everyone, especially those no one else would bother with, to his table. His words provoked peace, joy, and courage in some, but, sadly, malice in others.
Jesus told his friends to love and serve others, come what may. He stood against the machinery of the world that enslaves people with false promises and misplaced priorities. He desired with every fiber of his being to replace the machine with a life lived fully in God, a life of blessing and abundance derived from God’s promises, God’s priorities. In the end, the machinery of the world felt threatened by this man, who was also so much more than a man. And for good reason. He was a threat. By putting Jesus to death – and a shameful death at that – the machine thought it had won. But on the cross, Jesus gathered to himself all the brokenness the world wrought, all that separates us from God – sin, shame, guilt, death – and their power died with him.
This is the story of Jesus Christ yesterday. When I read this story in the Gospel, I feel his words penetrate my skin. They delve into my heart and take up residence, and they urge me to live the life Jesus invited his followers to live. As I read Jesus’ story, I long to make it my story. And this is where the story of Jesus Christ “today” begins.
Three days after Jesus died, he rose again. Before dawn that Sunday morning, God the Father returned God the Son to us, resurrected as Jesus himself, yet more than himself. He couldn’t bear to break the promise to be with us always to the end of the ages, so he conquered death itself in order to stay in relationship with us into eternity. He breathed the peace of his Holy Spirit onto his friends, and we are still breathing those breaths even today.
We are still breathing those breaths not just because the two thousand year old air still remains, but because Jesus’ resurrection has no use for the concept of time. While we mark that Sunday morning as the hinge of history, the resurrection did not happen just on that one morning in that one garden. The power of the resurrection emanates out from that moment into every moment, filling all moments with the possibility of entering fully into God’s eternal presence. Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the deeper reality of God’s dream, a dream that each of us can participate in, a dream of bringing God’s reign into the hearts of all people and all people into the heart of God’s love. Jesus’ resurrection is happening now, today, in this place, in our hearts, at our table, in our service, in our love. When I remember the startling truth of this wonderful story, I take the time to look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection in my life. And I try to be a sign of that resurrection in the lives of others.
But there is still one more story, the story that undergirds all the others, the story of Jesus Christ forever. Our first story began with God the Son emptying himself, taking on the form of a human being, and becoming like us so we could become more like him. The Gospel writer John resorts to poetry to enter even the edge of the mystery of this emptying. The Word, says John, was in the beginning with God and was indeed God. This Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of God spilling from the person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
But as the Word, he is forever. This Word is the order, the logic behind all of creation. “All things came into being through him,” John’s poem continues, “and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” Whenever we look up and try to count the stars, whenever we appreciate the beauty and richness of evolving plants and animals, whenever we smell the coming rain, we encounter the artistry of the Word, the foundation of all things, visible and invisible. This eternal Word was in the beginning with God and abides with God and is God forever. This is the story upon which all others hang, and this is the story that Jesus invites us into. This is the story of God’s presence in and through creation.
This is my story. And this is your story. We read Jesus’ words. We feel them come alive in us through the power of the resurrection. We join God in the great story of bringing all God’s creation back to God. These stories are grand, and sometimes they seem so big and daunting that entering them feels impossible. But its in those moments when Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today, and forever – takes us by the hand and reminds us that each normal day of our lives is part of the story whether we realize it or not. He takes us by the hand and invites us to follow one step behind him as he opens our eyes to all the ways we are already part of the story. And he takes us by the hand to guide us to all the new ways the story is still unfolding.
(Sermon for Sunday, August 7, 2011 || Proper 14 Year A || Romans 10:5-15)
This Sunday, the phrase, “the word is near you,” which Paul quotes from Deuteronomy in his letter to the Romans, really struck me. As I sat down to write a sermon about how and when the word is near us, I kept having this feeling that this sermon needed to be a song instead of a more traditional offering. So I decided to pull out my guitar and write a sung sermon. Here it is. You can hear a rough live version of the song by clicking play on the audio file below.
When you’re standing on the subway platform,
And the Red Line is running late
When you’re landing on a rainy runway,
And the storm turns the sky to slate
When you’re handing out bread,
When you go where you’re led,
When you face what you dread…
the word is near you.
When you’re flipping through a family album
With your grandmother who you love
When you’re slipping down an icy sidewalk
With the cold seeping through your gloves
When you’re clipping your nails,
When you’re telling tall tales,
When the life support fails…
the word is near you.
The word is near you, the word is near you
It’s in the sun-setting sky,
And every answer to “why?”
Hear the still, small voice cry…
The word is near you.
When you’re clasping on your favorite bracelet,
The one made by your niece at camp
When you’re gasping on the field at halftime
And you fight through a wave of cramps
When you’re grasping at straws,
When you notice your flaws,
When your hardened heart thaws…
The word is near you.
When you’re looking for a baby present
For your friend who is almost due
When you’re booking travel for the funeral,
And your grief knocks the air from you.
When you’re cooking up eggs,
When the man near you begs,
When there’s nothing but dregs…
The word is near you.
