Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power
coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions
being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see
and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”
“Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
WHAT IS A SACRAMENT
What is a sacrament? A sacrament is anything you believe to be holy. Whatever for you is set apart, solemn, breathtakingly special – that is a sacrament.
Sacraments are old and new. They occur inside churches and out. Weddings and their joys are not confined to place, nor is a funeral and its grief. We christen (name, welcome, dedicate) a baby in ceremony, but in less formal ways, too – in our laughter, in touching our alms over a quickening life within, in our prayers, in kissing the newborn. These moments also are consecrating, dedicatory, celebrative. Sacramental.
A sacrament can be traversing the bridge at Golden Gate, walking at Gettysburg, viewing earth from the Canadian Rockies, strolling near crashing waves on sunlit coasts, or in the silence of sequoias; wading the brook in Minnesota where the Father of Waters begins its journey to the Gulf. A sacrament is reading the Second Inaugural at the Lincoln Memorial or listening there to Martin Luther King, or working a garden, or praying in our Gethsemanes.
Sacraments hover around the essentials of life, in such things as sexual intercourse and other deep reunions of flesh and spirit, in meals together, a last supper, at an altar rail with bread and wine or a picnic with strawberries and milk. Sacraments occur when the depth of life is disclosed.
Sometimes all life becomes sacramental. We walk on holy ground, the divine is present, interfused. We celebrate it, call it Thou.
These moments of sacred recognition flee and the world retreats to dreariness, as do we. But men and women and artists remember – to give liturgical shape, ceremonial form, some permanent hallowing to the sacredness we do meet in life. We recall, reclaim and transmit our times of sacred memory, the holy events and places of our lives, history and traditions.
Sacraments are very special because through them we enter the mystery and holiness of our common life, and see a vision of God.
Two Sundays ago was Palm Sunday and, though we do not do so every year, this year we gave out palms for you to take home or do with as you please. Using a couple of palms, one of our teenagers wove a little lovely latticed box, a photo of which his proud mom posted on Facebook.
Perhaps we should have said a bit more about what you were supposed to do with those palms, though the truth is that you weren’t supposed to do anything in particular, you could do with them whatever you wanted.
Well, those palms caused a little anxiety for some people, particularly for those from a Catholic background. In Catholicism there are rules or traditions about all this:
First, you get your palm blessed by a priest.
Carefully, you take it home.
Maybe you wrap it around a crucifix or a holy picture or place it someplace where it offers blessing or protection.
In Italy, in particular, a palm may be given to someone with whom you’ve quarreled as a kind of peace offering.
Sooner or later, you don’t throw your palm away but you keep it or take it back to the church where you or a priest can then burn it, the ashes of which are then used next year to smudge foreheads on Ash Wednesday, sign of our mortality and the beginning of the Lenten season.
You can depend on the Catholics to have thought these things through a lot more than the Unitarians!
Even some Catholics, though, can be a bit anxious around palms. Joan, our parish administrator, is a good Catholic and yet she rarely takes a palm home from her church because she’s uncertain how to dispose of it. Actually, Joan probably could discard the palm, but her husband Joe, even though these days he is a non-practicing Catholic, still has old voices in his head that tell him it’s wrong to throw a palm away. For Joan, it’s less of a hassle to NOT take a palm home.
It’s too easy, I think, to dismiss as superstitious any of these traditions or practices or anxieties or even the old voices. There is a wisdom to all of it.
I believe that our relationship with things is revelatory and reveals something important about our relationship with the world, the natural world, the material world, our relationship with one another and even with our own selves.
As long as I’m telling stories about Joan and Joe, she says that, on a family grave, Joe once found an old and tattered American flag, so he carefully folded it and put it on the passenger side floor of his truck. Whenever Joan rides in the truck, the flag is a little in the way and she has to scooch her feet because Joe wants to dispose of the flag in a proper way and, well, he has not gotten around to this proper way for three years now!
Casually, one does not throw away a palm or a flag.
On Good Friday and on Easter we displayed and we made use of our historic 18th century church silver. Well over a hundred people attended that service and many – not all – drank wine from these ancient engraved beakers and ate bread from the communion plate.
In Catholicism and orthodoxy, it’s the responsibility of the priest to drink whatever wine may be leftover; and I assure you that discharged that duty without any problem. As for the bread, I took it home and I must say that toasted for breakfast with some peanut butter, that communion bread tasted great! We may be confident that that did not happen over at the rectory at St. Michael’s!
