Have you ever smelled a ginger root like this one? It doesn’t smell like much all brown and nubby like this, just dug from the ground. But if you take a paring knife and peel off the brown skin on the surface of the ginger root you’ll find white flesh underneath. And if you take a mortar and pestle and smash the root of the ginger plant a pungent juice will run out and the smell will be so sharp and fresh that it will bring tears to your eyes.
If you’ve never smelled or tasted fresh ginger you must. As soon as possible.
For me, you see, the smell of fresh ginger is more than the enjoyment of an exotic botanical flavor. No, if I close my eyes and take a deep breath . . . here is what immediately comes to my mind:
If I am smelling fresh ginger, oh yes, that must mean it’s New Year’s Eve and no one is allowed in the kitchen because my Dad has been in there for hours, slaving over a hot stove concocting his secret recipe for pickled pigs’ feet.
The neighbors clamored for the delicacy and every year we marked the holiday by holding a huge block party at which everyone would eat this recipe prepared by my father and the neighbors would set up bleachers so we could watch our Dads set off fireworks and generally behave in ridiculous ways. We always got to stay up until midnight, and even if we happened to fall asleep we’d be woken up by the rounds and rounds of firecrackers exploding just as the new year turned.
Beginning very early in the morning on New Year’s Eve every single year of my life, my Dad would start peeling and chopping the ginger so the smell permeated the house. If you passed by the kitchen and glanced in you could see my Dad furtively throwing “secret” ingredients into the steaming pot–vinegar, I think and brown sugar, onions and garlic, but most certainly and most especially ginger, lots of fresh, peeled and smashed ginger root–sticking a wooden spoon in the brew to stir, then tasting his creation. Then, of course he’d have to adjust . . . a little more of this, a little more of that.
I swear that my Dad is famous for his picked pigs’ feet and I’ve been marked for life. Whenever I catch a hint of the smell of fresh ginger root I am overwhelmed by love for my Dad and memories of carefree celebrations with neighbors, dancing in the street, celebrating a new year on the verge of birth. It was a ritual of my childhood and its significance will never leave me . . . I know that just by smelling the ginger.
We’ve been talking for the last four weeks about the times in our lives when it feels like God is hiding . . . when, no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to feel the presence of the Divine, even when we need God so desperately.
We’ve heard the story of Job, subject of a beautiful book of Hebrew poetry, a man who lost everything and found himself completely bereft, totally lacking in God’s comforting and reassuring presence. Last week Job remembered the story . . . he remembered the God who’d spun the world into being and who’d set the earth on its foundations. And in his remembering he was able to reconnect with the God who had seemed so absent during the very sad and desolate times in his life.
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This week Job recalls some regular faith rituals of his life, and by remembering his practice, he remembers the presence of God.
Having recalled the stories of God’s creative and redemptive power, stories he had heard over and over as a child, Job begins again to practice the rituals of his faith, and in doing that he recognizes in a powerful way the very presence of God.
In fact, in our Hebrew lesson today Job smacks his forehead with sudden awareness–“I heard the stories and remembered”, he said “but now I can see you, I can really see you. I can see you right there beside me . . . as you have been all along.”
We Christians are descendants of this ritual faith Job practiced, this commitment to honor God by the regular and ritualistic practice of community gathered to remember God’s work among us. There was a reason Job kept practicing even in the darkness, and there’s a reason we keep practicing even when it seems like God is hiding.
We keep it up because the practice of ritual helps us remember, because when we engage in activities that feel so familiar to us that they are like sliding on a pair of well-worn leather gloves, then we remember why we do them in the first place, just like the sharp smell of freshly peeled and ground ginger root suddenly brings New Year’s Eve to my mind.
Today we had the holy honor of witnessing again one of the rituals of our faith, the ritual of baptism. In this experience a person who desires to follow Christ in discipleship goes down into the water and emerges, dripping, symbolizing death to an old way of life and rebirth into new life in Christ.
And every time we fill up the baptistery, struggle into the water, hold our noses and duck all the way under, all the rest of us sitting here watching are not just passive observers . . . . Oh, no! We are participants in a ritual which has meaning and power for us, even if we’re sitting out in the pews, dry as can be.
Because when we see a ritual like baptism we remember, WAY back for some of us, to a time when the best thing we could possibly imagine would be the opportunity and promise of living our lives as disciples of Christ. We hear the splash of the water and see the sputtering new disciple and we remember when we ourselves felt that God was so near we could almost reach out and touch him . . . that feeling that our lives were finally complete now that we had come into relationship with our very Creator . . . the feeling that, no matter what life would bring, God would walk with us.
We participate again in the ritual . . . and we remember.
For the past few weeks I’ve told you a little bit about a time in my life when I felt God was absent. You heard me tell you about rushing out of church, so distraught at my inability to find God that I ran as far and as fast as I could to get away from church, away from the place I’d learned all along was the one place I could surely, surely find God.
I’d like to share one more part of the story.
In the months that followed in my life, find God I did . . . eventually. I slowly found God through the recognition of God’s presence in me . . . created in the image of God; I gradually found God, too, in the hands and arms and eyes and tears of others who walked beside me through this time in my life; and I hesitantly found God through remembering the stories of my faith, stories of God’s faithfulness and loving care for me and for others.
All of these things slowly, slowly reminded me that God was not really hiding . . . that even though I could not see God very clearly or feel God very near, God was, in fact, right there walking alongside me.
