By definition, a sacrament is a holy act and visible sign declaring the promise of the gospel to those who receive it in faith and gratitude. As Christians, we believe that a sacrament is holy because Jesus Christ himself, by word or example instituted it. In most protestant churches, including the congregational tradition of which we are a part in the United Church of Christ, baptism and communion are the two celebrations of the church that are recognized as sacrament. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, also recognizes five other rites of the church as being sacramental: confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony, and the sacrament of the sick (that which used to be commonly referred to as “last rites.”).
That’s not say that these are of lesser value or importance in our tradition; it’s just that for us communion and baptism hold a special significance in the Christian life. We believe that the sharing of these sacraments make for the most intimate part of the worship experience, and stand amongst the most meaningful parts of one’s walk of faith. Sacrament, then, is by its very nature a very physical and visceral act: a time when you touch Christ and Christ touches you; a moment in which a relationship with the holy begins to take shape and grow.
I’ve always loved what Frederick Beuchner has written about sacraments: he writes that in “such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” But, he goes on to say, “church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody. Watching somebody be born. Sharing love. A high school graduation. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger” after all. Beuchner goes on to suggest that “if we weren’t all as blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”
What Beuchner reminds us here is that in all of life’s many and myriad experiences truly exists the mighty hand and unending embrace of God in Jesus Christ. I’ve certainly known this to be very true in my own life; and as a church pastor (as well as a fellow pilgrim on the journey) I can tell you of countless such moments that I’ve had the privilege to share over the years: from getting to sing “Silent Night” with kindred hearts and spirits in a candlelit sanctuary on Christmas Eve, to being a part of funeral services that move from an experience of unspeakable grief to one comforting hope simply by the presence of a palpable spirit that knows and shares the pain being expressed. I’ve seen it happen in wonderfully unscripted comments made in the middle of a children’s sermon or in conversation around the table at a church potluck; and on more occasions that I can even name it’s been revealed in the unspoken gestures of caring and welcome that become life-changing for those who, just a moment before, had thought themselves to be totally alone on the journey.
In and through these experiences and so many others both in and out of the church – whether it comes in times of joy and peace, or even in the midst of our inevitable struggles and uncertainty – we discover that life has become something most holy and good. This is indeed an affirmation that true life and real living can never begin, progress, grow and flourish apart from the presence and power of God… and the good news is that by amazing grace God never allows that to happen!
This past Sunday, just as has happened here 172 times before, members of our congregation gathered together in the sanctuary in the time-honored tradition of holding an Annual Meeting of the Church; the purpose of which, of course, is largely to elect officers and to adopt a budget for the coming year. And like most every other church in these “post-modern” times, we did so very much aware of the great challenges, both financial and cultural, that are very real and would threaten to undo us. And indeed, that was very much part of what was an open and honest conversation; but I’m also pleased to report that somewhere in the midst of it, something wonderful and transforming happened. Suddenly (but, as I’ve come to know these church people over the past three years, not surprisingly), the tone changed from one of concern and fear to that of hope and purpose, and even as an ice-storm began to brew outside we continued on; and with some laughter, a few tears and a fierce determination to be the church God has called to be, we left that place with a renewed vision, a plan for the future and a palpable sense that the Holy Spirit was at work that day.
And if that’s not sacramental, then I don’t know what is.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry