About twenty years ago, people relaxed into their chairs in the sanctuary as Pastor Bill Chadwick began what seemed at first to be just another sermon, perhaps another telling of the story of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.  Some may have been hoping that there weren’t too many prayers of the people so that they might get home in time for the noon kickoff of the Viking’s game.  Some may have planning when to get the dock out of the water at the cabin and others wondering if there were enough frozen peas in the freezer for dinner.  Everyone however, including Bill, was jolted back into the present moment in the sanctuary when God interrupted him, not in the form of a burning bush, but over the public announcements system.  It wasn’t God, of course, not directly anyway.  It was probably someone like Larry Stickler.  God said,  “Yes.  Yes, Bill.  Sermons are fine, but I expect you to live a simpler life so that more of my children may have what they need.”  Bill, a tither and a good man, stood his ground if a little nervously, this being God and all.  Stoutly, Bill asserted that he was careful to buy only the things he needed.  “Is that so?” pressed God.  Then God, in the form of several men from St. Luke, it may have been Rod Fisher and Chuck Heuser, began hauling in shoes presumably from Bill’s closets.  More than one trip was necessary.  Soon the altar was heaped high with Bill’s footwear: a couple pairs of nice dress shoe, brown and black, three sets of running shoes in varying degrees of rattiness (he might have saved himself some embarrassment by throwing out the worst), comfy slippers, work boots, deck shoes, tennis shoes, galoshes, moccasins, hiking boots, winter boots, waders, and on and on.  One by one, there was nothing excessive, not in Minnetonka anyway, nothing like Imelda Marcos, nothing most men in the congregation couldn’t have matched him for, shoe for shoe.  But the heap on the altar was big and the point made, made so well that even twenty years later in dozens of households in the western suburbs when someone wonders out loud, “I saw some cool deck chairs at Target yesterday,” someone else often asks, “How many shoes do we need?” a response that makes sense only if you are a St. Luker.

Galileo's Lamp
Galileo's Lamp

      There hangs in the cathedral in Pisa a chandelier. It's still there, though it might not be the same one that was there five hundred years ago.  It would be like the Vatican to take it down once they knew its history.  To me, it is a sacred object. Sacredness can erupt into the world through small, unexpected, and trivial objects. Why this thing?
    The story goes that Galileo observed it swinging and timed its period using his pulse. (The sermon must have been tedious.) As is usual in historic moments, even for so visionary a figure as Galileo, he had no clue how far his new idea would go. He thought that he had discovered only the principle of the pendulum, which is true, only today, the pendulum in the national atomic clock is the oscillation of a cesium atom. Same concept, different stuff. But he also provided the basis for one of Einstein’s first, famous thought experiments. The invariability of the swinging lamp led to the theory of invariability, which Einstein renamed the Theory of Relativity. The development of Einstein’s ideas led to our modern concept of both the atom and the cosmos. The Middle Ages would have ended eventually, but the intersection of a swinging lamp, a tedious sermon, and a brilliant scientist is as good a moment as any to begin the modern world. For me, a sacred object is a simple thing that somehow becomes symbolic of something eternal and it is not lost on me that the sacred object that illuminated so much of the modern world was a lamp. Ironically, it is sacred to me partly because it marks an end of the age when the concept of the sacred had its greatest elaboration: the Middle Ages. As I write at my desk, the light that illuminates my paper was produced by technology that can be traced all the way back to that swinging lamp in the cathedral in Pisa. I wonder if any of the stuff around me today, most of which is as unremarkable as Galileo’s lamp – A tea cup? My ring? A little yellow tablet of Post-its? – will be venerated as sacred in five hundred years.