I have talked from time to time about my first coming here as a pastoral intern a dozen years ago.  I was really excited about the opportunity but I will admit, I was also a little nervous.  After all, I had not been involved in a campus ministry when I was in college.  I recently discovered that we had had one but it never caught my eye and I’d never gotten involved.  So, I didn’t really know what they were like.  I was a little nervous that this community might be full of… well…. Jesus freaks.  But I came to the second to the last of the services of that year before the semester I’d start and was relieved to discover that the service was basically your usual United Methodist service, the usual selection of hymns and prayers and the general vibe of openness and inclusiveness.

About this Sermon
Part 7 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 21, 2012
1 Samuel 6:6-13; Mark 14:22-25

But it was afterwards that I was sold on this community.  We all went over to Joe Eldridge’s house for the annual “Eat at Joe’s” cookout.  And after dinner, as folks were hanging out, Chris Slatt took out his guitar.  I braced myself.  Here it comes, I thought.  Praise music.  ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of stuff.  And Chris began to play… “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and I knew I was in the right place.

But why would that be?  Why should I have been so encouraged by the appearance of a catchy pop song from the 1990’s?  Why would my heart have been less encouraged had Chris started playing “Our God is an Awesome God”?  Should I not have wanted the students I’d be working with to be holy and their music to be holy?


There is certainly an expectation that Christians are supposed to be a holy people.  The book of Revelation speaks of Christ having made us to be “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6).  And there are plenty of other references.

“God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world.”

Ephesians 1:4

“you must be holy in every aspect of your lives, just as the one who called you is holy. It is written, You will be holy, because I am holy.

1 Peter 1:15–16

And in our Methodist tradition, we speak of being sanctified, being made holy.  We talk about the sanctifying grace of God that works within us to help us to grow in personal and social holiness.  To engage in right living, to abstain from evil, to avoid injury and offense.

The word holy in English is the word missionaries used to render the Latin word sanctus and sacer, both of which mean something dedicated.  Sanctus itself is used to render the Hebrew word qadosh, a word that means “sacredness” but also “apartness.” That is, at the heart of the meaning of the word holy is the sense that what is holy is separate.  It is not ordinary.  It is something other.  In fact, one understanding of God, articulated in the theologies of Neo-Orthodox theologians like Karl Barth describes God as not only the “Holy Other” but “Wholly Other”—that is completely different.  This is sometimes referred to as “the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man, the vacuum, the mathematical point, and the tangent in which alone they must meet.” [1]

This notion of how removed God is from our experience is instructive to how we are to be removed.  That is, if we are “Called to be holy because [God is] holy,” then should we, too, not be separate?  Should we, too, remove ourselves from the ordinary?  Are we not called to make a great distinction between the secular world of the ordinary everyday life and the sacred world of the church and of our spirituality?  Is it not the case, then, that the secular world is the antithesis of the Christian world?


world cloud of sermon text "sacred is the opposite of secular"
Image courtesy wordle.net

The word secular comes from the Latin saecula, which means “an age, or a span of time.”  It’s used in the church to translate the Greek word aion “eon” that is usually used to translate the Hebrew word ‘olam word that means “age” and “world”.  So, secular is “of the age” and “worldly”.  Being secular, then, seems to go against the Christian call to be “in the world but not of the world”.  We often encounter a sentiment that “the world” is the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven or of true faith.

In the Epistle of James is written: “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” (James 1:27 CEB)

And in the Gospel of John, a gospel that likes to engage in dualistic, either/or thinking, has a number of verses that express this attitude:

“If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you.”

John 15:18–19 CEB

“I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.”

John 17:11 CEB

“I gave your word to them and the world hated them, because they don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world.”

John 17:14–16 CEB

Now, each of those statements is a highly contextualized statement reflecting the theology of John’s gospel. They represent a sectarian strain of thought that tends to view things in stark absolutes, here, setting up the authority of Jesus versus the authority of “the world” that is peculiar to John’s gospel.  Because the reality is that the overwhelming witness of scripture seems to come to the opposite conclusion.


In the Gospel lesson we heard earlier, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, what we call the Eucharist or “Holy Communion”.  In the Protestant traditions, it is one of two sacraments of the church.

The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin sacramentum, an oath of allegiance, usually given by Roman soldiers to their lords and emperors.  The term was applied by Tertullian in the early third century to the Christian mystery rites, known in Greek as mysteria, by which human beings pledged their allegiance to God. [2]  A sacrament, to put it in traditional language, is a “visible sign of an invisible grace”. That is, we know something about God’s grace, love, self-sacrifice and purposes from having ordinary water poured over us and consuming ordinary bread and wine. In these ordinary elements something divine, something profound is conveyed into us. Were these material things not worthy, they could not possibly convey something of the grace of God. And yet they do.  In the Wesleyan hymn, “Oh the Depth of Love Divine”, Wesley writes of the sacrament:

Let the wisest mortals show how we the grace receive;?Feeble elements bestow a power not theirs to give.

But, the fact is that throughout the Biblical narrative, “feeble elements” have been used time and time again to embody the grace of God.

In the Garden of Eden story, in an oft overlooked conclusion to the story, God makes clothing for Adam and Eve in their nakedness.  They have rebelled, they have sinned, and their shame of their nakedness is a consequence of that sin.  But it is not one that they have to bear without aid: God clothes them and meets them where they are in a wonderful act of grace.  Are not these clothes a sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace?

Throughout the Bible we encounter signs of God’s grace in very real, concrete, physical forms. The covenant with Abraham is expressed in the ritual of circumcision. The Israelites place lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes as a sign of God’s protection.  The deliverance from bondage through the Exodus is commemorated to this day by the eating of unleavened bread and drinking wine. In the wilderness the people are fed by manna and quail.  Kings are anointed with olive oil as a sign of God’s favor.  The unclean and the convert are washed with water.

The prophets make frequent use of such symbols. God’s mercy is demonstrated through the real life marriage of the prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer. Isaiah declares that the sign of God’s faithfulness to King Ahaz is in the child a young woman is carrying in her womb. Jeremiah uses potter’s clay to symbolize the relationship between God and the people. Grapes, summer fruit, bricks, yokes, and so many other objects are frequently invoked as ways of carrying God’s message.

Even the Incarnation itself is a kind of sacrament as the matins for Christmas day attest: O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio… “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger.”

Clothing, blood, bread, wine, olive oil, water, marriage, children, fruit, and newborn babies all have one thing in common: they are all incredibly ordinary.  There is nothing special about the occurrence of any of those.  In fact, what makes the Nativity story extraordinary is not the Virgin Birth, it is the ordinariness of the infant in very humble surroundings.  Jesus does not arrive the way Superman/Kal-El does from Krypton, in a meteor crashing into a Kansas cornfield.  He’s just a baby, born to parents in very humble circumstances.

The sacraments are ordinary.  They are the stuff of everyday life.  The ways God uses to communicate grace are likewise the ordinary stuff of our existence.  Oh, on occasion fiery chariots, strange beasts, and wheels within wheels will appear in the Biblical narrative, but these are the exception.  By and large, God is just as content to work with ordinary olive oil, bread, and wine, which happened to be staples of a Mediterranean diet.

We have become used to the idea that God communicates to us in extraordinary ways—like apparitions or blinding lights on the Road to Damascus—that we miss the very ordinary ways that God has communicated to us throughout the entire salvation history.  Through ordinary things, material things.  One of the cornerstones of Christian faith is that it is through these “feeble elements” that grace is communicated.  The sacramental nature of our faith is a reminder that God is not encountered only in mystical journeys outside the self or in the contemplations of philosophy or the arcane theories of theology.  God is encountered in the everyday, the ordinary, and the material.

What we realize is that in the end, there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular.  They occupy the same field.


There ought to be a distinction between a Christian and everyone else.  That distinction ought to be that by professing the lordship of Jesus Christ, we declare our fidelity to God above the things of the world.  That is, we confess no earthly power or ruler over us.  We are not defined by the political, economic, racial, social, ideological, or any other structure that would seek to define us or direct us.  We are subject to God alone and to the grace and love of God that we find in Jesus Christ.

It is that loyalty to the Gospel that helps us to reach out to the marginalized, to advocate for justice, to build communities of love and welcome, to transcend the base materialism of consumerism and greed, to resist abuses of power and oppression. A Christian should be identifiable and distinct in this way.

It is that loyalty to God and the gospel that helps us to remember that we are not saved by the things of the world—the possessions, the power, the influence, the status—but by God’s grace alone.  It is a reminder to us that we put our trust not in the world, but in the God who made the world.  And the God who “so loved the world” that Jesus was sent to us in the world.

But it does not mean our disengagement from the world.  It does not mean that we have two lives—a holy, sacred life and a secular life in which we go to work or go to class.  For the sacred and the secular worlds are one: God’s world.  In fact it is in the secular that we encounter the sacred most profoundly, whether it is in a newborn baby, olive oil, bread, wine, or a song by Deep Blue Something.

In fact, given that God created this world, that God’s own Word became incarnate in the world, that the ordinary things of existence—oil, water, bread, wine—communicate the divine to us, that the world is where the Son was raised from the dead, and that the world is the place God seeks to redeem, it seems like the world is where all the action is.  And if that is the case, if it is God-created, God-loved, and God-redeemed, then there can be no distinction between sacred and secular.  For what we find is that all the world is capable of being a sacrament.  All the world is capable of revealing the love and grace of God that we proclaim.

The Texts

1 Samuel 16:6–13

When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the LORD’s anointed right in front. But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.”  Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The LORD hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the LORD hasn’t chosen this one.” Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?” “There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”

So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The LORD said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The LORD’s spirit came over David from that point forward. Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.

Mark 14:22–25

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.”


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Barth
[2] http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/sacraments_in_scripture.htm

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