99% Invisible

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November 6, 2022

99% Invisible

Passage: Revelation 21:1–6

November 1 is All Saints’ Day in our church calendar across the globe and so we recognize All Saints’ Day on this first Sunday after the feast day. For our scripture passage we turn to the penultimate passage in the entire Bible, Revelation 21 for words of hope and promise. This dream that John of Patmos casts for us about our deepest longing.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them and be their God. ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

The One who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

The One on the throne said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

Roman Mars is the voice and producer of the podcast 99% Invisible. I have long been obsessed. The way some people are obsessed with Survivor or The Bachelor, I am obsessed with this podcast. I listen to new episodes as they come out. Or sometimes when persuaded, I’ll hold off so my husband and I can binge the show together on long car rides (sometimes).

The premise is simple: there are stories just below the surface. “Baked into the buildings we inhabit, the streets we drive, and the sidewalks we traverse” is a universe of hidden design that impacts how we live and sometimes saves our lives without our even noticing.

Roman Mars takes podcast after podcast to remind us that anything from traffic lights to flood mitigation, from cycling lanes to manhole covers have been meticulously designed in order to accommodate, protect, preserve, insulate, and safeguard human life. And there’s a story behind every design.

If you go down to the music room after worship to visit Lisa Bond, you have to walk down a staircase. Someone had to think through every detail of that staircase: is it wide enough for exit in case of emergency? Is the handrail sturdy? Are the steps deep enough for someone’s foot to be planted firmly? Does the exit have a door that swings outward, and a push-bar that makes it easy to open? A team of engineers, fire safety professionals, and probably social scientists too, had to come together, designing exactly how a staircase like ours would function.

Another team of engineers worked hard to design the curb ramp at the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Warwick, so that wheelchairs can safely travel down and across the street, while rain water still adequately flows down toward the storm drains.

​​And John Sharp knows all too well that it takes a flock of experts and a small army of professionals to ensure that our elevator (elevators he says, double the work) is in working order: there were half a dozen appointments in September alone, just for routine yearly inspections.

All this to say—in order for you to get to the sanctuary today, you passed by dozens, maybe hundreds of design features that are literally lifesaving, or at the very least make life easier for you. And none of us noticed. We thought nothing of it. It takes intentional listening and purposeful study to see the invisible world that Roman Mars sees on a daily basis. But once you see it, you realize that we are forever accompanied by the wise counsel and strategic planning of a host of people who came before us.

Everyday we are chaperoned, piloted, assisted, and escorted by a multitude of the heavenly host, those whose clear-sighted design and prudent preparation made way for us to be exactly where we are.

And it doesn’t just happen in architecture and urban planning. Just another small example of how far reaching this great cloud of witnesses might be: the pharmacist who distributes the medication you take daily is accompanied by scientists and biologists who designed the pill you take, not just its contents but its shape, size, and dosage. We live in a 99% Invisible world. Micro-biologists would remind us that much of the world operates at a microscopic level. The astro-physicists and Nasa scientists who designed the James Webb Telescope would remind you that just beyond what the eye can see in the night sky is a universe of galaxies and luminous objects, ancient pillar-like dust clouds, and still-yet-unknown planetary bodies.

And social scientists would suggest that behind and within every human interaction is a deeper psycho-social dynamic that can only ever be partially unpacked. We go about our daily lives forgetting and not knowing: forgetting that beneath our feet, or just beyond what the eye can see is an entire world that is 99% invisible.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday. All Saints’ Day was established in 835, centuries before Protestant churches existed, at about that moment in church history where it seems, there were just too many “official” saints to keep track of. Now every saint could be highlighted on a single day, November 1, without cluttering up the calendar with multiple celebrations every day of the year. In our tradition, this makes room for a kind of democratizing of the saints. No one person is lifted up as more “saintly” than another in the Protestant church. All are part of the great cloud of witnesses, the saints of light who are just beyond the veil, 99% invisible to us, and yet present nonetheless. The saints are all those who were faithful in their own day, and who accompany us now, surrounding us like a cloud.

On All Saints’ Day, we remember those known and unknown to us who have walked the long path of life ahead of us, and have now passed into the great beyond, entered the New Heaven and the New Earth, and now sing an eternal song of love. The saints are 99% invisible. Just beyond our vision. A cloudy, clouded, foggy, often-concealed, unseen presence just beyond the horizon.

Maybe I wear my grandmother’s antiquated clip on earrings as a visible reminder of the invisible companionship she offers me, years after her death. Maybe you wear your grandfather’s watch. Maybe you sit in your grandmother’s pew. Maybe you intentionally or unintentionally adopted your mother’s mannerism. Maybe you speak aloud your brother’s favorite phrases or find a way to keep your friend’s inside jokes alive. All in an attempt to make visible the invisible. The saints are 99% invisible and yet their presence is part of this life in distinct and indisputable ways.

The same is true of the God we worship. In this life, God is 99% invisible. It is our job to pay attention, to be awake, to open our ears, our eyes, our hearts, our minds to the possibility of the indwelling presence of the spirit of the living God. Chapter 21 of the book of Revelation imagines a future in which “God’s dwelling place is now among the people,” and yet that is surely true now, just obscured. As the many translations of 1 Corinthians say, “Now we see things imperfectly” “Now we see only a reflection” “Now we see in a mirror dimly” “Now we see through a glass in obscurity.” “Now we see through a glass, darkly.”

We go about our daily lives forgetting and not knowing: forgetting that beneath our feet, or just beyond what the eye can see is the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the Alpha and the Omega, the Prince of Peace. It takes intentional listening and purposeful prayer to find our way to the centered, spiritual place in which we might be open, awake to the presence of God who is accompanying us into the unknown future and into the forever of life by God’s side.

May we be awake, alive to the possibility of God’s presence. And may the saints of light, the saints of love, the saints of eternal song be visible to us, go with us, surround us, accompany us. Now and always. Amen.

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