HOW GOD IS MADE REAL THROUGH RITUAL
A Sermon by Crystal Lewis
Delivered at UNMC April 24, 2016
This morning, we heard an ancient admonishment from the book of Exodus, and it reads:
In the first month, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day, you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses… You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. The Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron.
This morning’s reading is pointing us to the time of Passover, and the first day of this year’s Passover observance was this past Friday. Our Jewish friends are now observing Passover—which is the remembrance of the great story of God’s promise to pass over the homes of God’s people, in a time when great calamity was sure to come.
This text is a reminder that the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – are very much religions about ritual. But of course, we did not invent the concept of ritual.
Around five years ago, I visited a Hindu Temple and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Hinduism is thought of as the oldest organized religion in the world. I remember walking into the temple and signing in at a visitor’s table. When you’re standing at that table, you can’t really see beyond the entry-way to the worship space, but you can smell the worship space. The smell in there is just intoxicating. There’s always a mixture of incense burning, and it’s an aroma that simply cannot be described.
When you enter the worship space, you find yourself in this massive room with a ceiling that seems to go on for miles. And stationed throughout the worship space are a number of stone statues, all positioned in different postures. Some are sitting up; some are lying down. And they all look very different from one another. Some have a mixture of animal and human features. All have odd-colored skin, some are blue, or orange, or red. Some are beautiful, and some are downright frightening.
But they all have one thing in common – they are all surrounded by the sacrifices of people who have visited the temple. As you can imagine, the worshipers at this temple were as diverse as we are here. There were men and women, children, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, college students… all kinds of people … there at the temple, and they had brought in different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and some had brought money. And they would arrange these gifts around the gods in the temple. And some would come and burn incense near their preferred deity. They would present flowers, or throw flower petals. The worship space at this Hindu temple is a mixture of gods and beautifully-arranged sacrifices.
There were also gurus and other holy men and women inside the temple, and they were praying and chanting, and singing, and even lying down near their gods.
When you visit a Hindu temple, you know that you’ve entered another world, but it’s such an interesting experience. It’s different from what we know – different in the way that it smells, and different in the way that the gods look, different in the way that they worship… The priests in that temple don’t preach or teach, they sacrifice …
About four years after I visited that temple, a friend of mine went to the same worship space. She had never been exposed to any religion other than Christianity. She went to the Hindu temple, and when she finished her visit, we talked about it, and she said “Crystal, it was just weird. And Crystal, when I saw the people putting food around those statues, I thought: these statues can’t help you! Why are you doing that? You’d be better off eating the fruit. I mean, what a waste of time and bananas.”
But I told her two things… First, I told her a story about a course I took when I was in seminary. The course was in African Indigenous Religions, and we were getting ready to learn about Yoruba and other ancient faiths that are native to the continent of Africa. We were getting ready to learn about how these religions influenced practices like VoDoun (some of you know it as Voo Doo) – and we were going to learn about how religions like Santa Ria (religions centered around magic and animal sacrifice, some of which are practiced right here in the United States) – we were going to learn how those religions are rooted in traditions that still exist on the continent of Africa. We were going to learn about people who believe in the living dead, and whose religious practices would seem very foreign to my mostly Christian American classmates.
And before starting the first lecture, my professor told us, “You’re all about to encounter some descriptions of religious practices that are going to seem totally foreign to you. But before you label them strange, or dismiss them as irrelevant, please remember that for practitioners of these religions, the rituals themselves hold the importance of life and death. They’re that important.” I shared this with my friend – I told her, “Yes, the rituals of that religion probably seemed very odd to you, but they mean the world to those who practice them. You were not moved by what you witnessed, but those who practice those religions have the believe that they are moving the world.”
Second, I told her that the Bible can be understood as a book of rituals. We heard one ritual this morning. One ritual said in the voice of God, “at this particular time of year, buy a lamb. Sacrifice the lamb, and do the following with its remains: Eat some. Share some. Save some. While you do this, you are to wear the following items of clothing. Do this on those days, but don’t do that. Eat these other things during the time of observance, but don’t eat those other things.”
Later rituals in the Bible say, “when your newborn son is born, treat his body in the following way. And when you find a priest for your community, pour oil on him. When you come into the tent of worship, bring bread for the altar. Burn incense.”
Other rituals in the Bible say, “when people desire to enter the faith, baptize them. Jesus took the cup and lifted the bread and admonished his disciples, ‘this do in remembrance of me.’”
And the apostle Paul advised, “the temple of old is now gone, but present your bodies as a living sacrifice unto God, holy and acceptable unto him.”
I told my friend, who had been very critical of the rituals at the Hindu temple, that attending church is a ritual. Our prayers are an act of ritual. When we lift the offering on Sunday mornings, we are practicing a ritual.
Since the time of that conversation with my friend, I’ve thought quite often about how we understand ritual. I’ve also thought about how it’s becoming more and more difficult for us to explain the importance and relevance of ritual to the generations that will inherit our traditions. We live in a country that is secularizing very rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that religious institutions are not entirely sure what to do about it. They wonder, “How can we get milennials to come to church and stick with us? How can we entice the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd to come to church? How can we become relevant to a generation that is pulling away from us?”
