The Very Rev. Tom Callard – March 3, 2019
I remember in college reading a book by Anthropologist Mircea Eliade which was called “The Sacred and the Profane.” And I don’t remember too much of the content of the book, but I remember that Eliade’s basic thesis was that the world is divided into these two spheres of life, things that are sacred and things that are profane. Things that are holy and basically everything else. And that if you look across religions and cultures and gatherings of human beings throughout history, that almost everywhere, you see this basic division of things that are sacred and things that are profane.
And I have to say- I’ve thought about this a lot. And I don’t think it’s because I’m a priest, or a faithful Christian or a believer in God. But I think it’s because I have seen that my life advances and moves and transforms and changes because of interactions I have had with the sacred.
I have not been drastically changed by the thoughts in my head. I have not been drastically changed by anything I can do or craft with these hands. Having money, beyond a certain point, has not really changed my life. But in those times, those few and rarified times when I’m clearly in the presence of the sacred, those times, like nothing else, and I can look back and say: that changed me.
Do you have times in your life when you see something special touched you and changed you and it was something sacred? When you too stood with Peter and James and John on that mountain in the presence of Jesus, in the presence of God, even if maybe it didn’t look like the way you imagine God.
One time I’ll never forget: I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts walking down a street coming to an intersection, when from my left a flock of pigeons flew into me, and they flew before me and behind me and all around me. I was in the flock. And for one second, the wing of one of the birds touched my cheek, just brushed it, like a kiss from God, something that has never happened since. And I experienced in that moment that as something sacred.
I think we all have these experiences. When you’re not just walking down the street, but suddenly you’re on that mountain in the presence of Christ. People tell me that happened when they saw their newborn child. Or when they had an experience of being in love. Or even some difficult event which transforms a person’s life. Or those times when you have an epiphany.
J.D. Salinger wrote a short story in which a man walking down the street, and comes upon a woman who is dressing a mannequin in a department store window, like a Macy’s window. And he watches and the woman suddenly falls down. And the man in that second has an incredible, spiritual experience. Just like that. He encounters the sacred. Like when the bird touches your face.
These things happen. And I believe that they happen because God wants us. God draws us close. God wants so much for us to be there on the mountain with James and John and Peter. And from time to time, the God within us is able to respond to the God without. The Christ within us is able to see the Christ that is embedded in the world, there among the things of the profane, ready for the moment of revelation.
So the sacred is calling, like a doorway or passage that leads beyond the profane of our normal life and invites us to the presence of God, where, like Jesus in the Gospel today, there exists this possibility of that we are transformed. These are moments inviting us to change.
And sometimes these moments happens in a church, and sometimes they happen as you’re walking down a busy street, or sometimes out in the woods watching the sun set. But always they are an invitation to change.
And so the question I have is – what happens when we hold nothing as sacred? What happens if we hold nothing as divine? What happens to those who don’t want to believe or transcend or go up the mountain with Jesus? What happens in their lives?
I fear for our culture and I fear for our future if nothing is sacred. I fear for our politics and our younger generations. Because it seems more and more that people lack the sense of the sacred. They lack the desire to put themselves and their souls into the hands of God. They lack the ability to picture that there is something more than this, something that is true. Something that is more important or more worthy than me and my needs, than my election, than my power or my wealth or my agenda.
People who lack the sacred do not want to be changed.
And so now that I’m 52, and I’ve entered the realm of the elderly- and I know some of you won’t accept me in your club of the elderly, because I’m only 52. But the kids won’t have me either, because I am 52. So I’m stuck here in the middle. But now that I’m here please give me an elderly moment and just let me say these classic elderly words, “The kids these days.”
The kids these days don’t have anything that is set apart as sacred. Not just the kids, but many people in our culture. They don’t have anything sacred. Nothing is holy. Back when I was a kid and people went to church regularly, you would know, you step in here and you know you’re in the presence of something special.
