North Haven is a small town in Minnesota, just east of Lake Wobegon.
Michael Lindvall has written a couple of books about life in North Haven, tales about a Presbyterian minister and his flock. You read the stories and you quickly get a sense that you know these people; they are your neighbors and co-workers, people you run into at the grocery store.
James Crory is one of them; an overactive seven-year-old who talks a mile a minute and sleeps only sporadically. Calling him energetic would be an understatement. Were he a child from the suburbs, he would have been diagnosed and take a pill every morning.
James loves to hang out with Angus and Minnie, both in their 80’s, and they, for the most part anyway, enjoy his company as well. They smile at his enthusiasm, and his endless conversation is way more entertaining than anything on tv.
It was in the afternoon of Halloween when James burst into Angus and Minnie’s living room complaining that his mom had gotten him the wrong costume.
“Spiderman? No one cares about Spiderman anymore. How can she not know that? I can’t possibly wear that costume! It will be the end! Everyone will make fun of me. Why did she do that to me? What am I going to do?”
Minnie waited a couple of seconds to make sure that he was finished.
“Perhaps you could be a ghost?”
Her boys had been ghosts every year growing up, even used the same costumes year after year – it never seemed to be a problem. Those ghost costumes were probably still up in the attic.
And so Angus and James climbed up the attic stairs to look for the costumes – and there they were! The classic design: a sheet with a couple of holes for the eyes, and a belt to keep the whole thing from blowing away. Angus and Minnie insisted that James use a reflector belt because it had already snowed, and you can’t see a ghost in the snow.
The little boy could hardly stand still long enough to get the belt on.
“Trick or treat! Trick or treat!” he shouted, jumping up and down.
Angus said he’d trail along behind to make sure the boy was OK, but before he could get his coat on, James dashed out the door and ran smack-dab into their maple tree.
Angus was rushing out to be sure he was okay, when little James picked himself up and ran full speed ahead again. This time he ran into the neighbor’s Bradford Pear. And this time, he knocked himself out.
Angus quickly went over to the little boy. “James! James, are you all right?”
He looked down, and he realized that the holes in the sheet were not lined up with his little eyes – not even close. James couldn’t see a thing. Angus adjusted the costume, and when the little boy opened his eyes, he was surprised.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be able to see!”
I give thanks today for people like Minnie and Angus, old couples who become friends with little boys and girls, who generously share with them their time, their love, and their wisdom.
I thought about baptism, of all things, when I read the story of James, Minnie and Angus from North Haven. In baptism we put on the white robe of new life. It’s not a costume that changes every year, nor is it a manufactured plastic dream that allows us to be a super hero or a princess for a day. The white robe of new life is much more like a treasure from the attic, something generations before us have worn with joy and great reward.
So you put on that robe, and you rush out the door to hurry toward the kingdom, only to run smack-dab into a tree. “Something just hit me,” you say to yourself, but you rub your head, get up and start over, and – bang! – you run into the next tree.
“Determination is everything,” you say to yourself, and you’re about to jump up and start over, when somebody kneels beside you, asking if you are all right, and adjusts your costume.
“Oh my, I didn’t know I was supposed to be able to see!”
We are not alone in the adventure of faith, and this Sunday gives us an opportunity to gratefully acknowledge that reality. We are surrounded by saints, by a great cloud of witnesses who have walked the road we are on. They are watching us, they are cheering us on, and they adjust our vision so we can see where we are going.
Saints, says Frederick Buechner, are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. Saints are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 102)
Every Christian has them: those precious people who have helped shape us, role models in the art of the good life, people who inspire and encourage us. Some of them may still be around, others may have joined the church in heaven. Some of them you may have known in person, others you may have heard or read about. They are your saints, the people through whom God has made you who you are and continues to shape who you will be. They are not faith celebrities or super heroes of piety, but ordinary people whose lives reflect the glory of God’s grace. People like Angus and Minnie.
John is one of them, Saint John the Divine, a Christian leader, banned by order of Rome to the island of Patmos. Jerusalem was gone; the Romans, tired of the protests and revolts in the volatile province of Judaea, had destroyed the city and demolished the Temple – a pile of rubble was all that was left. With an iron fist they had brought peace to the troubled region, PAX ROMANA that is, the Roman variety of peace.
Christians were suspect because of their refusal to honor the gods of the empire. Violent persecution of the church wasn’t the norm, but many Christian leaders were executed or imprisoned, or, as in John’s case, banned. He found himself far from home, a prisoner on the small island of Patmos, off the coast of Turkey. The world around him was falling to pieces, and he knew that across the sea, in the cities of Asia Minor, where arrests and executions continued, his friends were suffering. They were losing hope.
They weren’t running into trees out of joyful exuberance, but because Rome had surrounded them with obstacles that turned just about every step toward the kingdom of God into an act of rebellion.
How could they possibly acclaim the emperor as Lord and Son of God when they had come to know Jesus as Lord?
How could they possibly praise the emperor as Savior of the World when in truth that title belonged to Jesus Christ?
How could they continue to live faithfully when all they could see was Rome’s might?
John saw the reality of persecution, but he looked beyond the horizon defined by Rome’s imperial reach. He saw the arrogance of power, but he looked beyond it, and he saw a holy city coming down out of heaven from God. He saw a city for all peoples, a city of peace.
To what end do we put on the white robe of baptism?
To what end do we follow Jesus on the way, and not other lords that vie for our allegiance?
To what end do we love and serve our God and our neighbor, and not our own ambitions?
Somebody needs to adjust our vision until we can see where we’re going, until our eyes are lined up with the reality and promises of God.
The end, Saint John reminds us, is not a handful of souls escaping to heaven; the end is the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth.
The end is not one tribe’s triumph over the others, or one nation’s victory over the others, ore one religion over the others – the end is a city for all peoples, and God is at home among them, dwelling with them, wiping every tear from their eyes.
The end is a city where death is no more, where mourning, crying, and pain are no more – the old order has been buried.
The end is a feast for all peoples, a feast of rich food and well-aged wines where Israel and the nations sing, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation,” and the one seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.”
We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we can already see what is coming.
We long for redemption and we work with compassion, and in the company of God’s saints we can already see what is coming.
We follow Jesus on the way, and in the company of Isaiah and John, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, our eyes are lined up with the promises and purposes of God, and we can see what is coming: the blessed communion of humanity with God, the joy of heaven to earth come down, unhindered and unending and complete.
To what end do we put on the white robe of baptism? To be part of that transformation in this life and in the life to come.
To what end to we follow Jesus on the way, and not other lords that vie for our allegiance? To be part of that transformation in this life and in the life to come.
To what end do we love and serve our God and our neighbor, and not our own ambitions? To be part of that transformation in this life and in the life to come.