Important!Two weeks ago, on May 16, we had our first visit from the Bishop of Arkansas since before the pandemic shut everything down, probably the first in more than two years. He came reluctantly — we are still wearing masks and socially separating and, worst of all, we’re not doing pot-luck lunches yet. And yet still he came and managed to say more in his short sermon than I’ve heard in many that were downright purgatorial.
I was particularly intrigued by this sentence: “I have a very non-interventionist view of God’s work in the world.” So much so that I later emailed and asked the bishop for more details. His response was to send the entire sermon, along with permission to share it here.
I’m still gnawing on that phrase “a very non-interventionist view of God’s work in the world” but it’s as good a theological explanation for the cruelty and death and destruction in every corner of this bloody little planet. And the burden of fixing it all falls squarely on those of us who know what love looks like. My suspicion is it’s going to be a lot more than Baptists and Episcopalians — we may find our fellow workers to be Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, and even atheists…
Larry R. Benfield
Easter 7, Year B
St. Luke’s, Hot Springs
16 May 2021
It might make you slightly queasy, but the next big election is only three years away. You may think I am talking about the presidential election because already we have people jockeying for position, including our own junior senator, who is making trips to certain early primary states and introducing legislation to tax the large, historic universities because they supposedly teach young people to hate America. Go figure. But I digress.
The election I am talking about is for presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Michael Curry’s term will end in 2024, and this past week the clerical form of jockeying began: they announced the slate of nominees for the committee to select the nominees. If that makes your head spin, you are not alone. All the same, though, we bishops began reading the tea leaves. You see, if you want to be on the committee that selects the nominees, it means that you do not want to be a nominee. Some of the names on the list this week surprised us. Finding leadership in the church these days often seems like one long political game. It will be an interesting next three years.
But apparently it was not always thus. Today’s lesson from the book of Acts tells of how the nascent church found someone to replace the Judas, the follower of Jesus who betrayed him in the awful events surrounding Good Friday. Its leaders cast lots. The Jewish high priest had apparently used lot casting on occasion, so there was precedence. History tells us that it did not take too long for the church to stop this sort of supposedly reckless behavior. Any movement that becomes an institution finds a way to regularize its leadership. We don’t leave such things to chance. “Leadership succession,” the business school professors would call it. You don’t draw names out of a hat to determine who will lead an institution, as promising as such a thing might be, given what we now know about how greedily many Fortune 500 CEOs often perform in their jobs.
There are clues, though, in the book of Acts and in the gospels, that the early church—which grew so rapidly that Acts tells us that shortly after Good Friday there were 120 followers and in the next chapter reports that 3000 were baptized in one day—that the very early church was willing to let God work through anyone. There is, of course, this story of casting lots for a new apostle, but what I find just as fascinating is the first part of this story, when the writer admits that Judas “was allotted his share in this ministry.” Judas, the scourge of preachers for two millennia, had a share in ministry. That fact might make a lot of church ladies and church gentlemen squirm in their pews.
Why is the writer of Acts willing to report about Judas’s ministry and Matthias’s selection? Well, go back to the resurrection appearances. They were not planned. Mary Magdalene looks up and sees a gardener. Certain disciples run into a stranger on the road to Emmaus. And that whole group of people who likely did not stand at the cross but instead ran away, and are so scared that they lock themselves in a room, find the resurrected Christ in their midst. These are not planned for, calculated events. In each instance the first followers of Jesus simply look up at who is present and see Christ. It is sort of like pulling a name out of a hat, and saying, “This is who we’ve got.”
I have a very non-interventionist view of God’s work in the world. For example, I don’t think that God rigs the system so that one unemployed person gets a job and not another who has just as many bills to pay and mouths to feed, nor do I think that God answers prayers on winning the lottery. No, what we say is that God is hanging on a cross, showing what love looks like in the midst of everything gone wrong. That is the story that we’ve got.
What God is doing in the Christian story is being present in the least and the last and the totally unexpected. What God is doing is showing that life and love can be present even in the stench of death. That is how we experience resurrection, to see God present, not in power, but in the midst of powerlessness, even in the midst of individuals not of our own choosing, who represent death to old and comfortable ways of living. What happens when we pray is that we are slowly being conformed into this aspect of God, a people who choose presence over absence, relationship over estrangement.
Our call as members of the body of Christ is to reconcile, to connect the expected with the unexpected, the comfortable with the uncomfortable, the lovable with the unlovable, to connect…well…to connect who we’ve got with who we’ve got. Our call is to work toward restoration, and we do so in part when we decide that we will take in whoever it is that comes our way, we will share the good news with them primarily by the way we treat them, and we will send them out to join us in the work that God has given both them and us to do.
We will witness the resurrection in the person outside this church just as surely as those of us inside it, in people who do not speak our language as well as those who do, in minimum wage workers as well as in investors, in children as well as in adults, in single people as well as in families, in Baptists as well as in Episcopalians. Our lot in life is to witness the resurrected Christ in every person whose lot in life we draw.
Casting lots, as they did as they chose Matthias, is simply a tangible way that we remind ourselves that we will find holiness in whatever it is that comes our way. We cannot control how holiness will be seen or how ministry will ultimately be accomplished. We simply roll the dice and see what we are given. Then we announce, “This is who we’ve got. We’ve got a witness to God’s enormous love.” And then we start going about the work God has given us to do, looking for signs of risen Christ in whoever is the next person we encounter. Amen.
Bishop of Arkansas