Sermon: The Sacramental Path

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Preached on 2nd March 2008
by Reverend Keith Harbour

1.      ‘HC' on the Plan to indicates Holy Communion, many Circuits across Methodism use the single letter ‘S', meaning Sacrament.

         Growing up in a Methodist family the word sacrament was used to indicate Holy Communion, I always thought that was correct.  Into theological studies I learned that whereas Holy Communion was a sacrament, the word sacrament meant something much wider.  Most of you, I suspect, would know Baptism is also a sacrament.  As Protestants we have two sacraments.  However Roman Catholics have 7 sacraments.  Baptism and Holy Communion plus Confirmation, Penance, Unction, Ordination and Marriage.  In Protestant Theology Holy Communion and Baptism are seen as Gospel Sacraments, they were instituted by Jesus commanding us to ‘Do This'. 

2.      In the ‘History of the Church' we discover both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas agree, sacraments are basically ‘SIGNS OF A HOLY REALITY, OR OF DIVINE GRACE, THAT SANCTIFIES US.'  Outward signs of God at work.  Sacraments however, are much more than signs or symbols.  They assume an act of deep commitment.  In Roman times the ‘oath of allegiance' soldiers had to make was seen as their sacramental promise.

         It's easy to link this with the theology of commitment and loyalty in Baptism and Holy Communion, as with Roman sacraments of Marriage, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination and Extreme Unction (the last rites).

3.      Sacraments are OUTWARD SIGNS OF DVINE GRACE AT WORK IN US AND FOR US.  The outward sign at Holy Communion is Bread and Wine.  The outward sign at Baptism is water.  Within the Christian Church there are groups who reject the theology of sacrament, to name two the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends.  They would say the Outward Sign has become too important and takes away the meaning of inner grace and God does not need outward signs to do his work.

4.      If a sacrament is an outward sign of God's grace at work, it follows that all life could be thought of as a sacrament, God is with us in Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us'.  Incarnation is indeed sacrament.  We can come to know there are many signs of God at work in things that are happening in the world around us.

5.      Just suppose a woman came into church and acted as Hannah did: weeping, wailing and moaning; we may well be suspicious as Eli the priest was - perhaps he was used to drunken people babbling at the shrine.  But the ‘Wise Old Priest' eventually understood she was at prayer.  This is the sacrament of life being played out.  Hannah is desperate and uses her desperation as a sacrament.  She goes to the place of ritual sacrifice, the sanctuary at Shiloh, the place of prayer, and pours out her heart to God.  The wise Eli eventually recognises the sacrament, the sign of a prayer of desperation and the sign that God is at work and that God will answer Hannah's needs.      Rather than seeing Hannah as a drunk woman with a problem, Eli was prepared to see God at work in her.

6.      Sacrament is a spiritual way of looking at life.  Here's a statement, there are two ways of reading it.

"He is a young man well experienced in vice and wickedness / he is never found in opposing the works of iniquity / he takes delight in the downfall of his neighbours / he never rejoices in the prosperity of his fellow creatures / he is always ready to assist in destroying the peace of society / he takes no pleasure in serving the Lord / he is uncommonly diligent in sowing discord among his friends and acquaintances / he takes no pride in labouring to promote the cause of Christianity / he has not been negligent in tearing down the church"  - and so the statement goes on.

Or, the same words could be read like this - "He is a young man well experienced / in vice and wickedness he is never found / in opposing the works of iniquity he takes delight / in the downfall of his neighbours he never rejoices / in the prosperity of his fellow creatures he is always ready to assist / in destroying the peace of society he takes no pleasure / in serving the Lord he is uncommonly diligent / in sowing discord among his friends and acquaintances he takes no pride / in labouring to promote the cause of Christianity he has not been negligent."

         It all depends on the way you look at it, Eli looked at Hannah and saw not a drunk woman, but a desperate, deep prayer of longing.  He saw SACRAMENT - God's Grace at Work.

7.      We make our sacramental journey of prayer by seeing the work of God in what is happening around us, in this material physical world.

8.      Terry Waite, in captivity in Lebanon, maybe did view his captivity as a tragic experience of horror, pain and darkness.  But he looked, as best he could, for signs of God at work in the desperation of his captivity.  I quote from his book ‘Taken On Trust'.   It is Christmas eve.

"Next month I will have been a hostage for three years.  Three years since I saw the sun or felt the wind and rain, three years in chains.  I plan my Christmas celebration.  Tonight, when I think it is near to midnight, I will celebrate Holy Communion.  I am lucky to have a Prayer Book and a Bible.  I take one of the paper tissues I have been given and fold it into the shape of a cross, I put this safely in my Bible.  The day passes slowly. 

I don't allow myself to think of those whom I love.  I read and read and read.  At super time the guard gives me a sandwich, I save a small piece of bread and put it in my Bible.  I eat my meagre supper and read some more.  I dare not leave the service too late or a guard will come in and tell me to extinguish the candle.  After an hour or so, I begin.  I place the cross on the floor, pour a little water into my plastic cup, and lay the bread on a clean tissue.  It is very quiet.  A few miles from where I now sit, Jesus was born, on this holy night.  ‘A man full of sorrow and acquainted with grief.'  The candle flickers in the cold night air.  I have no strong feelings of joy or sorrow tonight.  I start to read the service quietly.  The Gospel of John rings out: ‘And the light shines in the darkness . . . .and we beheld his glory . . . . full of grace and truth.' I say the prayer of consecration, sip the water and eat the bread. The candle burnt out.  I close the book, wrap myself in my bedding, lie down, and sleep.

         You may feel Terry Waite didn't have to have his communion on Christmas eve.  But he, celebrated, the sacramental act, the physical act with a spiritual meaning, to focus his mind, his spirit, his whole being, on God at work, even in the depths of darkness.  He says, he has no strong feelings of joy or sorrow.  It is just an act of doing something, something physical that the church has always done, that helps him to make real the activity of God, around him and in him.

10.    The sacramental path of prayer is this -  God is alive and acting in his world, we can focus our minds and hearts on God's activity by using the physical and material dimensions of life.  Our focus may be water, bread or wine, liturgical words, a smile a handshake, a sunrise or sunset, the hopes and the longings of those we love.  Can we commit ourselves to the God who is at work in us and around us?

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