The Signs of the Holy
What is a true Sacrament?
Morning Service led by our Minister, to include the baptism of Ava Charlotte Rose, daughter of Emma and Andy.
This sermon is taken from Mark 14, verses 1-9
The Signs of the Holy
So there I sat, in a comfortable armchair at my previous church. Around me sat the members of a Study Group: nice people, thoughtful people, all of whom were members of our church except one- a neighbour, who was Roman Catholic. We were talking about the sacraments: those very special, “sacred” actions through which, we believe, the presence of God becomes real to us and in us.
The United Reformed Church recognises only two Sacraments: baptism, which we have celebrated today and Holy Communion, in which we break bread and pour wine as a receiving of the broken body and poured out blood of Jesus Christ, given to reconcile the world to God.
The Roman Catholic Church however, has seven sacraments: baptism and Communion, plus confirmation (when a child who has been baptised confirms their faith for themselves), penance (when you confess your sin to the priest and receive forgiveness), extreme unction (the preparation for death), ordination (of priests and ministers) and marriage.
The members of the Study group listened to all of this, thought about it deeply and then all our loyal, longstanding church members came down firmly on the side of the Roman Catholic Church. I had been apparently been nurturing a congregation of subversives……
A hundred and fifty years ago, that would not have been funny. It could have caused a lot of trouble. But we have moved on a long way since then. Not only are we more accepting of different traditions but I sense that our whole understanding of a “sacrament” is changing. I do not think the members of that Study Group were wanting seven sacraments but more like a hundred and seven. They had encountered the reality of God in all kinds of ways. They had shared food, blessed a child, poured love into a relationship, received forgiveness they knew they did not deserve, held the hand of someone who was dying in innumerable situations, with a wide variety of people, in and out of church, with or without a Minister present and had still found those places to be holy ground.
As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, remembering the story of Moses hearing the voice of God at the burning bush: “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.” It is clear from the archaeological record that human spiritual awareness-that sense of “something other” in life, pre-dates organised religion. Human beings were sensing the reality of God’s presence in their lives long before priests and ministers were telling them what to do about it. Even now, in our present culture, where organised religion as we know it is -let’s be honest- dying out, surveys still reveal a high level of spiritual awareness in our population. People are still sensing God. “Here among our everyday places,” wrote Dorothy McMahon, ”here among our ordinary lives is the emerging of God’s grace. So watch, watch for the signs of the Holy.”
What about our Bible story today? Where did you see “signs of the holy” there?
Well, obviously in the woman’s deep love for Jesus. God is love, right? Right.
In the generous gift she gave Jesus. God is love, God is in generous giving. Right? Right.
In the way Jesus stood up for her when the others criticised her extravagance. God is love, God is generousity. God is understanding. Right? Right.
So far, so good.
What about when Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you;” does that sound like God? I mean surely we have moved a long way from “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high or lowly and ordered their estate.” True religion is surely about social justice and looking to a time when there will be no poverty. Right? Right.
Except that I remember one of my “eureka” moments coming to me in a school, with a class of 14 and 15 year old children. They were not badly behaved but they were very slow in understanding. It was not their fault, nor the fault of the school. They were simply lacking a level of intelligence that would enable them to cope with the complexities of everyday life in the 21st century. They did not deserve to live in poverty but they would always need help if they were to escape poverty. That was a powerful message for me to receive in the high-achieving, relatively prosperous South East of England today and in a culture teaching us that everyone gets what they deserve in this life. I would have called that “a sign of the holy:” the truth that yes, the poor will always be with us and so will our responsibility to help them. Right? Right.
But what about those religious leaders in the story, who hated Jesus and plotted against him? They come across as totally dark, typical religious intolerants who cannot cope with anyone who does things differently because they are afraid of losing their power. Right? Right.
But try to imagine what it must have been like for religious leaders whose people were living in an occupied country, with no political power of their own, downtrodden and bled dry by high taxes. These leaders believed themselves called by God to care for his people; to keep their faith alive because it is all they had left of their own identity. They were also trying hard to keep their people out of trouble with the occupying Romans. There is a high level of personal faith commitment, of courage and steadfastness in their story. Caring deeply about people for whom you have a spiritual and social responsibility is about God. Right? Right. These leaders just did not know what to do about this subversive preacher called Jesus of Nazareth who, so far as they could see, might (a) turn the people against their religion, leaving them lost and confused and (b) get them all killed as dangerous terrorists. So it was that these good and holy men, including one of Jesus’ closest friends turned devious and treacherous and would stop at nothing to see Christ nailed to a cross. What went wrong? How did they get the Signs of the Holy so very wrong?
I sometimes suspect that the greatest danger to priests and ministers of the Christian church when it comes to our “officially recognised” sacraments is that we can use them as a form of spiritual blackmail. We have the power to say, “This Sacrament will bestow God’s special blessing upon you and your child and so if we say you cannot receive it, you will, in effect, be cut off from God.” It happens. Power has always been a dangerous weapon and never more so than in religion.
