The Cloister Walk, I: Mount Sinai
Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you
and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin. —Exodus 20:20
Most amateur geologists collect rocks that are precious or rare or interesting to look at, but what if you were a rock collector who gathered only stones from important moments of your life? If you were such a rock collector, what would we find encased behind glass in your basement?
Surely we would find a Petoskey stone from the Lake Michigan beach where you spent every summer of your childhood.
Maybe like the Tom Sizemore character from Saving Private Ryan, you filled your GI rucksack with stones from your tour in Vietnam.
Maybe we would find a decorative boulder from your mother’s garden at your childhood home.
Maybe there’d be a pebble from the half-mile gravel driveway that led to your family’s ancestral farm; you picked it up when you went home to bury your grandfather and sell the old place because none of the kids wanted it.
Maybe there’d be a Belgian block left over from that time you repaved your driveway with your teenaged sons.
Perhaps there would be a brick gathered up after the demolition of the beloved but obsolete Old Main at your alma mater.
Surely we’d find the diamond you gave to the love of your life 60 years ago; the funeral director took it from her finger before he closed the casket for the last time.
This rock collection is like an eccentric photo album where you’ve archived what is most important to you. We’d learn quite a bit about you if we examined your rock collection.
As it turns out, Kenilworth Union Church is just such a rock collector. You’ve noticed that masoned into the arches of our cloister walk are twelve stones from places that are significant in the history of global and American Christianity. I thought it would be worthwhile to think about those significant places in a sermon series.
The Cloister Walk was built in 1958; I’ll tell you more about the walk itself in weeks to come. Why did our forbears from 1958 choose exactly these twelve stones? It could be, of course, that this rock collection is somewhat arbitrary. Maybe it’s nothing more than the reflection of one family’s global meanderings; wherever they chose to go over the course of many years, Kenilworth Union inherited those stones.
Or maybe one summer the church’s Trustees from 1958 told the congregation to collect stones on their summer vacations, and so 57 years later we’re still stuck with whatever they all brought back that summer.
Probably, though, the collection is more intentional than that. I see a common theme in these twelve places. Do You? Sinai, Solomon’s Quarry, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Antioch, Damascus, Eisleben, St. Andrew’s, Brewster, Leyden, Plymouth, and Shadwell.
The common theme in these places, it seems to me, is The Mind Unfettered, or, The Spirit Unshackled. These are places where slaves are freed or revolutions begin or movements are born: the Christian Revolution or the Protestant Revolution or the American Revolution.
These are places where brave but lonely pioneers stand up to prevailing authority and forge a new path. These are places where imposed doctrine and required ritual go to die. That is the legacy our forbears from 1958 left to the Kenilworth Union Church of 2015.
If we decided someday to add more bricks to our cloister walk, bricks from places that became significant to American Christianity after 1958, we might go to Montgomery, Alabama, and grab a paving stone from the street where Rosa Parks got on a bus and took a seat and wouldn’t give it up.
We might grab a brick from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr., crafted the sermons that culminated in a speech in Washington in 1963: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” That’s what these stones say collectively.
Mount Sinai is the oldest, earliest location in The Cloister Walk. Mount Sinai, of course, was one of the first places the Hebrews stopped after leaving slavery in Egypt for freedom and promise in Canaan. No one knows for sure exactly where the biblical Mount Sinai was, but one possibility is a craggy, desolate, 7,000-foot peak in the southern Sinai peninsula just east of Egypt, on the way to Canaan—sort of. That’s been Christendom’s best guess for about 1,500 years.
The Bible tells us that God showed up one day at Mount Sinai and revealed God-self to God’s people, and God’s people learned three things about God that day in that tremendous theophany.
The first thing they learned is that God’s being is an unapproachable splendor. Don’t you love that story I read just a moment ago? It’s all smoke and thunder, fire and earthquake. The mountain where God lives trembles and shakes, and so do God’s cowering people gathered around its smoke-shrouded base, forbidden to come too close to God’s shattering majesty.
I chose this topic and passage early in the week before the trauma in Nepal and on Everest, so over the last couple of days this passage has acquired a fraught tautness. The description in Exodus of a mountain shrouded in smoke and shaken by tremors repeated itself on the other side of the world this week.
But I guess the point of this story is that mountains are dangerous places. God’s ways are not our ways. God works a plan we know nothing of.
The story wants to teach us about God’s unknowability, God’s sacrosanct unapproachability. God, Exodus wants to say, is the completely unearthly, the wholly other, the stranger, the alien.
That hymn we sang a few moments ago is one of the finest in the language, and gathers up the meaning of this story:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…
All praise we would render, O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!
