Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sermon: "Home of the Holy" (Delivered 4-7-13)


The first job I had working for a church was as the middle school youth advisor at the First Church in Boston.  I had been working with this group for about two months when I showed up for a youth group meeting on the first Sunday in November.  When I walked into the youth group room, there was a weird energy in the room.  The youth all looked a little nervous, like they had a secret that they wanted badly to share but that they also didn’t want to share.  You know that look?  Starting to say something and pulling back from saying something at the same time.  Their eyes were darting around the room, daring each other to be the first to speak.  Then, finally, the one member of the youth group spoke up and broke the tension.  The member of the youth group announced that a subset of the youth group had gone trick-or-treating together on Halloween and during the course of their evening may have decided to throw a few eggs in the general direction of the church, and a few of those eggs might have even struck against the side of the church.

How is a youth minister to respond when the youth group announces that they had egged the church?  I remember pausing to ponder how I should respond to their confession.  Should I get angry?  Should I display my disapproval?  Was I to assign some sort of punishment?  I decided to respond with curiosity.  “Why did you decide to throw eggs at the church?” I asked, matter-of-factly.  They gave me an answer.  I told them that “I dunno” was not an acceptable answer.  After all, I reasoned, this attack had been premeditated.  It was a conscious decision they had made.  I was curious about why they had been inspired to egg the church.

Finally, one of the kids blurted out, “We did it because we were kind of curious about what would happen.”  This was interesting.  “Curious, like would the egg break when it hit the wall?” I asked.  “No,” the kids said, “Curious like what would happen.”  I sensed they were getting at something deeper.  “Curious, like would it make God mad,” I asked.  “Yeah,” they said, “More like that.”

Let me observe that this group of teens and preteens was your run of the mill group of Unitarian Universalist youngsters.  Some were atheists and agnostics.  Others had some kind of a belief in some kind of God.  But, none of them, I’m pretty confident, believed in an image of God as some kind of cosmic being watching their daily actions and prepared to strike them down with a lightning bolt if they messed up.  These Unitarian Universalist youth had gone through their UU religious education program in which they had not been exposed to lessons about an angry God who resembled a jealous tyrant or a strict drill sergeant.

“Like would it make God mad?” I asked.  “Yeah, more like that.”  I think that answer implies something about how we think about the holy.

Allow me to be so bold as to say that the approach that these Unitarian Universalist youth took to something they perceived as holy is not in fact all that different from the approach that some UU adults take.  It is just that the adults mostly manage to refrain from lobbing groceries.  There are UU adults who can point out the self-contradictions and historical translation errors in sacred texts.  Who can historicize and deconstruct holy rituals.  Who can point out the hypocrisies of religious institutions.  And, in the end, we can come to resemble that old UU joke:

There is a priest walking down the street who sees the church is on fire.  He runs in, grabs the communion set, and runs out.  The church burns down, but he gives thanks that the communion set could be spared.  There is a rabbi walking down the street who sees the synagogue is on fire.  He runs in, grabs the Sefer Torah, the scrolls on which are written the five books of Moses.  The synagogue burns down but the rabbi gives thanks that Torah was spared from the fire.  A Unitarian Universalist minister is walking down the street and sees that the UU church is on fire.  She runs in and grabs the coffee maker.

I am fond of saying that a church is a house of the holy and a home of the human.  Last month I preached on the human part of the equation.  I spoke about the church as a human institution, a place that will unavoidably be a home for human frustrations, human failings, and human messiness, but also a place of human resiliency, human capability, and human progress.  A church is most assuredly a home of the human, I said.  Congratulations.  My condolences.  Welcome home.

And, this morning, a few weeks delayed by a spring snowstorm, I am going to conclude this theme of home, talking about the church as not just a home of the human, but also as a house of the holy, coffee maker jokes notwithstanding.  What exactly, you may be wondering, do I mean by that?  What is this house of the holy business all about anyways?