It’s on your lips
And in your heart
Speaking life to your soul
And making you whole
(Sermon for February 28, 2010 || Lent 2, Year C, RCL || Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)
Something happens during our worship service that I would bet you’ve never really noticed before. Actually, this something happens twice during our worship. In fact, this something has already happened twice during this very service. The readers finished both the story about Abram and the piece of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and then they said, “The Word of the Lord.” And you responded, “Thanks be to God.”
Have you ever wondered why we say, “Thanks be to God” at that particular moment at the conclusion of a scriptural reading? If you haven’t, don’t worry: I didn’t wonder why until I started writing this sermon. Saying “Thanks be to God” seems rather strange at first. For what are we really thanking God? Honestly, this thanksgiving would make much more sense if the reader herself were the one offering it. I can imagine the reader thanking God for the lack of unpronounceable names in the lesson; or for the ability to pronounce Melchizedek and Nebuchadnezzar on the first try; or for the opportunity to serve God in the capacity of reading the Bible aloud. But the question remains: why do we respond with thanks to God when the reader says, “The Word of the Lord”?
This morning’s lesson from Genesis provides an answer. But first, here’s a quick recap of the first few episodes of Abram’s story. God tells Abram to leave his country and set out for a new place, which only God knows about. So Abram, his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and their household set out on a journey. They wander through Canaan and down into Egypt, where Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh to save his own skin. But when a great plague hits Egypt, Pharaoh realizes Sarai’s already married, and he sends her back to her husband. Abram and Lot part ways because their herds have grown too great to share the same land. Finally, Abram settles by the oaks of Mamre. Soon after, he takes part in a battle among the local kingdoms. And on three separate occasions during these adventures, God tells Abram that God will give him offspring and make of him a great nation.
But Abram worries because he remains childless. He’s getting on in years. Sarai is barren. He’s rich and powerful and secure, but the one blessing he desires above all else has eluded him. He has no descendants to inherit his land. A slave born in his house will have to be his heir. Eliezer of Damascus is going to get everything. How does this fulfill your promise, God?
In this way, Abram questions God when the word of the Lord comes to him in a vision. Half in accusation, half in resignation, Abram states the situation bluntly: “You have given me no offspring.” And during this moment – during Abram’s most anxious, most doubtful, most defeated moment – the “word of the Lord” comes to him. The Word of the Lord comes to him and says, “No one but your very own issue will be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” The Word of the Lord comes to him and gives Abram the strength to believe that God will fulfill God’s promise. This is the same “Word of the Lord” for which we twice give thanks on Sunday morning.
You may ask: “How can mere words give Abram such strength? What if the promises are empty? Where’s the action to back up the talk?” Okay, I’m about to say the “H”-word and I need you to stay with me for just a minute here. Genesis was originally written in Hebrew. Translators do the best they can to render the original language into English, but sometimes a Hebrew word is just too deep and complex for a single English word to suffice. In these cases, the English is like looking at a picture of a cake. The Hebrew is like taking a big bite of the cake itself.
Such is the case with the word “Word.” In Hebrew, the “Word” is not simply speech or writing on a page. The “Word” happens to people. The “Word” is an event, an encounter, an action that calls for further action. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, God spoke creation into being: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The Word of the Lord happened, and, as a result, creation came into existence. When the Word of the Lord happens to Abram, he finds the strength to go on trusting God in spite of all the reasons why God’s promise seems preposterous.
And when we hear a reading from Holy Scripture on Sunday morning, we respond “Thanks be to God” because the Word of the Lord has just happened to us. In that encounter with the Word, we are aware that God continues to speak us into existence. And from existence into service. And from service into love. And from love into the transformation that happens when we follow Jesus Christ our Lord.
You see, when the Word happens to us, we are changed. We may be changed minutely or momentously, but we are changed. We may be changed slowly or suddenly, but we are changed. We are changed into better lovers of God, better servants of other human beings, and better human beings ourselves.
In the film Life as a House, George talks about change, a subject about which he knows a great deal. George has been diagnosed with cancer, and he is using his final months to repair his relationship with his estranged son. By tearing down his house and rebuilding the home he always wanted, he and his son work through the messy process of reconnecting. At one point, George says: “You know the great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.”
In Abram’s case, the Word happens to him, and the change comes slowly. The Word gives him trust in God’s faithfulness, but at first Abram fails to understand the expanse of God’s miraculous promise. Abram doesn’t realize that God desires not just Abram’s own offspring, but Sarai’s, as well. So Abram bears a son with Hagar, his wife’s slave-girl. But the Word isn’t finished happening to Abram yet. Years later, Abram stumbles into God’s presence again, and God renews his promise a final time. In the pivotal sign of the change, which the Word has on Abram’s life, God changes his name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. Soon after, Sarah bears Abraham a son named Isaac, and the countless generations that follow rival the number of stars in the heavens.
I invite you to reflect on how the Word is even now happening to you. Is the change, which the Word is causing in your life, so constant that you don’t feel the difference until there is one? Or is the Word blowing you away and making you into something different, something new, in an instant? Either way, know that our Creator continues to speak creation into existence. Our Creator writes the Word on our hearts. Our Creator puts the Word on our lips so we may speak love and welcome to all we encounter.
