All Hallow’s Eve, and cooking pots too.
Over the last few days I have been in Madison, WI, and was wonderfully hosted by some of the best people. From Thursday night through Sunday morning, we kept busy, engaged with many people in many places across the town-and-gown demography of the city. For most of my life I have lived within those worlds, and so I enjoy being drawn in again, and again.
As we determined a date for me to come, there was some concern from the folks there that the last weekend of October might not be best as the university neighborhood becomes an annual nightmare, Freak Fest, a local skewering of Halloween, or as it was long-known, All Hallow’s Eve. But we decided to step into it, hoping we could do all we hoped to do in spite of.
And we did.
By early Saturday evening, the sordid celebration had begun, with undergraduates already falling on their faces in “fun,” too drunk to know where they were and what they were doing. A few hours later thousands and thousands of twenty somethings were on the streets of downtown Madison, dressed in their variety of freakish costumes, intent in every way with the fun they were going to have.
I thought about all this as I was preparing to speak on Sunday morning at the Geneva Church, a congregation that meets across the street from the University of Wisconsin. With a name like that, remembering that it was Reformation Day also mattered, and so somehow some way I needed to bring in that history.
And so I titled my sermon, “Seeing Sacramentally,” rooting my reflection in the prophet Zechariah and the apostle Peter. The former promises that when the day of the Lord comes, “even the cooking pots will be called ‘holy to the Lord,” making it one of my favorite passages in the whole of the Bible, and the latter sets forth the vision that the people of God are to “be holy in everything they do.” Yes, sacred and saint, hallow and holy are related words, representing the same reality, which mattered yesterday— even and especially in the face of Freak Fest, which in every way is a both a trivial and tragic misreading of the very meaning of holy, of All Hallow’s Eve.
To have eyes that see turns out to be complicated because at our best we stumble in our seeing, seeing through a glass darkly as we do, complex people as we are— minds, hearts, emotions, all raging around inside us, pushing and shoving as they are for dominance. Think of the film, “Inside Out.” The deepest truth is that we see out of our hearts, and so the question, “Do you have eyes to see?” is principally a question about the nature of our souls, the heart of hearts at the core of our being. What do we love most? What do we care about most? What matters most?
I drew in my father’s work over the years of his life, a university scientist, learning to “see” the world of plants, their diseases and their cures, over time beginning to see where heaven met earth as he looked through the microscopes of his laboratory into the world that was his to understand. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, then made her way in, with the remarkably rich essay, “On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”— as good a piece for a university full of students and professors as I know — arguing as she did for the vocation of “paying attention,” which is her summary of the calling to “study sacramentally.”
Because it was the Geneva Church, I noted that John Calvin had seen himself as “thrown into the fray” of life, not having a monastic vocation, but one that put him right into the lives of ordinary people in an ordinary place— and so he took up the complicated work of developing a sewage system for Geneva, urged railings on high buildings so that children wouldn’t fall, and created social supports for the poor and infirm. He saw himself as responsible, for love’s sake, for the life of his city, the common life of the people and their place.
And then I finished with a story of Calvin De Witt, the revered professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin— and a member of the Geneva Church —whose work has been pivotal for scores of students, as well as politicians and popes over the decades of his labor. I remembered his tender, thoughtful conversation with my son Elliott more than 25 years ago, about the turtles and frogs in Cal’s boyhood “zoo” in his backyard. That Elliott could see that a grown-up like Dr. De Witt cared about the fauna of his world with such deeply-formed Christian imagination, was a gift that can never be fully accounted— especially knowing that Elliott has now spent his own years loving the creatures of this earth, all over the earth, in and through his work as a veterinarian, finding and forming a vocation which depends on having eyes to see the reality of the world that is his to understand.
My last words were these.
“Simply, profoundly, learning to see, learning to see seamlessly, learning to see where heaven and earth meet even in this so very fallen, this so very fragile world, is what it is see sacramentally.
“So yes, turtles and frogs, and cooking pots too. These small things, the very common creatures of our life and world, the most ordinary of the ordinary— and the most common of all kitchen cookware. We boil water and we simmer soups the world over in cooking pots — from the high rises of Chicago to the huts of Honduras. In the day of the Lord, even and especially the cooking pots will be called ‘holy to the Lord.’ And the turtles and the frogs too, I hope. All be hallowed on that day, the all-hallowed day it will be.”
(Looking over the University of Wisconsin, and the street on which the Geneva Church meets, on All Hallow’s Eve.)