Tonight at Evensong we’ll be reading nearly the whole beautiful chapter of Revelation 21. We heard a snippet of it as our second lesson this morning: And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes."
That’s where we’re going, at least if we know and take seriously the Christian account of the universe. We are going to a place where heaven and earth will be married, where the wounds of this age will be healed by the mercy of the next, where love for every human being will be at home in every human being, where we no longer dread what we’re going to see when we turn to the day’s news because we and the world will have been made whole by Jesus Christ. If we know and take seriously the Christian account, that’s where we’re going.
This is, I think, getting harder and harder to remember. The need to come back to reminders of what Christianity teaches grows more acute day by day, with the environment around us increasingly just taking as a given that the universe doesn’t work the way Jesus says it does. The need is more acute to let the Word of God refresh and renew our intellects to keep them open and attentive. The need is more acute to let Jesus feed us each week with his body and blood, the very being of God that works like nothing else can to that build our immunity to the spiritual diseases it is so easy these days to catch.
The need is more acute to practice Christian habits, like the gratitude focus we’ve been engaging in together for the past month, that help us to act differently than the world, to engage in behaviors that prioritize what Jesus said and how Jesus lived. And to do all that with other people, people who exemplify that different way of life, who can mentor us, who can remind us what’s possible with Jesus - the kind of people we commemorate on this All Saints Sunday.
What’s possible. It’s possible, with Jesus as your Lord, to be steady and undistracted in your daily life. To be healed of trash-talking people who have a different religion, or none, or who fill in a different oval on the ballot. To be set free to give joyously and generously. To be liberated from the need to keep score. It’s possible.
The saints we commemorate today let God shape them into human beings who knew where they were going and who could therefore live these truths, whether or not their own times appreciated it. Because fashions change and cultures change, different ages have applauded and critiqued different things about the saints, you know. What seemed holy in the 12th or the 18th century is not necessarily what seems holy in the 21st, and what draws an admiring churchy crowd in America today would probably not draw one in Japan or Kenya tomorrow. But that doesn’t matter. Saints don’t care about the crowds, and they don’t care about seeming holy in the eyes of whatever fashions and cultures that surround them. They care about God, and they love his will, and they take in, with a cavernous hunger, what he gives, which first and foremost is himself.
God is a Giver. Many of the spiritual diseases that happen to be going around these days focus on the gifts rather than the Giver, which is why they’ll never make anybody into a saint. If they invoke some idea of a deity, it’s mostly as a means of getting your way -- politically, personally, whatever. It doesn’t really matter if getting your way would entail a new government policy or a 10 bedroom mansion or a sense of inner calm. As the 18th century Anglican writer William Law put it, “If you have not chosen …God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.”
Everything else we prioritize over God has one thing in common: it’s not God and can’t do the job we need done. And it’s not that the saints had some bizarre mutation in their humanity that made it easy for them to treat God as God and everything else as not-God. We can’t idealize the saints as is they were some other kind of person, just intrinsically so inspiring, so much better than we are, so different. Maybe a few of them were that way. But most of them put one foot in front of the other, just like the rest of us. That’s kind of the whole point of the Bible and Christian history, if you pay attention. Not how unusually good a few people are, but how much a good God can do with all us bad people.
Most of the good things our good God does with us really take root in our lives through small habits, small steps of faithfulness, and we’ve been practicing one of them this past month. We’ve been taking regular actions here at Emmanuel just to open up our ability to notice how the generosity of God is manifest in our own lives, and to do something simple in response.
At the Offertory today, we’re going to do one more round with this Cycle of Gratitude box. As you know if you’ve been at Mass over the past month, each Sunday we’ve been deliberately calling to mind some aspect of our life where we see the generosity of God and writing down examples. We’ve collected those thank-you notes each week in the Cycle of Gratitude box and offered them to God at the altar, and then we’ve transformed them into an ever-growing art installation out in the Great Hall, a chain of gratitude that pictures how giving and receiving are interlinked, how our decision to say thank-you empowers others, how God’s generosity opens the door to our own, and our own opens the door to someone else’s, and on and on.
That chain will be presented by some of our members as a whole piece today, and the gratitude box will come around one more time to collect our thank yous to God, but this time in the form of our 2019 pledge cards. Each person will get to give God a thank you that directly underwrites countless actions and gifts here, things that make many, many people grateful, and thus keep the cycle going.
There are blank cards in the pews in case you forgot yours. If you already turned in your estimate of 2019 giving before you knew you were going to be here for the ceremony this morning, please write your name on a card and put it in the box so that we can bless at the altar your choice of God in this aspect of your life. I’m very serious about this. It really makes a difference.
If you do receive from God here, but you’ve kind of been relying on others to subsidize you, and you were planning to let the whole pledging thing pass you by, let me suggest that you take a card and instead say thank you by planning to make some very small offering, even a minor token of your gratitude, regularly. The price of a sandwich every week, the amount you pay for a yoga class -- or even a dollar. Take a card and send up to the altar the estimate that in 2019 you will choose to recognize that God is God and say thank you to him for everything he has done for you by funding $52 of his work in the world.
I’m not joking. It makes a difference to God, and it makes a difference to the person who receives a sack lunch because of your $52, or the group that meets here and finds the bathrooms stocked with paper towels, or the person who is visited in the hospital because of what you gave. It doesn’t matter that it’s small. It matters that it’s honestly given to God.
We romanticize the saints with this idea that they gave everything. But that’s really just a way of letting ourselves off the hook. The real story is that they chose God first, as their highest priority, and then, in all kinds of small and ordinary things, day by day they consented to his will. And as they did that, his will and his love took root in their lives. They consented to God at breakfast, at their desks at work, in their bank accounts, in their friendships. If we mean to do that, we can do that, or at least get a start on it.
Consent to God doesn’t usually involve big, over the top gestures. It starts with meaning to do something, give something, in the place where you actually are. That old hymn about the saints is telling the truth: “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
Maybe we don’t, yet, mean to be one too. Maybe we don’t, yet, mean to choose God first, or to consent in ordinary things to his will. Maybe we don’t. But we could.