The Search for the Sacred: Sacred People
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred People
July 30, 2017
We live in a world in which more and more people have trouble with religious institutions. Religion is invoked to fuel wars and conflicts. Religious organizations cover up heinous actions by their leaders. Religious people too often lag far behind others in overcoming sexism and racism and homophobia. Too often, we listen to the prophets’ challenge to care for the poor and act as if a church should be a “for-profit” enterprise
To me, the exciting part of people becoming aware of such issues is the opportunity for a reformation. When the church is forced to ask hard questions, it is given the chance to examine itself and correct its course. At it’s best, the church will work to gain these insights not in order to market itself but because it understands that the voice of the people can, in fact, be the voice of God. There are truths we need to hear as an institution. Some of those truths will be spoken by ancient words in the Bible. Some of those truths will be spoken by leaders within the church. Some of the most important truths will be spoken by folks outside the church whom we have judged or neglected or abandoned.
The really tricky part of this dilemma, though, is that the purity or perfection of the church should never be our focus or our selling point. We don’t worship the church. We worship God. If the church has any relevance then it must rest in the chance that we have to point to the presence of God and to call everyone to discover that presence. We don’t stand in pulpits and say, “Look at me!” We don’t point to our fancy stained glass windows and say, “Aren’t you impressed?” Rather, we point to the God who is present in our world. Then, we make the most outrageous claim of all: “That God that you just caught a glimpse of? That God loves you—no matter what.”
The real existential threat to the church arises not when we catch a glimpse of how human and broken the church can be. For most people who have been around the church that is old news—old news that can and does break our hearts but still, is not a huge surprise. Of course, we have to grow and change and evolve and none of that is easy. Still, though, the real threat, is when we fail to find meaningful ways to point to God’s presence. If we can’t look together and see the sacred in this life then we are really in trouble. What makes the heart of the church beat is the experience of the holy, of being overwhelmed with beauty and awe and joy in the largest and smallest moments that life contains, the vast majority of which don’t happen in a church.
Our job as the church is to help each other see such things and to celebrate them together. What is at stake is far larger than what happens on Sunday morning. What is as stake is our understanding of the very nature of life, itself. What unites the wide array of ways that we experience the sacred or the holy or God in this life is the growing sense that life is a gift, not a curse, that we are far more connected to one another than we are disconnected, and that not only are we cared for in this life but we are meant to be a source of care. We are beloved…and we are meant to love in return.
So, for the last few weeks and for a few more to come, we are searching together for the sacred. We have looked at nature, at the choices we get to make, at the rituals that we live and at the places we learn to call “home.” Not simply as members of a particular church but as human beings, these dimensions of life are powerful. Even if we have never thought of claiming a walk by the beach or a morning cup or coffee or our favorite spot at home as “sacred,” they are each, in their own ways, containers for meaning and purpose and comfort and joy.
So, as a church, when we are faced with people who don’t understand the language that we speak we can try speaking louder and slower and try to convince ourselves that if we just yell loudly enough then they will understand. Or, we can learn to connect our language to our shared human experience. What if we look at the Milky Way together and just feel awe? What if we delight together in the joy of a child? What if we find comfort in a ritual that we share as human beings? What if the experiences we share take precedence over any of the words we might use to describe them?
Today, I want to add another obvious dimension. One of the most powerful experiences of the sacred in this life is the presence of sacred people. The primary way that God works in this world is through human beings.
Again, let’s remind ourselves…we are not talking Popes and Cardinals and pastors and priests here. Don’t think churchy thoughts. Think about life. From the moment we are born, almost all of us are loved by a family. We might have one parent or two. We might have grandparents and aunts and uncles or people who might as well be grandparents and aunts and uncles. We might have brothers and sisters. The truth is that we are born not knowing the difference. We are just born hungry (literally) and starving to be loved. And for 99.99% of us, someone steps into that role and rises to meet those needs. Maybe they adore us. I’m guessing nearly all of us adore whoever is nearby and doing something that even remotely passes for care. They feed us and clean us and comfort us and we give them the only things we have to offer: physical contact and eye contact, later, a smile and a giggle, much later, all the advice we can offer them about what’s wrong with them! Our relationships with family members and people who are like family are rarely uncomplicated and yet, they are our sacred people.
There is also, of course, a giant bin of sacred people who are our friends. These are the folks who didn’t have to love us but did, who cared about us when we weren’t always that worth caring about, who went through life with us. Some of these friends were our own age—our classmates at school, our teammates at the gym, our “partners in crime” in Sunday School. Some of these friends were older adults who went from being teachers and coaches and people whom we knew were keeping an eye out for us to being genuine friends. Whatever the initial relationship, however things evolved, however long the relationships lasted, these people shared life with us. We remember them fondly. We seek them out every now and then. The world is a better place because they are a part of our world.
There are also all the people that we have loved, from crushes to romances to marriage and the amazing things that come from those relationships. Again, the power of these people doesn’t rest solely in how long they were a part of our lives. Though we might hope to never cross paths again with that one particular person, we may also realize that we would simply not be who we are today if they had not been a part of our life. Then, we look at the partner with whom we share such a vast part of our life and we see the fruits of the love in our children who in their own ways reflect who we are together and one day in our children’s children who provide their own reflection.
Family and friends are the obvious examples of sacred people. Based on our text, though, I want to invite you to consider another group. Consider the people whom you may have known only briefly but who, in even a single moment, embodied some life lesson, some greater truth, some vision of what’s sacred in a way that has stayed with you ever since.
In Jesus’ life, Mary was one of these people. This Mary was not his mother. This Mary was not Mary Magdalene, his devoted follower. This Mary was Martha and Lazarus’ sister.
In the earlier story of Mary and Martha, when Jesus came to their home, Martha got busy with cooking and cleaning and entertaining while Mary sat down, ready to soak Jesus in. Martha scolds her sister for not being helpful. Jesus scolds Martha for being too busy and too quick to judge.
Later, Martha and Mary both scold Jesus for not coming quickly enough when Lazarus, their brother, was sick. Now, Lazarus is dead. When Jesus hears this, he weeps. Then, he raises Lazarus from the dead. Word spreads fast about this miracle, fast enough that the authorities add killing Lazarus to their “to-do” list.
Finally, Mary crosses paths with Jesus again. This time, instead of just sitting in awe, she does something amazing. She takes a very expensive jar of perfume and she breaks it open and bathes Jesus in it in and act of sheer grace and generosity. Like most acts of grace and generosity, someone (in this case, Judas—yup, that Judas) takes exception: “If it were up to me, I would have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!” (At which point, Jesus had to shoot Judas a glance that said, “Are you really sure you want to be on the advice committee, my friend?”)
Mary is lavishly generous. I suspect we each have had folks who were just inordinately kind and gracious to us, too. We were caught in a crisis and they helped. Our foolish choices were exposed. They could have cut us the knees. They chose, instead, to be kind. Our needs were overwhelming but they literally saved us and barely hung around long enough for us to say, “Thanks!”
There is not one of us here who can’t name our sacred people and who doesn’t realize that their presence is a total gift. There have been times when their presence was the difference between making it through the present difficulty and maybe not making it at all. At the same time, all of us have had the humbling experience of being someone else’s sacred person. Chances are that they caught us off guard when they looked us in the eye and said, “You are a gift in my life!’ That’s why we need to be challenged by Mary’s example: to identify what we have to give in this life and to jump at the chance to lavishly and graciously and generously share what we’ve been given.