Mundane Faith. Monstrous Love.
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
All Saints Sunday
Perhaps I’ve reached peak Grumpy Old Man early in life, but each year I find myself ever so slightly more annoyed at the increasing grandiosity of Halloween with the lighted lawn displays of giant glowing witches and spiders so grand not even Harry Potter could escape them nor Sam Gamgee defeat them. When I was a kid, the only Halloween decorations were pumpkins and the toilet paper blowing comically from the bare limbs of the neighbors tree. Perhaps I have a bit of a sugar hangover. Perhaps a nap and a sandwich will help grumpy old me see that there’s nothing wrong with “extraordinary” and grandiose every once and a while – especially at Halloween.
But, imagine my delight when this year I read about a new trend taking over Halloween in Japan. They call it “Mundane Halloween.” In this theme, instead of outlandish and spooky and over the top, costumes aimed more toward the every day, the quotidian, and the underwhelming stuff of life. Imagine, if you will, a man dressed in pajamas holding a can of Raid and a spray bottle of windex – his costume theme “guy who spotted a cockroach right before going to bed and grabbed whatever he could find,” or the couple in matching Disney tourist attire, Mouse Ear hats, camera dangling from a strap, both appearing sullen and unhappy, with the costume theme of “couple that just got into a fight at Disneyland and now have a tense atmosphere between them,” or the man whose pen is clearly leaking into the breast pocket of his white shirt whose costume is titled…oh you get the picture. Perhaps if you’ve heard of “Mundane Halloween” you have seen the costume that has gone viral, a picture of a man’s pockets that appear to be quite wet, with the costume title of “guy who washed his hands and wiped them on his clothes.” There is something deeply satisfying about this costume trend, and it has, I am sure, very little to do with my curmudgeonly attitude about the commercialization of Halloween.
In an article about this trend, Slate took a deep dive into the notion of what philosophers call the aesthetics of the everyday, the idea quite popular in Eastern thought and growing some in western philosophy, that mundane things have an aesthetic quality to them. Whereas most aesthetic inquiry seems to focus on beauty and the sublime, everyday aesthetics recognizes that some of the most common occurrences, even some that are clearly negative, (I mean would someone get that poor man a pocket protector) still provoke a shared emotional reaction from us. We see in these experiences some of our own common humanity, and on one level there is art there, in the mundane and everyday.
So, what if anything, does this have to do with today, with All Saints and baptism and Jesus’ sermon on the Beattitudes? It will surprise no one that I am reminded of that scene in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, how Norman and his brother are taught by their father the disciplines of a proper casting technique in fly fishing. Their father, a strict Scott and a Presbyterian minister, Maclean tells us, believed man was by nature a mess, and that “only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty.” Mastery over the flyrod and thus the trout, were a matter of finding oneself in the mundane rhythms of God’s creation. So it was that they learned to cast “Presbyterian style” using a metronome from their mother’s piano. As Maclean writes, “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
For us as Christians there is something about our life of faith, our process of becoming disciples of Jesus, that is about being trained in the rhythms of God’s universe, of finding the art that is in the everyday living of our life of faith, so that we can encounter grace. We take on the rhythm of prayer, the habits of confession and forgiveness, the regular work of serving others, the disciplines of worship in community. These become the background, the everyday canvas upon which grace is painted in our lives.
In a similar but perhaps less rigid view, the artist Leonard Cohen writes in Beautiful Losers of the idea of sainthood, of the way some among us seem to have given up on the idea that they can bend the world to their will, that they can somehow order and overcome the chaos of the world by sheer force of will and effort. Rather, the saint, says Cohen, has achieved some “remote human possibility” which has something to do with love. They do not overcome the world’s chaos so much as balance it by love. Having let go, he writes, they
“[ride] the drifts like an escaped ski. [Their] course is a caress of the hill. [Their] track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in [them] so loves the world that [they give their self] to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, [they trace] with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid…landscape. [Their] house is dangerous and finite, but [they are] at home in the world. [They] can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such [people], such balancing monsters of love.”
This morning the gospel is a familiar one. It is the sermon found in both Luke and Matthew where Jesus reminds us, his disciples, of who and what is blessed in God’s view of the world. Only in Luke’s gospel, the one we have today, is not up on a mountain as it is in Matthew. Nor is it spiritualized as Matthew’s gospel. No, here, today, Jesus descends the mountain, leaves the lofty experience and comes down to earth, joins the rabble, those seeking healing and hope, and gathers there on the plain to preach. Blessed are the poor, he says, not the poor in spirit. Blessed are the hungry – not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those whose lives are hemmed in on every side by the constraints and contours of a world shaped by greed and indifference, a world defined by need and want. Blessed are the undocumented and those about to be deported. Blessed are the homeless. Blessed are the queer kids kicked out of their families. Blessed are the cancer patients who cannot afford their treatments. Blessed are the moms on food stamps and EBT. Blessed are the lonely, who in a world full of people cannot find friendship or connection.
And, blessed are those who see the needs of the world, see the terrain of hunger and loss and grief and pain, and are compelled by habits of grace to serve and love there. Blessed are, as Cohen says, “such balancing monsters of love.” You see, we remember the saints because, as the hymn says, we aim to be one too. We need examples of such great love, shaped by the everyday habits of prayer, the graceful disciplines and patterns of a life lived toward love, a life steeped in the rhythms and reality of God, who is love. Today we remember All the Saints, whose lives were grounded in the reality of a world in need, who loved the “shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart.” Today we remember, and even try to be a bit like them. We are drawn toward them as we live this baptismal life, as we try on and are bound together by the habits and practices of love, in this the body of Christ.
As Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.”
The saints live lives of such magnificent love, born of the ordinary habits of faith, that we are drawn to them, we yearn for such a love to be born in us.