It gives me real pleasure that we use our communion silver. I’ll always remember taking teenagers to Transylvania where in the Unitarian church in Kolozsvar they may hold in their hands the communionware that was used by the Unitarian martyr Francis David in the 16th century. Many of our kids have never before seen or touched such things and there is always a look of awe as they feel our history in their hands.
Well, this could be a sermon about things in general, about our stuff. All too often, as Emerson said in the quote at the top of the order of service, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” We do not possess our stuff but our stuff possesses us.
Annie Lamott had a quirkily delightful posting on Facebook this week where she wrote down “every single thing I know as of today.” She knows 14 things and they’re all worth reading, but #3 is this: “There is almost nothing (no thing) outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can’t buy, achieve, or date it. This,” she says, “is the most horrible truth.”
Spring-cleaning really is a spiritual discipline because most, maybe not all of us have way too much stuff, and often it gets in our way.
A few weeks ago, Megan and I participated in public health training for people working with hoarders. Hoarding has become a huge mental health and spiritual problem.
This sermon, though, is not so much about things in general but particularly about our relationship with things we or others perceive as holy or sacred.
On our email listserve I described some of our anxieties about palms and communion, and I asked about your experiences with holy objects.
First of all the mother of the boy who made the latticed box responded in horror, afraid that he’d committed some sin. I assured her he did not.
A woman who is taking her turn at laundering our church towels and tablecloths, wrote to me: “Interesting that you ask. Just this morning I asked (my husband) if he thought that it would be unholy to include my underwear in the wash with the white linen tablecloths that I’m soaking (to remove wine stains!) and washing for the church.”
People worry about a lot of things! Perhaps it’s time for a sermon on confession! People, you are all forgiven!
A man replied, “After my (Catholic) wife got over her shock at seeing me come home with a palm frond (She already had hers stuck up behind a religious plaque)…we tried to decide what to do with it. …It was rather large.
In our front hall we have a corner near the front door where there is a home-made walking stick and also an Irish “shillelagh” that was once a walking stick for a long forgotten relative. I said, “Why don’t we just place the frond with them??” And the frond is long enough and stiff enough that it works! So now we have a troika of sorts standing in the corner.
Perhaps he meant a trinity.
“Books,” said a bibliophile. “Books are sacred. Well, most of them. Maybe not “Mein Kampf” or “The Turner Diaries.” I don’t worship them, I read them, then put ’em on a shelf. Lately I’ve been thinking I have too many, and need to get rid of some. They take up a lot of room.”
Note to bibliophiles: There will be a book table at our Plant and Craft Fair in May!
A knitter told me of her holy objects: “Knitting needles.”
A mother wrote to me of her holy objects: “My girls’ baby teeth! I’m a little weirded out at having them still, but throwing them in the trash doesn’t seem right. I guess we need to have a little ceremony and bury them, but that doesn’t seem right either. I’ll just keep them in the back of my drawer, I guess.”
(When my parents died, I opened the safety deposit box at the bank and, yes, wadded up in tissue paper was one of, presumably, my baby teeth. People are weird.)
“Hi John,” wrote another person, “my holy objects are my puja set, which consists of a tray, some small bowls, a candle holder and some other stuff that I use to do the puja ceremony when I teach someone how to do TM (transcendental meditation).
She goes on to describe the puja ceremony (puja is a kind of Vedic prayer ritual) which involves rice and water and flowers and incense and singing, and she says, “This is holy to me because the person is going to experience the transcendent value of life, which means falling or traveling closer to its essence, and their essence, to the unbounded which underlies all of manifest creation. It is, you might say, the Spirit of Life you sometimes talk about. Since it really is synonymous with life itself, if you consider life holy, it is holy.”
She actually went on in some more detail but concluded, “Hope this isn’t too abstract. Or sound crazy.”
I think whenever we try to describe what is often indescribable we can wonder if it doesn’t just sound crazy.
“HI, John, I have a “jar candle” on my kitchen counter. I light it as my own personal “candle stand” as at church. I light it for joys, concerns, keeping someone in mind, successes, and even on those historic calamity days — Marathon 13 or blizzard outside. Every time I walk by it, I focus and take note. Sometime it’s on all day long.”
Someone else said, “Photos of great grandparents. Sea Eagle feather from our ancestors ‘ homeland in Norway. A pebble our dead dog carried around in her mouth the last year of her life (after she began having brain tumor induced seizures). Folded flag from dead ancestor. Hmmm.
Holy to us must mean mementos of the departed. We have all these items in plain view or within reach. We look and remember.”
