The Rev. Canon Stephen Huber
On airplanes I usually ask for an aisle seat, but every once in awhile I like to sit by the window—to get a different perspective on the world below. The well-known Harvard leadership and management guru Ron Heifitz argues that in business it’s important to keep what he describes as “a balcony view.” He talks about how that perspective helps business owners and leaders keep the big picture in front of them. It keeps them from getting sidetracked by the day-to-day conflicts and the roadblocks often put up by folks without the larger view. Well, short of becoming an astronaut, the window seat in an airplane is just about the best we can do to get a balcony view of our small, interdependent world. Looking out the window of an airplane beginning its descent provides a brief moment for reflection—not just about a safe landing—but about our human condition and the world below.
Isn’t it interesting how you don’t really have to be that far above the ground for everything to look pretty small. Flying over Manhattan for a landing at LaGuardia makes even the empire of a big guy like Donald Trump look like a few pieces out of a kid’s set of building blocks. I’m not suggesting that what goes on down here is unimportant or mere child’s play. But looking down from an airplane window does cause one to wonder, why all the strife, the greed, the hate, and lack of understanding? Why is there so little understanding about a more generous, interconnected big picture? And then in an instant, just as you might be pondering these questions, you have landed, and everything seems large again—buildings, problems, differences—and the big picture quickly becomes just a memory.
A balcony view allows for the imagination to soar about what might be. The dictionary says, “imagination is the power of the human mind to form images, especially of what is not present to the senses, to represent reality more fully than it immediately appears.” It’s our imaginations that give us the vision for writing plays and songs and creating art and building big buildings and solving problems, and overcoming differences, and living lives marked by love and generosity. But when we allow ourselves to be completely consumed by the concerns of our own small piece of the world, we get caught in the weeds, our imagination is stifled, and our vision for what might be grows dim.
It’s this down-in-the-weeds, limited vision that St. Paul is referring to in today epistle when he says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
When Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians, he was writing to the residents of a great cultural and economic center of the Greco-Roman world. Corinth had a great temple where thousands of visitors came every year. It was a trading center with vast commerce and the sight of spectacular athletic competitions. Life for very many Corinthians was very good indeed. No doubt many of them were perfectly happy with the present world. Yet Paul is urging them on to a new world, to a different point of view from the one that currently captivated their imagination. Does any of this resonate with our present day context? One of the priests in my colleague group says it’s no wonder that today Christianity is growing in the developing nations of the world. It offers a vision and hope of a better world—a reality beyond what immediately appears. The problem with too many Christians in the developed part of the world, he goes on to add, particularly us Episcopalians, is that we’re not sure we want much changed. We think life is pretty good, or so we convince ourselves. We’ll keep things just as they are, thank you please!
But then a horrific event this week at the Holocaust Museum painfully reminds us just how troubled things really are. The deranged murderer is only one part of the shocking news, the large number of hate groups and the thousands of people who participate in them points to a deep systemic illness that continues to infect our small, interdependent world.
One response is to hunker down, maybe beef up the security in the gated enclaves of our lives, go about our business, don’t look up too often, and try through our own resources to bring things back to a place we accept as normal where such a tragedy will, hopefully, become a faded distant memory.
Or we can muster the conviction to engage St. Paul’s invitation to imagine a different world; in fact, a whole new world reformed and transformed by Christ’s love working in and through us in all that we do, in all our interactions and relations. Such imagining can feel risky, even downright irresponsible or at best disjointed. The connection between a new, transformed world and my seemingly insignificant efforts at really allowing the love of Christ to inform everything I do seems like a stretch at best. This is where the today’s gospel text helps. What is the kingdom of God that St. Paul is inviting us to imagine like? Well, Jesus says it’s like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all seeds on earth; yet when it grows up becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches. Maybe this sounds naïve. A few good seeds planted here and there, how can that really have any transformative and lasting effect? Well, get back in the window seat of an airplane for a minute and look down. Imagine a few seeds of forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation being planted here and there all over town. Imagine them growing and sprouting forth branches of healing that will begin to change the world as we know it. From the balcony, it doesn’t seem or look so impossible.
That’s the kind of imagination St. Paul invites us to embrace. Poet, preacher, and teacher Howard Thurman was the grandson of a slave. Bishop William Willimon recounts Thurman writing about his grandmother and the effect the church had on the slaves who attended on Sunday afternoon. Thurman’s grandmother said the preacher hardly ever gave a sermon without going by Calvary. The slave congregation could relate well to the story of a man who was abused, beaten down, and left for dead. But the grandmother said when he went by Calvary he was always moved to shout, “But God raised him again and he is seated at the right hand of God in Heaven.” And then he would take off his glasses and lean over the pulpit and look straight into the eyes of the congregation and say to them, “And slaves you are not any man’s property. You are children of God Almighty! Never forget that. Thurman’s grandmother told him that whenever the preacher got to that part of the story, she was ready to live another day. That is a new vision, a vision of freedom and redemption beyond the limits of the present reality. This is what Paul is talking about when he says “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”
Willimon writes that “One of the peculiarities of the New Testament is that it so rarely tells us what to do. Mostly it tells us what to see. We can only act within the world that we can see. Perhaps Jesus figures in his stories and parables if he could just get us to see the world through some angle of vision larger than our myopic human point of view then we will know how to live that vision.”
To be guided by the love of Christ is to view ourselves and others from a different perspective. Our point of view has changed. And this difference in perspective moves us into a very different understanding about the way things ought to be in the world.
Isn’t that really why we come here? We hear the Scripture, we’re made one in Communion, and hopefully we begin to capture a vision beyond our limited sight. Maybe every now and again we ought to meet at the airport on Sunday morning and have church while flying over the city! Whether we’re a thousand feet up in the air or have our feet firmly planted on the ground, it’s a good thing to keep that balcony view of life. The Holy Spirit gives us the heart for just such vision and the courage to live into that vision. Think of church, at its best, as an attempt to see the world, no longer from merely a human point of view.