Preached on June 15, 2014 at East Barnard Church in Vermont. Readings: Psalm 148.7-13; Augustine, City of God: “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”
The year I lived in Oxford, England, my church had a monthly theology discussion group for young adults. We’d get together, share a meal, and talk about feminine imagery for the Holy Spirit, or how the Trinity is like an egg (I forget how that worked, but I think Christ was the shell). One month, the priests who led the discussion asked us whether we were Christmas Christians or Easter Christians. I had never thought to separate the two before, but I supposed I identified more with Easter, since I had by that time experienced a serious illness, a near-death experience, and the falling apart of family relationships. I knew at least some forms of suffering and loss, and I knew how improbable was resurrection, and how precious. The hard-won, costly joy of Easter is what kept me going.
Well, the priests then told us that Christmas Christians tended to be more optimistic about the world and about their fellow human beings, whereas Easter Christians saw the world’s dark side, and were more aware of the powers of hatred and death in the world. While the two priests said that both worldviews had their place in the church, I got the distinct impression that Easter Christians were seen as somehow more worthy, as somehow better Christians. And even though I was more in the Easter camp, this bothered me.
It’s continued to bother me. Somehow, in the fifteen years since I was introduced to the concept of Christmas Christians and Easter Christians, I’ve come to see that it is, in fact, Christmas Christianity which is rarer, and which I have come to see the value of. It all has to do with the nature of the Incarnation.
What if the word we need to hear these days is not just the victory of the risen Christ over the powers of death, but is also, in fact, the identification of God with creation, the helplessness of God as an infant, the vulnerability of God to the messiness and complex relationships of the world? What if Christmas Christianity isn’t just the optimistic, look-on-the-bright-side worldview that those two priests presented, but is instead a courageous practice of recognizing and celebrating the sacred in everything and everyone we meet? What if a spirituality of the Incarnation is not only about the joy and beauty of Creation, but also its vulnerability and need for protection and solidarity?
This summer, I hope we can explore this together. I’d like us to think and talk about how the Incarnation is present in every facet of our life and the life of our community. How God works through humor and comedy to teach us some hard truths about ourselves, and some beautiful truths about divine mercy. How God loves the animals, and what they can teach us about God and each other. I’d like to explore the implications of the Incarnation for the dignity of all human beings, and our divine calling to create what Reverend Doctor King called “the Beloved Community.” I’d like us to deepen our understanding of the ways God meets us through making and sharing food, and restores us in the keeping of Sabbath time. All of these things, and more, are sacramental practices of an Incarnation-based spirituality.
What are sacraments? Those of us from more Protestant traditions might be unfamiliar with the term; I don’t recall the word ever being mentioned in my Baptist upbringing, for example, though of course we did celebrate two: Baptism and Eucharist. Those of us from more Catholic traditions might remember seven: Baptism and Communion, of course, as well as marriage, confession, and several others. In any tradition, though, notice that what was sacramental only happened in the church.
But at its most basic, the theologians tell us, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It is the blessed water of baptism that touches not only the body, but the soul, as well. It is the transfigured bread and the wine that feeds not only the body, but the soul, as well.
If we practice what we preach, though, we can see that sacraments cannot be bounded by the church, just as God cannot be bounded by the church. In fact, perhaps sacraments are everywhere, only waiting for us to be clued in and notice them.
I was jotting down notes for this sermon on Thursday, a rainy day, when I remembered that I had not yet picked up the mail, and mail, on rainy days, tends to get soggy fast. So I threw on a raincoat and went outside, still thinking of my sermon, of what we mean when we talk about Creation, what we mean when we talk about Incarnation and sacraments. All of a sudden I was overcome by the scent of black locust blossoms—it smelled as if I’d died and gone to Heaven. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I took a deep breath, looked around from where I’d stopped—and there was a doe, not thirty feet away, looking at me as I looked at her. Intensely.
It was one of those moments when you feel like time doesn’t exist. The deer’s gaze and the heavenly scent of blossoms seemed eternal, otherworldly. Thinking didn’t exist anymore, this sermon didn’t exist anymore. The only thing that existed was this doe, this strange intelligence, this creature with very different concerns and fears from me, but also some very similar concerns and fears. And then the doe flicked her ear and ran off, and the moment ended.
Back inside, mail rescued from the pouring rain, I realized I had just been woken up to God’s presence by the deer and the scent of locust blossom. If that wasn’t an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, I don’t know what is. In this case the grace was the grace of being reminded that God is not just the God of humans, but the God of all the created world, including towering trees and graceful deer. It was grace that reminded me, gently, that God is as different from me as a deer, and yet as similar. It was grace that humbled me, reminding me that the human voices that praise God are only one strand in a vast chorus, a song that is never-ending, one that we will never fully hear or comprehend.
With this grace comes great responsibility. The more we practice opening ourselves to the sacramental reality of Creation, the more we will hear the call to take care of it. Our fellow singers in the great song of praise to God—air and water, wild animals and domestic, humans near and far—are just as necessary to the song as we are, and just as loved by God. It’s amazing how hard this can be to act on. I once lived next door to a seedy bar in a small town on the North Shore of Boston, Massachusetts. I think my roommates and I called the cops about twice every year. Once it was because a man was being methodically beaten up by another man. Once it was because a dog was locked in a car on a warm day with the windows rolled up, and I couldn’t find the owner. Once it was because a man was lying as if dead on the sidewalk as I was coming home with groceries. I tried to rouse him, and he wouldn’t wake. I couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. For the record, I don’t know what happened with the two men, but the dog’s owner was found and police explained to him that he needed to leave the windows down a bit so his dog didn’t overheat, and the ambulance workers were able to revive the man who was passed out on the sidewalk. In each of these cases, a life might have been at stake. And yet it was so hard for me, a naturally very shy person, to call for help. I wondered what the police would say when they arrived, whether they’d think I was wasting their time, whether I’d have to make a statement. But in each case it was the thought of how vulnerable we creatures are that made me pick up the phone and dial. It was scary every single time, but trying to be God’s hands and voices in the world can empower even the most timid among us to leave the places we feel comfortable. I’ve heard people say that having children is like sending your heart out to walk around in another body—imagine how God feels! Imagine, too, how the world might be transformed if we let our hearts go walking about in God’s Creation. It would be scary, yes, but also, how joyful to be connected like that, to hear more and more of the voices of the great song. How much less alone we’d be. How much less afraid we’d be.
Let us pray.
O God, whose glory fills the whole earth, bless us to recognize our brothers and sisters in all of Creation and to see Christ in others’ faces. Open our eyes to the sacrament of each moment, each encounter, and open our hearts to love as we are loved. Amen.