A Walk to the Altar of the World

A Sermon for the Ordination of Jolie Olivetti

April 29, 2018

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

One autumn day, in a century that has passed, I took a small expedition to the woods of New Hampshire. Somewhere I had read that there was a place called “America’s Stonehenge.” It seemed incredible to me that I could be an hour away from such a site with absolutely no awareness.  So, to remedy this knowledge gap, a journey was planned.  My confusion only deepened as we grew closer.  We seemed to be in a kind of post-war suburban paradise of isolated houses on deeply forested lots; no sidewalks or curbstones – just asphalt that petered out, crumbled to gravel and dirt, and then hit barriers of rock and untamed growth, behind which were scraggly patches of tire-rutted grass. It appeared to be the kind of life engineered around getting safely from vehicle to front door without ever encountering another soul. 

The previous spring, my husband and three young sons had gone to the actual Stonehenge, and the approach could not have contrasted more sharply.  There, in the open countryside of the Salisbury plain, a road curves and descends slightly; there are no woods and you just are confronted suddenly with enormous stone beams, arranged as a circle of entryways in the middle of the expanse, with England’s green grass all around.  You don’t know at first how truly massive the stones are, because the ground rolls, and it takes driving into the landscape to realize the sweep of the scenery.  I had been looking at the formations for a while before grasping that the lumps strung around the base of the stones were a caravan of luxury tour buses.

America’s Stonehenge was as secluded as the British one was exposed, and as empty as the other was crowded. We parked at the brown raised ranch with its garage turned into a gift shop, paid our admission, and exited into the woods that stretched and climbed from a backyard path.  Here and there, we would encounter dry stone work construction and big rocks that apparently relate to the solstices in a way that seemed impossible to translate since we were on a wooded hill.  All in all it was a pleasant place to explore and scamper around and play versions of hide-and-seek among the rocks and caves, with their rusty pine needle carpets. My youngest, not quite of walking age, was strapped to my back, grabbing at the yellowing leaves above our heads.  And then we came to the table, an elevated stone slab that has permanently altered how I look at cutting boards.  The outer edge of this six foot surface had what I learned was called a blood gutter, and a little notch, which releases whatever flows through that channel into a vessel below.  Here, according the little interpretative plaque, was the altar where the sacrifice took place.  

Evidence tells us that this is not some ancient Canaanite or Celtic site, but more likely a combination of colonial structures, rearranged by 20thcentury enthusiasts convinced of a Druidic past in the place of Native Americans and Puritan farmers.  Nevertheless, even if it was a giant apple press, or a place to let rainwater run through wood ash to make lye for soap, the sacrificial table drained the pleasure from the day.  Our walk in the woods became a march between life and death; a line between the one who performs the ritual and that which is lain on the altar.  Years later, reading a book by Eliza Griswold, I viscerally understood the terror she described as a twelve year old witnessing the service of consecration for her father, an Episcopal bishop.  He was instructed to lie face down on the cathedral’s stone floor, arms out like Jesus on the cross, and as the service went on and on and on, she panicked that the priests were never going to let her father up again; that he had submitted to something that would take him away from her forever. 

What do we ask our religious leaders to lay on the altar?  And what do those of us called in to the ordained ministry demand of ourselves? This afternoon, Jolie Olivetti – a daughter, sister, aunt and friend; partner to Adam and mother to June – will kneel at the front of this sanctuary, turning her life over to the cause of ministry. In Western religions we have so many images of sacrifice at the center of faith – of our offerings to the heavens coming at prices cutting deep enough to kill.  What does it mean that the man God names “father of my people” is told to give up his son – to act as a father?  Or that Christian communion involves sharing the body and blood of someone who lay down his life for others?  In Eastern religions, the idea of sacrifice may at first seem less traumatic. But then you read about Guatama healing the blind man by digging out his own eyes, and handing them over; or of feeding a starving tiger with the flesh of his own body. Perhaps it is all meant simply as metaphor, but there in the woods, I stood with my child bound to me as Ishmael or Isaac, with the hill spread before me like Moriah, facing the stone table.  There is evidence that the world took the sacrifice literally. 

