This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, November 6, 2016, when we kept the feast of All Saints. The evening’s offering of Evensong kept the propers for All Souls. This was also the Sunday immediately preceding Election Day. Given the acrimony of the presidential campaign, and the anxiety and stress so many of us are facing in anticipation of the possible futures the election may bring, I saw this as an opportunity to reflect pastorally: on both the feast of All Saints, and on the Christian hope to which it bears witness, even in the midst of trying times.
Collect: O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Well, Election Day is almost upon us. One of the things this means is that, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ve probably been coming across more than the usual number of crazy people. You know the kind I mean: glassy-eyed, totally convinced of the rightness of their cause, or the justice of their complaint, or the certainty of the doom they pronounce. They stop us in the grocery line, or they troll our favorite news sites’ comments section, or we hear them spout some new enormity in a public square or around the water cooler.
Maybe they’re members of your family. Maybe you work with them. Whoever they are, they all have this in common: they simply won’t listen to reason. Nothing you say can convince them that they might have missed this or that part of the story. Nothing you say can convince them that they might have it wrong. So they carry on in their craziness, and you and I comfort ourselves with the thought that, since these nutters are basically irrational anyway, there’s nothing we can do to help them except ignore them and move on — and hope that come Election Day, there are more of us than there are of them.
G.K. Chesterton, the Edwardian social critic, once remarked that, contrary to expectations, the trouble with crazy people is not actually their fundamental irrationality but rather the reverse. They’re stuck in a reasonable, logical loop: not that they’ve lost their reason, but that reason is the only thing they have left, while everything else has gone. They’re stuck in one narrow rut of if/then, cause/effect, proposition/conclusion, conviction/manifesto, and they fail to see the world around them as it really is.
For Chesterton, what people in this scenario needed was not more reason — they already had too much of that. What they needed was air: open the windows, feel the sunshine, smell the roses, enlarge the world. Then reason becomes accountable to reality once again, rather than the other way around, and we can see ourselves and our problems in relation to the whole. Don’t give the crazy person yet more reason. Instead give them some good old fashioned fresh air. Set them in a wide open space where the horizon can lend some perspective, and their malnourished imaginations can breathe again.
What does all this have to do with All Saints? Simply that this holiday, maybe more than any other in our calendar (save the Lord’s resurrection), is an invitation for you and me to breathe some fresh air, to expand our vision. All Saints asserts that the Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment or in any given place, always more than meets the eye.
Are you discouraged by the state of the church, how much ground appears to have been lost in recent decades? Remember Athanasius, almost entirely alone among his generation, Athanasius contra mundi. The whole world had gone over to the deadly Arian heresy, and he himself languished through five different exiles from his home see. And yet God was pleased to work his will through Athanasius such that not only did the world return to the life-giving faith of the Church, but it was also given a powerful new ally in the faith, monasteries from the Egyptian desert, which Athanasius did so much to promote in his day, and which have done so much since to preserve and enrich both Church and Society throughout the ages.
Are you concerned that politicians will sour the fount of faith? Remember King Charles I, put to death by Cromwell for his refusal to go along with a radical reformist agenda. Yet he was vindicated a scant few decades later by a glorious restoration of that church which he had defended with his life, and which had seemingly disappeared with his death.
Are you discouraged at the humdrum nature of daily life and the lack of heroic opportunity to live your devotion? Remember Elizabeth of Hungary, who disobeyed royal policy to bring bread from the palace ovens to the poor outside its gates. When caught in the act of carrying out this simple work of mercy, she was forced to turn out her apron: lo and behold, instead of loaves, it was miraculously filled with rose petals, which fluttered to her accusers’ feet, putting them to shame.
Perhaps you think you are in too low an estate, too terrible a circumstance, to offer anything of value to God. Remember Mary, an unmarried peasant girl without a penny or a hope, surprised at her prayers one day by an angel, who announced to her she would be mother of the Son of God. By God’s grace, this poor peasant girl became the Queen Mother of Heaven itself, witnessed in Revelation with even the stars at her feet.
The stories go on and on. Whatever new problem you think you face, the feast of All Saints shows us that we have been there before. And every time, God’s answer is to change what is possible, to point beyond reason, to a higher truth: that in the communion of saints, we share fellowship with those who are on the other side of judgement day and who enjoy the unmediated glory of God in the new heaven and the new earth. In the life of the Church, that world breaks into this one, and commends itself to us as our own true home; that fellowship commends itself to us as our own true family. Truly, the feast of All Saints gives us a breath of fresh air: it expands our vision, enables us to see through the confines of our own limited experience to the wide world of God’s loving, creative purposes, beyond all comprehension or limitation.
At the same time as it expands our vision, All Saints also focuses it. It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith that the company of Saints, so diverse in their vocations and the details of their lives, are united across the ages in one chief way: together they all share a singular vision. One character, one figure, looms large in their sight, and all of their varied and multifaceted works bear witness to that central figure, above all, filling all, perfecting all.
That figure of course is Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The paradox lies in that, far from limiting their vision, focusing so intently on this central figure expands it infinitely. Likewise for you and I to place him at the center of our vision, to know him as the end of our yearning, to love him as the one who first loved us: is to see all whom he sees, is to know all whom he knows, is to love all whom he loves. This takes us so far beyond our own limited capacity that we enter a new world, the world of his making and not ours: a world ruled by his promises, populated by his children, governed by his mercy; where around every corner lies some fresh unexplored grace, and over every hill lies some fresh valley of holy delight.
This feast of All Saints points us well beyond our current troubles, to the undiscovered, illimitable country of God’s grace. Together with all the others it has created and transfigured, this feast points us to that wide world even while it draws our focused attention to the singular, towering figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose contemplation we breathe the fresh air of the Spirit of God, and the world is set to dazzling with the light of his countenance.
Which is all to reframe the question: Do you know a crazy person in your life? Are you a crazy person? Either way, get over it — your crazy neighbor, no matter how repugnant, is not the whole world. Your causes, no matter how righteous, are not the whole world. Get out more, out into God’s grace, and breathe some fresh air. There is more there than whatever walls you feel closing in, always more; the kingdom of God is ever unfolding, leading us into ever further heights of love, as we obey his commandments to love God and neighbor.
Today the Saints invite you to consider a world in which new things are always possible, in which no work of God ever proves finally fruitless, whose horizons are limited only by his mercy, whose promises are new every morning. Today the Saints invite you to join them in their contemplation of the face of God. Come to the altar of his sacrifice. Come to the table he has set. Come to the throne of grace, and there, join the throng of all his starry host.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.