Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem titled, "If…" I am sure many of you have heard of it.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
And it continues for seven more stanzas, beginning each thought as a conditional phrase with the word, "if." Hence, the title of the poem.
The conditional phrase is common grammatical construct. The condition is "if," the consequence is "then." The poem builds anticipation this way: if you can do this, if you can do that, if you can do this. All the while the anticipation is meant to create the unspoken question in the mind of the reader of what the consequence is. In the very last lines we learn that the consequence of all these virtuous acts is: then "yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!"
We learn that the poet is writing this poem for his son. This knowledge doubles the rhetorical power of the poem, because it comes as fatherly advice—intended to be both loving and helpful.
If you go down through this poem, and look critically at each line, Kipling has cast a very broad moral vision for the living of life. It may be well summed up in the first lines, "If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…"
I have not lived many years, but from the sources of wisdom I have encountered both within and without of the Church, the common denominator seems to be "keeping your head about you." Living a life that is passionate, yes, but at the same time, reasoned. Thoughtful. Not easily shaken.
Jesus said as much. "Do not let your hearts be troubled." In the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders in Matthew's gospel, Jesus says that those who follow him are like a man who would build his house on a rock, and when the storms come, the house stands. Likewise, those who do not hear and follow, are like foolish builders who build on the sand, and when the storms come, the house falls. In the King James Version, Jesus says, "And great was the fall thereof." I love that phrase!
If I were to show you the textbooks I have on clergy leadership, or if you were to peruse the Management section of Barnes and Noble, you will see countless books dedicated to "keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you."
I think it was Churchill Gibson—that great saint of the Diocese of Virginia—who said this—but if he didn't, he should have—that it is wise to treat groups of people like stray animals. Make no sudden movements.
In the course of my life, I have discovered time and again the benefits of taking time to reflect and consider and pray. Quite often, when I am stuck on a text in the Bible or when I encounter some kind of quandary, the answer is almost never found at my desk. The answer is found driving to a pastoral visit, or bathing the children, or simply trying to go to sleep at night.
Sometimes the answer is found in the hills and valleys of Shenandoah County. I have gleaned wisdom traveling on Orkney Grade or Senedo Road. It is a simple act—slowing down to consider something in that non-anxious, playful, easy-going way you do when your mind is free from needing to make a quick fix.
Consequently, I have become very wary when someone wants me to decide something instantly. You get a phone call from someone telling you about a limited time offer, and you can almost hear the whistle as someone tries to railroad you. I like advice that calms me down. Something simple, like the poem.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
(Isn't Kipling great? If you've never kipled before, you are Kipling now!)
So—in the light of the thoughtful approach—it feels strange to read this lesson from Matthew in which Jesus talks about a day that is coming that only the Father knows. Not even he himself knows. A day like any day. People are going about their business. Jesus sort of spells it out poetically. Remember the story of the Flood, he says. "They were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage." If you look at the Greek there is a rhythmic cadence to it. It almost sounds like a song, "eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage."
Then that rhythm is broken by harsh sounds. "Until the day Noah entered the Ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and washed them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man."
And then he returns to poetry to describe the sense of uncertainty. He uses repetition. Two in the field: one is taken, one is left. Two grinding at the mill: one is taken, one is left. Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
After this he teases our minds a little bit with the analogy of a thief coming in the middle of the night. It's a playful thing to do. God is not a thief, but the analogy serves. It's going to happen when you might least expect it, so be ready.
I cannot speak for the Church as a whole, but my sense of most Episcopalians is that we would rather not speak of the return of Christ. I am not saying that Episcopalians don't believe it. I'm an Episcopalian and I very much "look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." But I'm not sure that folks would want to sit down to a discussion of that. And I can understand why.
Our biblical tradition of apocalyptic writing contains the premise that "what is going on" is not really what is going on. That there is more to it than meets the eye. And if you choose to look at the world through those lenses, then everything has a symbolic meaning to it. You begin to sound like a conspiracy theorist, and people will say, "Oh, come off it. This is not a cosmic drama of good and evil, this is just two groups of people who disagree."
But, there is a very strong tradition in the Bible for that way of looking at things. Jeremiah clearly understood the Babylonian exile to be God's punishment for the infidelity of the people of Israel, and their worship of other gods. That is the narrative of the Exile, which comprises a huge section of our Bible. Within those writings there are multiple layers of tradition, all essentially saying that there is more to this than meets the eye.
If we open up the Book of Revelation we are met with countless cosmic visions of what the end of the world will look like. There is so much imagery that it staggers the mind, and leaves even scholars scratching their heads.
But the premise remains, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg—it's symbolic of cosmic fight between God and the devil, or good and evil, or however you wish to say it.
My guess is that this is why many faithful Christians are happy to live in the expectancy that Christ will return after they have died. But (and this is only my opinion) I don't think there are many who are looking for Christ to return while they are living. It may be that they believe it is naïve to have that kind of expectancy—that it makes them a religious fanatic. Or it may just be that they do not want to live to see all the destruction and turmoil that the Revelation to John describes. I can understand both reasons, and if you can think of other reasons, I'm sure I will find them just as understandable.
We are talking, after all, about uncertain things, and they are written about in the Bible with poetic language—meaning that even Jesus resorts to poetry and imagination in describing these events.
But it seems to me that the intention of this lesson is not to frighten us, or make us wary of what will happen. The language Jesus uses is, on the surface of it, very anxious—it is intended to make us sit up in our pews and realize that the status quo will change. But that is—I think—the secondary intention of the text.
The primary intention is to encourage us to" be ready." And I'm going to insist on the tense of that verb as present tense. Not the future—as in—"get ready"—as in—"You aren't anywhere close to where you need to be!" But "be ready." Live ready. Living that is the entirety of the devout Christian life—to be given to prayer and acts of service. To be faithful to God in crisis and in peace.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons once wrote, "The glory of God is Man fully alive." In Latin, Gloria Dei Vivens Homo. That God's glory is the human being—the image and likeness of God—living the fullness of the life God intended. This is what, I believe, the prophet Micah meant when he wrote, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God?" (6:8)
I do not believe that we are meant to live in fear of the end of days. I could be wrong, but I really don't think it is part of God's character to want us to be afraid. I think God wishes us to be fully alive. To do what he said from the beginning: replenish the earth and subdue it. Be fruitful. (Genesis 1) Live a life of holy relationships with others, and with him.
If we are doing those things... If we are living the life we have been given in obedience to the Gospel, and in service to Creation, then I think we will "be ready" at whatever hour God chooses.
I we can do that, then—with apologies to Kipling—yours is the earth and everything that's in it, and what is more, you'll be a Christian, my son.
Remaining seated, let us pray. I want to offer part of a prayer by Jeremy Taylor, one of the great Anglican Divines of the 17th century.
O ETERNAL and holy Jesus, who by death hast overcome death and by thy passion hast taken out its sting and made it to become one of the gates of heaven and an entrance to felicity: Have mercy upon [us] now and at the hour of [our] death. Let thy Grace accompany [us] all the days of [our lives] that [we] may, by an holy conversation and an habitual performance of [our duties], wait for the coming of our Lord, and be ready to enter with thee at whatever hour thou shalt come. Amen.
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The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.