Last Sunday I left you with the notion that prayer was seeking the divine in our daily lives and being willing to be transformed by it. Like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who talks to himself, I spent the week having an internal dialogue. “Nice thought Nelson, but how do we know when we have found the divine? Seems like an important question don’t you think, if our transformation is at stake?
It’s a challenge because we don’t have a picture of the divine. But that has not stopped human ingenuity from trying to create one that we can wrap our limited minds around. We do it by separating the world into sacred and profane: Things or people that are of the divine and things or people that are not. That sounds easy enough on the face of it: Mother Theresa sacred, Paris Hilton not; the parish church sacred, the local casino profane. We consider knowing what is sacred a little like distinguishing art from pornography? We know it when we see it.
But do we? Mother Theresa, who since her death is on the fast track for sainthood, had and has her critics. Not wanting to speak ill of the future Saint Theresa, I’ll just suggest that you google the phrase “criticism of Mother Theresa.” I got 1.25 million hits.
Well, if Mother Theresa is not as clearly sacred as we thought, surely we can safely say Paris Hilton is profane. Yes, certainly her well-publicised behaviour is. But after her recent stay in jail, like many before her, she claims to have found God. Well, maybe. Far be it from me to say God is not there. Time will tell if she has been transformed by the encounter.
Ok, so determining sacred and profane in people is less black and white than we thought, but certainly it is clearer with things. Certainly we can determine the church as sacred and the casino profane. Again, its not as easy as we might think. St Matthew’s is used about 15 hours a week on average for what we would normally call sacred activities: worship, weddings, funerals and baptisms. However, the community used it for secular activities at least 30 hours this past week alone, which is not unusual. I know the activities were secular because the Prime Minister was here for two of them.
All right then, Sky City Casino, which profits primarily on human hedonism, is certainly profane. Well again, let’s not be so quick. Sky City caters some of those profane activities that take place at St Matthew’s helping us financially to achieve our mission. Its community trust has given millions to churches, schools, cultural centres, and non-profits to benefit the community. When St Matthew’s was falling apart they gave substantial sums for it restoration. They have done the same for St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Considering how fuzzy the line between them is, I’m not sure I trust community consensus or myself to determine what is sacred and what is not.
Today’s lessons make the same point. The rich farmer thought having responsibly gathered enough wealth was sacred. Having done so entitled him to finally “eat, drink and be merry”, until God, doubling as the Angel of Death, announces he is a fool. As he will be dying that very night, he will be leaving his sacred wealth behind as well as his opportunity to live an abundant life. He discovers at the last moment but too late what that cynic of all cynics, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, harps on repeatedly, “All is vanity and the chasing after wind.”
Remember the 1980 film The God’s Must Be Crazy? To refresh your memory it is the story of Xi, a bushman living in South Africa. His tribe lives well off the land. They are happy because the Gods have provided plenty of everything, so no one in the tribe has unfilled wants. But everything changes with their first encounter with the outside world. One day an empty Coke bottle discarded by the pilot of a light aircraft drops into their midst. At first Xi’s people see it as a good gift of the Gods. He and his people find many uses for it. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one bottle to share among all members of the tribe. They soon find themselves bickering amongst themselves, experiencing something they never had before: envy, hatred, even violence. They come to see it as “the evil thing” and resolve that it must be returned to sender, a task Xi volunteers to do. He travels to a distant place that looks very much like the edge of the world – a high cliff above the clouds covering the valley below. There he throws the bottle back to the Gods for the good of his people.
When first released Western audiences thought it was a comedy having fun with the simplicity of the “Noble Savage:” Finding humour in their thinking a Coke bottle sacred. The debate the film stirred up resulted in humility for some. Are we any different in our attempts to constrict the divine by seeing the world in terms of sacred and profane. What humanity has found sacred is as diverse as humanity itself. Recent news from England reminds us that some think cows are sacred. That didn’t prevent scorn being heaped on authorities that took their time being sensitive to those beliefs before destroying a bull sacred to Hindus that suffered bovine tuberculosis. But what do those who heaped scorn find sacred: ancient religious texts; reason and science; a fertilised ovum; the free market; people wearing collars, pointy hats, or saffron robes? The list is endless. For some, the sacred could even be revealed in something so profane as common bread and wine or water poured thrice over the head of a child.
All of which makes the case for how difficult it is to know when in prayer we have encountered the holy and not divinity of our own choosing.
As difficult as it is all peoples everywhere and through all time according to archaeologists and sociologists have sought to define the sacred.
The reason why is in the ancient riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? This description of human life from infancy to infirmity reminds us that our lives are transitory. That we know the answer to the riddle is a reminder of the curse of human consciousness – we know we have a beginning and an end.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes poetically reminds us that our mortality causes us to desire immortality. Aware of our limited humanity, we long for unlimited divinity. Reminded daily that all is fleeting, we pray for permanence. All of which is to say that in this journey from four legs to three legs we seek clarity of meaning and purpose in the face of certain death.
Our problem is we think determining meaning and purpose is up to us. We respond by trying to give ourselves value, importance, security, pleasure, power, and wisdom.
But both the Teacher and Jesus in his parable of the rich fool point out similarly that such endeavours are to chase the wind, a waste of a perfectly good life.
Better, they might argue, to let the sacred claim and define us.
An image I would offer for this approach to our transitory lives is walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol of wholeness, the most famous of which is in Chartres Cathedral. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It is not a maze; a puzzle that has to be solved. A labyrinth has only one path; it just has to be walked. And just like life itself, there is only one way into it and one way out of it. To walk it is a journey of self-discovery.
Today, we are baptising Molly at the beginning of her sacred journey. In doing so we are not making sacred the profane. We are not purifying her to make her acceptable. We are celebrating the mysterious reality of her presence amongst us. Her baptism is a recognition that she does not have to seek what the divine claim has already granted her: value and importance. How that reality will define her will unfold in her journey.
But define her it will. Each step along the way will remind her that our divine life encompasses change, growth, discovery, movement, and transformation. Each step along the way will continuously expand her vision of what is possible; teach her to see more clearly and deeply and to hear more profoundly. Our hope for her is that along the way she will grow less concerned about reaching the destination than revelling in the journey itself no matter what it brings or how long it is. For it is in the journey she will discover the sacred within and beyond her. That is the marvel. That is the measure of meaning. Living it boldly is her purpose.