I introduced you earlier to Sophia, the baby carrying trisomy 18 in every cell of her body. Sophia was stillborn on April 28, 2017. Her requiem mass was held at St. Paul’s on Friday, May 5. Mother Sara Fischer preached a sermon entitled “Marvelously Made,” alluding to Psalm 139—a biblical text Sara and baby Sophia’s parents had discussed together months earlier, while Sophia was alive in her mother’s womb. I was there at the funeral, vested and serving in the liturgy. A service held upstairs, even though baby Sophia and her parents regularly attended the 5:00 p.m. Sunday mass downstairs. But they were accustomed to worshipping in that other space on high holy days, such as Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and the Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter….
As I listened [to Mother Sara’s sermon], an insight visited me, spiritual and theological, but also profoundly carnal, fleshy. Visceral, even. The only environment baby Sophia had ever known was her mother’s womb! Her only world. Only universe. Or, said the other way around, baby Sophia experienced her mother’s womb as the entire universe: the whole of reality, infinite and all-encompassing. Which placed Sophia in the words Paul quotes in Acts 17, words the lectionary appointed as part of the readings for my next preaching assignment three Sundays after Sophia’s requiem: her mother was the one in whom baby Sophia lived and moved and had her being. An image for all of us, all things, living and moving and having their being in God, as mother, as womb.
Oh, I had other thoughts during and after baby Sophia’s funeral. How tiny and how beautiful the little box containing her ashes was, as I held it for a time in the Bolster Memorial Garden. Life and death. Death in the midst of life. Birth and second birth. For one stillborn? Born to eternal life. Elijah, taken up from earth into heaven without dying. From the passion of Friday to Sunday’s resurrection, with no sabbath rest in a tomb in between, on Holy Saturday?
Many of my thoughts emerged from and immersed themselves back in the deeply baptismal character of the Episcopal Church’s service for the burial of the dead. I felt keenly the ever-so-appropriate and yet throat-catching absence of two petitions during the prayers of the people concerning Sophia and baptism and eucharist. “For our sister Sophia,” we did indeed pray “to our Lord Jesus Christ who said ‘I am Resurrection and I am Life.’” We prayed: “You wept at the grave of Lazarus your friend; comfort us in our sorrow” and “You raised the dead to life; give our sister eternal life.” But we omitted: our sister “was washed in Baptism” and “nourished with your Body and Blood.” Until the week after the funeral, a female, Roman Catholic colleague at school took my breath away by just flat out saying to my face that baby Sophia had been baptized in the waters of her mother’s womb and communed with her blood. My colleague spoke of the baptism of the martyrs. And so, I ended up days later—spiritually and theologically—where baby Sophia’s requiem mass had begun physically: in the St. Paul’s entryway, or better, its baptistery. And I recalled, now with deeper power and meaning, that while our new baptismal font had originally been sketched out before the building renovation began to have a sharp, rectilinear, sarcophagus-like shape, it ended up round and womb-like, with living water trickling down from an upper bowl or basin into a lower one.
My initial thought was: baby Sophia lived and moved and had her being entirely within her mother’s womb. This insight called up for me the resources of process theology—a second indispensable item in my theological (and homiletical) toolkit, along with feminist and womanist theology. I summarized earlier the primary conviction I draw from process theology this way: God is most, not least, related to all other beings; all reality exists within the encompassing reality of God; hence, might it not be more appropriate to think of the God-world relationship in terms of metaphors of expressive body and animating spirit, of gestation, rather than artist and their work? A pan-en-theistic view of God and the world. All in God, by contrast to both traditional pantheism (God is all / all is God, with no differentiation) and traditional theism (with God and the world as fundamentally different beings or modes of reality).
Now some of you know that process theology possesses a rich storehouse of technical conceptualities and jargon, for which panentheism serves merely as a kind of sign on the front gate. I have published academic work that utilizes these terms and concepts. But I have never considered myself a card-carrying member of some process theology club or party….
Hence, in more popular writing, in workshops and retreats, and, yes, in sermons, I have been more concerned to share the moral, spiritual, and practical gifts of process theology with folk than the metaphysical ones. With a female co-author, I have juxtaposed a view of God as attentive and nurturing parent to the experience some people have of God as absent or abusive….
I have appealed to Psalm 103 and to the parable of the prodigal father (= prodigal son) in Luke 15 as biblical portraits of a panentheistic view of God, without ever using that big word. In the sermon that follows, it’s in relation to the phrase from Acts 17, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” that I hoped my hearers might reflect a little on the image of God operative in their lives and consider, if need be, first steps on another way. After the 11:15 a.m. mass at which I preached these thoughts, a parishioner thanked me for setting in front of her a theology quiz. Because she seemed to mean a moral, spiritual, practical quiz—not just a theoretical one—I felt affirmed in what I was trying to do.
Praise for So Fill Our Imaginations
“Mark Taylor’s sermons and the memoir around them are a playful, earnest, and transformative reminder that the Scriptures live when they are preached, interpreted, and examined with wonder. This work is worth savoring and will take you deeply into the text of the Bible, as well as the text of our everyday Christian lives.”
—Alissa Newton, Canon for Congregational Development and Leadership Formation, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia
“What I love about Mark Taylor’s book is that it gives us both a look at a variety of sermons preached in different formats . . . and a peek into the preacher’s rich world of context, influence by others, and self-discovery along the way. Such an interesting and satisfying read!”
—Melissa M. Skelton, Assisting Bishop, The Diocese of Olympia
“Mark Taylor has found the secret sauce of preaching: integrity, faithful engagement with Scripture, profound love for a community of listeners, and formidable capacity for honest self-reflection grounded in the world we live in. The result is a special blend of personal theology infused with a rich blend of Christian traditions, served up as twelve delectable courses, each of which leaves us, like the finest meals, both satisfied and looking forward to the next.”
—Sara Fischer, Rector, Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church
About the Author
Mark Lloyd Taylor is Professor Emeritus at Seattle University, having taught theology, worship, and preaching there for twenty-five years. He serves St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Seattle, Washingon) in many roles, including Associate for Liturgy and Godly Play teacher, and is a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of Olympia. Taylor’s scholarship addresses the love of God; body, gender, and Jesus Christ; feminist, womanist, and process theologies; Melville and Kierkegaard; emergent worship; and child theology.