Two days after my mother died, at half past five in the morning, I heard a strange noise outside my bedroom window, the window of the spare bedroom in my parent’s house. It was a rasping, grinding, rolling, grunting, sighing sound, and it kept repeating over and over. I got up and looked out. My father was in the yard, rolling paving slabs to the wheelbarrow, hefting them in, and transporting them around to the back of the house to build the patio he was in the middle of making when my mother died.
This was half past five in the morning, and I had flown in the night before; it was still midnight-thirty east coast time, but what was I to do? I got up, got dressed, and joined the crazy man with the paving slabs and the wheelbarrow while the sun slowly rose.
A week later – these things take a little longer in Wales than they often do here – a week later, I was sitting in the back yard on the bench with my cup of tea. It was eight o’clock, a real eight o’clock, because the jet lag was over, and it was the day after my mother’s funeral. My father emerged with his own cuppa, still in his pyjamas.
“I slept well last night,” he announced.
I thought about the funeral that we had prayed and cried our way through the day before, and I was profoundly grateful for the rituals that had helped us to articulate our grief, our sorrow, our hope, our anger, our dependence on the good grace and mercy of God and of our neighbours. Rituals make a difference. This one allowed a crazy man to sleep for once, which in turn let me sleep, too.
In the story of Elijah, ritual has run amok. The priests of Baal are running riot at the extremes of ritual, trying by their own actions and efforts of will to make something miraculous happen.
But that is not what religious ritual is about. It is not about saying the right incantation, or spilling the right blood, or believing the right things, having the right spirit, in order to bend God’s will to our own. Rather, it is about opening ourselves up to the power of God which is all around us, listening to God who loves us, acting on behalf of God who wills only good for us.
God was not dependent upon Elijah and his altar to do the deed of power that astonished the people; but perhaps the people were. They needed an interpreter, and they needed to understand what they saw on their own terms, so that they could own it and live it. In order to show them the one true God, the one true God met them where they could see and meet God, in their ritual lives, on a pile of sodden, soaking wood and stone.
Jesus was not dependent upon the faith of the centurion, or the ritual of the laying on of hands in order to heal his servant; but he knew what people needed, and he was prepared to come. There are other stories in which he goes even further, making mud from the dirty ground to cleanse a man’s sight, sighing up to heaven and sending his healed lepers to the priests for certification. Jesus knew that he could heal the centurion’s servant with a word, but he was surprised that the centurion knew it, too.
He was astonished at the centurion’s response: “I am not worthy to have you come into my house; I did not presume to come to you; but only say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
The centurion was used to ordering things with a word, and he figured, how much more so the living Word of God who spoke creation into being. But the centurion was the odd one out. This is not how people usually received Jesus, almost all of them needing to see, to hear, to touch, to feel in order to know the presence of God, the healing power of the Spirit upon themselves or their household; even after the Resurrection, Jesus offered Thomas his hands to touch, his side to feel, to know by his senses that he was for real.
Rituals are important. There is a reason that we come together, instead of remaining apart and simply sending word via facebook or email that we are praying, thinking of one another, thinking of God. There is a reason that we come together in material ways, sharing real bread, real wine, real matter that really matters. There is a reason why in church we sometimes weep real tears, sometimes tears of laughter if we’re lucky, why we hug each other at the Peace, why we use olive oil to anoint the sick and the heartsick, and lay our hands upon them. It is a rare centurion, a rare person who has no need of such rituals, of tangible and touchable symbols of God’s grace and presence with them.
Most of us will admit, if push comes to shove, that we need our signs, our symbols, our cultic and familiar assurances of God’s grace with and among us. And if we need them, then so do our neighbours; and it is a kindness that we do to gather with them to share God’s good gifts and graces with them.
And God has graciously agreed to meet us where we are, has given us the gifts of the church in order to help us out. God recognizes and affirms our need for contact and companionship, for food and fellowship, for care and community, for signs and symbols elevated by God into sacramental mysteries.
So I invite you this summer, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, not to neglect to meet together, but to stand together in the presence of the living God, celebrating with joy and gratitude the gifts that we have been given, the gifts of ritual and of remembrance, of our baptism and of the Eucharist.
There will be times when you are travelling, or otherwise detained, and there will be one or two Sundays when I am, too; but when you do not see me, I will be gathered still into that great congregation, the cloud of witnesses, and at least one of those Sundays I will praying for you in that old stone church where I was married and where we lay my mother to rest, singing her to sleep with the sweet and gentle rituals that soften our own spiritual journeys, those gifts of a God who knows just what we need, and is ready always to come under our rooftops to offer it to us.
May you encounter God’s blessings in the most unexpected places, people and practices this summer, and may you come quickly home to share your good graces with us all.