Morning Worship: Rituals with meaning are grounded in our sacred story

“Here is something for you to think about over lunch: What would Jesus do if you invited him to lunch?” said the Rev. Anna Carter Florence at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “He would not wash, he would not behave, and he would insult your mother and everyone else at the table.”

Her sermon title was “Unmarked Graves,” and the Scripture was Luke 11:37-44.

Jesus had been invited to dinner by a Pharisee, and when he showed up, he did not act as a guest was expected to: He did not wash his hands before eating, and he insulted his host.

“Woe to you, for you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it,” Jesus said in the Scripture.

The Pharisees were upset, and they represent everyday people, Florence said.

“Jesus is calling us out on something we didn’t expect,” she said.

She began her sermon describing her childhood neighborhood in Connecticut. There were fields and woods she and her brother explored, including an old graveyard. It was not attached to a church, but was tended by someone; there were flags on the graves on Memorial Day, and the grass was cut every year. Florence and her brother loved to look at the old stones and try to figure out something about the people whose graves they marked.

“It was a friendly place — if you can say that about a graveyard,” she said. “Not spooky or haunted, but a secret garden with stories.”

As the land was developed, the graveyard was no longer tended, the stones began to fall and the ground became a thicket and then a forest.

“It is more haunted than sacred now,” she said.

Florence also described the discovery of an African-American burial site in lower Manhattan.

“It is one of the saddest things to imagine people walking over the unmarked graves of the first slaves and free black people,” she said. “People were walking on the site without realizing what was there. How do we mark and honor sacred ground? What do unmarked graves require of us, and what do they mean?”

Sometimes, graves are unmarked because people cannot afford a marker, she said. Sometimes, the grave markers are removed to make way for progress. This happens to Native American and small, country burial grounds all the time, she said.

“Often, it is just the passage of time,” Florence said. “Years go by. The stones fall. No one remembers what was there. The ground becomes forest. Like Stonehenge, we don’t know exactly why they are there or what they are for. We can make up something, but if it is not grounded in our own sacred story, we will look silly.”

The Pharisees had many rituals, and many of them made sense. Rituals help to keep things running smoothly.

“They make sense when they reflect who we are, but they can outlive their usefulness when they are not grounded in our sacred story; then they become unmarked graves,” she said.

Because the Pharisee thought washing hands before dinner was important, Jesus’ actions shocked his host. But Jesus, Florence said, was pointing to cleanliness of the heart, the state of the soul.

“To have a clean heart we have to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” she said. “That is when rituals make sense and have depth.”

If people can’t tell how they do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, things are out of balance and need to change.

“We need to keep ourselves honest,” Florence said. “We need to rethink things. How did we forget who we are? Then it’s time for the Pharisee to go back to Chautauqua and time to invite Jesus to dinner again and be a guest who won’t behave.”

The Rev. Bruce Archibald presided. Carol Hoglund, a retired teacher and active participant in Knitting4Peace, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “Jesus Lead the Way” with words by Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and setting by Richard Proulx. The Dr. William N. Jackson Religious Initiative Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services.