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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 17 – Year

“Always thought that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried…”

Do you remember that line from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous Jesus Christ Superstar? I couldn’t shake that refrain as I traveled the hills and dales of Michigan last week running for bishop. Andrew Lloyd Weber meant for the song to accentuate the blindness of the Twelve to the real meaning of the service to which Jesus had called them. When I got back to Richmond, I looked up the rest of the refrain, which I had forgotten, and it goes like this:

Always hoped that I’d be an apostle;
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire we can write the gospels
So they’ll talk about us when we’ve died.

It is an honor to be nominated for bishop in the Church, but it is a tricky honor. Most clergy, whether they admit it or not, harbor, at least for a time, the desire to be a bishop. Not so much because they love the job, but because it represents, in the eyes of many, reaching the top rungs of the Church.

I entered this process like most, thinking that I could be a good bishop and do something important in the Church. I come away from this experience in Michigan realizing how hard it is to be a bishop in our Church, because our Church is so very divided and we expect so much from a human being. Worship, theology, social action, homosexuality, racism, sexism, and the rest of the “isms” plague our communities. And I fear for the heart of the Church because it seems to have grown so brittle.

Somehow, like the laborers in the vineyard, we have lost sight of the grace of God. Nothing grieves God’s heart more than breaking the Body of Christ over our disagreements. I have come to believe, now more than ever, that the role of a bishop is not to divide the Church. If the Church cannot resolve every issue in our lifetime, are we still not enjoined to live together in disagreement while still practicing charity? Can we forbear and love one another in our differences? Isn’t that what Jesus would ask of us? Maybe, just maybe, God is more interested in our ability to hang together than our final solutions.

There must be a better way of doing this bishop thing than we have so far discovered. Mostly we would leave our hotel about 8 a.m. and return at around midnight. We traveled the length and breath of the Diocese of Michigan, visiting churches, camps, groups, and many others who had a vested interest in who would become bishop. Everyday we went through three-hour sessions, which were like press conferences with people asking you every difficult question they could think of. Having done it all, I have two things to tell you. One, I am not packing my bags, because as one lady put it to me, “you sure told the truth. You said things the others seemed afraid to say, but I doubt it’ll get you elected.” That may be the good news for me! The whole process forced me to examine my own motivations. If I did become the bishop of Michigan, I would take it to be a call from God, and I would undertake to do that work not because of some internal drive to be an apostle and get recognition for reaching the top, but knowing that what a bishop needs to be is a servant of all and blind to the very fact that he is a bishop.

It became clear to me what a powerful witness we have at St. James’s. When you are in the middle of it, it is hard to see it, but I want to tell you how proud I am of this community for its spirit, its hospitality, and its commitment to mission. Everywhere I went people asked me how we did it here. And we do it here because we try to live those words written above our altar, “Be ye doers….”

When I was in Massachusetts there was a woman named Charlotte in my parish. She hated this story about the laborers in the vineyard. One Monday morning she stormed into my office and said, “Jesus couldn’t have told a parable like that. If the kingdom of God is like that I don’t want any part of it.” Charlotte could not be swayed. Her issue was fairness. She was a consummate New Englander. You got what you deserved. If you worked hard, then you deserved to be rewarded. If you were a slouch then you had no merit.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is not a fair place, because if it were we would all be in trouble. It is different from what we expect. God’s justice is not our justice. Jesus knew that everyone one of us is flawed. Bishops included. Didn’t Jesus say that it is not only what we do that counts, it is also what we think about doing, because the impulse is the same as the action? I know there are many of us that would want to argue with Jesus about that, but that is what he said. And I think he said this, not so much to get us to argue with him, or to convince us how really bad we are, as to see that if we were to throw ourselves on our own righteousness we wouldn’t amount to much. Even the best among us doesn’t measure up. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, understood this parable when he wrote, ‘There is so little difference in human beings; that in God’s eyes the difference between the best and worst of us is indistinguishable.”

Jesus tries to tell his apostles that merit means nothing in God’s eyes. And the reason for this is not the usual spin that some people put on Christianity—that we are all horrible sinners. No—rather, we use religion to set ourselves against each other by putting more importance on what we believe than on how we love. That is why being a doer is more important to me than being a believer. Don’t we all have a little Pharisee in us? The feeling that I might be a little bad, but thank God I am not like some of you. Don’t we teach this to our children? Thank God you are not like so and so! Jesus recognized this as a horrible religious attitude. You and I cannot earn God’s grace. The smallest act of love is just as important as the greatest sacrifice in God’s eyes. You don’t have to be a saint to be loved by God, you just have to be willing to try to love others, no matter what you have been or done in the past. This is the great good news of Christianity.

Semmy Reikirk was one of those persons who helped German Jews escape the Nazis. She was a Dutch woman who risked her life and lost her husband to the resistance. She said, ” I have thought very much about this war and about the things that have happened since the war. I think every human being is like a piano. In every man or woman lives the whole scale from very bad to very good. It’s the circumstances that bring out the tone. You can’t always live by the high tones. You live very often by the low tones. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of me. I am as bad as every other person–sometimes.” She understood Jesus.

In a wonderful book entitled Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, the famous science fiction writer Ursula LeGuinn distinguishes between “making a new world” and “making the world new”:

If the church is to make the world new, maybe it’s time for the church to stop putting crosses on top of its buildings, up above the fray, put on its sacred altars, protected inside from the outside world, or even on our stoles, which don’t touch our bodies. Maybe it’s time to start bearing on our bodies the marks of the cross. Maybe it’s time to put our theological differences and career climbing aside and do some world saving for Christ.

The Diocese of Michigan has done remarkable, almost unbelievable work in the City of Detroit in providing housing for the poor. Frankly, I could not believe how many people the love and generosity of Episcopalians had touched. It made me proud to be one.

Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to make the point that God rewards us not through any merit on our part but through God’s mercy.

New Testament scholars think this parable was told in the early churches because some people felt that too much time and money was being spent on people who didn’t deserve it. Church hasn’t changed much has it?

We do not earn God’s love by special acts of devotion, by long hours in Church on our knees, or by following the commandments to the letter of the law. God is a generous God who cares for everybody, including the latecomers as well as for those of us who got an early start. In human terms, God understands those who come after long years of soul-searching and spiritual and moral agony just as much as those who line up when the doors are open and are the first in.

The reason for being a Christian is not for a promised reward. It is because in the universe this is our best hope. It is positively the best way to live the great gift of life that we are given. It is written in the Talmud, “God wants the heart.” God wants your heart and my heart to be a different kind of heart; a heart that has courage to have faith in the face of the most awful events; a heart that refuses to give in to the principalities of this world; a heart that will choose to love instead of to hate; a heart that will be brave even when it is afraid.

Reinhold Neibuhr wrote in a moment of extraordinary insight: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

It doesn’t matter who are what we are: deacon, bishop, priest, vestry person, anybody…that is what the Lord Jesus wants from us, not to be an Apostle, but to give our hearts away.

Let us pray: We beg you, O Lord, that the fiery and sweet strength of your love may absorb our souls away from all things that are under heaven, that we may die for love of your love as you deigned to die for love of our love. Amen. (St. Francis of Assisi)

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