Presiding Bishop preaches in Washington, DC

May 14, 2014

[Episcopal Church Office of Pubic Affairs] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori delivered the following sermon during morning Eucharist May 14 at the Simpson Memorial Chapel in the United Methodist Building across from U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.


Advocacy to Challenge Domestic Poverty
14 May 2014
Washington, DC

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Do you know the story of Sisyphus?  He’s a character in Greek mythology who’s condemned to roll the same rock up the hill forever.  Every time he gets to the top of the hill, the rock rolls right back down.  His story has something in common with Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, who has to repeat the same day until he gets things a little closer to right.  The difference is that Sisyphus is stuck for eternity.

We are in the same sort of uphill business, but we’re in it for the sake of eternity.  We’re here today to bear the Rock of Ages up this hill.  Jesus insists that his job isn’t to judge the world but to save it – by speaking what he’s been commanded:  eternal life.  That’s the word and vision we’re supposed to bring up with us.  All Jesus’ followers are meant to be climbing up the hill to spread a vision of eternal and abundant life.  And we also claim the hope that there will eventually be an end to climbing up the hill.

This understanding of eternity is shorthand for the Reign of God fully present.  It’s about humanity and all creation collaborating in an ecosystem of justice, living in freedom and holiness.  The Navajo word for it is hozho, often translated as beauty or balance.  Hebrew calls it shalom.  It means knowing that we are all related and connected, and that how we live affects all others – that we will only find peace and justice when we live consciously interdependent lives.  This is the vision that the prophets have always held up.  Hear again Isaiah’s banquet on the hillside:  “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples… he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…”[1]

That’s what needs to roll up the hill today – that image of a holy picnic, so that all the people of this nation might enjoy the feast.  Go up that hill “as a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”[2]  Take your part in the body of Christ, and be that flaming vision of righteousness that Bishop Stacy referred to on Monday.  A verse we didn’t hear:

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

God’s day is marching on.[3]

Be the flaming lamp that gives light to the world we share.[4]  Take your light up that hill, light fires in those who have grown cold or dead, and let it combine with others, to bring light to this and every nation.

This hill could help build a city that sheds light on the nations.  That’s certainly what our forebears here hoped for.  We may doubt that this hill will ever induce the nations to stream in and learn righteousness, beauty, and balance in human relationships.  It’s been something of the opposite in recent years.  But the dreams you bear up here can help to warm cold hearts and remind us all of our interconnectedness.  As the psalmist puts it, when the people practice justice, God blesses it, and the nations stand in awe of it.  Consider your travels this day like marching to Zion, the beautiful city of God:  “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known; join in a song with sweet accord, and thus surround the throne.”[5]

This hill is much like the one Jesus climbed when he went to confront the powers in Jerusalem.  It is the hill of Calvary as well.  It is a place of sacrifice, where each of us can offer something of ourselves for the life of the whole body.  May your offering this day bring healing and holiness.  Be like the widow seeking justice – keep knocking at the door of justice.

Remember that none of us goes alone to this task – we go in company, as part of the body of Christ, and the company of all faithful people seeking that eternal vision of holy and healed community.  Barnabas and Saul were sent out by a band of leaders and advocates in the church in Antioch, who represented the diversity of the Mediterranean world:  Simeon the Black, Lucius from Libya, and even Manaean, a member of Herod’s court (some say he was Herod’s foster-brother) – quite a range of ethnicities and social locations.  They sent them off to Cyprus and Greece to share this vision with the whole world.  You don’t climb this hill alone.  You go as part of the company of saints, on behalf of the forgotten in this land.  The message you carry today is an essential piece of bringing true peace everywhere.

Our hope lies in expecting to find God there ahead of us, already at work transforming hearts and minds toward that vision of eternity.  I would challenge you to expect to meet the image of God in your visits this day – in people who disagree with you, or seem not to listen.  Search for God’s image anyway.  Share what you know of the image of God in the poor, in yourself and in your neighbor.  You’ve had a remarkable experience of meeting the image of God in this gathering, which has now become a body of friends.  Can you share that light with those you meet today?

This Congress has had enormous difficulty recently in seeing the holiness of all sorts of others – those with different positions and strategic approaches to the nation’s problems, those with little voice in national politics, the hungry and poor for whom we used to claim the door was fully open.  You might take with you the torch of freedom, an image born of the more cosmic one we know as the eternal light of the world:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning,
And her name, Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome…

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, Tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door![6]

The Mother of Exiles welcomes the poor.  Anselm of Canterbury put it this way in the 11th century:  “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.  Often you weep over our sins and our pride, tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment. You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.”[7]

Bear the torchlight up the hill, spread its flame, and open the door of true and holy freedom for all.


[1] Isaiah 25:6-8a

[2] Isaiah 49:6

[3] Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, v 2

[4] Matthew 5:15

[5] Isaac Watts, “We’re Marching to Zion.”

[6] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus.”  Inscription on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

[7] Canticle Q, “A Song of Christ’s Goodness,” Anselm of Canterbury.  Enriching Our Worship 1 39

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