A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 7, 2017
Mark 8:1-9 GNT; Reading from John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe
The word “sacrament” is one of those theological, churchy words that have been around almost as long as the Christian Church has been in existence. Oddly enough, “sacrament” is not a word to be found in the Bible, traditional Bible translations, at least – not even once. A look in my American Heritage Dictionary yielded the following: Sacrament: “A formal Christian rite . . . esp. once considered to have been instituted by Jesus as a means of grace. Often The Eucharist.”
One country church I served right out of seminary referred to the Eucharist or Holy Communion as “The Sacrament.” It was customary to observe Communion just once each quarter, or four times a year, after the teachings of Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Part of the rationale for only observing Holy Communion once every quarter may have been the idea that if you observe it too often, it becomes commonplace and loses some of its significance. But when we did celebrate Communion, or “The Sacrament,” in that particular congregation, it was considered to be a special, sacred occasion. The persons who were responsible for preparing the Communion elements took their task very seriously. They filled the tiny juice cups in the silver trays and prepared the broken bread with the most reverent of hands. This was the Holy Sacrament of the Church.
But the primary meaning and importance of the term “sacrament” is that phrase, “means of grace.” A sacrament in the teaching and history of the Church has indicated those special rites which convey or impart or become a “means of grace;” a way in which believers experience the grace of God.
Originally there were seven sacraments acknowledged by the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Penance, Anointing the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. The Protestant Reformers chose to narrow the official sacraments of the Church to two: Baptism and the Eucharist (otherwise known as Communion or the Lord’s Supper).
Now, on the one hand, I am glad for the Protestant Reformation for many different reasons, one of them being the fact that we observe only two instead of seven sacraments. Some Christian groups, you know, don’t observe any sacraments at all – not even Baptism or Communion – feeling that life itself is a sacrament, or honoring special rites is a form of idolatry which dishonors God or Christ. But then on the other hand, perhaps the Catholic Church was onto something in seeing other actions such as Confirmation, Anointing the Sick or Matrimony as sacraments in that they can, indeed, be channels or experiences of grace.
Well, in case you are wondering where in the world I am going with all of this talk about sacraments and grace, I will just come right out and tell you: Could it be that many everyday activities could also be viewed as “sacramental,” in that many of the blessings of everyday life are in effect experiences of grace? I want to contend that God’s grace or the grace of life is not limited to being baptized or celebrating Holy Communion. Certainly Baptism and Holy Communion are, indeed, channels or means to receiving and experiencing grace. Every time we celebrate Communion or Table Fellowship here at the United Church, as we have today, and then join hands to sing together the Lord’s Prayer, it is an experience of grace. But God help us if we only experience grace the day we were baptized or whenever we come together on the first Sunday of the month to celebrate Holy Communion!
No, I have come to believe that everyday life is full of experiences of grace, and hence, that many of our everyday experiences can be viewed as “sacramental,” if we look upon them as such. For instance, mealtime with family or friends can be a moment of grace, and hence, sacramental in nature, if we make it so. I tend to think that whenever Jesus broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with those close to him, as related in today’s gospel story from Mark, it was a graceful, sacramental moment.
But can’t it be that whenever we sit down at the table with loved ones that such moments can have sacramental overtones and become experiences of grace? Of course, we may have to be intentional in the manner in which we make mealtime moments of grace. I am not sure that the practice of individual family members warming something in the microwave at will and taking it to their room or carrying it in front of a television set and eating alone could be considered a sacramental, grace-filled moment. Perhaps it could be. And I am not sure that a meal where every family member tries to outtalk everyone else or that turns into a heated argument over some family issue can be considered a sacramental, moment of grace. Perhaps it can. Anything is possible with God, the scripture says. But the family meal or meal with friends where gratitude is present, and where everyone is in a state of harmony, and where love and acceptance and support are shared, and where each one’s dignity and worth are affirmed can very certainly be a grace-filled, and hence, sacramental experience for all concerned.
Some, like naturalists John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, and others, have considered being in harmony with the world of Nature to be grace-filled, sacramental moments. As Burroughs put it in Accepting the Universe, “Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance. Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.” In Leaf and Tendril, Burroughs said, “we find . . . God in the common, the near, always present, always active, always creating the world anew.”
Thoreau, in Walden, said a similar thing: “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things I did. . . . Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” In the thought of Burroughs and Thoreau and others like them, living in harmony with Nature is a religious rite of sorts, a communion with the Divine, and hence, a grace-like or sacramental experience.
Other more contemporary writers have also spoken of experiences of grace in everyday life. Contemporary writer Anne Lamott talks a lot about grace in the day-in and day-out experiences of life. And so does poet Mary Oliver. Likewise did Fredrick Buechner, who said, “Taking your children to school . . . Eating lunch with a friend. . . Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, . . . If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
The key, perhaps, to experiencing grace in everyday life and finding God in the natural world is the lens through which we view life and the world around us. Whereas one person might look upon a family gathering around a holiday table to be a sacramental, grace-imparting experience, another might look upon the same meal as a stressful obligation to be endured. Whereas one person might welcome a hike to a Smoky Mountain waterfall on a warm, summer’s day as a sacramental exercise and opportunity to commune with the Divine, another person might view the same experience as a tiresome walk in the summer heat. I guess it all comes down to the fact that sacraments, grace, religion, the Sacred, and such have to do with faith and the eyes of faith which become the lens through which we see life and the world around us. I rather like something Mary Oliver says in this regard. Oliver wrote, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace” (Winter Hours). So will I – take grace, that is.
Yes, it all boils down to how we view life and the world around us. So many are the everyday experiences that might be seen as being sacramental in nature – gifts of grace – if we receive them as such. Everyday sacraments. May it be so. Amen.