Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, February 15, 2015
Our bodies were charged the moment the alarm went off. Even at the wee hour of 4:30 am we heard voices outside. Hikers were already on their way to the summit of Machu Picchu. Although we cheated & caught a bus, we still had to walk the last few hundred meters to the top. Mist enveloped us, drawing us inward into our own meditations in the dawning light. We were walking an ancient trail leading to one of the sacred wonders of the world—a palace and temple of an Incan emperor. Although we were well acquainted with the stories and pictures of this infamous place, we were not prepared for what we encountered. As we crested the mountain, I was stunned not only by what I saw, but by what I felt. Fingers of mist caressed the precise Incan stonework aligned with the sun and the seasons as llamas grazed on the terraces, guarded by peaks disappearing into the heavens. I was standing on sacred ground, touched by the holy.
Peter, James and John were led by Jesus high up a mountain where they, too, were stunned by what they encountered. They saw visions of the prophets as the mists swirled around them, refracting the sun’s rays so as to catch Jesus’ clothing in a brilliance of light. They were standing on sacred ground, touched by the holy.
When have you been touched by the holy? What have been your mountain top experiences? They don’t always happen as dramatically as these. They don’t always happen on top of a mountain. People are touched by the holy at the bedside of a loved one who is dying. They encounter the sacred in the wise, gentle words of a friend. The context differs, the subject changes, but when we are touched by the holy, we are transformed. Our faces soften, our pulses change, our guards are dropped. Even for a brief moment, we are transported to another dimension of the heart. It happens when we least expect it, but almost always it only happens when we can step out of our hurried lives enough to open our hearts to the sacred in one another and in nature.
This moment of sacred encounter transforms not only us but also those who observe us. Nancy & I went on a tour one day last week in Cuba. As we waited for the tourist mass to buy their cigars and rum, I saw an older woman standing in her yard looking at us. I walked over to her and we had brief, but heart-felt conversation. I was moved by her gentle smile and a face creased with story lines. Later on, a couple of people from the tour said how moved they were just watching us. I still carry with me the warmth of her smiling eyes, as do the two observers. For a brief moment, we were all held in another dimension of time by the sacredness of this encounter.
A few years ago, I gathered some brave friends together when the moon was full and the weather fine. We drove out to Birds Hill and skied through the soft, moonlit shadows to a little cabin where we lit a fire, filled the windows with candles and feasted over food and story. As the cabin warmed, so did our hearts in the company of fine friends with whom we could simply be. When we finally left to ski home late that night, we marvelled at moon sparkles and drank deeply of the still peace. We were enveloped by the sacred. My spirit was satiated and I floated in the glow of that evening for days.
It is a challenge for us to slow down enough to find room for the sacred. We make time for tasks and check off to do lists. We try to make meetings as short and efficient as possible, which is important. We particularly need to focus and let those rabbits chase their own trails. But sometimes our hearts are a bit resistant to the pressure of efficiency, because our hearts work slower than our heads. Our hearts need more time and space to process, to listen to the Spirit, to receive guidance. Not more time to chatter, but time to hold the heart, to hold the focus. Encounters of the sacred usually happen when the heart is given space to open.
Sometimes we encounter the sacred in moments when we are caught off guard; when we are vulnerable to another.
After spending 3 ½ months in the hospital, due to injuries from a car accident, and another couple of months of rehabilitation at home, I returned to work part-time. I was surprised to discover how much my physical injuries had affected my mental confidence. I thought that I was hiding my insecurity fairly well, until one day, when I stopped by the Oak Table community ministry. One of the regular attendees came up to me and said that I seemed lost. I was a little bit irked, because that’s not exactly what you want to hear from people you’re trying to help. I really don’t like to appear needy or weak. I really don’t like to be seen as vulnerable. I thought I was covering pretty well, and I mumbled something about not feeling that bad, because I didn’t think I was. But she saw through my best efforts and my response didn’t convince her. She then gave me a gift she had made—a medicine wheel—so that, she said, I could find spiritual healing. That was a humbling, transforming moment for me. Through her, I encountered the sacred.
From a place of vulnerability, rather than self-sufficiency, we may find God. As a community, we are strong only to the extent that we dare to allow the other to see and meet our needs; we are strong only to the extent that we dare to offer, as well as a hand in service, a heart that can be broken.
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to speak to our Presbytery gathering about Refuge and the latest update about our sponsorship of the three Syrian refugee families. Augustine United Church suggested that we all put on our church signs during Lent the phrase, “Open your hearts and hands to refugees.” I’m grateful to Carol Sanders of the Free Press for bringing to the city of Winnipeg this motto and request for support. The motto calls us to do what we can from the depths of our hearts. It calls us to care, but even more, it calls us to open our hearts enough to be vulnerable. You see, God’s mission calls us to be transformed, ourselves, rather than to try and transform others. As we serve with our hearts, we are the ones who are transformed by the sacred.
Sharon Betcher teaches at the Vancouver School of Theology and has written postcolonial theologies of disability. She, herself, is disabled. At a meeting of the Canadian Theological Society, she told us of a transfiguring moment in her life. She can walk only with crutches, but has a special bike that she can use. One day, however, the gears jammed, and she fell, unable to get up from the sidewalk. Some homeless people saw this and came over to her. As she lay there on the ground looking up at them, one of them spoke gentle words to her. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “We’ll get you home.”
Some of us are struggling with physical and mental challenges. Some of us are trying to survive a failed relationship and are grieving the loss of a close companion. Some are grieving the loss of a loved one through the ravages of dementia. We may be feeling a bit lost. It is in this very moment of vulnerability when we may be touched by the sacred. “Don’t be afraid,” God’s Spirit says to us, “We’ll get you home.”