Living Sacraments

June 19, 2016
I Kings 19:1-15a


Today we start a seven week series focusing on Kathryn Fenton’s icons. Each Sunday through the end of July, we will feature one of the icons here in the sanctuary. The other six will hang in the foyer. A variety of preachers will discuss these seven Anabaptist “pillars.” Thank you, Kathryn, for being with us today and for lending us your icons for most of the summer.

Icons are new for Anabaptists. We have Pennsylvania Dutch fraktur, quilts and woodcut prints in the Martyr’s Mirror. But art in church, not so much.

Icons are an integral part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions; icons are usually stylized paintings of people – biblical characters or saints. The faithful study icons in order to help them pray, to find their way to God through seeing rather than with words. For Anabaptists who are not used to representational art in church this may seem strange. Church is for words and blank walls, not pictures of people.

Kathryn is helping open us to something new. She has created this  series of abstract icons that ask us to look deeply at color, shape, line, even texture and beyond color, shape, line, texture. This will be a new skill for many of us. It’s good we have a few weeks to practice and learn how to see with new eyes. Perhaps we will begin to understand some old, familiar ideas in new ways.

In this week after Orlando, when it is hard to pray with words, when the pain, anger, fear, tears, never leave us, overwhelm us, it is a gift to have these abstract icons. These icons can help provide a way to connect with the Holy and each other without words.

Today the icon we have is Sacraments – another term that is a bit foreign to Anabaptists. In Catholicism, there are seven sacraments, “efficacious signs of grace.” Protestants have two sacraments, “Outward signs of an inward grace.” Anabaptists don’t technically have any “sacraments” but depending on who is counting, we might have three or seven, but not the same seven as Catholics. We call our outward signs ordinances which, let’s face it, doesn’t have the same ring as sacrament. And as people of peace, it is tricky because take out one letter and you have ordnance which is artillery and militaristic instead of a religious symbol.

Here are the particulars. Catholic sacraments are – in the order they are usually experienced – baptism, confession, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, last rites (or anointing) and ordination (which can happen anywhere in there after confirmation – if you are a man and not married.) Protestants traditionally have baptism and communion.

Anabaptists look literally to Jesus’ life so we have baptism, communion and footwashing. There are also, what JS Coffman called in the late 19th century, secondary ordinances: The Prayer Head-Covering for Women, Greeting with the Holy Kiss, Marriage, and Anointing with Oil for the Recovery of the Sick.

You may notice that not all of these secondary ordinances are observed in this congregation.

Sacraments are simple. For Anabaptists, it means doing as Jesus directed. And yet of course we know that the power of these actions, baptism, communion and foot washing, is that we are not only re-enacting an event, we become part of the event now. By acting out the pouring of water, breaking bread, kneeling to wash another’s feet, our bodies are reminded what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

Anabaptists have tended to think that ordinances are special, so special that we should not do them too often. Baptism happens once, communion a few times a year and foootwashing, some of us can live without. More liturgical traditions understand confession and eucharist differently. The more often the action is repeated, the more meaning it can have. Sometimes it may feel like nothing, like just going through the motions. And other times when all we can do is go through the motions, it can be a great comfort. When the body and spirit are so overwhelmed that one cannot remember what to do next, a familiar ritual can be an anchor of stability.

We can talk and talk about sacraments and ordinances but what does this icon say to us? What do we see here that we might not name in a textbook description? There is only one artist on the pastoral team of this congregation and I am not it. But I will tell you what I see in this icon called Sacraments.

First, there is movement and motion. There are swirls reaching upward and downward; they seem to be in harmony. The upper and lower, the inward and outward are balanced and reach out to each other.

There are three main colors, red, blue and gold. In fact, these are the predominant colors Kathryn uses in the whole series. The blue (water) reaches upward, the red (blood) flows downward, the gold (God) is present throughout. And there is a significant portion of the icon that is white, though the other colors encompass and reach into that space.

The text today is from I Kings, the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish tradition does not have sacraments. And yet, God reaches into the lives of God’s people and they reach back. The people reach out to God and God reaches to them. Repetition and relationship in Judaism are fertile ground for Christian sacraments.

In this story, we watch as Elijah, in a time of crisis, running for his life, receives what he needs. Food mysteriously appears. The bread and water are accompanied by a messenger who reminds Elijah to eat. This simple meal provides the nourishment Elijah needs for the forty day journey ahead, forty days being the biblical shorthand for the place where we meet God.

Elijah travels to meet God on the mountain but instead hides in a cave, where God asks, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” I have been very zealous for YHWH God Omnipotent. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death by the sword. I am the only one left, and now theyre trying to kill me, too. Elijah is stuck; he cannot move beyond the script he has written for himself.

God is not as interested in Elijah’s problems as one might hope. God tells Elijah to go out of the cave. There on the mountain, Elijah experiences thunder and wind and earthquake and fire. Surely YHWH God Omnipotent is present in these displays of power. But as we know, in this story, God is not in any of those; God is in the stillness.

Out of the stillness, comes the same question Elijah heard in the cave: What are you doing here? And Elijah has the same answer. I have been very zealous for YHWH God Omnipotent. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death by the sword. I am the only one left, and now theyre trying to kill me, too.

God’s response is basically, “Yeah, yeah – Get over yourself. Go back the way you came. I have more work for you to do.”

Looking at the Sacraments icon and hearing this Elijah story, I wonder, do we imagine that sacraments are like the thunder, lightning, fire, earthquake? Huge and loud and powerful. Or are sacraments more like the delicate tendrils woven into our lives, in ways we may not understand? What of the white space – that seems empty, like God is not present?

The white space is not an empty, blank space, absent of God. Kathryn says white represents the transfigured Christ, the very place where the incarnation comes among us. Our own emptiness, stillness, has the potential to become the place we encounter God, where God is very present, in the body, in the body of Christ.

Sacraments guide us to those common parts of life that are easy to overlook – bread, water, cleansing. The sacraments become alive when we are so aware of these essentials, that the symbols can move beyond the church walls. When Hope Olson was baptized in 7th grade she shared about her faith. (Now Hope is in college.) Hope said that when she ate her peanut butter sandwich each day at school, she thought of communion. Hope was beginning to understand that sacraments are not static things that happen to us. We participate in them and a living faith is created.

The beauty of praying with icons is that one gets to know the icon so well that you no longer have to think or remember what to say. The prayer is in your eyes and heart. The icon shows the way to the Holy without words.

Living with the sacraments can be the same. Symbols of bread and water, towel and basin, the common stuff of our lives, invite us to deeper living, to connection beyond ourselves, beyond this body, even without words. May we be given grace to live into this mystery.