A hundred years ago, the German theologian Rudolph Otto came up with a wonderful phrase to describe the Almighty. Dr. Otto called God the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I know that’s a mouthful but you’re smarter than the average American so you can handle it. God is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the mystery that makes us tremble but also fascinates us. God is the one whom we both love and fear. At Sinai, God invites us to draw near, but not too near.
I’ve often thought that the story of God’s appearance at Mount Sinai must have inspired Johan Sebastian Bach to compose his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. You know this strange and eerie and even scary piece of music, right? When I was a kid I called it “The Haunted House Music,” because it made me think of ghosts and spirits and the nether world. Listen please when Susan plays it during the Offertory and Postlude and maybe you’ll agree with me.
At Sinai, we learn that behind all the burning stars and flying worlds is an unapproachable splendor, and that’s the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that we come here every seventh day to honor, not necessarily to understand, because God will always slip our cognitive grasp, but to praise and adore in humility and reverence.
Here’s something else we learn about God at Mount Sinai: we learn that God is both The Great Liberator and the Great Law-Giver, and we learn that those two aspects of God’s Being are inseparable.
Mount Sinai, you see, is Israel’s Philadelphia. It is at Sinai that the nation of Israel is born. It is there that God declares her independence, and it is there that God gives her a new Constitution.
Do you notice how God introduces God-self at the beginning of The Ten Commandments? “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” In other words, “I am the Author of your liberty. Just yesterday you were slaves and now you are kings and queens. Just yesterday you lived in slums and hovels, and now you are on your way to a land flowing with milk and honey. Just yesterday you cowered in abject fear, and now you will stand tall and rise up to the full stature of the image of God.”
And this is what it means to live into and up to the Image of God. This is the Constitution of your liberty. This is what it means to be free:
Honor God above all.
Reject false, cheap, inert deities.
Mind your tongue, because words matter.
Rest one day a week.
Honor your mother and your father.
Cherish human life.
Keep your wedding vows.
Respect the property of others.
Always tell the truth.
Be content with what you have.
It is the thinnest, leanest, most efficient Constitution among the legal codes of humanity. The Hebrews didn’t invent it; they just chiseled it in granite–literally–and made it the fundament of their national life. It is the device that allows liberty to flourish and individuals to reach their fullest potential, and at Kenilworth Union it still stands at the center of our common life, 3,000 years later.
This Constitution is so lean it leaves ample room for interpretation and disagreement. We wrestle with its meaning down the ages. That Sixth Commandment, for example: Don’t kill. Does that mean we can’t eradicate terrorists by remote control with a joystick from 9,000 miles away? Good question.
Don’t kill. But what about Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber? Does that include him? Last week in the sentencing phase of his trial, the prosecution paraded one victim after another before the jury, arguing that because of what he did, he does not deserve to live.
By a margin of 2-1, Americans think Dzhokar Tsarnaev ought to die, but here’s the interesting thing: among Bostonians, the margin is exactly reversed; two-thirds of Bostonians don’t think that violence is the fitting response to violence. I wonder why they’re such bleeding hearts over there.
The prosecution’s most persuasive exhibit was the Richard Family. No family was more impacted by the bombing than they. Martin Richard’s tiny body couldn’t withstand the trauma of that pressure cooker bomb; he bled to death in a matter of moments; he was eight years old. When they heard the story, some members of the jury wept inconsolably; others just hung their heads in their hands, because they did not want to see.
Martin’s younger sister Jane lost her left leg; she was five years old. Martin’s mother Denise is blind in her right eye. Martin’s father Bill had his eardrums blown out.
But the Richard family doesn’t believe in the death penalty. They are arguing for Mr. Tsarnaev’s life. I’ll bet you anything the Richard families are devout Roman Catholics.
At the trial, Mr. Richard said, “I lost most of my hearing, but I can still hear the beautiful voices of my family.” He heard the beautiful voices of his family on Opening Day at Fenway Park. The Children’s Choir of St. Ann’s Parish sang the national anthem. In the center of the front row stood seven-year-old Jane Richard, in her Red Sox jersey, on her artificial leg, with her hand on her heart.
I wouldn’t blame you if you disagreed with the Richards, but there is something almost holy about their devotion to the spirit of Sinai. It is as if those granite slabs have made them free from the need for vengeance and violence.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” So that is the first brick in our Cloister Walk. It reminds us that God is The Great Liberator who unfetters the mind, and unshackles the spirit.
 Walter Chalmers Smith, 1867, st. 1 & 4
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1923).
Katherine Q. Seelye, “Celebrating Boston Marathon, While Honoring Victims’ Memory,” The New York Times, April 16, 2015.