This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 5, 2017, at CSMSG. It was the Sunday after All Saints, and in the morning we kept this feast; in the evening we offered a requiem for All Souls, and Evensong in commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.
Collect: Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give 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 the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Recently I was talking with one of our college students, who was in the middle of what he described as some pretty intense “tunnel vision.” This is pressure time in schools, as deadlines begin to loom and students and faculty both start to run out of runway as far as the calendar is concerned. This student was telling me that all he could see at the moment was the next thing right in front of him. He didn’t have the time or the emotional energy for anything else. It was just, read this, write that, wake up and do it all over again.
I told him I admired his dedication, but he was quick to correct me — “I don’t,” he said. “I wish I could get out of this tunnel vision, I wish I had time to look around and notice what else is happening in my life. As it is my my cousin is getting married, my mother started a new job, my friends are planning their summer internships, and my roommate is an art major planning his senior show. I can’t keep up with any of it, I can’t go to the wedding, I don’t think I can even be there to support my roommate. It feels like it’s more than I can manage just to do my own work. How am I supposed to do everything else too?”
I tried to tell him there was light at the end of that tunnel, but I still felt duly chastened, as you might expect. We finished our meeting, and presumably at this moment somewhere he’s working away trying to finish everything on his plate.
But he got me thinking. How do we find a balance? How do we sustain the tension between small tasks and the big picture? Usually, it takes getting clear about the mission, doing what it takes to carry it forward, and convincing ourselves that it’s okay for the moment to let the other things slide. This is just part of emotional maturity, part of getting on in this world. It carries the added bonus of helping to shape the way each of us is unique, as we learn to offer certain talents and skills in specifically experienced and targeted ways.
Sometimes, though, and maybe more often that we’d like to admit, it’s easy to forget that we’ve adopted tunnel vision in the first place. It’s easy to start seeing our own lives, our own responsibilities, the tasks right in front of us demanding our attention, as the whole picture, in and of themselves. We forget there’s a world beyond our own responsibilities, a world beyond our own loyalties and relationships, a world beyond our own limited sense of what’s important right now.
The problem with this is twofold. First the obvious, if we mistake our own tunnel vision for the whole world, we can be hopelessly out of touch with the real needs and concerns of the world we ostensibly want to be a part of. Second, though, and more subtly, our tunnel vision can lead us into despair, like it was threatening to do with this student. “I can’t possibly do everything that I want to do. Which means I’m also prevented from living up to the vision I had for my life in the first place, prevented from engaging in all these life-giving relationships, prevented from participating in all that life promises.” And once this kind of thinking sets in, it can set itself against any kind of meaningful work at all. “If there’s no hope, then why bother in the first place? And if I can’t manage my own life, why should I bother putting any faith in institutions, or religions, or God? Surely they can’t be any better at navigating life than I am.” Which of course is simply more tunnel thinking, taken to its logical conclusion.
What this all reveals is that tunnel vision is extremely insidious. Its whole line of reasoning accomplishes nothing except to reduce, further and further, the horizons of possibility, creativity, and love, until all we’re left with is my own present moment, disconnected from everything except mere survival.
Enter the feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate one of the principal holidays of the Christian year. We don’t commemorate any particular saint, or make any special remembrances of individual lives. What we do is celebrate that, thanks be to God, the Church is anything but tunnel vision; that the Christian Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment in time.
No tunnel vision here, the horizon is wide open, past the limits of knowledge, sense, and time. We celebrate today all the saints whom we will name in the litany, all those whom we don’t have time to name, and all those whose names no one knows except God alone. Today we celebrate the whole Church in Paradise and on earth, visible and invisible, from the dawn of time and at from its close, in every corner of the globe and every circle of heaven: all here, now, in this celebration. Are you suffering from tunnel vision? The feast of All Saints offers a strong wind of fresh air.
We don’t have the whole picture, none of us can in our lifetimes. We are always limited by our own experience, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We are always afflicted by our own particular troubles and the troubles of our time. But the Church is bigger than our tunnels. God is bigger than my vision. And no matter how heavily populated or richly embellished my idea of heaven becomes, there is always more to it than I can see, further up and deeper into the glory of God.
So what does that mean? On the one hand, we must lay down the burden, the presumption, of needing to grasp the whole picture, or of needing to live the whole picture myself, of needing to be all things to all people. And on the other, remember that when we are caught in whatever tunnel dominates the moment — whether it be school or kids or performance or success or health or worthy causes or whatever — remember that this tunnel is not the whole world; that more is out there, more is waiting, more is unfolding all the time. And by our baptism, in Christ, we are made a part of it.
By our baptism, each of us has one foot on earth and one in heaven; one foot in the present, and one in eternity. One foot in church this morning at St. Michael & St. George, and the other with St. Francis in 12th century Assisi; with St. Theresa in the slums of 20th century Calcutta; with St. Anthony Abbot in the 3rd century Egyptian desert; and with Our Lady herself as she kneels at her prayers, surprised by the arrival of the archangel Gabriel.
This is not only a matter of retrospection, of us looking back; but from their perspective as they looked forward: they could not have imagined who we are, but as they lived their lives, we were there with them, not yet born but still a member of the same mystical communion, the Body of Christ. Here in church we are all bound up in one another; we continue to stand at the cross with Mary and John, even as we also walk alongside whatever unknown generations will follow us; even as all the saints and angels now in heaven stand with us here this morning.
The best illustration I know is in one of the novels of Charles Williams. A soldier, miserable in the trenches of World War I, looks up from his post to see an angel arriving to strengthen him — at the exact moment, 50 years later, that a little girl says a prayer to remember the grandfather she never knew, who was to die in the action to follow.
The nature of our lives here on earth means that we will always be navigating various tunnels. They are the condition of our mortality, and there is nothing we can do to avoid them. We will always be turning down opportunities and possibilities in favor of the present moment with its own needs and demands. We cannot always see the payoff of the work we do, the hopes we cherish, or the prayers we offer. We cannot always see how we remain connected to the whole, amid the pressures and challenges we face. And yet, in the economy of God, these tunnels are not traps, not prisons, any more than Jesus’ own tomb was a trap or a prison.
Rather for us they are an occasion, an invitation, when the walls begin to close in, to reach out beyond our present capacity, beyond our ability to see or know or do, and rest. Rest in the great company of saints united across all creation. Rest in the Holy Spirit who even now breaks into our world and feeds us with the Bread of Heaven. Rest in the simple prayer of a faithful heart to be led one step at a time.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.