The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Objects
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Objects
August 6, 2017
Our earliest ancestors in faith were a wandering people. With God’s help, they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. With God’s help, they made their way through the parted Red Sea and into the wilderness. With God’s help, they ate manna every day and followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. However, the truth was that most of the time they felt like they were getting no where. Most of the time, Moses, who had the thankless task of leading them, was frustrated beyond belief.
In an August sermon, when many of our families are traveling—wandering the American countryside, following a GPS or reconfiguring their route, doubting whether Dad has any clue where he is going—it seems worth starting with this point. Our whole tradition was founded on the experience of a group of people who were mostly lost, who had some idea of where they were going but no idea of how to get there. Gentlemen, I trust in my heart that when “Mrs. Moses” questioned whether her husband had any idea where they were, he was the first (but not the last) man to fix his eye on the horizon and say, “We’ll be fine…Just a little further, dear.
In these travels, traditions developed. One of those traditions had to do with the Ark of the Covenant. This was a box that was roughly 48 inches by 27 inches. The box was made out of acacia wood and covered, inside and out, with gold. Four rings were attached to the box. Two poles made out of acacia wood and covered in gold were run through the rungs when it was time to move the ark. One family—the Kehaths—of one tribe—the Levites, would carry the Ark on their shoulders using the poles.
The outside of the Ark was known as the kapporet, a pure gold covering. This is also known as “the mercy seat.” Attached to the kapporet were two sculpted Cherubs or angels, also made of pure gold. These Cherubs faced one another and their wings touched one another.
The big debate about the Ark in history was not over the appearance of the Ark but its contents. There is some consensus that the Ark contained the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments, the ones that Moses smashed when he saw the people worshiping the golden calf. Most scholars think that the Ark likely contained a duplicate copy of the tablets, as well.
The Ark of the Covenant, at each new stopping point was placed in the center of a tabernacle, or portable sanctuary. This sanctuary was a set of tents which set aside the space surrounding the Ark as sacred. The tabernacle is described in great detail with its poles and curtains and the functions of its different spaces.
It might seem an odd thing that our ancestors had a sacred object like this, at all. After all, one of the big taboos in the Ten Commandments was idolatry. Before the people could even hear that rule, they fell prey to this sin in the whole “Golden Calf Gate” incident. And at a human level, we all know how easy it is to worship the wrong things, right? In this country, our Puritan ancestors stripped their sanctuaries bare of any art so that the people would worship God and not the sanctuary. So, how did the people end up with a sacred object?
What made the Ark different than the Golden Calf was that the ark reminded the people of God while the Calf was considered a god. In their earliest days, the newly freed slaves had to be so tied to Moses, their rescuer. This is the man who saved them. They can touch him. They can listen to him. They can follow him. Then, one day, he leaves them to go up the mountain. He doesn’t come back. The people grow anxious. They lose their faith. They turn to the nearest object—the Calf. The Calf won’t lead them anywhere. The Calf won’t do anything other than be the object for their worship. Eventually, the truth that is revealed is that they shouldn’t be worshiping Moses or the Calf. Rather, they should be worshiping the God who is present with them, who is in relationship with them, who is leading them. This is the God who gave them the rules by which they were to live. The Ark points to the presence of God in their midst. Wherever they go, God goes with them.
(One of the interesting traditions that develops around the Ark is that it is always out in front of the people when they are traveling—about a thousand yards ahead. Literally, the Ark reminds the people that they are following God, every step of the way. Some even came to believe that the Ark cleared away the snakes and other creatures who would harm them. Some even believed that the Ark actually carried those who looked like they carried it—that those men were actually hovering off the ground. Again, there is always a tension between a sacred object and a magical idol.)
Eventually, when the people have conquered the Promised Land and had enough time there to decide that what they really want to be is like everyone else, the people call for a king, long to become a kingdom and ask God to build a permanent temple. Everyone loves the ornate temple that Solomon builds with all sorts of rooms just like the tabernacle but built out of the cedars of Lebanon instead of flimsy cloth. No…there is nothing portable about this new worship space. The Ark is placed in the center of that temple behind curtain after curtain, never to be seen by an “average Joe” again. Instead of God being with us, God is now over there, tucked behind the curtain, and seen only by the “professionals.” And so began the marginalization and compartmentalization of faith…
The thing, though, is that risky as sacred objects may be, the risk may be worth taking. We all spend our lives wandering, not exactly sure where we are going, not exactly sure what’s coming next. This is an anxious, insecure life that we lead. At its best, the Ark doesn’t make false promises or provide magical explanations. At its best the Ark simply reminds people of what matters and what is true. They might be wandering but they are wandering as a community of people. And, no matter where they wander, God is always with them.
The truth is that most of us do have our own sacred objects—things which contain meaning for us, things which remind us who we are and “who’s” we are, things which we carry with us through life. We carry these things with us through the different places that we live because they mean something to us in an enduring way.
Think about photographs—not necessarily the one’s that you swear you are going to organize one day that in the meantime are in that box that is around here somewhere. No, I mean the photos that you cherish. There is a slide of my two sisters and my mother and my grandmother and me. I’m about 7 and sort of contorting because I just couldn’t stand there and be still. Everyone is smiling. But what stands out in the picture is that my mother has an army helmet tucked into her elbow in the most military of ways. I’ve always thought this was a symbol of how overwhelming it must have been to raise the three of us…
I think of a picture of me as a young father standing with a backpack on. In that backpack is a very young, Emma, wearing some really funky sunglasses. She’s peaking around my head—no small task—to make her way into the picture. Somehow, that photo captures the joy of that time…
I think of a picture of Sarah, bawling her eyes out, mouth open in despair. Then, I remember the moment. We were at a restaurant. They brought her fries instead of a salad. She was so mad! She would still be just as mad today.
There is a reason why when the floods or the fires come, what people often grab are the photo albums. They remind us of the details of our days, the places we’ve been, of what we’ve gone through together. It’s not that we can’t remember such things but they provoke the memories.
Think of the trinkets that you have brought back with you from sacred places. I am now down to trying to bring back only a handful of seashells when I return from Sanibel rather than every shell that caught my eye. I have a set of rocks from various campsites in the Boundary Waters, rocks that were already smooth from being washed in those waters for centuries that somehow have grown smoother as I’ve rubbed them through the latest anxious moment. I think of my beloved work trip t-shirts, each one of which reminds me of a particular set of projects and families and group members and adults. Again, it is not that we won’t remember such things without the shells or the rocks or the t-shirts. It’s just that the objects make the memories more available and vivid for us to remember.
The truth is that in the wanderings of this life it is all-too-easy to forget. We forget where we come from. We forget who shaped us. We fail to realize just how far we have come. We get so caught up that we lose perspective. That’s why we need to surround ourselves with reminders, with sacred “post-it notes,” every one of which tells us as story that is essential for remembering who we are.
The painting on the wall, the bowl on the table, the photo in the frame, the shirt on my back all tell the story of me and the story of us.
Ultimately, the story that they tell is the story not only of me and us but, as always, the story of the God who is with us. Remember where you came from and tell me God was not there in the people who loved you. Remember the things that could have gone so much worse but didn’t and tell me you’ve never known grace. Remember the days when things were terrible and the moment you discovered you were not alone. Remember who you are and “Who’s” you’ve been your whole life long. Then, ask yourself, what can you carry with you that will remind you to remember that truth?