Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: All Saints

All Saints, 2017

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.

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

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.

All Saints (and all votes)

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.

Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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.