Hearing God's Call for Reconciliation
July 4, 2007

Sermon by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
UBE Eucharist, Christ Church Cathedral, Houston
4 July 2007, 11 am
Isaiah 42:1-7; Psalm 72:1-4,12-14; James 2:5-9,12-17; Matthew 10:32-42

There is abundant irony in today's celebration, as this gathering calls for reconciliation on the day our nation gives thanks for freedom. It'€™s sort of like talking about repentance at a wedding, but the reality is that reconciliation and freedom go hand in hand. That irony is a reminder of the eschatological hunger and reality of the gospel – freedom, reconciliation, and the reign of God are all around us and yet none of them is fully known or experienced.

We might start by remembering just what reconciliation means. If you take the word apart, it literally means to call back together again. Or even, to take counsel again, or to make friendly again. There's an obvious sense of restoring what has been separated, and that ought to remind us of what it is we understand as God's mission, in which the church shares €“ to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

We live in a world that is not yet whole, and we understand our vocation as the healing or repair of that world €“ what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam. We take on that vocation and attitude toward the world in baptism, when we say over and over again that we will respect the dignity of every human being, that we will seek and serve Christ in all others, and that we will strive for justice and peace. We promise as well to keep turning back toward God when we discover that we'€™ve turned away. Our promise to keep praying and meeting for worship is about being continually formed in that vocation of healing, repairing, and reconciling.

A healed world is the ancient dream of our tradition. That is what Isaiah speaks about so powerfully, that the servant of God will be a bringer of justice, a light to the nations, a healer of illness, and an emptier of prisons. Over and over and over again the prophets rail against those who bring greater division in the world, those who bring greater injustice, and whose deeds sow destruction. And the prophets also bring hope and comfort to those who know that the world is not as it should be. That hope and comfort €“ literally, strengthening €“ is offered so that we can get out there and get busy.

We labor for many kinds of reconciliation €“ between individuals, within families, between and within nations, between political and even theological factions, between human beings and the rest of creation, and in the largest sense, for healing of all manner of injustice and want in this world. God'€™s mission includes the mending of all of those wounds, and the world will not be whole until new flesh has grown in their place.

Healing begins when we describe the wound by telling our stories. We claim relationship with the God who hears the cries of the oppressed, the wanderers in the wilderness, and those who have no helper. Those cries and laments are the beginning of salvation, even though it may not always feel that way. The prayer of complaint about the "€œnot yet"€ and our ability to speak that prayer remind us that something better is possible. That telling in prayer is like the remembering we do at eucharist €“ this is what has been done, and we know that God has work for us to do as a result.

The reconciliation we labor toward runs through all parts of our lives. We all share the experience of being individuals who are separated from others. Recognizing that separation is the beginning of lament that can build solidarity once again. I can only speak out of my own experience, but in the ways in which that experience has parallels with others, together we can begin to build connections with each other. Let me offer an example. I know what it is to be marginalized because of my gender, even though I enjoy plenty of privileges in other ways. Yesterday on the way down here I ended up sitting next to a 40-something man on the airplane. He got up at some point and started to rummage around in the overhead bin. He'€™d been leaning over me and doing this for several minutes. I finally stood up to see what was going on, and saw that he was fussing with my bag. When I objected, he pulled my bag out and set it on the floor. Then he pulled his own bag down and put it in my seat, and then loudly accused me of having an attitude.

As a woman, I know what it is to be expected to comply or be quiet or not complain. And I have grown accustomed to resistance when I ask for and expect basic dignity, or the justice of equal treatment. My encounter was a very small incident, but it says something about privilege and its expectations. I don'€™t think he would have treated a man in the same way.

Why is loving our neighbors such hard work? When Jesus says, "€œDo not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,"€ he is at least in part talking about the kind of resistance that comes from challenging the injustice in this world. You and I are going to increase the division in this world, and we are going to discover that our near neighbors may be set against us, when we begin to stir things up by asking hard questions and insisting on justice.

What hard stories need to be told here €“ today, or in this gathering, or here in Houston? Some of them, I know, have been told for centuries but still need telling and re-telling. Once told and shared, what moves the lament toward healing?

The lament needs to be heard, and some sacramental act is needed in response. It's no different than what we ask in confession €“ telling the story to someone who can truly hear it, and then some outward sign that the pain has been acknowledged and a movement toward healing begun. That outward sign is what we'€™re looking for €“ the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual healing given by the grace of God. In the case of my airplane encounter, my attempt was rebuffed. When I said, "€œI'€™m sorry you'€™re having a bad day,"€ it was unfortunately heard as rejection €“ and I can'€™t deny that there might have been some there! Something more was obviously needed, but we two strangers weren'€™t able to find it.

The kind of reconciliation that we are seeking in this church needs the same kind of sacramental sign €“ one that will be valued and accepted and seen as good faith toward healing. I have no personal knowledge of it, but I am told that the special convention in 1969 was understood and experienced in that way by some, and although it did not finish the work, it may have begun some healing.

Justice and reconciliation in this church needs a good deal more telling of stories, and ears and hearts to hear them. And having once heard, a concrete and sacramental response needs to follow. As James reminds us, "€œfaith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."€ That concrete and sacramental response is what all marginalized people have asked for, throughout history. That is the cry in the wilderness €“ feed us, set us free, heal us, give us a home. Gay and lesbian Christians in this church are asking for full and sacramental recognition, Native Americans are asking for a response that has to do with their ancient connection to the land, descendents of the African diaspora are asking for reparative justice after centuries of exploitation, women continue to ask for full inclusion in the human race, immigrants are asking for the freedom to live as equal citizens whose labor and dignity and full humanity are honored and valued. Even the dominant ones in our society need to be redeemed as human beings whose value does not depend on superior status. When one is oppressed, all are oppressed, and demeaned, and made less than they were created to be.

None of us can live in that kingdom God has promised until every single one of us is valued as beloved of God, not until each one of us has the sacramental evidence of that €“ in the outward and visible sign of a society of justice, where all have equal access to the blessings for which we were created, where ancient wounds have been salved, ancient dis-ease healed, and ancient injustice repaired.

When I looked up a bit of history about that Convention in 1969, I found Fr. Junius Carter's telling words: "€œToo long, bishops, you have sat on the sidelines and have not acted as our pastors! I urge you to intervene at this convention and exercise the authority that has been given you by our Lord."

We live in a somewhat less clerical time, and we are claiming the authority we have all been given at baptism. Nevertheless, all of us are meant to intervene €“ to jump in and tell the stories of lament, and the stories of joy, to jump in and act in outward and visible ways, to be sacrament of reconciliation. Then and only then will we all be truly and finally free.