New Sermon: “Everything Is Holy Now”

In Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, et al are perhaps “Stage 3.” This sermon uses Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now” to gesture to the possibilities of a “Stage 5″ faith. We must do better than simplistic theology that attributes hurricanes to God, denies evolution, and excommunicates gay and lesbian Christians.

Everything Is Holy Now

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg        

4 September 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

broadviewchurch.net

Two weeks ago in a sermon titled “Everything’s a Miracle,” we reflected on what the three miracles stories in Matthew 14 may mean today in light of twenty-first century historical and scientific knowledge. At the conclusion of the sermon, we listened to Peter Mayer’s song, “Holy Now.”

This week’s sermon is a kind of sequel to that sermon, and I would like us to look more closely at the worldview Mayer’s song invites us to consider.  That previous sermon title of “Everything a Miracle” is taken from Mayer’s song, and could potentially be misunderstood. He’s not saying that literally everything — from earthquakes and hurricanes to illness and disease — is per se miraculous in the sense of all miracles being good things. Instead, as we will see, he is inviting us to explicitly notice that miracles are not limited to only biblical times, Sunday morning, or to the church building. Instead, there are all sorts of “miracles” everywhere if you look closely and from a certain perspective.

This shift in perspective is related to a sermon I preached more than a year ago titled, “On Becoming a Conjunctive Church.” In that sermon, we looked at James Fowler’s classic 1981 book Stages of Faith. Allow me to briefly summarize Fowler’s stages of faith development that span the course of a human life because I think Fowler’s rubric can help us better understand the way of seeing the world that Peter Mayer’s song is inviting us to experience.

Fowler begins with “Stage 0, Primal or Undifferentiated” faith, which lasts from birth through age two. Barring any traumatic events, most of us continue naturally around age three into “Stage 1, Intuitive-Projective” faith. This early childhood faith is characterized less by reason than by intuition, imagination, and emotion.  Indeed, the increased ability to think concretely and rationally that arises around the same time most children enter elementary school is precisely what catapults many into “Stage 2, Mythic-Literal” faith.

Instead of the freewheeling fantasy characteristic of “Stage one, Intuitive-Projective,” “Stage 2, Mythic-Literal” involves a more wooden, concrete understanding of myths and stories. For example, a child listening to the Genesis narrative may well literally think of God as a super-sized human, who lives above the sky.

The transition to “Stage 3, Synthetic-Conventional” faith is precipitated by adolescence. As a child grows and experiences more of the world, the messiness, complexity, and diversity of life challenge the simplistic, literal understandings of childhood faith. Cognitively, adolescents are also better able than egocentric children to empathetically sense what life is like from the perspective of other people. For better or worse, this increased ability to consider how other people see you often leads to conformity in an attempt to seem less different or strange. In Stage 3, as the name “Synthetic-Conventional” suggests, you begin to synthesize the conventions around you. Or, as Fowler’s cute jingle goes, “As I see you seeing me, I construct the me I think you see.”  I’ll say that again: “As I see you seeing me, I construct the me I think you see.” In other words, instead of looking inward for our particular gifts and graces, our natural tendency in adolescence is, for the most part, to build our identity based on trends, fads, and how we think others want us to be. The tragedy, of course, is that most people don’t even know what they truly, deeply want for themselves — much less what they truly, deeply want and need from others. So, to construct your identity on your perception of what others want is to build your house on shifting sand that is unable to withstand the storms life brings. I mentioned earlier that, “Stage 3, Synthetic-Conventional” faith usually begins in the teenage years, but unfortunately many adults remain in this stage for most of their lives.

The movement to “Stage 4, Individuative-Reflective” faith does, however, happen for some in early adulthood. As we enter our twenties or thirties, many people “leave home” either literally or metaphorically — that is, their primary source of authority moves from outside the self (their friends and family) to inside the self.  They begin to “individuate,” to become autonomous individuals; they separate from the herd and take individual responsibility for reflecting on who they are and what they are able to do in the world. This shift is vital, but difficult, which is why some never fully progress to this stage. For some this change begins as one goes to college or leaves home to start an independent life. For others, an unexpected “train wreck” of sorts forces their hands: a death, an illness, a loss, a divorce can lead to a situation where one’s childhood theology — often the dominant theology of one’s friends, family, and community — is no longer adequate.

