[This message was given on September 19, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church and can be watched and heard on Perinton’s facebook channel. Texts: Psalm 34:1-8 and 1 John 1:1-5.]
Don’t you love apple trees this time of year? I do. So does Tom Brown. A retired chemical engineer, Brown has developed a love of apple trees. About a century ago, there were about 14,000 varieties of apples in our country. Three decades ago, U. S. commercial apple orchards were down to under 100 varieties. Then Tom Brown went to work. He has reclaimed about 1,200 varieties and on his two-acre orchard he has 700 of the rarest. (Taken from a column by Tish Harrison Warren in Christianity Today, September 2021.)
Somewhere along the way, and it started centuries ago, Christians felt the need to elevate the spiritual nature of our faith in ways that pushed down the physical. Some ancient cultures, like Greek culture, thought the goal of life was to rise above any fleshly, earthy pleasures and thus purify the soul. Some thought we should purify our souls by punishing our bodies. That is thoroughly unbiblical thinking. God delights in physical creation. Read the first two chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1 and 2: the land and seas, the sun and moon, the animal kingdom, lush plants and trees; at the pinnacle, male and female bearing the image of God in their physical beings. Read the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22: new heaven and new earth, a flowing river, trees with spectacular fruit (apples!), and embodied human beings delighting in God’s presence; Jesus making all things new.
Our second worship value begins this way: “We value Sacramental Worship that takes our faith deeper than spoken words, helping us experience the mystery of Christ and inspiring us to serve God and others.” What does sacramental mean? Your answer may be shaped by your tradition. How many of us grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition? That tradition puts great emphasis on seven sacraments, through which we are saved by God’s grace. How many of us grew up in the Baptist tradition? In that tradition, the word sacrament isn’t used, but there are two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. How many of us were raised in the what I will call the middle Protestant tradition, which would include Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians? We would probably answer in the way the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer answers: “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means for receiving God’s grace. Baptism and Eucharist are the two great sacraments given by Christ to his church.”
Let’s think of sacramental value in two ways: one with a capital “S” and one with a lower case “s”. The first refers to the Holy Sacraments of the Church, Baptism and Holy Communion. Jesus instituted these and told us to keep doing them. To value Sacramental worship means that we do not find these heavy obligations that we must do every so often, but means of grace given by Jesus for his followers, to be celebrated frequently and joyfully. Concerning the Lord’s Supper, I prefer it every week. I cannot tire of it, for in partaking of it, I am encountering Jesus and he is encountering me.
When we honor the Sacraments of the Church, it should be easy to move to the second meaning of sacramental, the small “s” meaning. Everything created by God is holy, until we humans muck up things, and even then God comes to redeem it. We are to rejoice in the magnificence of nature. John Calvin, who shaped this movement called Presbyterianism, cared about creation five centuries ago. These are two direct quotes from Calvin:
- “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power, but the Church is the orchestra….” Does the Church feel like an orchestra celebrating God in all creation? Does Perinton? I think we can do better.
- “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Think about that the next time you mow your lawn.
Listen to these active words from our two scripture readings today. From Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” From 1 John 1: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… this life was revealed, and we have seen it… we declare to you what we have seen and heard… This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
Our faith is not other worldly; it is set in our earthly existence. It engages our senses. It’s not pie in the sky bye and bye, but God with us in Jesus here and now. I love reading the Bible in the paraphrase called “The Message.” My very favorite verse is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus came to be one of us. He didn’t float two inches above the dusty ground. He is not a phantom or an apparition. He is really one of us. Fully and completely. When he is cut, he bleeds. When he is hungry, he has hunger pangs. Everything about Jesus is both extraordinary and ordinary. Our faith is centered in God among us in the ordinariness of daily life.
I’m no Tom Brown, but I planted two apple trees eight years ago when we moved to Henrietta: one fuji and one gala. Both are bursting with apples this month. One of the ways I marked 9/11 eight days ago was to plant a third apple tree, a golden delicious (because Lowe’s had one for a great price). Why do I care about apple trees? I love eating a fresh apple. I love making apple sauce. I love apple pie. And I love the creative genius of God, who seems to care an awful lot of about ordinary things like apple trees. And fresh baptismal water. And the bread we bake and then break and the cup filled with the fruit of the vine we lift and drink.
We value Sacramental Worship that takes our faith deeper than spoken words, helping us experience the mystery of Christ and inspiring us to serve God and others. Sacramental worship helps us see, taste, hear, and touch the word of God. It calls forth artistic gifts and celebrates the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as we engage with the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice and risen life.