This morning, I’m going to preach two sermons. The second will be very brief and about the Blessing of the Animals. The first, likewise somewhat brief, will really be about prayer – specifically, the kind of prayer with scripture called “entering the story” – but it will look a lot like a sermon about time, especially our sense of time and God’s sense of time.
And I want to approach this “entering the story” kind of prayer through some of the commentary that has been written in the Jewish tradition about today’s lesson from Exodus, what we call “the Ten Commandments, but which in the Jewish tradition is called the “standing at Sinai.” (Remember that the people were standing at Mount Sinai when God, high above on the mountain, gave the commandments to Moses.) Some of the Jewish commentary on Israel’s “standing at Sinai” I find quite wonderful and creative. For example:
- So long as the people of Israel are “standing at Sinai,” so will Israel continue to exist. And not only will Israel exist, but this world will continue to exist.
- Some commentators (Shabbat 88a) understand that Israel did not stand “at the foot of” the mountain, but “under” it. And God dangled the mountain over their heads as a threat to make them accept the commandments: “Either accept the Torah, or this will be your burial place!”
Other commentators (Mechilta Bahodesh 3) say that the mountain over the people was like a huppa, the canopy that goes over the bride and groom at a wedding, and it was at Sinai that God “married” the people of Israel.
- Still other commentators (Sifre Deuteronomy 343) imagined that God, in looking for a people to enter into His covenant, went around like a peddler to the many nations of the earth, asking if they would have Him. “What do the commandments say?” the people would ask. “You shall not kill,” or “You shall not steal,” God said. “That is not our way of life,” they would answer, “We cannot accept.” So finally God came to the Israelites, and God, knowing the Israelites, decided to posit things a little differently. God buttered them up a little by recounting all that He had done for them in setting them free from Egypt and in parting the Red Sea, and God fed them with manna and sent them quail (which is what God does in the chapters leading up to Exodus 20). God’s plan worked, so when God asked the Israelites if they would accept the Ten Commandments, they answered, “Yes, oh yes!” (Mechilta Bahodesh 5).
- My favorite understanding of Israel standing at Sinai is widespread in the Jewish tradition: that is, that all Jews – not just those who lived in the time of Moses – all Jews past, present and future were standing at Sinai. Never mind that Sinai “happened” 3,300 years ago. Sinai not only happened but is happening right now, and will always be happening. So if you were to ask a Jewish person, “What were you doing 3,300 years ago?” He or she could in all honesty say, “I was standing at Sinai.”
For us as Christians, we may not stand at Sinai, but we do stand at the cross. Never mind that Jesus’ death and resurrection “happened” 2,000 years ago, they not only happened but continue to happen and will always be happening. So if we were to ask a Christian, “What were you doing 2,000 years ago,” he or she could in all honesty say, “I was standing at the cross,” or “I was a witness to his resurrection.” Indeed, the whole of Jesus’ life, though it happened in the past, yet – in God’s sense of time, who is not bound by time – all the events of Jesus’ life not only happened but continue to happen and will always be happening. Jesus not only was born but is being born right this very minute. Jesus not only healed the hemorrhaging woman, but is healing her right now. Jesus not only fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, but is feeding them right now. As we say at the Easter Vigil service, “Jesus Christ yesterday, today and forever, the alpha and omega. All time belongs to him.” Jesus is always and will always be atoning, loving, healing, feeding.
That all the stories of Jesus not only happened but yet continue to “happen” is important to us as Christians because we have the opportunity of entering in to the events of Jesus’ life and encountering Jesus ourselves. Because Jesus not only preached the Sermon on the Mount but is preaching it now, for example, we can imagine ourselves into the story and hear the compassion and love in Jesus’ voice. Or because Jesus not only turned the water into wine but is doing it now, we can imagine ourselves there and witnessing their astonishment and joy. This imagining ourselves into the story is the kind of prayer called “entering the story.” It is a form of prayer that has been used by Christians for hundreds of years, and is most famously associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola. “Entering the story” can be a powerful tool to deepen and enrich our faith. It assumes that all the events of Jesus’ life not only happened but are happening now and will continue to happen. We can enter into these stories, and as we imagine ourselves into the story we can imagine seeing Jesus’ face, hearing his voice, having him heal us, having him break bread with us, and knowing how much he loves and cares for us.
Which is about what we are to do. In the Eucharist that we are about to receive, we are – at this very moment – in the Upper Room at the Last Supper; we are there in the courtyard with Peter on Good Friday; we are there as Jesus is before Pilate; we stand with the women at the cross. And we are there with him in the tomb as darkness turns to day, as Jesus’ body warms and rises from the cold stone, as he unwinds his linens and places them in the tomb, and as he goes forth to meet Mary and the disciples. This is what the Eucharist is about: standing at the cross and being with Jesus at his resurrection, our standing sustaining not only the Church but the world, our standing bringing Jesus’ death and resurrection into the present, so that God can reconcile this world to Himself in Christ.
Blessing of Animals. Yesterday, October 4, was the Feast of St. Francis, and it has been our custom for several years now to do a Blessing of the Animals on the first Sunday after October 4. I didn’t used to like the Blessing of the Animals. Blessing animals veers dangerously close to being “cute,” and “cute” and good liturgy tend not to mix. But I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve heard so many stories about people seeing something of God in animals. And of course we would see something of God in animals – animals were created by God and bear God’s fingerprints, as it were.
I suspect those of us who are pet owners all have stories about seeing something of God in your pet. For me, I am reminded of God when my dog looks at me – just looks and looks, returning my gaze with no sense of fear or inhibition; indeed, with a sense of anticipation. Isn’t this just how our souls look to God: a constant gaze, hoping to be “fed,” hoping to know we’re loved? When my dog gazes at me I am reminded of Psalm 123:
To you I lift up my eyes,
To you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants
Look to the hand of their masters,
And the eyes of a maid
To the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
Until he show us his mercy.
I hope that the blessing of Animals that we are about to do will help us not only to see God in all things, but also to “lift up our eyes, to Him enthroned in the heavens,” to adopt a stance of prayer, of receiving, of hope, to Him whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.