Altars Everywhere – Psalm 84 – January 21, 2018
– Rev. Nancy Talbot
On the first day of our recent family vacation in Florida my brother and sister in law, in whose home we were staying, with had to excuse themselves to attend the funeral. The service was held in a recently built catholic church and my brother and his wife came home raving about the beauty of the sanctuary. I, of course, was only interested in whether or not the priest did a good job presiding at the service, but they were all about the building. In detail they described the vaulted ceilings, the windows filling the space with light, the poinsettia filled chancel and the large altar hewn from solid rock. It was clearly an awe-inspiring place.
If you are familiar with the book “Proof of Heaven” by Dr. Iben Alexander, you may recall that following his near death experience during the coma he was in for several days, he returned to the Episcopal Church that he had previously attended as a lukewarm member. He described being shocked at how spiritually transformative walking into the building was and how keenly aware he became of the presence of God in that space. In fact, he said it was the place that most closely evoked for him the feelings and understanding he had gained during his brush with life after death.
One of the primary roles of spaces such as this place in which we are gathered this morning is not only to remind us of the presence of God, but to actually immerse us into the presence of the sacred. I’m sure that’s why my brother and sister in law had so much to say about the church they attended for their neighbour’s funeral. It wasn’t just physically beautiful; it was a space that evoked feelings of the holy.
Some of you will recall that when we were renovating our building a couple years ago, over and over again people would ask if we were planning on renovating the sanctuary, not because they wanted us to change it, but because they wanted us not to change it. For many of us, this is our sacred space, our spiritual home. It’s not just the people that gather in this place that matter to us, it’s what we experience here that matters. The symbols that are found here, the cross, the table, the pulpit, the font, the stained glass, the triptych, the way the windows look out onto the world around us, all of it holds meaning. It may not hold the same meaning to everyone but together these things form our sacred space.
We all need these kinds of spaces in our lives. There is within each one of us a primal need for sacred spaces, sacred objects and sacred language to remind us who we are and where we come from and to help us make meaning of our lives. They don’t have to be Christian spaces or rituals obviously. Every religious tradition has a practice of honoring space, ritual and objects. Even those who call themselves spiritual but not religious crave containers for the sacred, which is actually the root of the word sanctuary (Sanctus meaning holy and arium meaning container.)
The Hebrew bible is full of stories about sacred spaces, altars where sacrifices were made as signs of gratitude and contrition or simply to mark a spot as holy, a place where someone had a significant encounter with God. Abraham and Sara built altars in the desert as they journeyed into unknown territory every time God came close. Jacob made a cairn and anointed it with oil after he wrestled all night with angels to remind signify that God had been with him in that place. Eventually, the temple was built in Jerusalem, becoming the pinnacle of sacred spaces for the Hebrew people. Every year people from outside the city would make a pilgrimage to visit it and when the leaders of Israel were taken into captivity in Babylon they yearned for it. This temple is being referred to in the Psalm we heard read this morning.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, 0 God, Lord of hosts.” It’s interesting to note that the word “lovely,” the Hebrew word yadid, is more accurately translated as beloved. It’s a word more commonly used to describe human relationships as in my beloved or lovely family or my lovely friends. So when the psalmist speaks of longing to return to the temple, it’s as if he is longing to return to an old familiar friend. He’s longing for that place his soul recognizes as home.
I have to admit that I don’t usually think of the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a place where people feel at home. I think of it more as a place where traditions and prescribed rituals are carried out. So I’m struck by the intimacy of this description of the temple and the way the psalmist yearns for it, how happy it makes him to even imagine being there. He’s actually jealous of the birds that get to make their nests close by. He wishes he could live that close to the temple all the time.
It makes me wonder what places or which people make you feel that way, make you feel like you are at home, that you can be whoever you really are and know that you are accepted. Who is it or where is it that reminds you who you are?
I wonder how many places there actually are like that in our world or how many people evoke that feeling for us? I think a lot of the time, consciously or unconsciously, we pretend to be someone we are not or we doubt that just being who we are will be good enough for wherever we are going or whatever we are doing.
In her book “Altar in the World” Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the longing she sees in people for “More,” more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. She identifies the many ways people sense there is more to life than what meets the eye, more than the judgements, more than the push to do better, faster, stronger, more than the drive to achieve and acquire more material things. She notes how many have drawn close to this “More” in nature, love, art and grief and yet when they reach out for it in traditional spiritual or religious homes, churches, temples and mosques, they often come up feeling short of it. And so they go looking all over the place to find it, when in reality it is in the last place they often look, right under our feet in everyday activities, accidents and encounters. In fact, she says “the earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”* In her book she describes a number of practices to help people connect with the “something more.
Another American theologian, Leonard Sweet talks about how in this TGIF world in which we live (Twitter, Google, Internet, Facebook) he believes God is very much alive and at work. Every bush is burning, he says, the question is whether or not we have eyes to see and ears to hear what it is God is saying to us. He says in order to notice the movement of the spirit and messages of the divine in our midst, we need to develop what he calls semiotic awareness, the ability to read signs and signals, to make meaning out of what we see and experience in life.
He talks about the experience we have for example when we buy a new car and drive it off the lot and suddenly we notice that every second car on the road is the same one we just bought and we thought we were being so unique with our purchase. He says that’s because we’ve invested in something. And when we invest in something, whether it be a car or the notion that God is up to something in the world, we see it almost everywhere we look, we enter into a state of semiotic awareness.
One of the ways we invest in this notion of a spiritual home, a sacred place in which we feel beloved, welcomed and connected to our deepest selves is by creating that kind of a space in the homes in which we live. Ultimately, we are the lovely place in which the sacred dwells but as we go about our day-to-day Iives, it is easy for us to forget that’s who we are. So the invitation this week, is to set aside a space in our homes and to place in that space the objects that remind us who we are and who God, the source of life, is for us. Objects that evoke for us the sacred so that we might develop our semiotic awareness.
These spaces don’t have to just be filled with visual reminders. They can also be places we enact sacred rituals: lighting a candle, reading scripture or poetry, engaging in meditation, writing in a journal.
For some of you, your sacred rituals involve getting outside. They might include walking the labyrinth or going for a walk or a hike. If that’s the case for you, try to gather something on your journey a rock, a stick, a leaf, a jar of sand, something that reminds you of that experience and place it on your home altar. That way, even when you are not able to get outside or to your practice, you will be reminded of it and it will continue to imprint itself on your soul.
If you already have an altar at home, especially if you have had one for a long time. This week the invitation for you is to be intentional about visiting each aspect of that altar or to do something to change it up. What can happen over time is that we see these things so often they lose some of their original meaning for us.
Here in this space we have a font to remind us we have been created in love and nothing can separate us from that love, to remind us in our baptism we are all called to share Christ’s ministry of love and reconciliation in the world. There is a table where everyone is welcome, sign and symbol of bread broken and cup poured out to nourish us in acts of self-giving. There is an empty cross to remind us of the power of life over death and love over hate and the cost of following the Jesus way in our lives. There is a pulpit where ancient words are spoken and where somehow God, the Spirit of Life speaks to us in ways our contemporary ears can here.
Sacred space, sacred symbols, sacred rituals, all to remind us we never far from home.