Sermon delivered October 15, 2017
at First Congregational Church in Blue Hill (UCC)
Early this week, Steve Pocock stopped by my office with a bottle of fine port. I’m not sure how he knew, whether there was a stray comment over dinner, or if it was pure luck, but port is one of my vices. In fact, I’d absolutely say yes to service as a Yeoman in exchange for the promised glass of port. Sadly, I am not qualified for that task.
The Yeomen of the Guard were created by the British monarch King Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth Field during the War of the Roses. Today, while they are still understood as bodyguards of the monarch, the role is purely ceremonial. The sixty yeoman are appointed, each retired after distinguished service in the British military. Their uniforms are similar to those of a more familiar group of Yeomen, the Beefeaters.
The payment in port happens as part of the State Opening of Parliament. This day-long event is, on one level, completely mundane. It is the functioning of government in a constitutional monarchy, where the Queen delivers a speech, called the Queen’s Speech, or King’s when there is a male on the throne, a rarity in the last two centuries, that outlines the ruling party’s legislative agenda for the coming session.
While the State Opening of Parliament is this mundane political thing, it also acts as meta-narrative, creates a space apart, of history and identity, casts the events of the one day into a sea of context, of thousands upon thousands of days. This is where the Yeoman come into the picture, for the day starts with them inspecting the cellars.
Any good Brit will tell you that November 5th is Guy Fawkes Night, and includes bonfires and fireworks celebrating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when Catholics attempted to blow up parliament during the State Opening with 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the House of Lords. If successful, they would have not only killed King James, but almost all of the nobility, government, judiciary and archbishops. Each year, the Yeoman search those cellars, and are paid with the aforementioned glass of port.
Relations between the monarch and the people, represented by the House of Commons, have been testy in the past, something both sides act out during the ceremony. Before the Queen leaves the palace, a member of the House of Commons is taken “hostage,” a bargaining chip to insure her safe return. These days, though the hostage does remain under guard, the time in captivity is a pretty hospitable few hours in Buckingham Palace. This part of the ceremony also goes back to the 17th century, when the Commons and King Charles I had what we’ll describe as relationship issues. As Facebook say’s, it’s complicated.
The Queen enters the Palace at Westminster, the seat of Parliament, through the Victoria Tower, where the Union Jack is replaced with the Royal Standard, the practice of a special flag being reserved for royalty and, apparently, the US Secretary of the Interior. The Queen proceeds to the Robing Room, where among other things, she’ll find the Imperial State Crown, with one stone dating all the way back to Edward the Confessor, the last king before the Norman Conquest in 1066.
In a bit of tit-for-tat for that whole hostage thing, when the Queen enters that robing room, she also finds a copy of the warrant for the execution of Charles I, a reminder of the power of the people. Like I said, it’s complicated.
After the Queen has entered the House of Lords chamber, the Commons is summoned. But first, they slam the door in the face of the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, the summoner, and when they do head to the House of Lords, they do not process, but stroll, with much idle chatter and wise-cracking, a reminder that they are at the beck and call of neither the monarch nor the nobility.
There is much more to the day, but these rituals, meaningless to outsiders, accomplish two things. First, they serve as a reminder to Theresa May’s Conservative government and every government that has come before that they are but temporary stewards of a living tradition. Second, they create a space and time apart, a designated time and space, and though it is primarily secular, we might describe it as a sacred time and space.
In today’s reading, Samuel is in a sacred space. This text can be confusing, for it is written during the time of the First Temple, but tries to imagine the age before the Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant was kept in a mobile sanctuary called the Tent of Meeting. Samuel, a child promised to the religious cult by his mother, is left alone overnight in the Sanctuary, a sort of initiation ritual that today would result in a visit from Child Protective Services. It is meant to be a thin place, where the transcendent and mundane collide, and indeed, little Sammy hears the voice of God.
The story itself is meant to explain, like so many other stories we have encountered recently, why the Hebrew narrative defies the customary practices of the Ancient Near East, why younger sons inherit, or the legacy passes out of the family completely, as it does when Samuel claims the priestly role that should have gone to the sons of Eli, and later when Samuel anoints David, passing over Jonathan, the son of the Warlord Saul, for a shepherd boy, the youngest son of Jesse.
Is it okay to manufacture a space and time apart? (Asks the pastor standing in a purpose built space in a designated hour…) The great naturalist John Muir would say no. In 1869, he wrote:
A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.
