Burn brightly with Katherine to bring in the kingdom of God.
The new Primate preaches again—November 5, All Saints’ Sunday
In the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. there is a special seat—cathedra—for the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. On Sunday November 5, Katherine Jefferts-Schori was formally seated in that chair as the new Presiding Bishop. In the Eucharist where this seating occurred, she was the preacher. Significantly there was also in this service (as there had been the day before at her Recognition Service) the increasingly popular ceremony in this Church of the sprinkling of everyone with “Baptismal Water” to emphasize that all are committed to the terms of “the Baptismal Covenant” (see the 1979 prayer book for details).
In her homily she sought to combine the theme of All Saints’ with that of “The Baptismal Covenant.” However, like her sermon from the previous day her “Gospel” was a message of what can and should be in this world if all of us love justice and peace and work for human dignity and reconciliation—the kingdom of God on earth. She seems to regard only as inspirational symbolism the New Testament vision of the Jerusalem that is above where Christ reigns as Lord and King, where the angels and saints in glory praise him, and to where the pilgrim Church of God is heading on the narrow way that leads to life. Rather, her emphasis and concern is to improve the lot of people of earth in ways to which most decent people could say “Amen,” even if they do (as yet) little to achieve such a state of health, peace and justice.
Katherine is aware that in order truly to get involved in the bringing of peace and justice most baptized Episcopalians need a mighty push:
Saints are those who are vulnerable to the gut-wrenching pain of this world. Some of us have to be seized by the throat or thrown into the tomb before we can begin to find that depth of compassion. And perhaps unless we are, we won't leave our comfortable narrow lives - or our remarkably nasty ones - to wake up and begin to answer that pain.
And she believes that they can get some encouragement from the Early Church to make commitment to their baptismal covenant:
In the early church, baptism was meant to be that kind of life-altering encounter. New saints spent three years in the readying, and then were taken in the dead of night into the crypt, stripped naked, and drowned - only to emerge filled with new breath, doused with sweet-smelling oil, and given a new white robe. What you and I do on Sunday mornings today sometimes seems a pale imitation, yet it can have every bit the same effect.
Then she referred to the experience of sprinkling with baptismal water that all soon would experience in the service:
When we remember our baptisms in the sprinkling in a few minutes most of us will probably cringe. We don't like to get wet. But I hope and pray that you and I can welcome those surprising drops as a tiny reminder of what is meant to happen to us, over and over again,day after day after day. Die to the old, be unbound, come out into abundant life in service to the world. Wake up, and notice the suffering around us.
It is the willingness to experience that pain which more than anything else marks us as saints. The pain of the whole world - those who agree with us and those who might be called enemies. The pain of creation, abused for our pleasure. The pain of a six-year old child in Ghana, sold into slavery, to bail a fishing canoe and repair nets for 100 hours a week so that his parents might eat.
In the Early Church Baptism was seen, not as a being born anew to improve this world by social, medical, political and economic action by available worldly means, but rather as being born into the new age of the kingdom of God and united to Christ in the death to sin and to new life in him by the Spirit in order to be a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem. And then to live as the salt of the earth and the light of the world as disciples of Christ in this world, working for the conversion and sanctification of the people of this world but not belonging to the ethos and spirit of this sinful world, and very specifically rejecting Satan and all his wiles.
Katherine ended her second sermon from that pulpit in two days with an inspiring call to the Cathedral congregation to action. It began with an illustration taken from Oregon where she once lived and worked and ends by using the symbolism of the heavenly Jerusalem:
In western Oregon for decades the usual way to clean up the fields after a crop of grass seed was harvested was to set the stubble afire. Clouds of noxious smoke filled the skies, and often drifted for dozens of miles. Air quality issues have led to other ways of controlling the smoke output, but burning is still the very best way to sanitize the fields and get rid of the stubble. What do you think? Can we make holy smoke?
The episkopeis of the saints, their ministry, cleans the fields of that which cannot survive in God's dream of shalom, it burns away whatever limits that dream or cannot contribute to it. The ministry of governance, whether in the legislature, the polling booth, or in raising a child, is meant to prepare the ground for a new and abundant crop of life. Most of us here this morning will have an opportunity to exercise that kind of ministry on Tuesday. Will you consider your vote as an act of "running through the stubble?" Would that we might all be able to answer, "I will, with God's help."
Let the pain of this world seize us by the throat. Listen for Jesus calling us all out of our tombs of despair and apathy. May the shock of baptismal dying once more set us afire. This place we call home is meant to be a new heaven, a new earth, a holy city, a new Jerusalem. It is the sparks in the stubble that will make it so.
Turn inward for a moment and greet the spirit planted within you. When we come to the [passing of the] peace, turn to your neighbors and greet the saints, the fire-lighters in this field. Welcome, saint! Burn brightly and transform this world into God's field for life, full measure, pressed down and overflowing, meant for all humanity and all creation. Burn!
Episcopalians are called to BURN!
Unlike her predecessor, Frank Griswold, who often sought to hide his radical mindset and agenda through rhetorical devices, Katherine makes it all clear. She looks for the kingdom of God on earth in the form of a renewed human life together on this planet, and in the pursuit of this Goal the baptized and covenanted people of God [Episcopalians] need to be wholly committed.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)