Episcopal Relief & Development - Evening Prayer and Commissioning of Diocesan Representatives

Newark, NJ
May 25, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Today is the feast of Bede, who lived from 673 to 735, and is probably best known for writing a history of the English church from its beginnings up to the early 8th century.  Much of what we know about Augustine of Canterbury and others who brought Christianity to the British Isles again after the Romans left is due to his work.  Bede spent nearly his entire life in the monastery at Jarrow, in the east of England.  He was taken into the monastery at age 7 to be educated.  A plague hit the monastery when he was 13, and only he and the abbot survived.  He was the abbot’s sole companion in singing the services until new monks joined the monastery and were trained in the chants – a major effort for a young teenager, given the fact that they got up in the middle of the night to pray, and continued with several services through each day. 

Bede spent his adult life studying, teaching new monks, and writing a wide variety of scholarly papers.  He worked at getting the Celts to sort out when to celebrate Easter (there were major fights over how to figure the proper date), and in his ecclesiastical history book used the newfangled time scheme (anno Domini = AD) that numbered the years since the birth of Jesus.  He died after a day of teaching and was buried in the monastic church.  Three centuries later, a monk from Durham stole his bones away to that cathedral.  Three hundred and fifty years after that, his bones were placed in a chapel in that same cathedral, where they are enshrined to this day, and a site of continuing pilgrimage. 

Last fall Dick and I visited Bede’s ruined monastery in Jarrow, as well as his shrine in Durham Cathedral.  There is a parish church near the old monastery, and when we were there it was filled with a group of schoolchildren.  They had been invited to put on rough habits and sit in the choir.  The guide modeled the role of a prior and explained to the children what it was like to live as a monk in that place in the 8th century, and invited them to play the part.  We watched as they alternated between rapt fascination and more raucous exploration.  Bede is still the subject of good teaching, and his bones in the Durham cathedral still invite pilgrims to meet God – and we saw evidence of both.

In the gospel we heard there are two parables, and I want to invite us to think about the second one, where Jesus observes that those who study and steward the kingdom of heaven take care to include both the old and the new.  It’s a hint that we can’t just keep doing the same old thing and expect to find that treasure – and also that the kingdom of heaven has some connection what we already know.  Finding the treasure means staying connected to what we already know of wisdom, and still be willing to risk the new.  Bede’s life is a remarkable witness to that dynamic.  Knowing the story of your origins gives direction to the future.  Fixing a calendar around the date of the birth of Jesus forever changed how history is understood in the west.  There is treasure in those children and in Bede’s bones.

The kind of work we’re here to celebrate also depends on finding treasure in old and new.  The first parable in the gospel, about the net, reminds us that the judgment about what is ultimately useful or not doesn’t happen immediately – the sorting is by the angels at the end of time.  Our task is to continue emulating God’s creativity, bringing out the new and the old, and discovering treasure in the midst of it all. 

I was in Beirut for a conference on peace across the Middle East this week, and on Wednesday Bishop Dawani (of the Diocese of Jerusalem[1]) took me to see one of the diocesan institutions.  St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center, or Beit Mery, as it’s called in Arabic (the “house of Mary), is a day and boarding school for the mentally challenged.  It’s just over the mountain ridge behind Beirut, set on a hillside looking across a beautiful valley.  It serves about 50 youth, many with Down’s syndrome and a growing number with autism, from about age 6 well into their 30s. 

When we arrived, the students were finishing lunch.  It was barbecue day, eaten at tables on a terrace open to the breeze.  There was lots of good-humored banter and laughter, and after lunch was over, a musical performance.  The girls’ choir was dressed in albs, and one of them was a very short young woman wearing a blue cape like Mary’s.  They both sang together and in alternating parts, with the more capable singers encouraging the others.  Then four of the young men answered with a rollicking performance of a current popular song that encourages the corrupt and power-hungry local politicians to leave town – complete with dramatic actions and jumping up and down from their chairs.  This produced spontaneous dancing, quickly joined by others.  Song, dance, laughter – and JOY – abounded.  I kept thinking, this is what Isaiah was talking about: 

            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, the sheet

            that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will

            wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from

            all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. [2]      

That was indeed the picnic without tears or shadow, God’s people rejoicing in peace. 

As we were leaving, I heard a bit more about the story of the shy young woman dressed as Mary.  She first came to the school a number of years ago, and the director and staff told her parents of her autism, and what they could likely expect.  They took her away, and her father spent thousands of dollars and many years on treatment to try to change her.  Finally they brought her back to St. Luke’s, where she is filled with joy and purpose.  She accompanies a much younger child on the bus to and from school each day, as a guide and mentor – and she is a pretty good excuse for a diminutive St. Mary.

Beit Mery is a response to the needs of Christian and Muslim families in the surrounding area.  The staff are deeply committed to discovering the treasure in their students, and it is clearly rich treasure indeed.  That’s also what ER&D is about – helping people discover the kingdom of heaven all around them, in responding to crisis and need.  The remarkable reality is that the treasure will be found in poor communities and wealthier ones, as existing gifts and realities are brought together in new ways and purposes.

The ministry you are taking on as diocesan coordinators is part of helping the Chinese village of Puxi get water and sanitation through helping villagers discover the treasure present in their midst.[3]   Your work will encourage rural and suburban congregations here to discover the joy of new friends sharing a meal and laughter as they face the challenges of planning for natural disaster, or responding to the aftermath.[4]  You are going to delight in watching as these treasures are revealed to be a feast of joy and healing, even in the midst of disaster, challenge, poverty, and limitation.

What will you discover in that treasure house?