Sunday, November 05, 2006

Home, sweet Home! Shalom, sweet Shalom! The sermon of the new Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

On November 4, 2006, in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the new Lady Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, publicly took up her new vocation. Her sermon followed in the Service that which for her was necessary and highly significant, while for others it was puzzling. She had everyone in the Cathedral involved in “The Baptismal Covenant” from the 1979 prayer book, not only in terms of making the commitments of it, but also being sprinkled with baptismal water by a team of bishops and deacons as a external sign of an internal covenant they all made with God. Only in her sermon did one realize why she places so much emphasis upon this “Covenant.” It is for her the basis of the Church’s mission and work in the world and also the basis of her own ministry. Thus, though she gave out no text for her sermon, we may assume that it was the words of this Covenant and in particular the commitment made to God in it to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

In moving and at times eloquent terms she spoke of the human yearning for home and for vital community life:

We all ache for a community that will take us in, with all our warts and quirks and petty meannesses - and yet they still celebrate when they see us coming! That vision of homegoing and homecoming that underlies our deepest spiritual yearnings is also the job assignment each one of us gets in baptism - go home, and while you're at it, help to build a home for everyone else on earth. For none of us can truly find our rest in God until all of our brothers and sisters have also been welcomed home like the prodigal.

Then she took up the theme of peace through the familiar Hebrew word, “shalom.”

There's a wonderful Hebrew word for that vision and work - shalom. It doesn't just mean the sort of peace that comes when we're no longer at war. It's that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it's a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, it's a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given, it is a vision of a world where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another, it's a vision of a world where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God. Shalom means that all human beings live together as siblings, at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of creation. It is that vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the small child playing over the den of the adder, where the specter of death no longer holds sway. It is that vision to which Jesus points when he says, "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." To say "shalom" is to know our own place and to invite and affirm the place of all of the rest of creation, once more at home in God.

Then she connected the commitment to peace of the Baptismal Covenant to the “Peace” which is the aim of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and to which The Episcopal Church is committed by its General Convention:

This church has said that our larger vision will be framed and shaped in the coming years by the vision of shalom embedded in the Millennium Development Goals - a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. That vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day, but only with the passionate commitment of each and every one of us. It is God's vision of homecoming for all humanity.

At this point there was sustained applause. Her vision is powerful and moves people of good will. But then she went on to ask the hard question of why we are all not more full committed to the pursuit of shalom.

What keeps us from the tireless search for that vision of shalom? There are probably only two answers, and they are connected - apathy and fear. One is the unwillingness to acknowledge the pain of other people, the other is an unwillingness to acknowledge that pain with enough courage to act. The cure for each is a deep and abiding hope. If God in Jesus has made captivity captive, has taken fear hostage, it is for the liberation and flourishing of hope. Augustine said that as Christians, we are prisoners of hope - a ridiculously assertive hope, a hope that unflinchingly assails the doors of heaven, a hope that will not cease until that dream of God has swallowed up death forever, a hope that has the audacity to join Jesus in saying, "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Finally, she described how the vision will be realized in practical terms:

In the courage to challenge our legislators to make poverty history, to fund AIDS work in Africa, and the distribution of anti-malarial mosquito nets, and primary schools where all children are welcomed. In the will to look within our own hearts and confront the shadows that darken the dream that God has planted there. That scripture is fulfilled each time we reach beyond our narrow self-interest to call another home.

And she concluded:

God has spoken that dream in us, let us rejoice! Let us join the raucous throngs in creation, the sea creatures and the geological features who leap for joy at the vision of all creation restored, restored to proper relationship, to all creation come home at last. May that scripture be fulfilled in our hearing and in our doing.

Shalom, chaverim, shalom, my friends, shalom.

Here the congregation cried out, “Shalom.”

What one misses in this sermon—if one had listened carefully to the reading from Ephesians which was chosen by Katherine as part of this service and if one has learned the basic Catechism of the classic Prayer Book—is the biblical, Christian vision of a regenerated and renewed cosmos. In Ephesians 1-4 it is intimately related to, indeed centered upon, the saving and redeeming work of Jesus Christ in his Cross, Resurrection, Exaltation and Return to earth. Why did Katherine say virtually nothing about the Lord Jesus and the place of the local church where is truth and unity as a kind of illustration and promise of the cosmic renewal which shall be?

In fact her message, whilst moving and idealistic in a good sense, could have been preached to any group of people who say they believe in God and also desire to see the genuine improvement of the daily lives of people in this world—which seems to be the only world for her. Her message fits well into Deism or Unitarianism or any kind of theism, which has no distinctive message of the absolute need of personal salvation from sin and corrupt society into a new people of God being saved for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven of the age to come with the Lord Jesus Christ and his saints. Her Shalom lacks the biblical dimension of peace with God in terms of everlasting salvation in and through Jesus Christ and the creation of a new people of God, who are destined to be the very center of a renewed and regenerated cosmos. And so with all her fine commitment to the improvement of this world and of the lot of needy people in this world, and her desire for genuine and real community, she does not present herself as a Christian theologian but rather as a gifted advocate for a liberal, progressive, Unitarian vision of this world as “the kingdom of God.” Nov 4, 2006

1 comment:

Tom Blair said...

Thank you Dr. Toon. I read the Bishop's sermon and it bothered me as well - though I was not able to articulate exactly the problem I had with it until I read your fine analysis.