Some of you might remember about a year ago, in those bygone days when we actually used to be able to meet in person, and in what I thought would be my last convention as the bishop of this diocese, I preached a sermon titled, “Bishops Come and Bishops Go.” It was the feast of St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, and I thought I’d be really clever in doing a little church history with everyone by pointing out that even the venerable saint’s letters — which were widely read in the churches of his day, like Paul’s letters — popular as they were, Clement’s letters never made it into the officially approved books of what would finally become the New Testament. Bishops come and bishops go; we all do.
But, as it turns out, sometimes the bishop who thought he was going, due to circumstances beyond our control, that departing bishop has hung around a little longer than originally planned. And I am grateful for the extra time we’ve had together, and grateful for this final convention. Yes, even under the stresses and strains of this pandemic and these strange, strange days, I’m grateful. Our biggest concern over the last several months has gone from, oh I dunno, vestry agendas or youth group leadership to figuring out how to install the latest update to Zoom. And in some odd way I am grateful even for that—it has led many of us, I hope, into a greater sense of solidarity with so many others in our world. If you’re not a Facebook friend with Scott Lybrand Zaucha, the rector of St. Anne’s in Woodstock, you might want to consider sending him a friend request. Scott and his husband Charles have a household full of kids, who (after all) say the darnedest things, and Scott shares some of that with us from time to time. Earlier this week, Scott posted the following … and I quote: “Sometimes I think that leading church online is hard and then I overhear a kindergarten teacher trying to keep an online class on track. I overheard a kid asking the teacher if the teacher’s internet was slow because her boyfriend was working from home too. ‘My husband is working from home, yes,’ said the teacher. ‘Maybe he’ll sign out and my internet will be faster.’” Ah, these are the critical questions of today. Can anybody give me an amen?
Apart from internet speed, I hope, I pray that this pandemic is also holding before us something vastly more important than internet speed—the central questions of our lives together as followers of Jesus in this church. A wise spiritual director of mine liked to say that the church is a great place to hide from God. Under ordinary circumstances the church can be a place where it is very easy to confuse religion with faith. Caught up in the busyness of keeping the show going, so to speak, the institutional trappings, the theological controversies, the clashes and petty controversies of any group of people trying to live and work together — all of that, perhaps has taken a bit of a back seat these days to the real heart of the matter: Who is God? And who are we in relationship to God? What really matters or should matter to us as members of the Body of Christ? At the very least, confronting the reality of COVID-19, how it has revealed the fragility of jobs and money and access to healthcare, confronting how it has amplified the ravages of institutional racism, how it has thrown into even starker relief the chaos and rancor and deceptions of our political life—in all of this, I hope we are also rediscovering what is absolutely essential to our identity as Christians.
And here is the great gift of the Gospel reading we’ve just heard today. The familiar story of the culmination of all things when we will all be judged, not for what theological positions we have held, not because of our many splendid churchy accomplishments and achievements, not because of our religious feelings or pious thoughts. No, the text says, we goats and the sheep will be distinguished simply because of what we have done, how we have responded to the needs, the hopes and the heartaches of our fellow human beings. “Because” says Jesus, “When you have done or not done these simple acts of kindness, of caring, of human solidarity, you have done them, or not, to me.”
Now this text from Matthew has been used for all kinds of purposes. It is one of the most frequently cited passages in scripture to justify the popular notion that God lets some people into heaven and throws other people into hell. Through the ages Christians have spent a lot of time on that question: who gets in and who doesn’t. What a waste of time and energy and worse, what a justification for all kinds of human atrocities. I like to point out that the Christian tradition may require me to believe in the logical possibility of something like hell, but it does not require me to believe that anyone is there. No, I believe with all my heart that God sends no one to some kind of eternal torture chamber. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. I am, however, perfectly willing to believe that we can find our way there all by ourselves. But even if we choose to go there, the mighty good news of the resurrection is that the doors are wide open and we can walk out any time we choose to. This story of the sheep and the goats isn’t about keeping ourselves out of the cosmic slammer; it’s about the journey — whether that journey is into a deeper relationship with God in Christ, or a wandering away in the other direction. We are all good goats, as the title of one of my favorite books puts it. I don’t know about you, but I have good stuff and goaty stuff all mixed up in me. And the way to discover who we really are is simply and challengingly to practice loving our neighbor. That’s how we begin to find out just how vastly we are loved by the One who meets us precisely there.
I have loved this diocese for a long time — long before I could ever have imagined being called to serve it as its bishop. Some of the most important spiritual friends and mentors in my life were formed by the Diocese of Chicago. And my love for this church, this diocese has only grown and deepened over the last twelve years. You have taught me more than I could have imagined about the extravagant, tender, fierce, transforming love of God. I have seen it among us. In Christ rising from the tomb right before our eyes as adults and infants emerge from the font of baptism. In feeding ministries and hospital chaplaincies. In medical care for those who have no access to it. In visitations of the sick and burials of our beloved departed. In lives turned around and away from the hell of addiction, incarceration, hunger and life on the street. In standing against the madness of gun violence. In the struggle to understand and repent of the blasphemous lies of white superiority and the sins of institutional racism. In the joy of faith-filled friendship in congregations from Chicago to the Quad Cities to Peoria and beyond. In the hard and holy work of reconciliation when those friendships have been disrupted by conflict or conduct. In the decision to reunite with sisters and brothers who remained faithful through schism in Quincy. In our life and death commitments to our fellow Christians in companion dioceses across the globe.
By God’s grace the Diocese of Chicago is healthy. It is a place of generous love, with a willingness not simply to live with complexity and difference, but to receive and work with those realities as the gifts they are. We are ready, I believe, to turn another new page in the ongoing story of our life together. I can’t wait for December 12th to see what the Holy Spirit and we will do together as we elect the thirteenth bishop of this diocese. Who will we welcome to lead us into the opportunities, the uncertainties, the ministries in the world opening up before us? Please, I hope you will join me in putting our trust and all our hope in God alone. We can do that because the future is God, and God is perfect love. And so that future will be good ultimately beyond anything, anything we can imagine.
Finally, I can’t say anything more or better than those words addressed to the Ephesians:
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus (I have seen it!) and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe ….