Presiding Bishop addresses conference in Western North Carolina

Posted Apr 9, 2014

7 April 2014
Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly in a 21st Century World
Lake Logan Episcopal Center
Western North Carolina

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

            We’re celebrating the feast of Tikhon today.  I doubt that he’s a household word, unless you come from the Russian Orthodox Church.  He was a bishop in Alaska and North America a century ago, and he’s a model of what we’re here to talk about – a happy accident of the calendar!

He was born in 1865 to a Russian Orthodox priest and his wife, and went to seminary (more like a religious school) at the age of 13.  He graduated 10 years later and began to teach moral theology.  At the age of 26 he became a monk, and three years after that was ordained a priest.  In 1897 he became the Bishop of Lublin, in Poland, before he turned 33.  He was much loved by the people he served, and a year later, when he was sent to Alaska, his archdeacon wrote, “Even the Jews were amazed they would take such a good bishop away.”[1]

He continued to build bridges with other faith communities when he came to North America.  He was sent to serve as Bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska, but his territory included the entire northern part of the continent.  In 1900 he reorganized, as the Diocese of Aleutians and North America.  He founded churches, started and blessed cathedrals, including two named St. Nicholas in New York – one for the Russian Orthodox and one for the Syrian Orthodox.  Today we’d call him a church planter and evangelist, as well as a pastor and parson – someone who served the whole community.  He had a strong ecumenical bent, and built solid relationships with The Episcopal Church.  He attended the consecration of the bishop coadjutor in Fond du Lac in 1900, and would have joined in laying on hands if he hadn’t been expressly forbidden by our House of Bishops.  The diocesan bishop, however, seated him in his own chair.  He had particularly strong relationships with the dioceses of California (think of the long Russian presence in northern California) and in New York.  He was so well-loved here that the United States gave him honorary citizenship.

In 1907 he was called back to Russia, and in 1917 elected primate – Patriarch of Moscow – in the midst of the Russian Revolution.  He publicly condemned the revolutionaries for executing the Tsar’s family and for attacking the church.  At the same time he urged his clergy to avoid political statements, in hopes of avoiding retribution against their people.  In 1921 a massive famine in the Volga region prompted Tikhon to sell some of the church’s art and treasures to buy food for the hungry.  The government noticed, and stepped in to confiscate the church’s assets, and people began to protest what they saw as sacrilege.  More than 10,000 members of the church were tried and executed for their temerity.  Tikhon himself was imprisoned for more than a year.  He was released in 1923, his health broken, and he died in March of 1925.  He was canonized by the Russian Church in 1989.

Tikhon is a saint of the wider church, a witness to walking humbly in search of justice and mercy – as light of the world and salt of the earth.

What is essential about Tikhon’s witness?  He loved the people around him, whether they were Polish Jews or Orthodox Christians, Arabs in New York, Aleuts, Eskimos, or Russians of all sorts.  He cared for people in their vulnerability – hungry, freezing, homeless, imprisoned, yearning for peace.  He had the courage to stand up and confront injustice, and little reluctance to use all the resources at hand to answer the need.

So what are we here for?

I spent the last couple of days with the Moravians at their synod – the equivalent of General Convention, which they hold once every four years.  The southern province, based in Winston-Salem, has some 56 congregations in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida., and companion relationships in Honduras and Nicaragua.  They were wrestling with a lot of the same issues The Episcopal Church is – restructuring, how to fund mission and ministry, how to engage the unchurched population around us in new and effective ways, and always, how to deepen our relationship with Christ.

One of the resolutions they passed was titled “Spiritual Solidarity with Sisters and Brothers in Honduras.”  It asks the Moravian Church in North America to speak out, advocate, pray, and act in response to the growing levels of violence in Honduras.  That violence is largely the result of drug trafficking, most of it to supply markets in the US.  Our own bishop in Honduras spoke to me last week about a lawyer the diocese had retained to respond to lawlessness in a housing project the diocese helped to build.  That lawyer was assassinated recently.  The bishop also spoke about the threats to his own life, and his need to change his travel patterns and visitation schedule as a result.  His own sister was murdered not long ago.

If we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world, what does this mean for us?  We might start by addressing addiction in our own neighborhoods.  Addiction is a substitute for love, it’s a cry of hunger for relationship, and it ensnares many.  We can look at our own addictions to consuming and status and other substitutes for living relationship.  We can address the violence in our language and polarization of issues, the violence in our culture and our politics, and the lack of true justice.  We still lock up addicts when what they need is healing, and we fail to lock up the real predators – or seek their healing as well.

How do we turn that lament and mourning into joy, or diminishment and deprivation into abundant life?  Peter’s letter gets at the essentials:  God has given us everything we need, particularly in response to what he calls lust – the hunger to accumulate and consume and possess what will never satisfy.  He didn’t have the word addiction in his vocabulary, but that’s what he’s talking about.  He does have a prescription, however – the kingdom of just and restored relationship is provided to those who seek support in communities of mutual affection and love.  The mission we’re here to talk about and be equipped for is about building communities like that in Asheville, Cullowhee and Durgapur, in Haiti and Hickory and Hendersonville.

That mission is fueled by passion – the reactive, transformative salt of the stories you’ve heard here.  That passion burns in transformed hearts, and it can be costly – Tikhon’s imprisonment, the death of so many of his people, the danger to those who work for justice and peace in Honduras.  When that passion becomes evident to the world, it can and often does generate resistance.  Arrests in Raleigh on Moral Mondays are a local consequence.  The passion of Holy Week is our cosmic example of costly transformation.  Life becomes more precious the more we taste of deep passion, and it leads to resurrection.  The light of the world is lit by passion.

Edna St. Vincent Millay put it this way:  My candle burns at both ends, it cannot last the night, but ah my foes and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light.[2]  I protest – the light of the world does outlast the night, which is why our light must continue to burn.  Let yours burn at both ends, with all the passion within you, planted there by the one who calls you beloved.  Burn!