I don’t think they’ve considered that maybe people come to our churches and see what we do here, and find it foreign, in the very same way that my friend went to the Hindu temple and found it foreign, off-putting, and even a little bit scary. We don’t consider that our rituals lack relevance in this new era, in the way that the practices inside the Hindu temple may seem to lack relevance for our lives. We have not understood our own rituals very well, and as a result, we haven’t explained them well.
What do I mean when I say that we have not understood our own rituals very well? I mean that we have focused solely on the supernatural, particularly in Christianity. And this is a terrible mistake, because the Church Fathers (the guys who wrote our creeds 1700 years ago) told us in no uncertain terms that this thing is not just about the “supernatural”… They said that Jesus is equally divine and human. They wrote that any doctrine that would make Jesus solely divine should be considered heresy. And of course, it would stand to reason that if Jesus was both divine and human, and if Jesus is the “Word,” then the word must also be a mixture of divine and human wisdom. They were telling us that all things concerning God should be treated with both wonder and sober thinking. Some folks wrote that 1700 years ago, but we so preferred the divine elements of our faith that we forgot the human elements of our wisdom tradition.
Friends, ritual is not just about the supernatural. Ritual is about the natural. Ritual has become irrelevant to people in our world because we have relegated it to the realm of the supernatural in an era where people need to understand how it matters for us here, today. It’s okay to talk about how our rituals move God. And let’s be clear, I think of ritual as something that provides us with access to the Divine. But I also believe the Scientists who conducted the study we heard this morning are on to something. I believe ritual is most powerful in its ability – not to change the conditions of the world, and not in its ability to change others – but in its ability to change us.
On Friday of last week, we learned that Prince – the incomparable rhythm and blues, and pop music, and rock and roll, star – the icon – a musical genius by many accounts – passed away. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but there’s a ritual that we all undertake when we mourn the death of a rock and roll legend—especially now that we’ve entered the age of social media. We hold vigil at the icon’s house… When you walk by places where the star held influence, you’ll find a shrine. In New York City and Minneapolis, people gathered by the thousands and sang Prince’s songs at the top of their lungs and danced in the streets. Spike Lee put out a call on Twitter and Facebook, inviting people to a block party in front of his home. My friend Jackie lives in the Bronx. She went to the block party and shot a video on her cell phone. There were people there from all walks of life—young people, older people, people in blue jeans and people in business suits singing Purple Rain. Crying. Mourning. Experiencing a rite of passage, a transition, in order to cope with the great loss of this bigger-than-life figure. Oddly, Prince was cremated yesterday… he obviously didn’t want an enormous funeral (an enormous ritual) like the one that Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston had. But the fans needed that ritual, in the same way that Michael Jordan needed his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform; or in the same way that Curtis Martin of the New York Jets needs to read Psalm 91 before every game or in the same way that Wade Boggs needed chicken before every baseball game.
I can’t help but wonder what might happen to our society if we viewed ritual differently. What would happen if we understood ritual, not as practices that change the world, but as practices that change us? What would happen if we viewed every single ritual as a means to transforming ourselves?
What would happen if we understood prayer in the way that our Muslim brothers and sisters understand it? They understand prayer, not as a system for reminding God, but as a way to remind us of God’s presence… They pray, not because God has forgotten us, but because we have forgotten God. It’s about being reminded and transformed through the ritual.
Perhaps we’ve talked about ritual in the wrong way. If you haven’t considered this, then please, have a conversation with a New Atheist. When I talk about New Atheism, I’m not referring to folks who are new to atheism, I’m talking about the movement called New Atheism, whose claim to fame is rooted in their staunch opposition to religion. And they are winning the conversation because they zoom in on the heart of ritual. They target ritual because they know that we don’t talk about it well. They’ll say things like, “Well if prayer works, then why don’t you pray for this or that, or why can’t you make this miracle or that miracle happen.”
They’re basically saying to us – the keepers of ritual –
“Make God real for me.”
But we’ll never be able to meet that challenge because the effectiveness of ritual is not found in our ability to make the Transcendent real for others. Ritual is effective in its ability to make the holy real for ourselves. We can experience the holy in community, but the ability to recognize the power of ritual lies at the heart of the individual. Ritual makes God real to each of us through the power of our individual transformation.
In the very same way that ritual affected people personally in the study conducted by the journalists who wrote this morning’s article in the Scientific American, ritual affects us personally.
When we pray, the ritual of prayer makes Peace present to us.
When we recite from our stories about Jesus, Hope becomes apparent to us.
When our Jewish brothers and sisters practice Passover, their History is remembered and preserved.
Through meditation, clarity and even Wisdom are accessible to us.
Ritual brings the very large concept of the Divine into focus for us, but the benefits of those practices are known and appreciated individually.
And so, today, my hope is that we will see ourselves as a community of people for whom ritual is an important way of life. In prior sermons, I’ve shared that we are the keepers of a great story. Today, I share that we are also the keepers of ritual – and that we should be proud of that. Ritual helps us to remain connected to our world, and to the wisdom of our stories. Ritual helps us to envision transformation in our own lives, and it teaches us to reach beyond ourselves for strength– whether we reach into our communities, or toward the cosmos. Ritual helps us to draw the Spirit out of the realm of the abstract. Through ritual, we access the depths of peace, and hope, or wisdom, and a sense of history—and in those experiences, the Divine is made real.
As we continue on our journeys, may we each deeply ponder and fondly remember the relevance of our individual and collective rituals.