Muir’s words will resonate with anyone who has eyes to see the glory that God places before us every day in creation, especially in places like Downeast. A prophet, the great Scottish-American is heir to Thoreau and forerunner to today Creation Spirituality. He dabbles in natural theology, the experience of the divine in the Creator’s work, a subject of host dispute, and held in opposition to revealed theology, that is, a theology formed from divine intervention in the human world.
I tend to accept the thin places in nature as legitimate experiences of the divine, though they are so amorphous that they offer us little guidance on the ordering of human relations with other human, and being a social animal, that is our primary context. No one spontaneously appeared in a redwood forest. We all have parents, at least technically, and to the best of my knowledge, none of us is a latter day Mowgli, a wild child raised by wolves.
So as much as I love the revelation of God in nature and doubt most of the claims of revelation direct and divine, I am not willing to throw away the transcendence to be found in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine or in the Blue Mosque, am unwilling to disavow the manufacture of thin places with music, ritual, prayer. Manufactured transcendence is the whole of art, and manufacturing a sacred place, a thin place, a time apart, is part of every religious practice.
That time apart is filled with small rituals that tell a story, not the story of our lives, brief flashes at most, but the story of generations, of movements and of migrations, of tragedy and of triumph.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this month, we might spend some time in collective confession. The Medieval Catholic cult system, church and practice, was a deformed and corrupt thing, a grotesque of the simplicity found in Jesus. In our enthusiasm to purge ourselves of Catholic vices, we threw out the old idols, the worship of Mary, the finger bone of a dead saint, but humans being humans, we could not live without idols, so Protestants instead came to worship a book. And as fewer and fewer turn to that book, the more turn to other contemporary idols.
This is a manufactured time apart, not for the worship of the Bible, but for our lives, an intentionally artificial way of being where we retell stories and try to understand ourselves, our lives, in the context of that tradition. It is where we use words and silence and music, not so that some preacher can provie his or her brilliance, grasp on theology and history, but that so you can find yourself in relation to that divine mystery we name as God, in relation to this story, of a boy in a tent who hears a voice, of a monk who nailed 95 theses to the door, of a pastor who preaches temperance and makes his congregation mad, for my predecessor in this pulpit, the scowling face on the wall, would most certainly not have welcomed a glass of port.
We especially manufacture a thin place and act out the story of our faith in the sacraments. We baptize not because we have to wash some primordial blood sin from the innocent babe, but because this simple act connects us with Christians across centuries and denominations. We reenact the Last Supper of Jesus not because I have some mojo that turns bread into flesh, but because it connects us with this perfect moment of a man who was a walking thin place, a walking window into the divine, because we find ourselves in him, and they were telling the story of how he broke the bread and blessed the cup as soon as he was gone. Paul documents it and knows it within a couple of decades of Jesus’ death as the central mark of the Jesus community. The rite has evolved. We no longer use milk and water along with the wine, as we learn from ancient texts was the custom. The prayers are in the form of the prayers that have been said for centuries. Singing Holy, Holy, Holy, we connect ourselves with at least sixteen centuries of Christian practice, with John Chrysostom and the Sanctus repeated again on the facade of the Passion Tower of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, with voices singing in a small African town.
Like Eli, lighting the lamps and leaving the child alone, like the Yeoman earning their port, we do not do this to worship the past, but to connect the past to the present and to change our now. This time apart is supposed to infect our lives. Faith is supposed to be viral. We are called to act in bizarre ways, ways not valued in our culture. We are called to humility and service, to laying our egos and our desires aside. In a world that brutalizes and gerrymanders, anything to get one’s own way, the Christian is called to ask only “What is God’s will? What do the prophets tell me? What does the life of Jesus tell me? How must I live now?”
Words like “I want” and “I don’t like” yank us out of that living stream, even if they are the mantra of American consumerism. Right desire is ordered to God first and to the other second and to us last. out of covenant with God and those who are around us, elevates our desires. It is a sign of the soul-sick, akin to parliamentary trickery, anything to win.
We are called to enter into this space, a little weird, a little spooky, to be and to be embodied, to believe and behave in strange ways. Most of you bow your heads and close your eyes when you pray. Why? It doesn’t matter!
Reason is great, but you can’t think your way to God, for you did not think yourself into being. The pounding of Black Rod on the door of the Commons is not about reason. Reason did not show John Muir a glorious enthusiasm like worship.
You choose to be part of this story, but it is not my story, not your story, not my mission nor yours. We belong to God, to a living tradition, an infinite web. Like the fire in your belly from a great glass of port, may this story, of a boy hearing the voice of God, of escapees in the desert, of an un-credentialed rabbi brutally executed yet still alive, be fire in your heart, reshaping your life.