Another: “I have a small Buddha statue, a small Jesus statue, a cross made from stained glass. I also have a Hindu object. Then I have all the prayer cards for every relative that has died that I went to the service for and then some. I also want my mom’s beautiful dark skinned Madonna. I have the bones of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré from Canada in a small metal case. (Really?) I have the engraved medal from my uncle who went to WWII. I have my scapular and my rosary beads.”
Another: “When one of my high school friends died a few years ago, I gathered various things Jane had stitched for me over the years, along with other objects she’d given me; then I honest-to-God made a sort of altar in the living room.”
“Fresh flowers in the house year round.”
Another person shared childhood Catholic memories of palms, then said, “I’m not sure what I have that is holy in our house, maybe the Kiddush cup, but even then I used an old pewter one we got as a wedding gift. (Interfaith marriages alter our sense of the holy!) Whenever I get roses, they eventually wither. I gather the browned dried petals and spread them in my garden as I say a prayer for or to my mom.”
Some of us are down-to-earth in our holiness: “There is a respectful protocol for some objects some consider holy such as John Deere B tractors. There are certain things you do and don’t do. For instance you never paint it anything different than JD green. You never “street rod” it. And NEVER attempt to imitate the way it sounds, particularly when pulling hard. UNLESS you know for sure you’re doing it properly!
OK, Rich…please stand and demonstrate. (Rich Daugherty stood and imitated the sound of a John Deere B tractor, pulling hard.)
And this: “To me holy objects are a ticket through a memory portal. I touch them when I need a link to a person or event or feeling. It’s part of keeping faith with a memory. Sometimes I don’t want to give them their due. A lot of times they make me weep or let me weep. I’m a sentimental sap.
A family one that comes to mind is my grandmother’s old platter. It’s chipped and cracked and looks as though it might crumble in your hands but it is very heavy. There are good and terrible memories in it. On Thanksgiving it comes out of the bottom of the cupboard. My mother always says,” This was Nana’s platter.” and I say, “Yes, I remember.” and then the turkey is moved from the pan to this platter and is cut up to be served on other platters. The old platter is then washed and put away. No one usually sees it but my mother and myself.
A children’s book (Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch), a plastic instant coffee jar with some matches in it, a piece of coal from the cellar, Frank’s old shirt, a little roll of birch bark, and, of course, some photos. I have a few others, but I lost some when I became homeless. I try not to allow myself any more because I know that I am powerless to keep them safe. Worrying about them is too stressful. Now I mostly keep them inside my head. After all, most things that are holy to me mean nothing to anyone else. They’re just another pile of carbon.”
She went on a bit about palms, then said this:
“Communion doesn’t bother me. I especially like sharing it with the choir. Singing is very emotional and is a good preparation for communion. I like to say it’s just a very formal potluck. It’s saying in an attentive way “Hey! THIS. Look at me, acknowledge me, I acknowledge you, we are human together.”
And then she concludes by saying, “That’s enough blah from me.”
Well, that nearly enough blah from me too. Except I want you to know that Megan and I were on a ministers retreat last week with the theme, Cultivating a Hopeful Heart in an Age of Climate Crisis.
The leader was a female Episcopalian priest who encouraged us to cultivate an I-Thou relationship with all things. You recall it was Martin Buber who contrasted an I-It relationship with an I-Thou relationship?
Something that is only an “it” is judged only on the objectified instrumental basis of “what good is it to me?” That flower, that piece of land, that animal, that tree, that person.
An I-Thou relationship, by contrast, is subjective and intrinsically valuable because we are all part of a mystery and grandeur greater than ourselves. We can never know all that is another’s heart, nor even all that is in our own.
Membership in this church, just by the way, is a transition from I-It to I-Thou.
At our retreat, four practices were recommended and, at the last, I commend them to you:
1. Learn to be quiet and to pay attention. (Another thing that Annie Lamott knows is that “nearly everything will work if you unplug it for a while, then plug it back in. Including you.”)
2. Cultivate gratitude.
3. Honor our bodies. You are reluctant to believe it, but your body is a holy thing.
4. Find ways to live a conscious natural life. Plant a garden, or keep something alive at home, or befriend some random tree in a park. “Live so that a piece of earth mourns when you die.”
Catholic priest and eco-theologian Thomas Berry once said, “The universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects.”
This sermon is, at last, over. Our service, as always, is just beginning.
Wouldst thou join me now in singing…
Hey! THIS. Look at me, acknowledge me, I acknowledge you, we are human together.