The Presiding Bishop's Sermon at Christ the King, Riverbank, CA

March 30, 2008

When I went to the airport in New York on Friday morning, I noticed a large group of Asians, all similarly dressed, and all with the same kind of luggage that looked like large soft-sided plastic boxes. I thought maybe it was a tour group from Mongolia or Myanmar. When I got on the airplane, however, another group of travelers boarded together, all with t-shirts saying USRP. This was a group of Africans, probably Sudanese being resettled here as refugees – and I’m guessing their shirts meant United States Refugee Program.

The Episcopal Church is one of a number of bodies working on the receiving end to help such people build new lives. I had the privilege to visit a program like this in Chicago a couple of months ago – the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministry. Episcopal Migration Ministries is a big player in this gospel work of caring for the alien and sojourner in our midst. The people I met there had come from Eastern Europe, and many parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. They are people who flee in fear of their lives, who have often seen relatives killed, who have usually spent years in refugee camps before being permitted to come to the United States. It’s something like the Ellis Island experience my forebears had in the late 1800s, both in the conditions people are fleeing and because they will receive some help from family when they arrive. The help that comes to refugees today comes from a different kind of family – the generosity of our government and the selfless work of volunteers from churches and other faith communities, who consider that these, too, are members of the human family fully deserving of our care.

Jesus’ encounters after the resurrection were with people just as shocked and terrified as refugees hoping against hope to find a new home. The disciples are locked up in a room that’s not so different from a refugee camp – they are terrified that the folks outside are going to kill them. They are in a place not unlike Gaza or the West Bank today, only the locks there are on the outside of the doors.

Those frightened disciples are refugees from the community they had known traveling around Palestine with Jesus. Home meant being in his presence. He has left their earthly midst, and they believe themselves truly lost and homeless. The best they can do is to wall themselves up, and pray for safety inside a fortress.

And then he walks in – this flesh and blood, breathing, eating, talking whiff of home. Believe me, they smelled him – at the very least in the breath he breathed on them and the peace he brought. But it wasn’t the stench of Lazarus, three days dead in the tomb. Did they smell the blood on him? I don’t think so. Somehow the evidence of those wounds was still there, but they had been healed as well. I wonder if he smelled like the earthy potatoes I still associate with my grandmother’s garden. As a child that potato smell meant enfolding love, gentle guidance, new learnings, and a respite from parental judgment. What does home and safety smell like to you?

Well, my friends, we’re all refugees. We all want to go home. Some of us have discovered, or remembered, that home is where we know ourselves in God – “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in thee” – as Augustine says. A lot of the pain in this diocese has to do with different understandings of where home is, and what homegoing requires of us. We gather today, and week by week, to remember that we get hints of home in the incarnate reality of God’s love around us, but we will never be fully and eternally at home in this world, at least until the second coming.

We refugees are still on the journey. What draws us? Your new bishop’s wife has a beautiful story about a young friend of hers. Jane says that on a Sunday when they had fresh bread for communion, this little boy was heard to say, “Mommy, that’s the best Body of Christ I ever had!” That aroma of fresh bread is what draws us all homeward, because we know in every fiber of our being, in every incarnate molecule of our bodies, that God loves us beyond imagining, and that God loves us in a way that says these bodies are of vast and cosmic importance. God is calling all refugees home.

What does God ask of us on that journey? Relationship – love God, and love your neighbor. How do we love God? By loving our neighbor, whom we can see. How do we love our neighbor? In his or her body, by feeding, healing, teaching, clothing, housing, comforting, guiding. Thomas’ story is not about the failure of doubt. It is about the generosity of God, who responds to our need, even if we are dense enough – or delightful enough – to ask for physical evidence, to ask for evidence that God loves us so much that he has raised his first son from the dead – in a body.

Thomas is called the twin – but whose twin? While he probably had a sibling, perhaps dead early in life, he is also our brother. We, too, still ask for physical evidence, and God still offers God’s own self in response, and God offers physical, substantial evidence – in bread, wine, oil, hands, people. Here, take and eat, this is my body. Here, be anointed for this journey – whether the daily ministry of baptism or the journey of healing. Here, may these rings you share daily remind you of God’s presence in the midst of this challenging journey called marriage. Here, in these hands may you find the reassuring presence of Holy Spirit, once more come down on us in the grace of blessing.

Jesus’ resurrection says that bodies are of cosmic worth. Resurrection is unimportant to bodiless creatures. It can not be real except for people in bodies. And sacramental reminders of resurrection are the source of our hope for the homeward journey, that road into Jesus’ daily, wandering fellowship. Jesus, as God in human body, lived, taught, and proclaimed the abundance and availability of God’s love for the whole world. He did it with physical, created things, what we call sacramental stuff.

Sacraments, to the Orthodox, are not just two or seven in number, but abound in their ability to show us God’s hand at work in this world. Indeed, you and I are meant to be sacrament, outward and visible sign – indeed, the sign in a body – of the inward and spiritual grace of resurrection. How can you be the breath of God to your neighbor? How can you be the healed wound of Christ?

What smells draw you into awareness of being at home in God? What physical sensations? This is not just a head trip, my friends, but a trip of the whole bodied being. Hope abounds, healing is possible, and we have work to do. So, welcome to this table, eat and drink God in a body. May we become what we eat – God’s incarnate compassion for the world around us. Welcome home.