Let me reassure you of what I don’t mean when I say that a church is a house of the holy.  A few years ago I took a sabbatical during which I traveled to South America.  Most of my trip I was based in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and while I was there I toured the Cathedral and the various churches of the city.  I believe I was touring the large Jesuit church in Quito’s historic district, and my guide came to a chapel within the sprawling complex of this church.  This room was striking because it seemed like the entire room was covered in gold leaf.  My guide, if my translation of his Spanish was correct, pointed out that this was nothing.  The church across the square was gilded with seven tons of gold leaf, but even that isn’t all that impressive because the conquerors had shipped most of the gold they could get their hands on back to Spain where they had so much of it that the altars were coated in gold leaf inches thick.  The gold of conquest, gold acquired through death and slavery, filled the treasuries of the palaces and the cathedrals built to honor God.

When I talk about a church as the home of the holy, let me be clear that I don’t mean an elaborate mansion designed to impress a deity with lavish tastes.  Such an understanding of God is embarrassingly small.  It is incredibly petty to imagine that God is impressed by fortune and golden luxury.  God is not a celestial Donald Trump.  It is sin – it is idolatry – to imagine that God would be impressed by demonstrations of excess, especially demonstrations that are the direct consequence of murder, oppression, and theft.

Further, when I speak of the church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean to imply that the church is a sacred space separated from a world that is unholy or wicked or sinful.  I’m not trying to advance any kind of sacred / profane dualism.  UU folk singer Peter Mayer rejects this dualism in his wonderful song “Holy Now,” which we heard earlier.  The song suggests how we in the liberal religious tradition might think about what is holy.  The first verse describes the singer’s past,

When I was a boy each week
On Sunday we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now.

And by the fourth verse of this folk song, Peter Mayer describes his new vision of the world in which everything is holy.

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
This morning outside I stood
and saw a little red wing bird
shining like a burning bush
singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now.

Let me be clear.  When I talk about church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean that the building somehow serves as God’s luxurious personal palace.  God would have to be petty, puny, and narcissistic to be much impressed by even the most extravagant cathedrals.  If you believe that God created galaxies and nebulas and rainforests and mountain ranges, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a mere building as holy.  And, when I talk about church as the house of the holy, I don’t mean to imply that the rest of creation is some kind of second rate hand-me-down, as Peter Mayer puts it.  So, what exactly am I getting at with this “house of the holy” business, anyways?

In his classic book The Idea of the Holy philosopher of religion Rudolph Otto describes the Holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that is both utterly compelling and frightening.  “Why did you throw the eggs at the church on Halloween?” I asked the middle school youth group.  “Because we wanted to see what would happen.”  Despite the demystification of religion, they still perceived some compelling and frightening force, however slight, connected to the church.

Why did they feel tempted to egg the church and why did they feel compelled to admit it to the youth advisor?  I want to suggest that they were testing their sense of the holy.  Not that God would strike them down with a lightning bolt, but what would happen?

If we offend, will we offered forgiveness?

If we transgress, will we be shunned?

If we push away, will we pulled back in?

If we disappoint, will the relationship be severed or restored?

If we let down, will we be given another chance?

These are frightening questions.  These are questions about holy relationships, holy community.  When I talk about the church as a home of the holy, I am talking about a place where grace happens.  Where we are neither shunned for the beauty of who we are nor rejected for our ugly moments, and we’ve all got our ugly moments.  Where we are given permission to fail and can admit defeat.  Where we are vulnerable enough to share our struggles.  This home of the holy.

Peter Mayer sings,

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament

See a nest on a swaying branch, painstakingly woven from twigs, ornamented in ribbon and discarded fabric, holding a pair of bright blue robin’s eggs.  The holy is most assuredly present, at home, in the tenderness that holds our fragility, in these places where our own vulnerability can rest.  This home of the holy is described as grace by Paul when he pronounces “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

In the home of the holy, middle school Unitarian Universalist youth with eggs will not be able to separate us from holy love.  In the home of the holy, no matter who you are, or who you love, or what you fear will be able to separate you from holy love.  You are in my prayers and love for you is in my heart.  Amen.