Presiding Bishop's Sermon at Holy Apostles Hmong Congregation in Minneapolis, MN

Easter 6B rcl
May 17, 2009

Last weekend I was in Jamaica for a meeting of the Anglican Communion. Each of the members of the Anglican Consultative Council went out to visit a congregation somewhere in Jamaica, and to hear something about their mission challenges and opportunities. I went with a priest from Myanmar to a congregation that has been in the town of Black River for nearly 350 years. On Monday the ACC members talked about our experiences and what we’d learned. We heard a remarkable story from a congregation way up in the mountains, where a bishop from Kenya had gone.

This rural mountain village is home to Maroons, descendants of African slaves in Jamaica who still speak one of the tribal languages of Ghana. The priest there told us of her challenges, working with very traditional Anglicans who have resisted bringing anything of their African cultural heritage into their worship life. She also told us that the leader of the Maroon community, who is not himself an Anglican, but a Seventh Day Adventist, came to the service on Sunday with other Maroon leaders to welcome the Anglican guest from Africa. They brought their abeng, a traditional cow horn, and played it in welcome, and they brought their drums, too. The Kenyan bishop spoke about his own church, and the ways in which his people’s culture is part of their worship. The priest told us that he did more evangelical work in a couple of hours than she’d been able to do in four years – simply by affirming the goodness of using familiar elements of their culture to praise God.

When I was bishop in Nevada we had similar questions and struggles in the two Native American congregations – one of them avoided any trace of traditional native spirituality, and the other blessed what was good and congruent with Christianity and brought it into worship – smudging the altar with sage, using water from the tribe’s holy lake for baptism, and praying toward the four directions in a way that recognizes the goodness of God’s creation.

Something like that went on in Cornelius’ house, as Peter suddenly recognized that gentiles – people who were treated as outsiders, unclean foreigners, and incapable of joining the fellowship – were baptizable. Just before the section of Acts we heard this morning, Peter says to the people in that house, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35). It doesn’t say anything about particular cultures not being acceptable – indeed, just the reverse.

Part of the honored work of following Jesus has to do with discovering the ways in which God has already been at work – even in these gentiles, or among the African descendants of slaves in Jamaica, or in new Kenyan Christians, or right here. God can be praised with organs and with gongs, with voices and guitars, with cow horns and with brass bells. God is at work in all the human families of the earth; friends of Jesus may be found in all of them; and each one can use the gifts of his or her own culture to offer praise to God.
When Jesus talks about abiding in those who follow him, he means just that – he abides, he lives within the hearts of people of all families, languages, tribes, and nations. He abides in contexts we know, in communities we’ve never experienced, and in contexts that are just now coming into being. That’s one of the bigger challenges in the church everywhere right now – how to speak about the good news of Jesus to people who don’t know anything about it, to young people who have a yearning to belong and find meaning in their lives, to immigrants from around the world, and to the descendants of the nations who have lived in this place for millennia. God is at work everywhere, and the challenge is to uncover evidence of God’s abiding presence, and connect it with the good news we know in Jesus.

How have you discovered that God’s love means you are welcome in this strange, cold land? How are you putting that awareness to work in welcoming others to abide in God’s love? To be friends of Jesus means that we’re always looking for God’s presence, and uncovering it in company with others.
Jesus asks us to love one another, lay down our lives for each other, and to be his friends. All of that hard work comes down to discovering God in the stranger. Those opportunities come all the time, and the only thing we have to do is be ready to notice and respond. Occasionally I have an encounter like that.
Thursday morning I was in Los Angeles, getting ready to fly here. I went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and I didn’t have on a collar, but I walked in and negotiated for a table that wasn’t in the traffic pattern. I got up to go to the buffet, and I stepped aside for a woman who was leaving. She walked right up and said how much she appreciated the confident way I’d walked in and the way in which I’d spoken to the people who seated me and brought me coffee. I stood there thinking, this is really weird. But she went on, talking about women who don’t have confidence in themselves, and I began to realize she was looking for some affirmation or support or connection. She went on to tell me about the spiritual book she was reading, and mentioned some names that I think are TV preachers. I didn’t get to say a word until she decided it was time to leave. And all I could say was to repeat what she said to me, “bless you.” I met Jesus in that stranger.

So how do we abide in Jesus? Are we willing to befriend his friends, even in very odd circumstances? Do we expect to find evidence of his presence in different cultures, and nationalities, and peoples?
The Sunday before our visit to parishes in Jamaica, there was an opening service in Kingston, with several thousand Jamaicans gathered in a sports stadium. We sang old standard hymns, but we also heard the same abeng or cow horn that the Maroon leader played for the Kenyan visitor. And we sang a new song like the psalmist urges, a hymn written for the occasion. It’s called Lord of our diversity, the authors are Mervyn Morris and Noel Dexter, and we sang it to a variation on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It’s an image of what looking for Jesus in strangers might look like:

Lord of our diversity, unite us all, we pray;
welcome us to fellowship in your inclusive way

Teach us all to have respect; to love, and not deride.
Save us from the challenges of selfishness and pride.

Sanctify our listening and help us get the sense
of perplexing arguments before we take offense.
Teach us that opinions which at first may seem quite strange
may reflect the glory of your great creative range.

May the Holy Spirit now show us the way preferred.
May we follow the commands of your authentic Word.

May we indeed follow the commands of your authentic Word, O Lord, and love each other as you have loved us.