Texts for Preaching
Excerpt from Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis.
I undressed, dove into the sea, and swam. I felt the sacrament of baptism in all its deathless simplicity on that day, understood why so many religions consider water and the bath, in other words baptism, the indispensable, presupposed condition of initiation before a convert begins new life. The water’s coolness penetrates to the marrow of the bones, to the very pith; it finds the soul, and this, seeing the water, beats its wings happily like a young sea gull, washes itself, rejoices, and is refreshed. The simple everyday water is transubstantiated; it becomes the water of eternal life and renews the person. When the convert emerges from the water, the world seems changed. The world has not changed, it is always wonderful and horrible, iniquitous and filled with beauty. But now, after baptism, the eyes that see the world have changed.
Lord, you have examined me
and know all about me.
You know when I sit down and when I get up.
You know my thoughts before I think them.
You know where I go and where I lie down.
You know everything I do.
Lord, even before I say a word,
you already know it.
You are all around me—in front and in back—
and have put your hand on me.
Your knowledge is amazing to me;
it is more than I can understand.
Where can I go to get away from your Spirit?
Where can I run from you?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there.
If I lie down in the grave, you are there.
If I rise with the sun in the east
and settle in the west beyond the sea,
even there you would guide me.
With your right hand you would hold me.
I could say, “The darkness will hide me.
Let the light around me turn into night.”
But even the darkness is not dark to you.
The night is as light as the day;
darkness and light are the same to you.
You made my whole being;
you formed me in my mother’s body.
I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way.
What you have done is wonderful.
I know this very well.
You saw my bones being formed
as I took shape in my mother’s body.
When I was put together there,
you saw my body as it was formed.
All the days planned for me
were written in your book
before I was one day old.
God, your thoughts are precious to me.
They are so many!
This sermon has nothing to do with Labor Day,
nothing to do with the gospel reading,
and only points tangentially
to those verses of Psalm 139
as a sample of what I am going to talk about.
So now, sit back, relax, put your feet up.
Please consider the gnarly stone spires
at Chimney Bluffs
standing sentry over the deep azure waters
of Lake Ontario,
looking like a giant petrified ribcage
of some ancient gargantuan monster…
Or recall the dark cream-colored beach
sliding into the shallow end of Seneca Lake,
soft and cool to sit in
as the sun goes down,
the water a fresh sheet
to pull over your knees…
Or take a drive in your head
around the gravel road circling
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
where the wetland marsh sprawls
as far as the eye can see;
and you know that beaver, gnat, osprey,
heron, and leech
into a single living, breathing body
with biological rhythms all its own.
(Or you, hearing this at home,
conjure up any spread of the Creation’s extravagance -local, national, international, or even
inter-stellar — that lives in your memories).
Erosion sculpted splinters,
humanly groomed beach,
wild preserve of wetland…
all of it — real estate.
That’s right, real estate
to buy or sell,
a safe haven when the stock market is volatile.
Or…is it an impenetrable mystery
revealing a hint
of the Creator’s mind?
As one of my favorite poems lyricize’s
”The Tree at the Center of the Earth
under which Buddha sat
and on which Jesus hung
has been cut
into real wood beams
for the ceiling of the game room.”
A fat-bellied Buddha
sitting serenely cross-legged
in his immortal pose,
an icon to a half-a-billion people
of all that is hopeful and holy,
is now a handsome souvenir
of a trip to Thailand
used as door stop for the dinning room.
Jesus is hanging mercilessly
by nailed hands
like a side of beef in Wegman’s freezer,
an expression of anguish
frozen on his face
with an agony so terrible
it would incite a psychopath.
But there he is on countless golden crosses,
trivialized as jewelry
to easily and without consequence
wear around the neck.
You get my drift, obnoxious as it is.
Sacredness has been drained
from so much
that we once thought was eternally sacred,
that now we must wonder
if it was ever so?
Like any religious experience,
the further we get from it
the more we wonder if it really happened.
The sacred is not a renewable resource
that we can tap into at leisure
and with the confidence
that it will always be there.
The same technology
that can turn a sweltering 90-degree day
into a comfortable 72 in our living room,
can also strip the threads of sacredness
right off our relationship to Creation.
Because of our technology
that changes every environment into
one in which we feel comfortable,
we must work to stay connected
to the presence of God’s touch
If we do not walk into the woods, for example,
and peek into the giant rotting beech tree
that fell four summers ago
and try to see how deeply the pill bugs
have burrowed this year,
then we will loose a strand of connection
to the sacrament of Creation.
If we give up enough of such encounters
in favor of comfort, safety,
and getting things done,
then a once intimate relationship
will become quite
We all know how this happens
because we have lost it before –
and maybe haven’t even recovered it yet.
I know that when my back was too painful
to allow me a simply walk in the woods,
the opportunity to sit on a bench
in front of the lake
became even more important than ever.
To stand for just a minute in the snow
and take a deep breath of cold,
even if a full-throated trudging in its deepness
is prevented due our health,
can bring rushing back
all the wildness and mystery
That tenuous relationship
we have or do not have
with the deep and pervasive mystery
of the Creation,
is a metaphor — or perhaps an equivalency —
to the sacred presence of God we seek.
The humanly constructed icons-of-holiness
or bread and wine
are also mortal vessels of sacredness.
They each have their own kryptonite.
When marching into church
has become rote, a routine,
or it is simply the thing we must do
then something gets lost.
When the ancient text of Scripture
and our eyes glaze over
and our thoughts drift
to what we will do this afternoon,
the sacredness is drained
like the rush of blood
from a shark’s bite.
