Archive for August, 2019

An Unexpected Hour!

August 12, 2019

 As I have shared with you before from this pulpit, one of the great privileges I have had in my ministry has been the opportunity to visit several Anglican dioceses in Africa. During my time as Bishop of Iowa, of course, I visited our companion Diocese of Swaziland a number of times. When I was the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, I was able to travel to the Diocese of Cape Town, South Africa, and once accompanied the Presiding Bishop to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania for a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

I had, of course, heard of the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa and of the vibrancy of these new Christians’ faith, even in the face of war and persecution. Now that the Diocese of Iowa also has a companion link in South Sudan, we are even more aware of the terrible events in that new nation and share their sadness and deep concern – for our friend, Archbishop Samuel Peni and for so many others there.

Of course, one of the reasons for the vibrancy of the Christian faith in parts of Africa is that it is so new to so many. While European missionary work has been going on in Africa since the 19th century and, of course, northern Africa has an indigenous Christianity which stretches back to the earliest days of the church’s life, nonetheless millions have been converted to Christ in the last few decades on that great continent.

So, when you experience the church in Africa, it’s as though the Christians there are actually living The Acts of the Apostles, complete with massive conversions, reports of healings and exorcisms and, of course, the persecution which looks for all the world like what the early Christians went through at the hands of the Roman Empire! And one thing you can’t help but be impressed with is the excitement and even the urgency with which they practice the Faith.

I’m always reminded of that when I read today’s Gospel…where Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet…blessed are those… whom the master finds alert when he comes. (And) know this: if the owner of a house had known at what hour a thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12 passim)

We have here two ways of describing how Christians should remain on the alert for what we call “the Second Coming” of Christ or “Judgment Day.” The first: how workers should behave when the boss is away – they should keep working, be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them, and be ready for the CEO’s return. The second image: how a homeowner should remain vigilant all night long, lest the house be broken into – since burglars don’t usually call for an appointment before they show up! You have to be alert! As, apparently Representative Elijah Cummings was a few weeks ago when his house was broken into!

Jesus’ point here, of course, is that we only have so much time to get our work done here on earth. That argument was particularly compelling in the first century when Christians expected the Second Coming of Christ to happen very soon. From what we know of the early church, some Christians used this as an excuse not to work at all. I mean, why bother if Jesus is going to show up tomorrow?

St. Paul, in his letters to the Thessalonians, and Luke in sharing Jesus’ metaphors in this Gospel, takes the opposite view. If he’s coming back soon, get busy! New Christians, like those I met in Africa, often have that same sense of urgency because they (like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Pentecostal groups) still look for Jesus to return at any moment.

It’s harder for Western Christians, like ourselves, who have long since made peace with the fact that it may be a long time until Christ’s Return, harder for us to keep that sense of urgency. But let me tell you, my beloved, as one who lost his first wife to an unexpected heart attack at the age of 54; and as one now married to a woman who lost her eldest son during his first days in college in a tragic climbing accident, I can tell you for a fact: We never DO know the day or the hour!  God might not yet be ready to judge the earth. But you and I might meet our Maker on the way home from church this morning! Or as victims of a mass murderer should we find ourselves in a Wal Mart…or a pub…or a school…or a church!

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour! We still need to have the urgency and the sense of purpose those early Christians had, as our sisters and brothers in Africa still have! For it is our hope and our expectation that Jesus Christ will one day judge both the living and the dead – as we say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed – so let’s be good stewards of whatever time we have left! Let’s get busy! Busy doing what? Our Lessons from Scripture today tell us:

From Isaiah:   Get busy and cease to do evil, get busy learning to do good; get busy seeking justice, get busy rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.” (Isaiah 1) Working for an end to violence and oppression in all its forms!

From the Psalmist: “I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices, your offerings are always before me…Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me, but those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50) Get busy walking in the way of love. Because, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God!”

And, from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. ” (Hebrews 11:1) Get busy keeping the Faith…no matter how bleak things may look in our world today. Because faith is our only hope! And love is the only answer.

In other words, as we live our lives day by day, as we await the Coming of Christ or even the completion of our own journeys here on earth, we are to (as the Methodist founder John Wesley is reported to have said) “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you ever can.”

So, we are not only to offer God the sacrifice of thanksgiving here in the Eucharist each Sunday but to offer sacrifice by walking in God’s ways every, single day.  And we are to keep the Faith, like our ancestors did, no matter what challenges we may face in this sinful and broken world.

Be dressed for action, dear friends, and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return…You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!

