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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 12 – Year A

But at my vindication I shall see your face; when I awake,
I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness. (Psalm 17:16)

The phone rang late one evening at our rectory out in eastern Oregon, and I wondered who could be calling at that odd hour. It was one of my clergy friends (and clergy do call each other at odd hours), and he said he was trying to find a parish who would take in a visiting missionary bishop for an evening talk and an overnight stay. The Overseas Mission Society had called and said the bishop would be in our area, and asked my friend to line up somebody. There was just one little problem: the evening in question was Halloween! Well, I figured God must have something to do with this turn of events, and I was always interested in missionaries (being one myself in that remote part of the state), so I said, “Sure, we’ll take him.” After I hung up the phone, reality set in and I wondered how on earth I would get anyone out on Halloween!

But I made a few phone calls, and announced it on the one Sunday in between, and hoped for the best. When the day arrived, the first thing I had to do was pick up the good bishop at his last stop, which Joannie and I did together. He turned out to be an Australian named Alfred Stanway whose ministry was in East Africa. On the way home he noticed that Joannie had a bandage on one hand, and he asked her about it. She said she had a staphylococcal infection there and had been told it was very contagious. Hence the bandage, since she was constantly handling our small children. To our surprise, the bishop said, “Let’s just go into the church and pray about this.” The next thing we knew, the three of us were kneeling at the communion rail in our little church and the bishop was offering a simple prayer in his Australian twang.

And nothing happened—at least not right away. But that Halloween night, after the bishop’s talk (and a small crowd did show up), Joannie became dissolved in tears. She cried and cried. And that was the beginning of a genuine spiritual healing and renewal for her—a radical turning point in her walk with God. (The healing of her hand came along too, a few days later, almost incidentally.) But that next morning, November 1st, All Saints Day, we had to say goodbye to our new friend so he could get on to the next stop in his tour. Bishop Stanway had a time of prayer and Bible reading with us before he left—and then he offered us some words of spiritual counsel which I’ve never forgotten. What he said was, “Doug and Joanna, always seek the face of God. Always seek the face of Christ.” And he showed us some places in the Bible where it talks about God’s “face.” One of his favorites was the 27th Psalm, verse 11, where the writer prays to God, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” And another was this morning’s Psalm, the 17th, which says, “…at my vindication I shall see your face.” And in the New Testament, the Bishop cited St. Paul in 2nd Corinthians 4: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (Verse 6)

With those parting words of counsel, Alfred Stanway left and went on his way. And Joannie and I were both dissolved in tears. “Seek the face of Christ,” he had said. And in a remarkable sense we felt we had indeed seen, or at least glimpsed, the face of Christ through this man. Aside from his purple bishop’s shirt and pectoral cross he was really a very ordinary looking individual—average height, a little overweight, shoes not very polished. In fact he didn’t come across as polished at all. But when he looked at you it was as though he was looking right through you and into your depths. It was really a little unnerving at first. But before long we found ourselves sharing with him our innermost selves and marveling at the way he saw God at work in us. It was rather like that walk to Emmaus on the evening of the first Easter, a passage which the bishop loved to quote, where Jesus’ friends said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” I’ll never forget his saying in his Australian brogue, “Did not our haarts burrn within us….” (Luke 24:32)
Dissolved in tears we were; but that was not to be the end of our time with Alfred Stanway. In his short stay with us he had dropped a cryptic little comment to the effect that God has a way of bringing distant friends together again over the years. And so it was to be. Bishop Stanway became a dear friend and mentor. He visited and preached several times in our next parish in Massachusetts and once in Newport News. He sent several members of his staff to us on different occasions too. He baptized our daughter Mari on one of his visits. And in 1969 I led a group of twenty-one people, most of them high school or college students, on a two-week safari in his diocese in Tanzania; and it was literally a life-changing experience for every one of us, young and old.

More of all that perhaps another time. I want to go back now to seeking the face of God, or, seeking the face of Christ. Perhaps you too have had such an experience. But I want to suggest that it can happen to all of us again and again, if we are alert to it. The parish secretary in another parish I served had the most remarkable picture of Jesus on the wall of her office. The closer you looked the more vivid it became. When you got right up to it you could see that Jesus’ face was made up of literally hundreds of tiny little faces, faces of all sorts of people from all over the world—Americans, Asians, Africans, Latinos, rich, poor, hungry, famous, obscure—all sorts and conditions of people forming the face of Christ. And that’s the way God made the world. We are, all of us, made in the image of the God we know in Jesus Christ. We are, all of us, in the loving embrace of the God we know in Jesus Christ. And we see at least glimpses of that same God in people everywhere.

And it’s not just in remarkable souls like Alfred Stanway. It’s in children, like a little boy I used to run into at a nursing home in Massachusetts who regularly, and entirely on his own, came to visit lonely, elderly patients there. I glimpsed the face of Christ often in a bereaved widow in Newport News who fought and prayed mightily, with everything in her, against the ravages of depression. Joannie and I saw the face of Christ the other day in our next-door neighbor, a woman from Ghana who moved here with her children and her husband, who works with the Christian Children’s Fund. She speaks very little English, and her scars tell us she comes out of hardship. But as we gathered around the piano and sang Amazing Grace her face lit up with the light of Christ. I saw the face of Christ in the mother superior of an Episcopal convent where for years I went on an annual retreat. She is Mother Catherine Grace, a former nurse who now helps to run a hospice sponsored by her order. She blew my whole stereotype of nuns and monks as somber, sickeningly pious people. Mother C.G., as she is widely known, is full of joy and has a bubbling sense of humor—just like Jesus. I see in the face of Jesus not just compassion and wisdom and insight and energy, but a face of joy and laughter too. I believe God wants us to laugh.

There was another mother superior, an Irish woman, who, at 98, was on her deathbed. The other nuns gathered around trying to make her last moments comfortable. They tried to give her some warm milk to drink, but she refused. So one of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen, having remembered a bottle of Irish whiskey that the convent had received as a gift the previous Christmas. She poured a generous amount of the whiskey into the glass of milk and took it back to the dying mother superior. The aged nun drank a little, then a little more, and pretty soon she had consumed all of it, right down to the last drop. Seeing her a little more awake, one of the younger nuns asked, “Dear Mother, can you give us a word of wisdom before you die?” “Yes,” she said piously, raising herself up in the bed, “don’t sell that cow!”

“But at my vindication,” sang the psalmist, “I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” That’s what our journey of faith is all about. We seek vindication; we seek redemption; a way out, a way back to God—for this life and beyond. And it is pure gift! It is all around us! And when we awaken to it, we shall see our Savior, our Great Companion, face to face, saying, “Come, follow me!”

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