The reader says “The Word of the Lord” to make us aware that the Word is happening to us even now this morning while we sit in our pews. We respond “Thanks be to God” to show our gratitude for God’s movement in our lives. But the Word isn’t through happening to us yet either. The Word happens to us to enable us to serve and to love. The Word impels us to go out into the world and invite others to notice the Word happening to them. As followers of Christ, we live with the joyful expectation that the Word will happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
And when the Word happens to us, we will be changed.
Speaking of cake, the day I preached this sermon was my first at the church to which I was recently called to be the Assistant Rector (Assistant to the Rector, Dwight!). They got me this cake, which is awesome.
The following post appeared Saturday, August 22nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word “MYSTERY.” The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let’s just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.
The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits? on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.
Take a look at the first five verses that John gives us:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)
Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it’s possible and I won’t be satisfied until I figure it out and if I can’t figure it out then it must not be true.
But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because “with” and “was” should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.
In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.
This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*
In these first five verses, John locates us (“life,” “all people”) within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words “witness” and “testify” are from the same root in Greek; the English word “martyr” comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God’s movement in creation.
When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits? on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.
* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.
** I am using the word “story” to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of “it’s only a story.”
Episcopalians are often accused of being too brainy, too intellectual. We think too much. We get caught up in the space between our ears and forget about that throbbing muscle in our chests. These accusers are correct up to a point: we do not check our brains at the door. Jesus asks us to love the Lord with all our mind, as well as our heart and strength. But our intellectual engagement with faith is only half the story.
You see, worship in the Episcopal Church is quite sensuous. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the Harlequin romance definition of the word. Our worship is sensuous in that we employ all our senses to encounter the presence of God. We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. We see the stained glass and changing seasonal color palates. We smell the incense puffing from the thurible.* We taste the bread and wine. We touch one another in the handshake or embrace of the peace of the Lord.
To engage all of our senses, we use things in our worship. We use candles, books, and bowls. We use bread, wine, and water. These things are all incredibly – laughably – ordinary. Nothing about a loaf of bread is inherently special. Hand me a loaf of bread, and I might feed the birds or save it and make French toast tomorrow morning. (Actually, if you know me, the most likely scenario is that I’ll eat the loaf right then and there.)
So, how does the loaf of bread, which was one of a hundred bar coded loaves at the grocery store, transform from a laughably ordinary carbohydrate delivery system to a holy vessel of Christ’s presence? The bread moves from its ordinary location on the shelf in the store to its new, strange location on a linen-draped table in a church. The bread behaves quite normally, sitting there waiting to be eaten.
But the table and the action done to the bread and the people watching the action are not normal. The table is abnormal because it has several tablecloths covering it, some ornate, some plain. The action is abnormal – whoever talks about a loaf of bread before they start slicing it? And the watching is abnormal – unless you’re in the studio audience for Iron Chef, who joins dozens of others in watching someone prepare a meal?
So the bread is laughably ordinary. But the situation is not. The juxtaposition between the normal loaf of bread and the strange way it is being treated invest the ordinary with new meaning. This new meaning turns the bread into a symbol. Now, before we go any further, I want to dispel from your mind any notion of the phrases “it’s only a symbol” or “it’s merely symbolic.” Symbols are woefully misunderstood things in American culture – like soccer and irony. A symbol is an object that points beyond itself to a deeper truth. Too often, “sign” and “symbol” are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. A stop sign lets you know you are supposed to brake at an intersection, but that’s all it tells you. The red octagon doesn’t compel you to ruminate on why you should stop. But a symbol – the cross, for instance – stirs within us all of the historical and theological and emotional resonances of the truth to which it points.
Okay, so the bread is a symbol. It connotes the bounty of harvest, the fruits of the earth, the goodness of creation, the nourishment of our bodies. And when we put it on that table, and a priest (in the presence of God’s people) asks God to indwell that bread with the Spirit of Christ, the bread becomes a special sort of symbol called sacrament.
God moves within us, spurring us to love, praise, act, pray, serve. Outward connections with our inward spiritual lives are called sacraments. These special symbols take the ordinary things we’ve been discussing – bread, water, even our own actions and personhoods – and set them ablaze with physical and emotive evidence of the presence of God.
When we participate in the sacraments, we ourselves become sacramental symbols of God’s movement. Our service to God points to the deeper truth of God’s creation of and love for the world. Worship nourishes us for our role as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of the light of Christ. We enter church as normal, ordinary people, like the loaves of bread on the grocery store shelves. We leave church transformed by our sharing in the presence of Christ with one another. Over time – months, years, lifetimes – the transformation helps us to realize that what we mistook as “normal” was really quite miraculous and extraordinary.
All of the normal, everyday things we use in church gather new meaning when we employ them to worship God. The candle becomes the light of Christ. The bowl becomes the vessel for the waters of baptism. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Likewise, we – as sacramental beings – discover new meaning for our lives when we come together to worship the Lord.
*The metal censer on the chain that you swing to disperse the perfumed smoke; sort of like a liturgical yo-yo.