All Saints: a Prayer for Comprehension

Sometimes Jesus teaching doesn’t sit well with our sense of timing. Let me offer an example. If you were a Chicago Cubs fan at any time over the last 107 years “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” could feel a little trite. A Cards fan last year wouldn’t have wanted to quote to a Cubs fan “blessed are you who weep.” It would have felt paternalistic. For over a century the Cubbies had cause to ask “When is that laughter coming God?” But on Wednesday night this week, the laughter came. You can be sure some of the saints above were laughing too.

Cards fans, don’t lament. Remember, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” (Plus, now when we beat the Cubs next season, we don’t have to feel as bad).

The depth of Jesus’ teaching is how it holds together seeming opposites in life: joy and pain. Every life lived fully contains measures of weeping and of laughter. God is with us in the extremes and in the humdrum of daily life. God’s love is comprehensive.

I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. It comes in the office of compline, the prayers we say at the end of each day:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This prayer, like our service today, seeks to comprehend the fullness of life. Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, AND shield the joyous. There is a fullness to this prayer. As I said, there’s a stretch to our liturgy today as well. This morning we will give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize two young souls, and we will bless those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. We will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about holding things together. I’m betting that many of you, like me, are weary of this election season. We’ve been so embattled as a country, and now some are worrying whether we have drawn lines so deeply that after Tuesday has come and gone, we will have a difficult time coming out of the trenches. Will we hold together? Regardless of the outcome?

Then in the midst of this last week came the feast day of Richard Hooker, the theologian with the funny name, who lived in a similarly divided day. By the time Hooker was ordained the church in England had been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic again, and had finally settled with Queen Elizabeth I somewhere on a middle ground. But Richard Hooker saw and described a unique giftedness to this middle way, the via media. The Prayer for his feast day includes this phrase inspired by his writing:

[God] Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.

There’s that word again, “comprehension.”

As Anglicans, we speak of the virtue of “comprehensiveness.” In one Church we hold together and celebrate Protestant and Catholic traditions. We’ve held together different perspectives, political parties, and viewpoints. And our quintessential theologian asks us to see this holding together not as a compromise to maintain the peace, but as a stretching to hold a wider truth.

It strikes me that many of those we consider “saints” lived in a way that was marked by comprehension. They found ways to hold together difficult opposites. They were present to the highs and lows of life. Saints seem often to be set apart, made holy, by their ability to see opposing forces and to find another way through.

The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault seeks that sense of Comprehensiveness as she writes about the Trinity in her latest book. She sees in the Trinity, the “three-ness” of God, a way out of polarity: this or that, the either/or liberal/conservative patterns of our day. Like Richard Hooker, for Bourgeault, the truth is not something I hold on my own. The truth is not something I hold over your head to show you that you are wrong.

Imagine, she says, our political conversations transformed by a Trinitarian perspective which teaches:

“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”

“The enemy is never the problem, but the opportunity.” How often do we see our opponents this way? Bourgeault points to a basic wisdom in Christianity: there is always a third way. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus’ teaching this morning challenged those who thought they held the truth. In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.”

“Blessed are you who are poor.” The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus is challenging us to take a different perspective. Jesus wants us to comprehend.

I think this teaching, like much of Jesus’ teaching, challenges us not simply to change our view from one side to another. Jesus did not play the games of his day. He didn’t pick one side in a debate over another. Jesus re-wrote the playbook. He challenged his followers to grow, to see opponents as opportunities to grow, to wrap our minds around ever-widening ideas. Jesus invites us to comprehend.

And so this day, we hold together, with all the saints, the whole of life. We look for God in the beginning and in the end. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians we pray for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s Love. We pray that God might continue to Keep Watch with ALL, ALL those saints and souls who work or watch or weep. We pray that God might continue to shield the joyous. And all for thy love’s sake.

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