Sunday, September 1, 2019

12 Pentecost

Bishop James Pike
(1913-1969)
September 1, 2019

Luke 14:1, 7-14

+ Tomorrow, September 2—is the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial bishops in the Episcopal Church.

Bishop James Pike, the Bishop of California, was most definitely a person like we have not seen since.

He was controversial, he was an alcoholic, he was a philanderer. He consulted mediums.

He was brought up on heresy charges in the Episcopal Church because he wrote books about his disbelief in the Trinity and the Virgin birth of Jesus, among other controversial issues of the time, like abortion and the ordination of women in the Church.

He was, in many ways, definitely ahead of his time.

I quote him often because was just so…quotable.

On this day 50 years ago, he and his third wife headed out in the Judean desert looking for the Qumran caves, where the Dead Scrolls were found.  They were unprepared for the desert. They brought a bottle of water and that was about it.  At some point their car broke down and they decided to go out and search for help. They split up. His wife was later found wandering about by an Israeli army patrol.

But Bishop Pike could not be found. Several days later, he was found beside a pool of water. He had fallen from a cliff and fractured bones and died of exposure the day following the car breaking down.

It was a sad end to a troubled man.

He was an arrogant man, a proud man, a fractured man. And someone we are still talking about 50 years later.

The great Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow, and his partner Anthony wrote a biography of Pike. And in it, they wrote this haunting piece:

The death to self in Christ was neither doctrinal abstraction or theological jargon for James Pike. He died in such a way before his death in Judea. He died to authority, celebrity, the opinions of others, publicity, status, dependence upon Mama, indulgences in alcohol and tobacco, family and children, marriage and marriages, promiscuity, scholarly ambition, the lawyer's profession, political opportunity, Olympian discourses, forensic agility, controversy, denigration, injustice, religion, the need to justify himself.

By the time Bishop Pike reached the wilderness in Judea, he had died in Christ. What, then, happened there was not so much a death as a birth."

That quote has haunted me and obsessed me for years.

And so has Pike to some extent.

This man who was not humble by any sense of the word, gained a strange sense of humility by the time he died.  And that shows that Bishop Pike, rather than being someone we scoff at and condemn in our way, is actually someone who shows us a way forward on our Christian journey.

Humility.

The last person we would think would give us a lesson on humility would be James Pike.   But he is doing so today.

Because Humility is what we find in our Gospel reading for today.  For those of us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel—and I hope you were—we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words.

I know I certainly do.  

And if we aren’t struggling—if those words don’t make us uncomfortable—then maybe we should be.  They are uncomfortable words, after all.  Jesus is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we consistently put ourselves first—if we let our egos win out—we are truly putting ourselves in jeopardy.

What we do here on earth—in this life—does make a difference. It makes a difference here, and it makes a difference in the next world. It makes a difference with those we neglect. And it makes a difference with God. And we should take heed.  We shouldn’t neglect those who are least among us.

But probably the most difficult aspect of our Gospel today is when Jesus summarized everything in that all-too-familiar maxim:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not pulling any punches here. He is as clear as day.

Humble yourselves. If you do so, you will be exalted. If you are arrogant and full of yourself, you will be humbled.

I know this might come as a completely surprise to those of you who know me, there have been times when I have been a bit arrogant.

There have been times when I have been a bit full of myself. And I can tell you that each time I have, I have been very quickly put in my place.  I have been humbled in those instances.  As I rightly should have been.

Humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy.  For those of us who have spent a good part of lives in church, we have known too many arrogant, self-centered, conceited Christians in our lives.  They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, or in the pulpit, or at the altar.

Pride is an ugly thing.  It doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the prideful one.

But to be fair, it’s easy enough to do.  It’s easy enough to fall in that ugly trap of pride.  I’ve done it. We all have.

When we encounter those prideful Christians, we need to be careful how we deal with them.  Because we need to remind ourselves: “there but for the grace of God, go we.”

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians.  We know we are loved by God.  We know we, as followers of Jesus, through our Baptisms, have a special place in relation to God.  It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured.  And when we are fully immersed in Church work, it’s easy for us to think that the success or failure of the ministry of the Church depends on us as individuals.

Earlier this summer I preached about lone wolf ministry. Lone wolf ministry doesn’t work. And Jesus certainly never intended his followers to be lone wolves.

Discipleship means community.  Still, we do it. We fail at this.  I do it more often than I care to admit.  We’ve all heard it, “If I didn’t do it, who would?”

“If I didn’t do it, it’s just not going to get done.”

And sometimes, this might be true.

But, it is a dangerous road to take when we start thinking everything revolves around us. That our opinion is the only right opinion.  And for clergy, they are in an even more vulnerable place.

As clergy, we occasionally find ourselves being praised and treated with a sometimes undeserved respect. And although I have found my vocation to the priesthood to be a very humbling experience, there are times when we might find ourselves feeling very smug over a job well done.

That’s true with all of us, as Christians.

It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us as individual. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us and only us.

Life, after all, is a matter of perspective.  And from our perspective, everything else does in fact revolve around us.

But our job as followers and disciples of Jesus is to change that perspective.  Our job as Christians is to, always and everywhere, put God first.  It is not all about us. We are just a breath.  We are just a blink of the eye in the larger scheme of everything.  We are born, we live, we die.  And then we are gone.  

And, without God, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be no us, without God.

God gives us our definition.

God gives us our identity.

God gives us our purpose.

This is what it means to be a Christian. And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humbled being exalted.

Who knows better than Jesus about humility?  He, the divine Son of God, who was humbled himself to the point of actually being betrayed, humiliated and murdered, knew a few things about humility.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put God first.  When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that God is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around God.  

After all, as we hear in that beautiful reading from Hebrews, God says to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

As long as God is with us—as God’s light is shining through us—we can simply be who we are without trying to be something we are not.  When we find ourselves shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, let us remember that the light shining through us is not my light or your light, but the light of God and that any reflection others have of our works is accomplished only through that light.

When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Jesus as he says to us, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

God wants us to be exalted.  God wants to exalt us.  But this can only happen when we come before God in all humility, as humble disciples of Jesus, serving our loving God in those poor and needy people around us. This can only happen when we place God at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put God first. Let us humble ourselves before God.  And let the light of God’s love shine through us in all that we do. Amen.


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