“Es como el sagrado sacramento!”
At the turn of the 18th-century, Gabriel Moraga led the first expedition across the hills from what we now call the San Francisco Bay area into the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Seeing the bright blue sky, the flower-filled meadows, the high mountains to the east, and the glory of what is now known as the Sacramento River, they were incredulous.
“Canopies of oaks and cottonwoods, many festooned with grapevines, overhung both sides of the blue current. Birds chattered in the trees and big fish darted through the translucent depths. The air was like champagne, and (the Spaniards) drank deep of it, drank in the beauty around them. “Es como el sagrado sacramento! (This is like the Holy Sacrament.)”
And so, Sacramento, generations and centuries later, the capitol city of California—we’ve come a long way.
Recently I spoke twice, “preaching” at both services of the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. CA. “Every Square Inch: Liturgy, Learning, Labor and All of Life,” was what I called it. And so it seemed right to remember Moraga and his explorers, and their surprising discovery of a valley and river that was as beautiful as the holy sacrament itself.
I offered a vision, and then two ways into that vision. First, the story of a question asked of me some years ago. “Is it possible to have a contemplative life, and still live in Washington DC?” Prison Fellowship invited me to come speak on that question, and I brought with me two first edition volumes by Abraham Kuyper, “Lectures on Calvinism” and “To Be Near Unto God.” I offered Kuyper as someone deeply engaged in his world—believing that “every square inch of the whole of reality” belonged to his Lord –becoming prime minister of a modern nation state (the Netherlands), while at the very same time writing 110 times on these few words from Psalm 73, “It is good to be near unto the Lord.” There was a seamlessness in his vision; no dualism, no final tension between a life in the world, and the life of a contemplative.
And then the stories of two good people whose lives teach us to see all of life as coherent; in fact to see all that we think, all that we say, all that we do, as sacramental. So I told about the French philosopher/activist Simone Weil, whose wrestling with the hurts of the world, the wrongs and injustices of life, first led into years of serious communism. But it was not finally satisfying, for the most important reasons that matter to all of us. And she slowly, slowly, found her way to “the God who has tears.” Over time she began to see that everything was meant to be holy, all of life, all of learning, and wrote that if we learn to “pay attention”—which she saw as the heart of the truest learning –we will see study as sacramental. Seemed a good word for a congregation next to the UC Berkeley campus.Then I told about Lesslie Newbigin, and his profound commitment to taking the questions of life, the ones that we all ask and answer, with great seriousness. In his 40 years in India, he spent days and weeks in Hindu temples meeting with Hindu scholars, reading their holy books, and inviting them to study his. To step in, and to stay engaged, is harder than most of us can imagine. But he took the Hindu people and their Hinduism seriously, and yet somehow he avoided syncretism, and over time was even more persuaded of the richness and reality of his own faith, eventually writing books like “Foolishness to the Greeks,” “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,” and “Proper Confidence.” I told of my own interactions with him late in his life, learning from him more than I had imagined possible about loving people and loving truth, at the same time. Again, no dualism, but rather a deep sense of coherence about what we believe and how we live.
I finished with Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of San Francisco, reflecting on what he said and didn’t say about words and deeds. (He did not say, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”) But he was a remarkably earnest man, committed to an honest faith, showing unusual compassion for people and their problems—as well as birds and bees, flowers and trees –taking his time and place seriously.
“What is there in this story for us? For people gathered together at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, CA, a city on a hill that it is, looking out as it does on another city on another hill, the city that remembers St. Francis in its very name, other than that we are to be people of honesty and integrity, to be people who take into our hearts the hopes and sorrows of the world, complex and perplexing as they are, who take into our minds the difficult questions of a pluralist and pluralizing world, complex and perplexing as they are, understanding that it is in the vocation of God himself—the God who has tears, as Simone Weil came to see –that we find our own vocation.
“So, brothers and sisters, it is into the neighborhoods, the city, its schools and businesses, the university, the Bay Area and beyond, remembering that every square inch belongs to Jesus who alone is Lord.
“Every square inch—which is why we need a liturgical vision for life that nourishes all of life… our learning, our labor, our love. A sacramental vision it must be, weaving together our worship and work, our praying and our thinking, our learning and our living.”
Originally published at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.