Harrowing Of Hell
July 19, 2015

Sacred Objects

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

2 Samuel 7:1–14a; Ephesians 2:11–22; Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

A few weeks ago, I stood on sacred ground with nine members of this community. Standing on sacred ground actually happened a lot that week seeing as I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land with Elizabeth Walker and eight incredible members of our youth group. But the particular moments of which I am thinking happened on the last morning of our trip. We were walking the Stations of the Cross—the ACTUAL stations—very early in the morning, before the city of Jerusalem had even had a chance to wake up.

We left St. George’s Guest House at 5:30 and silently walked the streets we had come to know down Saleh Ah Deen all the way down to the walls of the Old City, past the towering Damascus Gate and around to the smaller Herod’s Gate. Taking turns carrying a wooden cross on our shoulder, we literally traced the footsteps of Jesus with our own feet. We finished our pilgrimage at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient site of Calvary, the place of the empty tomb, and we entered to continue our prayers.

Just inside the door, there is a large, rectangular shaped, flat stone on the ground with a kind of sickly sweet, perfumed oily water on it. It is called the Stone of Anointing or the Stone of Unction which marks and remembers the site where Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’ body for burial by wrapping him in a linen cloth. And in Luke’s gospel, this is also where women came and anointed the body with spices and ointments.

This stone, while we know it was added in the 1810 reconstruction and isn’t “the actual stone,” still represents something deeply important to pilgrims.

stone of unctionIf you’re sitting there wondering what this stone really looks like, flip back to the front of the bulletin. There it is. That’s it and those faces are members of this community. I took that picture as we made our way into the church to begin the final three stations.

When you enter the church, it is the first thing you see. The custom with this Stone of Anointing is quite special and one in which our pilgrims participated during Stations of the Cross.

People bring sacred objects to this stone, perhaps a necklace, a prayer book, a wooden cross like this one, candles, anything really. You kneel down at the stone because it’s very low to the ground, you pray, and place your object on the stone.

Now, before I continue, I want you to do something if you haven’t already. Look inside your bulletin. Inside you should find a piece of yarn. I want you to take that piece of yarn and hold onto it. Hold onto it as your sacred object, at least for the duration of this sermon. I’m serious. Towards the end of the sermon, I will come back to the yarn.

On that early Monday morning, as I observed our group kneeling in prayer, hands and necklaces, crosses and prayer shawls, all pressed to the sweet, damp rock it got me thinking about sacred objects.

Why do we have them? Are they just trinkets or tchotchkes? Are they deeply important and perhaps even necessary? Or do they run the risk of becoming idols? Those of us on this pilgrimage couldn’t have been more different and yet each of us took hold of this idea. We sought out “something” in our free time, purchasing a small cross or some other symbolic reminder of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and brought it along in a pocket or purse as we walked the Stations of the Cross.

And when we entered the church, these sacred items, for ourselves and for loved ones at home, came tumbling out of pockets and bags, and found their way onto that rock. I know the smell of that oil lingered in the palm of my hand the rest of the day, a tangible reminder in my very flesh of the walk, the journey we had made together.

And now, the Jerusalem cross one of us wears around our neck, or the wooden cross someone carries in the bottom of a backpack, those sacred objects will recall that experience for years to come.

So what about the people in the time of King David, the ones in this Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel; did they have sacred objects? They most certainly did. They had one giant communal sacred object at least and it had several names, but here we heard it referred to as “the ark of God.” You may know it better as the Ark of the Covenant.

It’s fair to say that I became utterly fascinated with learning about the Ark and its history this past week and came up with more than enough material to teach a full class or two or three on just that topic, so I will spare you the MANY details here, but will give you just a few of the highlights that directly tie to this topic of sacred objects.

It began in Exodus when Moses encountered God atop Mount Sinai and the covenant between God and God’s people was renewed. Moses received the two tablets of the covenant and preparations immediately began to house these sacred objects.

For the ancient Israelites, these objects were believed to have been given to Moses by God. They both represented the presence of God among them AND served as a very powerful physical reminder of the covenant between God and God’s people.

From the time of Moses until Solomon built the First Temple, specifically to house the Ark of the Covenant, there is a complex and fascinating history as outlined in the books of the Old Testament.

But what I would like to highlight is the time it went missing for many years. During the time of Saul no one knows what happened to it, not until King David found it and returned it to the tent and tabernacle in what we know of as the City of David. While it was missing, it caused a crisis of faith for the Israelites. They had forgotten how to be in relationship with God without the Ark.

To think about it another way: If I were to lose my wedding ring, would my marriage be over? No. I would be sad. I would grieve the loss of such an important object, not because of the monetary value, but because of what it represents. Your beloved placed the ring on your finger, an outward and visible sign of a vow, a promise; and this happened in front of God and your community as you made those vows. Losing that ring would be tragic because we ARE attached to things, BUT there are other signs and reminders of covenant, or relationships, memories, and experiences – some are tangible and some are not.

The loss of the Ark of the Covenant is nowhere as trivial as the loss of a wedding ring, but the symbolism is the same. God was still there. God was still present. They just couldn’t see that.

But to circle back around to tangible things, let’s think some more about sacred objects and what we might learn from our ancestors the Israelites and their spiritual journey with the Ark of the Covenant.

What kind of pilgrimage have you been on in your life and what sacred object do you have to remember that journey? Perhaps you’ve visited the Stone of Unction in Jerusalem and are remembering the object you placed on the stone that day or you are going next February and you are daydreaming about it now.

Are you still holding onto your piece of yarn? What are the objects in your life that you hold sacred? Jewelry, keys, photographs, a pocket watch… maybe something really strange that only makes sense to you.

If you have had that object and have lost it or it was stolen, broken, or misplaced with time, what did that feel like? Did it lessen the experience, the promise, the relationship, or the memories it represented? Probably not. Was it replaceable or repairable? Maybe. Maybe not.

At Epiphany, what do we always say? “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you have a place at Epiphany.” If wearing a cross or ring, holding a rosary that belonged to your grandmother, using a set of keys that belonged to your late husband, or holding onto a pair of baby shoes is meaningful to you for what they represent, then do it.

Whether the sacred object is still with us or not, the presence of God IS always with us.

So, now, take out that piece of yarn and hold it in your hand. Maybe it is simply a piece of yarn. Perhaps it represents in this moment another sacred object, a lost necklace, a found wedding ring, a broken family heirloom, whatever it may be, think about that for a moment.

As our worship continues, I invite you to hold on to that yarn and do with it whatever you feel moved to do. Keep it. Tie it around your wrist. Stick it in your wallet or pocket.

You can even choose to place it on the altar in a moment of prayer when you come up for communion, like we did at the Stone of Unction. This is a personal choice and all choices are correct.

Jesus, the incarnation of God in flesh, teaches us that God’s presence isn’t in the object, it’s merely a symbol, but it can be a powerful one.

So, how does the presence of God represented in a sacred object, traveling with pilgrims from tent and tabernacle, to being lost and found again, to finally being housed in the Temple, and ultimately to being transformed into Jesus himself impact and parallel our own spiritual journeys?