The greatest danger to the people within and around the church is that they can come to view our sacraments as some kind of magic formula. Receive Communion regularly and nothing too bad will happen to you. Get a priest or minister to sprinkle holy water on a child’s head and she will be OK and grow up “a Christian” without any further action required. And of course it does not work like that…..
The greatest danger to those who profess no religion is that they still perceive God in certain “fixed” ways. If their experience of religious people has been bad, they will perceive God as something malevolent, pathetic, irrelevant. It will never occur to them to look for signs of the holy in places of love and truth and beauty.
So the greatest danger to all of us -believers or non-believers is in thinking that we have got God “sorted.” We know where the signs of the holy are; we know what they look like and so we stop looking at all.
Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s poem did indeed say that “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.” It continues,” But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
In the case of the religious leaders who wanted Jesus dead, it was not even a case of sitting round and plucking blackberries. They wanted the whole bush destroyed. Because they thought they had got God sorted. They thought they knew what the ultimate Sign of the Holy”- God himself coming into the world to save them- would look like. And it did not look like this travelling preacher from Nazareth. He had to go.
The famous singer Lesley Garrett wrote in her autobiography of her close-knit and loving family. Sadly though, later in life, her parents’ marriage broke up and she wrote of the time when her mother had become ill and worn down with stress but, when Lesley was singing at the famous opera house in Glyndebourne, she came to hear her. “Mum came down …for the opening night. The situation at home was really bad…and I could see she was only just holding herself together…And yet she was determined to make the most of the unique experience that Glyndebourne offers. She had treated herself to a new evening dress, had her hair done and to see her there, tired, drawn and thin but still managing to look glamorous, made me realise, certainly not for the first time how very, very much I loved her.“
This is what I would call a “mountaintop moment”- one of those experiences in a relationship, in a job, in faith, in self-awareness, when everything falls into place and you realise, “ yes, I do love this person so much;” “yes, I am in the right job;” “yes, there is a God who loves me;” “yes, I am capable of getting through this bad time;”
Of course, these mountaintop moments do not happen all the time or even all that often. The next day, when the person you love is getting on your nerves or the job is getting you down or you have lost your confidence or God seems to be taking a day off, you scramble around frantically to get that awe-filled moment back. But of course you cannot. And that is deeply frustrating and you wonder if you were deluded.
The trick though, is to believe that you were not deluded; that that awesome moment was true and that you are in the right relationship, the right job, the right faith and that you are the person you felt you were for that moment. Then you shape your life accordingly to nurture the relationship, to give your best to the job, to build up your faith, to bolster your confidence, trusting that that mountaintop moment will come back. And it will; just never in the same place or in the same way or as we expect. We cannot “nail down” life any more than we have ever been able to “nail down God.” To believe in the signs of the holy is to believe that yes, they are there and that yes, we shall see them but that they are gifts from God and not that which we can create for ourselves.
And maybe this what celebrating the Sacraments of the church is about. When people come to receive Holy Communion, opening themselves to the true, living presence of God, they are placing themselves in the right place, at the right time and in the right frame of mind for a “mountaintop moment” to happen. It does not happen every time but it does happen. And sometimes the reaction is delayed- you take part in what seems to be a rather dreary, routine celebration but then later in the week something happens that gives you a whole new perspective on that Sacrament- “so that is why I was there! “ The celebration of this “official” sacrament enables you to recognise the many “unofficial” signs of the holy in the world around you.
The baptism of a child is generally a thrilling experience because it is a one-off celebration in the life of the family. But the ongoing nurture will have its ups and downs. There will be times when bringing Ava into a faith community is a joy and a delight for you all. And there will be times when it is a chore you could do without and when she, sensing that your hearts are not in it, says “I don’t want to go.” There will be times when Ava is wonderfully aware that her small hand is held in God’s great hand and there will be times when she thinks that the majority of her schoolfriends who have not been nurtured in faith have actually got the better deal. She is likely along the way to encounter faith communities who encourage her to explore her beliefs for herself and faith communities who instruct her to stop thinking at all.
The challenge and the responsibility for Emma and Andy is to try to ensure that Ava is as much as possible in the right places at the right times, with the right people and in the right frame of mind to be open to the signs of the holy, to the reality of God, however this presents itself.
The challenge and the responsibility for this church and for all faith communities is to create the right space in which children can explore their baptism and the faith in which they were baptised. We need to offer the routine of worship and learning and friendship, for children and adults alike need the discipline of routine in order to grow. But we also need to offer the opportunity for Ava and all our children to turn subversive, to challenge us, to ask “why?” The church of the past lost many children as they grew up because they were not permitted to ask “why?” And the church has become spiritually poorer for not being open to those who challenge and who might actually have enabled us to see the signs of the holy so much more clearly.
“Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
May God bless Ava and each one of us with the grace to see the Signs of the Holy and to live our lives in the light of heaven.