When the Eucharistic prayer has been said
and we sing that same old song again,
and we shuffle from foot to foot
waiting for them to bring communion around,
and we don’t know what to do with our hands
while we wait,
and we check out who is serving today
and how they are doing it,
or who is here and who isn’t,
then the presence of the holy
may have become hidden from us.
It is not the old-time-religion
of Gothic Catholic mysteries
to say that sacraments can loose their flavor
like chewing gum overnight.
But we know
when the truth of our experience
comes up against doctrine,
our experience wins out.
or the sacred,
that is what this sermon is about, by the way.
Remember the catechism’s definition
of a sacrament?
“The outward and visible signs
of inward and spiritual grace,
given by Christ as sure and certain means
by which we receive grace.”
But honestly, the sacred
is like a sunset or any thing of beauty:
as soon as we try to describe it
or paint it,
or in any other way try to capture it,
it slips away,
Baptism and Eucharist
are the biggy sacraments for the Church,
but we also, in our tradition,
and Unction of the sick
But you won’t be shocked,
and many of you will agree with me,
when I say that to define a sacrament
as limited to something given
through the Christian Messiah,
and held within a tiny corral of seven
is like describing the whole Cosmos
as composed of only the Sun
and the planets we see from Earth.
Don’t get me wrong,
there is a place for explicitly Christian sacraments.
But before we are Christian
we are human,
in the same way
that before we are Episcopalian
we are children of God.
To tell you more than you want to know,
the Latin word for sacrament
originally referred to a soldier’s oath of allegiance.
But when the New Testament
was translated into Latin from Greek,
sacrament had been a word
a reference for mystery.
When the mystery of a thing,
has been forgotten,
ignored or lost,
it can no longer be a sacrament.
When the mystery of God
in the bread and wine
and we are left to think
about how it could possibly be so,
the sacrament is lost.
Like an adolescent romance
that has descended into an argument
in which one has challenged the other
to “prove you love me,”
the mystery of sacrament
cannot bear too much thought,
too much reason,
too much inspection.
It is mystery.
It is not by accident
that in this worship space
we have oriental rugs beneath us,
art hanging on the walls around us,
a table that is more than a table
that becomes the center of our focus,
and music — music
that washes over us
and penetrates us,
and comes up out of us.
We have silences
that syncopate the words and prayers,
and we have readings
composed of new beginnings
and ancient roots.
None of that
or how we do it
is by accident.
You see, a sacrament
must be entered into with the whole body,
the whole person,
the whole mind.
A sacrament is experiential – thought, word,
and deed —
bundled with intention
and slipped into the sacramental moment.
When it’s over
then we can think about it.
When we have passed through it
and felt it,
then we can wonder about its meaning.
When we have been touched by the holy
and the sensation has migrated past us,
like lovers in the dark,
can we think or speak out loud
about what just transpired.
Sacraments are mysteries
but only when we willingly
enter into a moment
of planned holiness
as if it were never planned.
Like lighting candles for a romantic dinner
we make ourselves ready
in preparation to enter into a moment
and as if
we are the guests
not the host.
Is there anything so sweet
as that moment of mystery?
”When the convert emerges from the water,
the world seems changed.
The world has not changed,
it is always wonderful and horrible,
iniquitous and filled with beauty.
But now, after baptism,
the eyes that see the world
from Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis.
The eyes that see the world have changed.
The power of a sacrament
is in its ability to change our eyes
so that we see the world differently – the world that hasn’t changed.
I am pretty sure you know the experience,
every one does.
Through some moment of intensity
such as death,
a car accident we somehow walk away from,
a medical report that comes back positive…
A moment, in other words,
that focuses us so absolutely in the moment
that we emerge from it with new eyes!
Out of those kinds of moments
the world suddenly feels different –
we feel different.
It only lasts a second
and we only feel its presence
but a short time — few days or weeks maybe —
but such moments have a long half-life.
Some of them reverberate throughout
the rest of our lives.
I would describe the sacred,
and sacraments generally, as:
mysterious moments of union with God,
in which our lives are momentarily touched
by the utterly real
presence of the holy.
It is like this bread and wine
we make into a sacrament – a vehicle
of mysterious union with God.
is in the ability we give to it
to change our eyes.
For me, that power
swirls around somewhere
in the knowledge
that Jesus was the host
of a radically open table,
where he scandalized his contemporaries
on a daily basis
by communion with bad guys,
and offending the sensibilities
of friends and enemies alike.
His doing that
and handing it to us
to also do with one another,
is what makes it sacred for me.
For someone else
the power of this moment might
be in the image of Jesus’ hands
around this bread
and his lips upon this cup,
and feeling as if
he were here and now
and always will be.
For still others,
the power is in a miraculous transformation
of alcohol into blood
and wheat into skin
and all of it somehow
okay and wonderful
But to whoever
and for whatever,
here is a solemn caution.
For all of us,
regardless of the presuppositions
we bring to this sacramental moment,
we need to leave them
at the door of the experience
and pick them back up
on the way out.
We need to enter and deposit ourselves
as guests not host,
and give up the control,
and come — only to be present.
The power of this
and all sacred moments,
is in our willingness to enter
and then to let our eyes
that see the world
even in ways
we can not predict,
When we emerge from the water —
or stand there and sing
in the aftermath
of that familiar taste of bread dissolving
on the tongue
with the tang of wine —
the world seems changed.
The world has not changed…it is
as it always has been both wonderful and horrible,
iniquitous and filled with beauty.
But now, after worship in community,
the eyes that see the world
That is a sacrament.
That is the experience of the ordinary sacred
always available to us
in any moment.