Harrowing Of Hell
November 18, 2018

In-Gathering Sunday Witnessing Beauty

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I don’t mean to stand up here and chomp on sour grapes, but last Sunday Ruth Anne got the widow’s mite reading, and used it to poach my stewardship sermon. Who poaches a stewardship sermon?  And hers was good.

I’m left with the reading the scholars call the Desolating Sacrilege…beautiful. Maybe I should just say: “God is good. Go big with your annual gift,” and I’ll sit down.

No such luck. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a walk I took my dog on Thursday. This excursion comes to mind because of the last few sentences Jesus leaves us with in the reading today: “Therefore keep awake. No one knows when the hour will come, so I say to all keep awake.”

The hour here (really the hour is a moment) refers to that instant when the Temple of my kingdom or your kingdom falls to the ground, and we see instantly, that our Temple has always been standing inside the larger Temple of God.

That is Good News… but it also may be startling. Seeing God face to face all of sudden might be a bit much. And God knows this, which is why God invites to get ready, to be prepared, to train for that day, that inevitable day; which is why Jesus says: “Keep alert! Stay awake!”

But staying awake all of the time is exhausting…it is actually impossible. The disciples, the best friends of Jesus, couldn’t even do it.  Remember when Jesus was there in the garden of Gethsemane struggling existentially with his death. He asked his disciples to stay awake with him, for just one night, but over and over again they fell asleep.

So what hope do we have? Vigilance, even with full knowledge of an inevitable outcome, is impossible to sustain. We can’t constantly be waiting for the other shoe to drop…even when we know that the shoe will drop, and we will be standing face to face with God.

What do we do with that? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it. Maybe it’s all good, all the time…But Jesus is a pretty smart guy, and he knows stuff about God, and death, and life, and life beyond death, and our role with God for eternity, and he loves us, and cares about us, so he says: “Get ready.  Stay vigilant.  Be alert.” He loves us, and this is what he advises us to do…So how do we do it?

A guy named Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian who died in 1988, might be helpful. He claimed that the best way to prepare to see God face to face is to let beauty, in its infinite forms, take up residence in our unique personhood. The practice of absorbing infinite beauty into the singularity of our personhood, is a warm up, it is prep time, for standing face to face with God.

So, when we combine Jesus’s call to stay alert with Von Balthasar’s insight about beauty; we find ourselves invited to be vigilantly present to the beauty of all things. Learning to be present to beauty becomes the manner by which we prepare to meet God face to face…God’s infinity meets our singularity.

Which brings me to Thursday and my walk with majestic Minnie the Newfypoo. If we were the kind of church that had a big screen this would be the moment I flash a picture of Minnie….And everyone would shout out: “Oh my gosh what a beautiful dog! We’ll pledged more if you show us another picture.”

Four days a week I go running in the morning with Minnie, a couple miles. She is a rather large dog, who has a particularly active olfactory gland, and so as we are running, she is tempted to take a sniff here and a sniff there.  I, on the other hand, when out for a run, am intent on running. Stopping at every little sniff zone is not on my agenda.  And so, we have what Mark calls in the Gospel today: “nations rising against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms.”

But here is the good news: I always win!  Because I am bigger, and bigger is better when jogging with a giant Newphypoo. Ask my sister, Valerie, who doesn’t always win when walking Minnie.

But, on Thursdays we do things a little different. On Thursday’s it is Minnie’s walk day. I relinquish my agenda in favor of Minnie’s preference.  And so we walk… slowly, stopping all the time to sniff stuff that doesn’t even look like it is worth sniffing.  But here is what I discovered on these walks: where I subserviate my will for Minnie’s preference, I encounter beauty… synapse popping beauty; beauty that I don’t see on my runs, because I’m all forward, all focus, all achievement for the benefit of my Temple.

On Minnie walks sometimes I am just standing there, and so I look around. Sometimes I even find we are walking backwards, so I look at the place from where we just came.  And what I have found is an assault upon my senses: the beauty of rain drops on my face; the magic of a leaf falling, twisting as it floats to earth. Things smell differently when I slow down; maybe that is just a sympathetic response to what Minnie is experiencing, but the point is, on these slow walks, this intentional time of subordinating my power for Minnie’s preference, I find I see the infinitude of beauty coming into my singular point of view; and it is divine and sort of eternal.

Would these Thursday Minnie walks be awesome for everyone? Watching Minnie sniff stuff.  Feeling the rain on your face.  Looking at colored houses and over grown lawns. Getting pulled hither and yon. Is the beauty I absorb into my particular point of view on these slow walks the same beauty you would experience?  Or is beauty just in the eye of the beholder?

Von Balthasar would say: “No! Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder.” If God is constant, unchanging and true, and if the infinitude of beauty comes upon us as a way of preparing us to see God face to face, then beauty too must be objective; constant, unchanging, and true.

Which brings me to Epiphany. This place represents to us an agreed upon beauty; an objective beauty we have said “yes” to by our presence here over time: The windows, and the music, and the wood, and the flowers, and the liturgy and poetry, all landing upon the singular focal point  that is you and you and you and me. This is our agreed upon aesthetic, done to acknowledge the objective constant, unchanging, infinite nature of God.

What we do here is ritual, communal acknowledgement that God, like beauty, is objective; and God, like beauty, is continuously coming at all of us, all of the time.

Now is the beauty that we’ve agreed upon here the only or best beauty there is? Of course not!  It is just the beauty we put forth as our way of acknowledging and indeed worshiping the God we expect to meet face to face.

Which brings me back to Thursdays and Minnie. You might ask: “Doyt, if you want to be more aware of the beauty of the greater Temple in which your Temple sits why don’t you just do a slow walk with Minnie every day?” I suppose that is an option for some; maybe for my monk friend Dennis who is leading the Men’s retreat or for a Carmelite nun… maybe. But not for me. I was made to run in the world.  I do not have the endurance to keep up that kind of vigilant exposure to beauty.

The best I can do is Thursday, and that, I might add, may, at some point, get displaced if my selfish will decides to diminish beauty in favor of productivity.

Which again brings us back to the church, and our need for the church. The liturgical patterns that the church has developed over the last 2000 years were designed to train us to stay alert, even as they compensate for our lack of endurance.

Here is how it works. I’ll tell you a story. Once a woman came to my office.  She was going through some really tough stuff. The first words out of her mouth were: “I’m in Lent.” It was July. We weren’t in Lent. But I knew what she was talking about because she knew what it felt like to be in Lent. She went to church and lived the cycles of the church season, and because of her yearly experience of Lent, when these tough times came upon her, was able to endure with grace, and more so, be positively transformed by the experience knowing resurrection would eventually arrive.

Advent is the next season we enter into. It is the season where we practice waiting for God, so when the day comes, and our Temples dissolve, and we find ourselves standing face to face with our Lord, we are happily prepared. So here we sit in the midst of our agreed upon beauty, practicing, season after season, exercises that train for vigilance despite our lack of endurance, forming us to be our best selves now, even as we are preparing for our eternal life with God face to face. Beauty is our watch word given as an experiential metaphor, so we can know the awesome, infinite nature of God.

That is what happens here at your church… amongst other things. Consider this with gratitude as you consider your annual pledge.