Once, a class of middle schoolers built an altar in the backyard here.  It consisted of a clearing in the dirt, over near the bulkhead down to the old cellar, and a pile of sticks, and then some bricks that we built up to hold a rectangular metal grill.  Wondering about a story in which God preferred the offerings of Abel over Cain, we tried to figure out why.  The Cain people set about placing strips of zucchini and onions and yellow squash on the fire, and team Abel laid down a strip of sausages, which began dripping and sputtering.  Soon, watching the smoke spiral upward and noticing the smells, the anger and confusion the students had felt about a god who would choose one child over another, who would set such rivalry in motion – those feelings dissipated, and the smoke seemed to signal connections that travel through space and over time; reminding us how we don’t always need words to let others know we are here; and that maybe we don’t even choose things so much as we are gripped by what reaches us; by the pervasive heavy and lingering fragrance of what has been burned away. 

Not that long ago, newly aware of the demands of parenting, Jolie asked me how she could stay true to the social justice movement that called her into the ministry when she can’t get out the door; when time is no longer her own; when it is so hard to think straight.  How can I keep faith in the possibility of beloved community when I might not be able to do the things I imagined? she asked; when my vision has been tempered by reality? 

First, I want to say: we WANT your vision to be grounded in reality.  That is, after all, where we live.  We do not want motherhood to be veiled somehow.  This tangled knot of love and fear and exhaustion and above all, hope, is why we are here.  And second, I think it is common to lament time, as if our need were for more of it, but what most of us seem to be talking about is not time at all.  It is about being able to be fully present in more than one place; about preventing the demands of our home lives from interfering with work, or not letting our work negatively impact our children.  In other words, we are wondering how to live with integrity; how not to feel split into a private self and a professional self. 

But mostly, your question made me think of Charles Grandison Finney, an unusual choice for an Unitarian Universalist, perhaps.  He was a nineteenth century Presbyterian minister, evangelical, and a devoted abolitionist who is largely credited with popularizing the use of altar calls, which he used to sign up converts for the movement to end slavery. Finney designated the perfectly-named “anxious bench” up at the front of the church and invited anyone who was worried or struggling to sit.  There, they could be prayed for and preached to more directly than those scattered elsewhere.  Because they had come to the altar and identified themselves as in need, these people received a measure of sanctuary – part of which was joining in building the beloved community of justice and equality.  This was not just an abstract notion – it eventually meant the civil war. But the resolution of individual anxieties was to become part of something larger.  Finney understood that there is a public nature to faith, — that it is not something invisible in your head or heart but is embodied – which automatically means shared.  The altar call made it easier to see that our lives can change; that everythingcan change, because we each have an effect on the world we live in; the world we are creating and walking through together. 

This is my way of saying, It is true: Family obligations, especially children, can frustrate a person’s ambitions and goals.  It is not only possible, but likely, that because you are a mother you will be drained of both physical and emotional energy that might otherwise be available for professional work.  This is actually true for most of the world’s people – there are multitudes whose lives are defined not by their ideals or goals, but by the realities of poverty and inequality and the demands of trying to get through the day.  So it may come to pass that you do not achieve whatever standard of success that defines ministry for some, or even for the self you were before you and Adam created a new life together.  And you may find that there are days when you long for that old self and the capacity for achievement.  But the call to the altar is not about any of that.  Ministry is not asking for your work.  It is asking for your life – all of it.  This is both simpler and a lot scarier.

Sometimes, if a person happens to be a Unitarian Universalist historian, or simply is married to the world’s expert on the subject, the ordination of women in our denomination might result in a mention of the “church as home” movement that sprang up in the 19thcentury Midwest as a number of women went into the ministry.  There are some wonderful implications of this notion – about providing practical comforts and extending the mission of the church beyond Sundays; into the everyday. But it also domesticates the altar; turns something incendiary into a cozy haven of fireside chats and lets us ignore some of the terrors suggested by the sacrificial table.  None of those pioneer women clergy were mothers.

It is easy to think that we are part of that great tradition of progress; of onward and upward forever. But that is the individualist’s way of seeing it; the professional women making inroads and culminating in this moment; a day when women are no longer outsiders in the ministry.  It is harder to acknowledge how much we as a denomination have always resisted communitarian goals while longing for the beloved community; to see how much our time is spent fighting the same fight over and over, — for inclusion, for justice, for a world that does not prioritize the acquisition of money over everything else; for a religion that truly values the fact that our lives are vulnerable and wild and all of a piece.  One of the realizations of motherhood is that your body is not entirely your own.  We learn that there is no such thing as a distinct individual – we are bound together in ways we cannot even begin to explain.  This is an amazing thing to contemplate if we take an embodied faith seriously.  It is not wisdom limited to actual maternity.  If you have been sitting as a sanctuary volunteer, you understand the principle of a shared body, acting to protect that which is vulnerable. It can be profoundly boring, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vital.  And it is something we cannot do if we deny reality.