You step in here and you are drawn close to power that is not of the world, that is not of our own, but from beyond. And the architecture of the church magnifies this because we’ve got these things going up, heading up and above, up to where our feet don’t normally go. Like Jesus on the mountain with Peter and James and John, or like Moses up on Mount Sinai.
And you know from our first reading that Moses had this veil over his face. Because he has just been to this place, and it is not a place where most of us go. He is veiled. And what an interesting thing to have this veil, because it means that Moses’s face is, in a sense, still part of that place, and it is set apart by the veil from us down here.
The veil is a barrier which separates Moses’s face and all the Godly things up there from us down here. And because of that veil, his face is not quite approachable to the things in the world. It’s close to us, it’s almost there, but it’s not quite there. It’s like the birds flying all around you who never quite touch your face. At least until they do.
You know, when you go to our tabernacle, the aumbry, over there, you open the door and you find a curtain, which is a kind of a veil, separating the world out here from the sacred presence of Jesus in there. You pull the curtain aside, and there within is the ciborium, containing the sanctified body of Jesus Christ, and the ciborium too has a veil.
And notice how these things are here, they are with us all the time. They are in the world in which we live. And we all have access to them. But just like with Moses, there is a veil which covers them, which means you can’t quite get to them, at least not right away. Without some action and perhaps some preparation. They are just a little bit separate.
So the problem with the world where there is nothing sacred is that nothing is separate. There is nothing beyond this, and humans everything is available to us. People who do not have the sacred believe that everything is available to them, and every whim is theirs, and every power in their reach.
In our day, we have come to expect anything we want, all the time, at the push of a button. And we believe there’s no limit to what we can do. Our own might, our ego, our strength and desire and will can take us everywhere. And that’s a dangerous thing. There’s no sacred to stop us. There’s no higher calling to level us. There’s no guiding force to shape and mold us.
But then the Veil says no. It says wait. It says to us who are down here that there’s more that is up there. That there’s more than just us. And it’s not far removed. It’s just covered and separate enough to help us see our place and God’s place and the limits between us. And of course we can see that or not, and accept it or not. It’s in our hands whether or not we see the world and things in it as sacred.
One time when I was in Honduras as a missionary, an elderly gentleman from our church died. And his family asked if I would do a service and offer prayers. And of course I said yes. But I was surprised to find that the service was not in a church or funeral home, but it was in the family’s house. Which was the custom. To have the funeral in the house.
So when I got there, the body was on a table. It was inside the coffin, and the sides and top of the coffin were made of glass. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in the United States. Maybe this was how they did funerals 100 years ago. But you walk into the house, and there in the living room among the guests who are eating and talking or praying and walking around, there is the deceased in his glass coffin. And he is part of the festivities in a sense.
And yet, there was something separating him, which was, of course a veil. There was a beautiful hand-stitched veil of white fabric which was draped perfectly over the coffin. And it looked as if angels had just dropped it from heaven and placed it upon him. And those who wanted to see him could go up to the coffin to take a look. And those who wanted to kind of pretend he wasn’t there could do that too.
And it made me think: maybe that’s how it works with the sacred. Those of us who want to see the sacred can go to the sacred and see it and acknowledge it. But those who do not, simply don’t. They overlook it. Pretend it’s not there. But like that body in the living room, it’s always there. It’s veiled. Or it is nestled among the things of our life, or flying like a flock of birds around us, or resting peacefully in the aumbry. Or right here, in this moment and all the moments of our days.
So the sacred is a presence we can reject or embrace, we can deny or accept. And I hate to say it, but Christians rejected the sacred a lot. Even churches reject the sacred. Churches and Christians bow down to fear. They turn their back on transformation, and deny encounters with the living God in themselves, in other people, and in those whom they see as different. Churches can become places where the things of the profane have taken hold, where bias and fear have replaced the experience of the mountain.
So this last Sunday of Epiphany, we pray for the church. Pray for Christians everywhere. Pray for leaders and politicians. Pray for today’s culture, and our young people. And all people. That we can dare to touch God, and give ourselves to the mountain and the experience that changes us. Give ourselves to the power of Christ, to be changed not more into us, but more into God.