November 5, 2017: Sacred
Scriptures Used: Revelation 7:7-19, Matthew 23:27-28
In our last worship series, I focused the sermons on values – internal beliefs. When we come together as a group and determine which values are important for us as a community, we move into what is known as sacred.
When you work in church, you hear the word sacred often. We make sacred spaces, we sing sacred music. We refer to worship together as a sacred act. What do we mean when we use the word sacred? Do you use that word in your everyday life? I imagine not.
Calling something sacred is reserved for only the most special aspects of our lives: family holiday traditions, Grandma’s cast iron skillet, football alliances. To say something is sacred means a lot of people think it is important and worth honoring.
Let me offer an example: the Chancel I stand in on Sunday mornings is sacred space because it is our church’s recreation of the original Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. There’s nothing really inherently important about it, though, as it is. No saints are buried underneath it. It has no healing properties on its own. Only its symbolic nature, but that nature is worth upholding, because we together view this space as the dwelling place of God. That is why the altar is there.
Sacred spaces and objects and traditions require upkeep and even adaptation, which can cause stress for some. Have you seen the Sister Act movies? Whoopi Goldberg plays a woman placed in witness protection in a convent. Some folks went crazy because her antics in the movies seemed to dishonor the Catholic Church’s traditions. They even address it in the sequel, when she takes on training a choir of supposedly rough, urban youth. The choir is tasked with singing a song that is sacred to many: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” often known as “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”
I remember the minor, but intense, backlash from some that Hollywood would dare mix hip-hop and rap with sacred music. And that argument is the crux of what we will wrestle with in this series: “what makes something sacred?” And “what offends or upholds the sacred?”
This may seem like a silly topic. Sacred things are sacred and everything else is not. Yet, if we look around us, the dismantling of the sacred is one of the greatest discussions of our generation. Sacredness is at the crux of current events in the NFL and Presidential tweeting; opinions on tattoos and hair color; and even the Ritual of Friendship we follow here. [You know I’m not wrong…]
So what is sacred beyond discussion? And what isn’t?
Let us look to Scripture. In today’s lectionary reading from the Book of Revelation, the writer is witnessing a vision of the heavenly throne room. Most of the book actually follows a worship service, occasionally interrupted by actions of judgment against the earth. In the chapter we read, John describes the arrival of a crowd of worshippers in white robes. He questions the angel with him, and the angel responds these are the ones who have been through great hardship. While not explicit, these persons are often referred to as the martyrs, but we can assume anyone who has suffered for the faith, whether or not they died from it, would be among this crowd.
Suffering, real suffering, is often associated with the sacred. That is part of the modern narrative of flags – flags are just patterns and colors until we attribute them to a group or movement – because they take on the history of all those who suffered for the cause.
John does not witness a symbol but a people. The white robes are a symbol of their sacredness, but what makes them sacred is their suffering for God and God’s recognition of them in the throne room. They are promised to be given eternal goodness without pain or suffering of any sort. In death, they achieve life.
Today, we and many other churches will honor friends and loved ones who have passed on to be with God. We call all of them saints, and I imagine that not every person honored by all the churches on All Saints Day would be counted among those who have suffered for the faith like those in the heavenly throne room. On that alone, we would not have to view this as a sacred moment, but then we miss what is sacred. It isn’t the perfection of the original intent – the suffering for the faith – that is important. What makes All Saints sacred as we celebrate it is God in it. We believe God can do the impossible; God can redeem the living and the dead; we honor all the lives who have gone before us because in some way – big or small – they affected us in a way that makes us think of God.
This falls in line with Christ: if we build our faith and how we honor the faith through some understanding of perfection, we risk losing what makes it important. Jesus constantly railed against the religious leaders of his time for how much judgment they placed on those who were not perfect – not because of a failure of Judaism itself but their understanding of how to live by it. One can follow laws all day and be a dishonorable person. We must both honor our laws and the reason why they were written in the first place. In Christianity, thankfully, part of our law is to love, and love requires constantly asking if how we do life, how we live by our rules, is also loving God and neighbor. Otherwise, as Jesus says in Matthew 23, we are little more than whitewashed tombs: we look put together on the outside, but inside we are empty.
So, I would say Sister Act 2 not only did not offend the sacredness of Beethoven’s work, but actually helped uphold its sacredness by highlighting the intent of the piece: it is an ode to joy to honoring the glory of God. It speaks to all sorts of ages and ethnicities and backgrounds. Joyful singing to God can bring all sorts of people together.
Our challenge today is to find meaning and value of the sacred in our lives so that we too can take part in the holy work of God’s deeds in the world. We do that by making their stories and witness meaningful to ourselves and to others. If the sacred parts of our lives are not transformative, we have lost their sacredness.
I will honor the saints in my life by continuing to uphold the values and lessons they instilled in me. While the easy way of reading that is ‘I will be kind and loving and a good Christian person,’ it also means as a pastor I will honor the pastors, reformers, theologians, and people of the faith who challenged comfortable church folk to do more than simply claim their faith and attend worship. I will honor the saints of service and advocacy by striving to give up my wants and desires and even my way of living if it means I can reach others by highlighting that some are privileged with much and some suffer with so little.
We have a duty to do more than simply remember those who have gone before us by occasionally mentioning them. We have to continue the paths they tread and call upon others to take the path too. We have to honor them by picking up where they left off.
Are we going to only pretend to honor what we love and watch our insides fall into disrepair as our outsides look like whitewashed tombs? Or are we going to pick up our crosses, put on our robes, and live as one called by God? If all I have is my robe, I will continue to sing “Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.”