So here we are: On that anxious bench, calling for people to acknowledge that faith is not private. It is not abstract ideals and it is not personal success and we don’t arrive here for any reason other than life and love demanding it of us.  Walking to the altar is a public process of transformation that brings us closer to justice.  It calls for a sacrifice of individualism and rationalism in favor of that beloved community we seek, accomplished by a refusal to internalize our struggles; of privatizing what is truly a shared experience.  In the process of your ordination, we can begin to see that there is no line between the ones who perform the ritual, and that which is lain on the altar – that what is being incinerated is the idea of a contained self. The altar captures the energy of life, and offers communion, a joint venture of sacrifice and blessing that helps us reform the world, make our common dreams manifest. 

For the German romantic Goethe, inspiration to our Transcendentalist forebears, the altar was the central concept to religious understanding.  But he did not describe a table, or a holy space in the front of the sanctuary, or burnt offerings.  Instead he wrote of a clearing in the woods; a place where cultivation occurs, where the light falls.  I feel this as a kind of internal pause; as a little space where illuminated bits of dust float and rise.  It seems beautiful; peaceful – a moment of enlightenment under the trees – but it is more than that. It is a way of saying that the center of faith lies in the thick of things; in places where we are unable to see the bigness of the world, but we can definitely sense it; a universe that looms over us and presses in from all sides; where we are muddled and small and the long view is always obscured. There is no horizon in a forest. We can’t trulyknow what lies ahead, what we are moving towards.  We are simultaneously confined, and without boundaries.

Goethe was reminding us of the altar as refuge; as the place where we cultivate the beloved community by offering protection in a sometimes frightening and overwhelming world.  In Athens, so many forsaken people searched for compassion at the Altar of Eleos, the saying is that “the wretched made it sacred.”  It is a place of safety, for all people; a publicly recognized holy place, understood to have real authority in a world where people have different amounts of power and there are those who simply have nowhere else to go. This is the altar, a place we each approach alone but where we are bound together, recognizing that we are, in fact, our brother’s and sister’s keepers, and that this common feeling is our only hope of heaven. 

Last fall I happened upon the story of Emma Gatewood, who, one day in the early 1950s picked up an old National Geographicmagazine.  The August 1949 issue featured the Appalachian Trail, which it called “a window to another place” and a “soul-cheering, foot tempting trail.” There were pictures – an adorable little round bear cub; rocks with beautiful lichens; the Green Mountains of Vermont.  The article – mistakenly, it turned out – said that shelters were strung along the entire route, spaced one day’s walk apart. Emma’s eleven children were grown. The broken ribs and black eyes her husband had inflicted upon her had healed. Walking had always been Emma’s only mode of transportation, and she had particularly liked walking in the woods. And so one spring day, simply telling her family that she was going out for a walk, she set out from home, and caught a bus to Springer Mountain in Georgia.  Then, wearing Keds and carrying a bag she had fashioned from cast-off jeans, she hiked the entire Appalachian Trail.  The bag contained an old woolen Army blanket and, band-aids, iodine, some powdered milk, peanuts and raisins, and a plastic shower curtain that functioned as her raincoat and her tent when necessary.  She foraged for food and was given meals by people she met along the way. Although she could never articulate the vow in words, Gatewood said she was trying to fulfill a promise she had made to herself.  She called the trip a lark, a happy flight; and she also said it was an almost unendurable journey.  It consumed her and made her into her true self. She was the sixth person, and first woman, to complete the journey from start to finish; and when she reached Katahdin, she decided to do it again. Emma Gatewood – who did not leave Ohio until she was 67 years old – ultimately finished the 2100 mile hike three times, walked to every state on the continent, and followed the Oregon trail in its entirety. 

I do not know precisely what this story means, but it lies before me – a path through the woods; an altar in the wilderness; a clearing, where something sacred and holy shines through the everyday, and transforms it, one step at a time.  Let us walk together.