It took several months. Almost a full year, in fact, for me to make my way back to church. And this church I came back to . . . it was a different church; different people; different circumstances. And on that Sunday, as I sat in the pew, I was a stranger to the people around me. I didn’t know them; they didn’t know me; nobody knew the pain I carried and nobody knew that I was just now beginning to suspect that God was, in fact, really there with me when, for a very, very long time I’d felt that God was absent.
I sat in that sanctuary and I watched as the sun streamed in through large, clear windows. I heard some old familiar hymns. I listened as the pastor read the words of scripture.
Then I saw a young family–young Mom and Dad holding a new baby–come down the side aisle to the front of the church as the strains of “Jesus Loves Me” played on the organ.
I was sitting toward the front so I couldn’t really leave when I felt the tears start to well up in my eyes. “Not again!”, I thought.
I sat there in the pew, tears streaming down my face, while the pastor blessed the baby and those parents, and asked them to promise to love each other and to remind each other of God’s presence all through their lives together.
It was a ritual I’d seen hundreds of times in my lifelong career of dedicated church member. Baby dedications happened all the time, the age-old ritual, no matter how the details differ church to church, of offering a child to God and promising to raise that child to remember God is there.
I won’t lie to you. Watching that baby, precious child, celebrated by loving parents and welcomed into the family of faith that morning cut my heart like a sharp knife; reopened a deep wound I’d tried to heal all by myself for so many months. Tears ran down my face and dripped into my lap . . . I couldn’t keep them from coming.
But something was different this time.
I finally felt at that moment that perhaps . . . just maybe . . . church was exactly the right place to cry out for God. I couldn’t necessarily feel the presence of God sitting right there next to me, but suddenly . . . miraculously . . . through the power of the ritual I could finally begin to see through the pain, just a little bit, to begin to look for God again.
And that was the start of finding my way back to the comforting knowledge that God was there. God was there.
The ritual helped me remember.
It’s been a good ten years since that Sunday. Every day the pain of what felt like God’s absence has gotten a little easier to bear. And through years, now, of baby dedications and baptisms, communions and commissionings, I’ve slowly . . . slowly been able to look back and see: not the darkness of God’s absence, but the assurance that God was there, even when I could not see and did not feel the presence of God anywhere.
The ritual helped me remember.
I don’t know what ritual of faith reminds you of a time in your life when God was so close that you felt wrapped in the presence and comfort of God. Certainly there are one or two: Christmas Eve candlelight service? Good Friday? Do you remember your baptism? Or a special service of communion that reminded you of God’s presence? Was it, like me, a baby blessing? Maybe majestic hymns one Easter Sunday or a community Thanksgiving service?
What is the ritual that helps you remember?
We need the ritual to remember, because, like Job, we’re going to have times in our lives when the pain of our human experience cuts so deeply that we forget . . . we forget that God is right beside us, walking with us through the pain and the darkness. And you know as well as I do that the sense that God is absent, hiding from us, well, that is the pain that hurts more deeply than anything else.
You and I, we need to remember the presence, power and goodness of God, especially in the times when we feel darkness closing in all around us. Perhaps we can do it through ritual.
The last chapter of the fable ends like this. Job remembers. Job remembers what he forgot all along: that God was there. And slowly, slowly but surely Job begins to pick up the pieces of his life and reassemble them into something at least vaguely recognizable.
To do that, he has to take first one step then another, off his pile of ashes and back into a place where he once found God. If he didn’t see God there, clear as day, well, he would begin again to relive the actions of faith in the repetition of ritual.
The passage we read today says Job was accepted back into society. That means he’d have to go through the Mikvah, the ceremonial bath, a ritual of cleansing for presentation to God. And as the water washed over his ravaged skin and brought healing, Job would have remembered. He would have remembered God’s presence.
The passage says Job remarries, so he’d have gone under the Chuppah, a ritual symbolizing the all-encompassing presence of God. And he would have remembered. Job would have recalled that God was there.
Children were born to Job . . . sons and daughters who were brought before God in ritual naming ceremonies, reminding Job and his family that God is the parent of us all and that together we live out the call to be faithful people. And in the naming of his children, Job would have remembered the tender love of a heavenly parent, with him all along.
And every Friday evening as the sun set, the candles on Job’s Sabbath table would be lit and his family would pray again the prayer blessing Adonai, a ritual to remember that God’s grace and love, care and presence weaves in and out of the mundane, regular parts of each of our lives . . . and Job would have remembered the presence of God.
There is something that helps you remember God is here. I
t doesn’t have to be a supernatural experience of the Divine. It could be as simple as a weekly ritual of passing the peace . . . or whispering the words to the Lord’s Prayer. It could be a sung doxology or the sharing of bread and wine at the table. Through all those things . . . through ritual . . . we remember what we may forget from time to time: that God is here. No matter what, God is here.
Pastor Edgar and I will come now to the front with Mary and Eric to stand here at the end of both aisles. We’ll each have with us some water from the baptistery, where Lucy was baptized this morning. This water symbolizes a new life of discipleship and commitment to Christ, but it also symbolizes a ritual that reminds us . . . God is near to us even when everything seems to indicate that God is hiding.
You are invited to come forward and extend your hand. We’ll mark your hand with the water of baptism, in the sign of the cross, and remind you that God is walking beside you, no matter what the circumstances of your life might be.
You’ll hear the words, “Remember that God is with you”, feel the hand of another on yours, hear the splash of the water and perhaps . . . just maybe . . . this day will be marked by a ritual that you can carry with you, a ritual to remind you that God is not hiding; God is here.
Will you come now, to remember?
Scripture quotations are the author’s paraphrase.
Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.