Our congregation — as indicated by the name Broadview — consists of individuals representing a broad range of views. At our best, then, Broadview Church provides a safe and sacred space for individuals to claim individuality and reflect on their personal beliefs, experiences, and ethics. In short, one of the greatest ongoing gifts of Broadview Church is to provide a way of being church that acts as a catalyst for helping individuals mature from childhood and adolescent stages of faith into adult stages of faith. Broadview can serve as a catalyst for faith development to the extent that we help individuals progress and transition faster than they would by themselves in isolation.

That being said, more stages remain. And although we here at Broadview are for the most part quite adept at negotiating the promises and perils of stage four, it seems to me that a growing edge is for us to live into the full potential of “Stage Five, Conjunctive” faith. I have taken the time to revisit some of the themes of my previous sermon on “Becoming a Conjunctive Church” because I think this shift is so crucial.

Whereas stage four “early adulthood” faith is characterized by independence, freedom, and a sense of limitless, untapped potential, stage five faith is the equivalent of a mid-life crisis, when many slam full force into their weaknesses, limits, and mortality. So, to enter into a mature “Stage Five, Conjunctive,” “both/and” faith, we must learn to embrace paradox, diversity, and irreconcilable differences. As we seek to make known the wisdom of God at the level of Stage Five, Conjunctive faith, we are called not only to discern how God is calling us individually, but also to collectively discern how God is calling us corporately to become what Paul calls “the body of Christ,” and to manifest our individual gifts of the Spirit for benefit of the common good. At this mid-life stage of faith that we have the potential to recognize and live out this paradoxical truth of the unity that lies underneath our surface diversity — a unity that does not insist on uniformity.

The name Broadview Church has increasingly seemed providential to me. In some ways it would be easier to be the pastor of Single-view Church, but in the long run any single-view congregation has limited potential because both human beings specifically and the universe generally is so spectacularly diverse, as is evidenced by a simple glance out any window.  And any church that hopes to embody honest, authentic, and genuine Christianity in the twenty-first century, needs to embrace the full diversity of God’s Creation. At our best here at Broadview we are not merely a collection of stage four individuals seeking our individual paths; instead, as we move through stage four and into stage five, we are invited to become something greater than the sum of our parts, something more significant than any of us could achieve individually.

So having reviewed Fowler’s stages of development — in particular, the invitation of Stage Five, “Conjunctive” Faith — let us turn our attention again to Peter Mayer’s song. One of the tricks of the developmental stages is that the world can seem so different at each stage, but the reality is more that the world is not so different, but our perception of the world can be radically different as we spiral between stages. With the paradoxical invitation of a Conjunctive, “both/and” faith in mind, let us listen again to Mayer’s lyrics:

When I was a boy, each week, on Sunday, we would go to church, and pay attention to the priest. He would read the holy word, and consecrate the holy bread, and everyone would kneel and bow. Today the only difference is, everything is holy now.

Mayer is inviting us to broaden our view. Of course we should visit holy places like churches, synagogues, and mosques; of course we should pay attention to holy people like priests, rabbis, and imams. But his chorus that “everything is holy now” means additionally that every person and everything is potentially sacramental, potentially a means of experiencing God — not just the wafer of Eucharist, but the daily bread on your kitchen counter; not just the Bible as the only word of God, but potentially any book or poem can reveal sacred truth. This insight of both/and — both officially holy places and everyplace — is the essence of a Conjunctive faith.

Mayer continues:

When I was in Sunday school, we would learn about the time that Moses split the sea in two and Jesus made the water wine. And I remember feeling sad that miracles don’t happen still. But now I can’t keep track ‘cause everything’s a miracle.

One of the reasons I love Mayer’s song is that I can remember thinking this same thought as a child: that I wish I had lived in biblical times when all these fantastic miracles happened. But I’m increasingly convinced that there’s nothing that happened in biblical times that can’t happen today — with the caveat that anything that can’t happen today didn’t happen in biblical times either. I now have a word for this perspective: Uniformitarianism, which is a needlessly long word for a worldview emphasizing the uniformity of natural laws in the universe throughout time. In other word, the same natural laws governed the universe before, during, and after the biblical period. The Bible does not describe some magical time when the laws of physics were periodically suspended. This claim is similar to the quote we considered in my last sermon from the writer Annie Dillard, who wrote that, “It is a weakening and discoloring idea that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time but that it is too late for us. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree.”

Turning again to Mayer:

Wine from water is not so small. But an even better magic trick is that anything is here at all. So the challenging thing becomes not to look for miracles but finding where there isn’t one.

Here we see a core insight. We religious folks are sometimes kept up at night with the haunting doubt that maybe God doesn’t exist. But we too often forget that what keeps many atheists up at night is “that anything is here at all.”

The fact that something exists instead of nothing is a strong argument for God — especially in that not only does “something” exist, but a world exists of breathtaking natural beauty, a world in love exists, in which laughter exists, in which kindness exists. Despite the evil and sickness and cruelty in the world, I am far from convinced that our world arose merely from the chance collision of particles.

When holy water was rare at best, it barely wet my fingertips. But now I have to hold my breath like I’m swimming in a sea of it. It used to be a world half there, heaven’s second rate hand-me-down. But I walk it with a reverent air ‘cause everything is holy now.

Mayer makes another crucial point here. So much evangelical theology emphasizes the afterlife at the expense of this world. But this world matters, and how we treat this world effects the world in which our children, grandchildren, and great-grand children will live. To embrace a Conjunctive faith is to see that all of nature is potentially the word of God. As the fourteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest of creatures, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon, so full of God is every creature….”

Read a questioning child’s face, and say it’s not a testament. That’d be very hard to say. See another new morning come, and say it’s not a sacrament. I tell you that it can’t be done.

We were recently without power for almost three days in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Many others, including some of you, were out of power for almost a week or sustained serious damage to your property. While we were without lights, I joked to a few friends about being grateful for the return each morning of “The Great Flashlight in the Sky.” In all seriousness, the gratitude we feel when modern technology is taken away for the simple wonder of a sunrise (and the large part of what the sun does for making life sustainable on our planet) is what Mayer is talking about when he says, “See another new morning come, and say it’s not a sacrament. I tell you that it can’t be done.” Mayer is inviting us to move from merely the two testaments of the Bible to countless testament to God’s work in the world. He is inviting us to move form the seven official sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church to countless sacraments.

In a few moments we will listen to the final stanza of Mayer’s song. Afterward we will pause for a time of contemplative silence. During this time, I invite you to reflect on the places where Mayer’s lyrics intersect most fully with your own experience. How may God be calling you to move into more of a Conjunctive, both/and stage of faith?

This morning, outside I stood, and saw a little red-winged bird. Shining like a burning bush. Singing like a scripture verse. It made me want to bow my head. I remember when church let out. How things have changed since then. Everything is holy now. It used to be a world half-there. Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down. But I walk it with a reverent air ‘cause everything is holy now.

For Further Study

Application

I could have preached a similar sermon using other songs. The first alternative that comes to mind is Carrie Newcomer’s “Holy as the Day is Spent,” which is available on YouTube:

http://bit.ly/nu8Ebd

You can read the lyrics here:

http://www.carrienewcomer.com/lyrics/gathering_spirits_lyrics.pdf

Notes

1 Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now” is available for purchase at http://www.petermayer.net/music/?id=4. You can also listen to the song and read the lyrics through this link.

2 In the interest of time, in the main body of this sermon, I skipped the Fowler’s final “Stage 6, Universalizing” faith, which represents the living saints and wise elders, whose lives — especially the last days and years of their lives — call us to become more than we thought humanly possible.  Usually rooted firmly in a single faith tradition, these great saints and sages are universalizing because they all — despite their differences — also reach beyond their tribes to embody the boundary-less compassion that is the core of human potential: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi. However, just as with Jesus of Nazareth, it is easier to admire these figures after their death than it is to follow them while they are alive or emulate their way of life in our own context.

3 For more on atheists being haunted by there being “something rather than nothing,” see James Wood, “Is That All There Is? Secularism and Its DiscontentsThe New Yorker (August 15, 2011). Wood writes, for example, that, “I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: ‘How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?’ In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.”

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