A Rule of Life…in the midst of life…

August 4, 2019

When I was the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, working out of our Church Center headquarters in New York, I used to attend Daily Morning Prayer in the Chapel with members of the staff.  One day, we had just completed a weeks-long, course-reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes (which we had as our First Lesson today). This is Wisdom literature filled with rather depressing words like these:

“…it is an unhappy business that God has given human beings to be busy with…all is vanity and chasing after wind…I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it all to those who come after me…What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1) Emptiness.

The officiant that day was Brother James of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory who worked in the office of Anglican and Global Relations. When he finished the reading, he said, “The Word of the Lord. And thanks be to God that – in our lectionary – we do not have to hear from this bitter old man again for two years!”

Well, we all broke out into similar laughter, agreeing with what he said on that particular occasion. But I’m actually glad we have books and passages like this in the Bible — because biblical literature is no “Pollyanna, keep-smiling-be-happy, fantasyland” account of human existence. The Bible is about the real world! Virtually every human emotion and life circumstance can be found somewhere in pages of the Bible.

And lots of it can be found in the 150 Psalms, like the one we had today: “For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them. Their graves shall be their homes for ever, their dwelling places from generation to generation, though they call the lands after their own names.” (Psalm 49:9-10)  This is Reality Therapy, friends!

The one who wrote the Letter to the Colossians (our Second Lesson today) had no illusions about human nature.  The list includes anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lying (among other things). If he was writing today, he would also include the sins of racism and xenophobia which lead to mass shootings like the one yesterday in El Paso (it’s too soon to know the cause of the one in Dayton) and he might also include the cowardice which keeps the U.S. Congress (and all of us, really) from doing something about it!

And then Jesus tells a story in the Gospel about a greedy landowner who could only think to build bigger and bigger barns to store his abundance rather than sharing them with those who might not have enough. He’s not criticizing the man for his savings account in old age or making plans for the future, but for making the mistake of believing that he can save himself at the expense of others, taking advantage of his own “rights” at the expense of the rights of others.

No, the Bible doesn’t flinch at taking a hard-eyed look at life – the good, the bad, and the ugly! What saves it from being a wholly negative set of documents is that the authors are always looking for God and God’s presence in the midst of the tragedy and suffering of daily life! Even the Book of Ecclesiastes ends with these words, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…Fear God and keep (the) commandments); for that is the whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

The Psalmist begins his song with words like these: “Hear this, all your peoples; hearken, all you who dwell in the world, you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.  My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and my heart shall meditate on understanding.” (Psalm 49:1-2)

The author of Colossians counsels us in the midst of pain and struggle to “…seek those things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3) Keep an eternal perspective even in the midst of struggle in this broken world!

And Jesus also challenges us to keep our attention focused on God lest we end up like the selfish landowner who thought his many possessions would save him, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21)

Scott Peck, the author of the pop-psychology text “The Road Less Traveled” so popular back in the 1980s began the book with these words, “Life is difficult!” Yes it is, and Christians – except for those deluded enough to follow the “prosperity gospel” – have never had any illusions about that! The question is, how do we survive…and thrive…in this difficult life?

The best spiritual director I ever had was a Franciscan sister named Mary Dingman.  I would meet with her monthly and pour out my heart and soul with the joys and sorrows of being Bishop of Iowa… and a husband… and a father…and a son – all of which roles were more than challenging at times. But, in almost every situation, rather than engage in problem-solving or amateur psychology, Mary would simply ask, “So where is God in all this?”

She knew, as all good spiritual directors do, that her job was not to “fix” me or my problems, but help me identify and rely on the Presence of God who can be found in every circumstance life presents – if we have eyes to see. And that’s the one thing the Preacher of Ecclesiastes got wrong. Life is not all “Vanity” (emptiness). Life is Presence.

For God is present everywhere and in everything – even in the midst of tragedies like El Paso and Dayton, God is present in the courage of the first responders and medical personnel and the families of the victims. May God also be present in helping us not to give up the good fight for responsible gun control in this country and against the evil forces which keep this from happening.

If you’ve not seen the statement on all this issued by the clergy of our National Cathedral, even before these two most recent mass murders, I encourage you to do so. It’s a model of the kind of things we need to be saying and doing as church!

The spiritual disciplines and practices which Christians follow (and which I hope we can talk about in Spirit School after Community Hour today) – practices like prayer, reading the Bible, celebrating the Eucharist – are all simply ways of helping us pay attention to God. And to bring our minds and hearts back to God when they stray. Developing a Rule of Life for yourself, a pattern of how you will pray, read Scripture, come to church – these practices can bring your attention back to God in the midst of real life, of the real problems and difficulties that life presents.

Because Christianity is about this life…every bit as much as the life to come. And God knows…we need to know that today.