It has been a while since I shared an extended reflection. The last week or so has not been as theologically productive for me as the weeks before. Like you, I am contending with the fatigue and stress of such a dramatic change in day to day life. We owe ourselves the grace to admit this is difficult terrain. It is a dark valley, but God is with us (Psalm 23).
I have shared with a number of people my deep gratitude for the cards and good wishes I received after the passing of my father. In a time of disorientation and disconnection it is small signs of kindness that make grace visible and give us strength. The grace of God -- or whatever it is we gesture at with the word God -- is always here. It is, at times, obscured by that which is not graceful. The social isolation that we are all experiencing is one of the most painful things in life which obscures grace and discourages hope. As Wesley said, there is no religion, but social religion.
We call those experiences which open our soul in the present moment to the presence of God, sacraments. From last Sunday’s scripture: “It was then that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). Two disciples were lost, hopeless, isolated. In a moment of compassion they issued an invitation of kindness, “It is getting late, join us for dinner.” Throughout their long walk the Living One was present but obscured; it was only when they invited a hungry traveler to share a meal with them that their eyes were opened. The dinner became sacrament: an act that made visible the reality of God with us and for us. It changed their lives, as it does ours when we do the same.
I would like to take a moment with you to reflect on a sacramental spiritual dimension of faith that is important to me. I hope it might be of help to you too. The formal Sacraments of gathering together physically for the Lord’s Supper or Baptism are not available to us at the moment. Neither is the simple invitation to share one another’s company in person. This does not mean that God is more distant. By no means. The heart of scripture (in both Judaic and Christian reading) is the witness that God is with us. A sacramental life celebrates the mystery of God’s presence in midst of the common stuff of human life. In fellowship with this Spirit we can be with each other in other ways.
The church tradition we inherit defines sacrament as the outward and visible sign of an invisible and spiritual grace. I hope from what I’ve said so far that you might begin to think about an experience of God in common life that is more commonplace than simply Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper we speak of the “elements” of the sacrament. The elements of our formal Sacraments are among the most basic human needs: water, food, cup. In our rituals, this stuff of common life becomes deeply meaningful, layered with the Christian story in order that our eyes may be opened to the presence of God’s grace in the moment.
This sounds mysterious. It is. It is also common — our lives are enfolded within an astounding surplus of meaning if we slow down enough to notice. The sympathy cards I received are an example. The cards began their lives as paper: a human creation taken from God’s gift of the earth. From paper, either by personal craft or industry they became greeting cards, just as wheat or non-gluten grain is crafted into bread for a feast. As yet these elements are meaningless, other than as a sign of God’s abundant earth and human ingenuity —- gifts that should not be taken for granted. Next, however, they were selected and signed with thoughtful personal intent. Now, this common stuff of the earth is no longer simply paper or greeting card; their substance hasn’t changed, of course, but they have changed, indeed. To the giver and the gifted they are infused with deep meaning. In a simple signature or written note, stamp and the act of mailing they have become something other than they were before. They now sit on my desk as symbols which open my eyes to the presence of kindness, a remarkable gift in times of loneliness. They are sacraments with a small “s”; but deeply powerful ones nonetheless. They make kindness visible.
I’m using the word “symbol” here in a technical sense. When reflecting on human ritual, we speak of symbol as a thing that participates in the reality that it re-presents. I know ... it is a fancy definition. My favorite teaching example of this is an often repeated scene on Friday night in Trader Joe’s.
With some regularity, shopping in the twilight of the work week I have watched a person swing into a store dressed from work to pick out flowers, sometimes wine or chocolate too. It is poignant for me, as I am often lonely, now, at this moment in a week. I have learned to appreciate the serendipity of witnessing it with deep gratitude, for I have been on the receiving and the giving end myself. Those memories make me smile, grateful for the joys I have known. I like to imagine the story that is playing out: are the flowers a first date, an apology, or a simple act of kindness for a friend or dinner host? Will the gift be received?
As the flowers are bought and the gift given, something about them has been truly changed; simple dead plant matter becomes a symbol of much more. They are now elements, symbols of a sacrament that makes love known. They in fact become love made visible, while yet remaining simply flowers. Perhaps some moment decades later after one of the lovers has been lost, a book will be pulled from the shelves and petals pressed and dried from a moment so long ago will fall from its pages. Yes, those flowers are only dead roses, but they are also a reminder of love that is as least as real than the matter itself. In precisely the same way, the body of Christ, the church gathered and the bread and cup that is shared, remain, of course, just a collection of human beings, bread and fruit of the vine; but they, we, have been changed in the ritual nonetheless. Though our formal gathering must be set aside, for a time, I am confident that you have in your homes, simple things, keepsakes, memories of little value to others, but to you they are everything. If you give them thought, they are the outward and visible signs of extraordinary blessing. My father began many of his table prayers with a quote from scripture, “O God, source of every good and perfect gift, we give you thanks.”
I encourage you in the days ahead, when you are feeling lost and alone to consider your keepsakes and symbols of your memory as sacraments of the God of every blessing who is, even now, closer to you than your own breath. And better yet you, yourself, through an encouraging email, or a simple phone call or note, can become a sacrament of God’s presence for someone else.
Our faith in this pandemic is a time for encouragement and nothing else. It is not the time for suggestion or criticism; we often think we are helping when we communicate to those we love or work with what we think they should be doing. It is rarely if ever true. Grace is communicated through acts of kindness and encouragement — then silence, not suggestion. It is remarkable, when we do that, that which we thought was important is resolved or rendered meaningless along the way. Graceful people of Christ’s perfect love have taught me this. I am still learning the discipline myself.
So, friends, be at peace. The Lord is near. Consider well the gifts or symbols of God’s blessing you have around you, and in whatever way you can, extend an encouraging word to one another. For it is said they will know we are Christians by our love. We are the sacrament. You are the symbol. Be a blessing. It is for this purpose the church was made. Thank you, so very much, for the gift of serving you.
— Peace, Pastor Mark
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess