Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sermon at the Opening Eucharist at St. Catherine's and St. Christopher's Schools


The Rev. Peter M. Carey
St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s Schools Opening Eucharist Sermon
St. Augustine of Hippo
28 August 2008


Sacrament: “visible sign of an invisible Grace” – St. Augustine of Hippo

Like many of you, I spent much of the last few weeks watching the Olympics, the beauty of the gymnastics, the power and speed of Michael Phelps, the teamwork of soccer, and the precision of rowing – to name only a few. The whole experience reminded me of the old ABC Sports line, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as you watched the high jump skier crash down the hill. What joy and thrill it is to join in on these feats of beauty and strength and precision and teamwork! You may remember that the roots of these Olympics come from Ancient Greece, and the competition was all in honor of the gods. It was, in some important ways, worship. The games were played for the honor of the gods, and that they might be entertained by the feats of humans.

Sport has its roots in worship. In North America, the sport of lacrosse was played by Northern tribes and known as a “little brother of war” in order to decide disputes in a manner that was pleasing to the Creator. The preparation for these games included what we would call prayer and meditation, and the games were surrounded by ritualized action.

Likewise, the roots of Art and music are intertwined with worship. This fact might come as less of a surprise to us when we consider Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, or Beethovan’s 9th Symphony (which we will sing a portion of later in this service). While studying Michelangelo’s art in Florence while studying abroad in college I read parts of his journal in which he not only felt inspired by God, but also was extremely concerned that is work would not live up to God’s high standards. The process of creating the work was inspired by the divine impulse, and the world now enjoys the great gifts of Michelangelo’s genius.

I would argue that these efforts are and were sacramental.

The term, sacrament, is the “visible sign of an invisible grace,” according to Augustine. In the Anglican Book of Common prayer, we understand sacraments as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace." Sacraments are those everyday things that point to the larger reality. They are the ordinary stuff of the world that we lift up and recognize as the embodiment of the holy. For many Christians, the two main sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s supper (or Mass, or Eucharist).

In a few minutes, we will participate in one of the two key sacraments: that of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist or the Mass. There are some different beliefs even for Christians about what actually “happens” in this service. For some, the bread and wine move through transubstantiation, they become the body and blood of Christ. For others, this is a memorial meal, in which the Last Supper of Jesus is recounted. For still others, and for many Anglicans, the belief is in consubstantiation – the bread and wine retain their essence, but also take on the essence of the body and blood of Christ.

However, the larger point is not what happens to the bread or to the wine, but what happens among the people of God, or as St. Paul described it, the Body of Christ. The sacrament of the Eucharist brings us together, a variety of people from a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and stories. Here we come together and participate in our own way in this service of Thanksgiving – and this sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible Grace that moves us and enlivens us.

The Eastern Orthodox Church typically does not limit the number of sacraments, viewing all encounters with reality in life as sacramental in some sense. What this means is that even the everyday stuff of schools may point to a larger reality, even the reality of God, the “visible signs” around our schools may point to the “invisible Grace” that is both beyond, and also here among us always.

Teaching is a holy task, and we know our students well, and we have the opportunity to help children to grow, develop, and transform before our very eyes. We spend hours teaching, advising, coaching and getting to know our students. Isn’t that what it’s all about, getting to know our students well enough so that we can help find a way to inspire, challenge, and oftentimes cajole them into learning, into striving for more, into learning who they really are meant to be? This is one of the holiest tasks we can ever hope to do. This work is sacramental.

For the ancient Olympians, the very work of preparing to compete was a holy task, and the competition was the fulfillment of this work, and was worship, even on the track or field. For artists and musicians up to the modern era, most artwork was commissioned for use in Churches, in temples, and for worship services. The work itself offered praise to the Creator. For Native Americans and many other indigenous peoples, such varied work as preparing to play lacrosse to hunting and child-rearing were all considered holy work, and were sacramental in their own ways. Their work was for the greater good, their work was in honor of the gods, or of God.

So, we may think that we’ve moved beyond all that sentimentalism, all that type of talk that belongs more in the medieval era, however, this work is also for the greater good, and even, in service of God. The small, ordinary “stuff” of teaching, of advising, of coaching these ordinary actions point to larger truths, to the greater good, and to God.

Have you ever sat with a student or a colleague who was going through a tough time, or struggling with a concept? Offering our presence sometimes is what is needed. Perhaps ironically, a key reason that I felt called to ordained ministry was through some of these times of sitting. Over the course of two years, I had several advisees go up before disciplinary hearings. Each time, while waiting for the judgment, there was some deep and rich holy waiting. Three of these advisees were expelled for various offenses, and each time I knew in my heart of hearts what the verdict would be, and I found myself praying deeply for these students while we talked, and I offered my presence, for whatever it was worth. These were simple actions, everyday stuff that might just be sacramental when they point to a larger reality.

And then there are the examples all around us. When Tony and Cathy meet to work out a plan for a schedule that honors both schools’ needs and support each of our mission, this is not only artful diplomacy, but is relationship-building. When Dr. Perkins learns the Gothic languate because a few students are interested in learning it, this is selfless servant leadership in support of our students. When our admissions office work tirelessly to open up the doors to these great schools to candidates that might not traditionally have ventured to the West End for an education, this is work that points to a larger reality, work that is hospitality in spades. When Linda S. demands excellence on the middle school lacrosse field, she is building up not the fleeting ideal of self-esteem, but the reality of teamwork and success. When a somewhat nervous new parent of a kindergartner brings his son over to the lower school at St. Chris and Mr. M. greets his son “by name!” and then is welcomed to check out the classroom, this is charity and generosity. When an assistant coach takes time to offer hope to that athlete who is nervous about the upcoming match, this is sacramental. It is the visible sign of an invisible grace, and it doesn’t just happen in chapel, and the people who do it aren’t just the one’s who wear robes and lead our services. This sacramental work don by you, and each of you live it out, everyday.

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