In the 25th chapter of the book of Exodus there’s a passage about sacred space. The Hebrew Scripture has God say to Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, after the pattern of the tabernacle (the portable sanctuary in which Jews carry the ark of the covenant) and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall you make it.” Exodus 25, 8 9
This year our Service of Rededication falls on the first Sunday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Our children are back to school, and vacations are over, so we have a feeling of a ‘new year’ beginning.
This is the time of year when you go from one grade to the next…from kindergarten to first grade…from elementary school to middle school…from middle school to high school. It’s the time of year when high school graduates have gone off to college, and when college graduates have begun work for which they have been preparing.
It’s a new year for us as a religious community.
As we begin this new year, then, it’s appropriate for us to take time to think about what it means to be a religious community.
Jews are reminded of the ‘ark of the covenant.’
What is the ark? What is the covenant? What makes it so special? What makes it sacred?
The ark is the chest in which the Ten Commandments are placed, which, legend says were written not on a piece of paper, but carved in stone by the hand of God. (It’s an interesting metaphor when you think of it that way. To be human is to be a free, independent person. But there is no such thing as freedom without structure; there’s only chaos, both for the individual and for the community.)
The Jews were wandering in the desert, you’ll recall, so they carried the ark of the covenant around with themthey carried their sacred vessel with them wherever they went. (Here’s another interesting part of the mythology: we’re all wandering in the desert, carrying something sacred within us, wherever we go, moving through the years, moving through the changes, moving toward a deeper sense of freedom, a deeper spirituality.)
You’ll recall another ark – Noah’s ark. In that myth Noah’s ark was the vessel that carried pairs of all the animals on earth to be saved from the great flood, so that life on earth could survive and continue to evolve.
Of course there are still people who say they believe these stories in a literal way because they are part of their sacred literature, passed on from generation to generation.
For us, as Unitarian Universalists, these and all the mythological stories, become sacred only and if we begin to understand that they are stories about usstories about you and me, stories about what it means to be human.
Myths, then, are not true stories, but Truth stories. Truth, for us, is sacred.
Every time we gather in this special space we recite our covenant, saying; “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
A covenant is a special agreement that binds us together. The verb to bind, in Latin, is legare, which is the root of our word for religion: re-legare, to re-bind.
Each of us is a single, separate person. But we are able to form special relationships with other persons. The process of making those special relationships has a sacred quality, only if we can be honest with one another. A relationship characterized by honesty and truth telling has a sacred quality to it, for all people, everywhere.
Truth can be quiet—it doesn’t always need words. When we see a mother holding and nursing an infant we are looking at something sacred because it shows the truth about all of usthat we all began as completely dependent infants. Think about the story of the babe in a manger told to symbolize the idea of the Christ child.
Christ is not a person but the potential within each of us to be caring, loving personsour Christ nature needs to be nourished and nurtured, and it can be destroyed.
When we see a father and his child in an embrace, we are looking at something sacred. That’s where the idea of ‘God the Father,’ comes from. We all need to feel that kind of security, to be reassured that each of us is ‘a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, we have a right to be here,’ as the Desiderata says.
When we see friends playing with one anotherplaying and laughing together, we are in the presence of something that we know, on some deep level, is sacred.
When we see people being cruel or mean to one another, we feel badly. Cruelty is a breaking of the covenant, and it destroys that sacred ingredient. “There has never been an age in which the Son of Man was not crucified anew,” said the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker when he was making the case for a completely human Jesus as a model for what we are meant to be.
We know cruelty when we see it. We know when something sacred with the individual is being destroyed. Disagreement is not cruelty, though it’s always a challenge. We have our own opinions, our own understandings, our own ideas. Sometimes we have to disagree, in order to keep the covenantto ‘seek the truth in love.’
“Where there is love, no disagreement can do us harm. Where there is not love, no agreement can do us any good.” That’s the way one of our Universalist ministers in the 19th century put it. We know what Hosea Ballou was talking about.
Look again at the passage in the book of Exodus, which is the story of the great freedom march from bondage as slaves in Egypt across the Red Sea, followed by forty years of wandering in the wilderness:
“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them… According to all that I show you…”
This is the voice of God speaking to Moses.
This is marvelous mythology. It’s about you, and me. It is not something that happened thousands of years ago, but something that is happening here and now.
The voice of God is the voice of conscience that tells you and me what’s right and what’s wrong.
The voice of God, for me, is heard in every act of kindness and love. It’s not an audible voice that thunders from the mountains. It comes from the deepest part of me, and from the deepest part of you. “Actions speak louder than words.”
The voice of God is that part of us that flows up from the depths of our being, from the depths of kindness and compassion, and makes us human. It vibrates on the strings of caring, kindness, thoughtfulness.
The voice isn’t something I can transmit like radio waves through the air from me to you; it can’t be sent like an email through world-wide web.
The voice of God can’t be handed down in the Bibles or the Koran. It has to happen to you, and I believe it has happened to you because you have been lovedsometimes in spite of things you’ve said and done.
It has happened to mein spite of my personal shortcomings, in spite of things I’ve done and said. This is where that important sacred ingredient we call forgiveness comes in, and we all need it, from time to time, and from one degree to another.
This thought, this idea, is the essence of our Unitarian Universalist faith: that God’s presence, God’s voice, is something sacred that dwells in each of us.
You are a sacred temple, and I am a sacred temple, and this space, this sanctuary, this place ‘set apart,’ is holy ground because this is the place where the great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another, is created by what we say and do here.
It doesn’t require that we are perfect. On the contrary: we are here because we are not perfect, but we want to get closer to what is perfect in each of us, and in every form of life on this planet, our common home.
In this place, this sacred space we’re creating by what we say and so here, we proclaim our commitment to helping make this world a better place; we proclaim our commitment to respect diversity, and to search for and to respect that sacred ingredient in each of us which we call ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’
In this place we proclaim our commitment to respect those among us who are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Humanist (or atheist) asserting as we do that no single group or tribe or nation is chosen by God. We make choices. We choose. We must make choices to bring God into the here and now by those ‘thousand little unremembered acts of kindness and love,’ as the poet William Wordsworth put it.
Remember, when Moses got the Ten Commandments, the basis of the covenant, he smashed the stones on which they were carved because his brother Aaron had fashioned an idol out of gold, the famous golden calf.
They were not ready to make a sacred covenant. This is a reassuring chapter in that piece of mythology. Rumi says, “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving…though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, come, come again come.”
The mythological stories are about you, and about me, and about us as we move through the days and years together. Covenants get broken, and we move ahead, we keep at it, we keep trying.
This sacred space was built for us. There’s a passage in the Koran that says, “We drink from wells we did not dig.”
At this Homecoming, New Year service we read the names of deceased members. Each contributed something to the creation of this sacred space, or the places that preceded this onein those living rooms where it began in 1949, and in the Women’s Club and Saugatuck School. We read their names as a reminder that there’s something passed on from generation to generation, and we have a responsibility to find the best in ourselves and to give it, and ‘to help one another’ to find the best and to give it.
A blessing on this home which we share, and a blessing on your house, the home you are creating and making sacred by the love, devotion and care that goes into it.
So may it be.