Tuesday, November 03, 2009

All Saints Day

When I was in high school, someone gave me a book called Balcony People by Joyce Landorf Heatherley. Some people are in the "balconies" of our lives, Joyce explains, affirming us, cheering us on, beaming their love for us through their smiles big enough to see from the stage. When we're in need of gentle reminders that we are appreciated, we can turn to these people in our balconies and, even from a distance, find encouragement.

Two of my balcony people encouraged me to post this little homily from our All Saints' Day chapel services in the Middle and Upper School. I thought it was madness - not my best moment on stage. But maybe they see something different from where they sit. They are appreciated...

Ecclesiastes 44:1-10; Psalm 34:9-14; Matthew 5:1-12

Alice tried another question. “What sort of people live about here?” “In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”

He wasn’t from Mississippi, of course, but Lewis Carroll must have had relatives in the South. I have lived in the South most of my life, and I know that when we look back over our family trees, any direction we like, we all find a little madness here or there. A little craziness, a little kookyness, maybe. A little eccentricity.

Take Aunt Peggy, my grandfather’s big sister. When I was in kindergarten we went to a big family wedding. Relatives came from all over. We hadn’t seen Aunt Peggy in a while, not since she had been on a trip to the Far East, and she had souvenirs for us – big straw hats in bright colors. Aunt Peggy didn’t want to send the hats in the mail, or stuff them in a suitcase, and so she wore them. All of them. At the same time. On an airplane. All the way to Mississippi. Madness…

I know there’s a picture of it somewhere, along with other pictures of Aunt Peggy in all her bright colors and bangles and eccentricities. I wonder what pictures might be in your family photo albums, pictures of relatives who are just a little kooky, who look at the world just a little differently than everyone else?

In the tradition of the Church, November 1st is All Saints’ Day, in many ways a great big family reunion of everyone who has ever hoped, against hope sometimes, that the light of God might shine through them in some way. On this day we remember where we came from, who are people are. And while the family photo albums that get passed around at this reunion of sorts include pictures of some extraordinary people – the kind that wear halos and perpetually peaceful expressions – there’s more than just a little madness in there, too. More than just a little kookyness.

Take Saint Francis. We’ve already honored him for his extraordinary commitment to the care of all creation. But in his pictures, in paintings of him, we see him standing barefoot in the snow, his arms stretched out and covered in birds, and a pet wolf by his side. That’s a little different. Madness…

Take Saint Catherine of Sienna. Back in the 14th century, she cared for the poor and powerless, and she wrote countless letters to princes and kings and popes encouraging them all to get along. Extraordinary, right? Of course it is. But Catherine was also given to visions and dreams that made some folks scratch their heads, like the time she dreamed that the church, in the shape of a ship, sailed out of the sky and tried to crush her. A little eccentric. Madness…

Or how about Augustine, who once prayed to God, “Make me patient and good, but not yet.” And Maximilian, who, just before he was beheaded for promoting peace, begged that his fine robes be given to his executioner, who was dressed in rags. And Genevieve, who told residents of Paris not to flee but rather to go home and pray when Attila the Hun approached the city gates. Madness. Eccentricity. Crazyness. Courage. Conviction. Faith.

The thing is, we are all a little mad, right? In a good way. It’s a good thing, a virtue, I think, to be able to see the world a little differently. We have to be a little mad, don’t we, to dare to believe that any effort we make, in a world that so often seems opposed to honest efforts, could make a difference. There are some who would say that it’s madness to risk traveling abroad for the purpose of serving others. That it’s madness to raise money for schools in Pakistan, Ghana, or Rwanda, madness to build libraries in Bangladesh, madness to spend an afternoon cleaning out kennels at an animal shelter, madness to give up summer vacation time to play basketball with at-risk kids. There are some who say that it’s madness to be kind to people who look or act differently, who speak or believe differently, who see the world differently than we do.

We’re all a little mad here at St. Andrew’s, because we have enough courage, enough compassion, enough faith to believe that we can make a difference, that we can find a way, and that if we can’t find a way, then we can make one. That makes perfect sense to us, and our yearbooks, our family photo albums, are full of pictures to prove it. The pages of our yearbooks are filled with saints, which is to say, filled with all of us, saints, whose many and unique and colorful gifts and convictions reflect something of God’s own light, something of God’s own love.

Ours is a family tree to be proud of, deeply rooted in the conviction that we are called to make this world a better place; a family tree branching out in every imaginable direction, as many different directions as there are people here, each one of us capable of extraordinary things, each one of us capable of extraordinary growth. And so we do what can, we make our efforts here, and out there, and God goes with us everywhere we go.

And so does our family, which is to say, everyone who has ever hoped, sometimes against hope, that the light of God might shine through them. We carry their stories and pictures, their kookyness and courage and conviction and compassion with us, grateful for the color they have brought into the world, into our lives. Not one of the world’s saints has ever been perfect, not even the ones with halos and folded hands – almost all of them have their own blessed eccentricities. What makes them saints – and what makes us saints, too – is being perfectly aware that it very well may be madness to believe that we can change this world for the better…and then going out anyway and doing just that. Amen.

Artwork: "Paris Opera House," by Terence Gilbert; "All Saints Day," artist unknown; "All Saints I," by Wassily Kandinsky; "All Saints," artist unknown.

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