My Joy is Gone, Grief is Upon me, My Heart is Sick

A Sermon Preached During the House of Bishops' Meeting
September 21, 2001

St. Paul's Cathedral, Burlington, Vermont
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 23rd, 2001

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 1
Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

When we find ourselves personally and corporately in "thin places" as Evelyn Underhill calls them, it is often the words of scripture, charged as they are with the joys and sorrows, the burdens and yearnings of our forebears in faith that give voice to that which is deep within us and name emotions of which we may hardly be aware.

By virtue of the events of September 11, we now in the U.S. join that company of nations in which ideology disguised as true religion wreaks havoc and sudden death. The invincible is shown to be vulnerable and in that moment the door is opened which, if we choose to pass through it, will lead us beyond death and destruction into a new solidarity with those for whom the evil and satanic forces of terrorism are a continuing fear and reality.

Lamentation, however, is not an end in itself, but rather it opens the way to the question "why?" which leads in turn to self-scrutiny and self-examination. What might we learn from what we have suffered and are suffering - about ourselves, and about ourselves in relationship to others? How has our consciousness been altered by what has come down so suddenly and violently upon us? What invitation emerges from that terrible fire-filled day to engage us not simply as Americans but as persons of faith?

In the gospel reading we have just heard Jesus declares that no slave can serve two masters and therefore we cannot serve God and wealth. What Jesus is pointing to when he speaks about service is what we might call the ground of our personal allegiance, the desire of our heart at its most radical depth: the fundamental orientation of my life.

If our life is ordered to God, we find ourselves caught up in God's mercy and compassion. God's "fierce bonding love," a mercy and compassion and love which stretches and expands us: cracks open our hearts of stone and transforms them into hearts of flesh - hearts capable of embracing others in the strength of God's all embracing compassion.

Many centuries ago, St. Isaac of Syria, one of the great wisdom figures of the Eastern Church, raised the question: what is a merciful and compassionate heart? He answered the question in this way.

It is a heart which burns with love for the whole of creation: for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature. When persons with a heart such as this think of the creatures or look at them, their eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion makes their heart grow small and weak, and they cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore they never cease to pray with tears even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth and for those who do them evil asking that those for whom they pray may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also they pray with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in their hearts until they shine again and are glorious like God.

This all embracing compassion which can include beasts and demons, enemies and reptiles, is beyond our effort and imagination; it is a gift. It is the consequence of Christ being formed in us, our being conformed to Christ, which is what our baptism into Christ and our weekly sharing of the eucharist is all about.

To serve God, therefore, is not about a frantic execution of self-chosen tasks that we hope will please the Almighty, but about the mind and heart of Christ being worked in us by the Spirit so that our compassion, our just-ness are revelatory of the One who, from the cross, draws the world: all people and all things to himself - in his loving embrace.

A life ordered to wealth yields a very different fruit. Whereas compassion turns us outward in relationship to the world around us, wealth on its own disconnects us and turns us in on ourselves in self-serving defensiveness. And here wealth is not simply money but it includes such things as status, ethnicity, color, education, culture, nationality, religion and more.

Wealth is both personal and corporate. We speak for example of our nation's wealth and from it follows what we call "our national interests" which are to be defended at all costs.

In the light of the traumatic events of these past days which have claimed and touched so many lives - the lives not only of our own citizens but those of other nations as well - are we not in a sprit of lamentation invited to ask questions about ourselves and, as a nation, engage in the solemn task of self-examination?

Unquestionably, the attack on September 11 was an evil and deranged act fuelled by a satanic zeal in which God the Compassionate One is transmuted into a God of suicide, murder and destruction. That being clearly said, is there not, as we seek to build a coalition of nations to join us in a war on terrorism, an invitation to examine our national interests in relationship to the global community of which we are a part?

In what ways do our own interests and their uncritical pursuit affect other nations and the welfare of their people? How are we as a nation "under God," as we call ourselves, being invited to reorder our life according to God's compassion for "humankind and for every creature"?

We, who so easily quit the global table when the conditions are not to our liking or do not serve our economic interests, are called to yield our wealth in service to God's all-embracing compassion, which is the heart of God's just-ness and God's desire for the world. Just as our efforts to disarm terrorism will require discipline and sacrifice, so too will the reordering of our national interests to serve the global family of which we are now a part in a new and vulnerable way.

The way of compassion transfigures and heals not simply those to whom it is directed, but those who practice it. Those who allow God's compassion to well up in their hearts "shine and are glorious like God," or as Isaiah says of those who inhabit compassion: "Your light shall break forth like the dawn; and your healing shall spring up quickly."

God's project, and therefore the Church's mission, is one of reconciliation: "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." And God's compassion, God's mercy, God's loving kindness, God's fierce bonding love is the active principle that effects reconciliation: the gathering up of all things into a unity in which difference is both honored and reconciled in the fullness of God's ever creative imagination.

May each of us who have been baptized into Christ be given a compassionate heart in the service of reconciliation, and may we as a nation seek our healing not through revenge and retaliation, but by "sharing our bread with the hungry" across the world. Only in that way can our light truly break forth like the dawn, and our healing spring up quickly. Amen.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

Tagged in: Pentecost