Presiding Bishop preaches at House of Bishops spring meeting

Posted Mar 18, 2015

17 March 2015
Chapel of the Transfiguration, Kanuga
HOB closing

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

Slavery is not new, and its legacy haunts most of the world. The ancient archaeological evidence of sacrificial human remains in British bogs, Egyptian pyramids, Meso-American wells, and atop Andean peaks pretty clearly implicate most of our ancestral cultures in using other human beings as commodities and as an expendable resource. The Bible is filled with tales of slaves and their quest for freedom.

Patrick may be the only runaway slave on our calendar. He’s certainly one of the earliest. He was born in what is now western England around 390. His grandfather was a priest, his father a deacon and city official. The teenaged Patrick was captured and trafficked to Ireland, where he spent his days watching sheep and learning to pray. A vision in the midst of his prayers six years later prompted him to flee to the coast, where he eventually persuaded some sailors to take him aboard. They probably landed him in Gaul. Eventually he made his way home, where he received some training, was ordained a priest, and eventually had some interaction with monastic Christians in Gaul. About 435 he went as bishop to the Irish, settling in Armagh. He encouraged monastic vocations, built a school, and went about making disciples, baptizing, and showing people a human example of what it looks like to travel the road of Christ.

This saint seems never to have lost his self-understanding as a former slave and an exile, nor did he lose his embarrassment about his limited education, but he names his great passion to “spend myself…so that many peoples should be reborn in God and then made perfect…”[1] Being made perfect had nothing to do with conforming to one particular clan or race. This immigrant spent himself as Christ’s servant to those who had enslaved him. His preaching was personal, humble in that earthy sense, and effective. Like the householder Jesus speaks about,[2] Patrick brought out of his treasure what was old and what was new, and shared the good news of the kingdom of God already present. Patrick blessed the local idiom and baptized holy instincts: in ancient sacred wells that were now dedicated to Christian saints, holy sites that became gathering places for Christian communities, and druidic pillars transformed into high crosses.

135 years after Patrick’s death, Augustine arrived to missionize the British, sent by Gregory the Great, who had seen slaves like Patrick in the Roman market. Augustine found an indigenous Christian community, and Gregory encouraged him to do as Patrick had done, to be curious about what he found, and not to see difference as something to eliminate, but to look for the fingerprints of the holy within it.

The descendants of the English and the Irish have not always lived up to the witness of their spiritual forebears. The divisions between them have been attributed to later Roman Catholic-Protestant disputes, but they originate in the differences between the indigenous Christianity that Patrick and Augustine nurtured and a later Roman variety. The Norman invasions that began in the 12th century laid the ground for later “religious” wars and the same kind of land appropriation and attempts at de-culturation that European immigrants visited on the native peoples of this continent. By the 19th century those policies had made virtual economic slaves of much of the Irish population.[3] The famine that followed the collapse of the potato crop killed a million people and sent a million emigrants to these shores. Forty per cent of those who traveled in steerage died in the sea passage on what were called “coffin ships,” a record only exceeded by the African slave trade. The status of the Irish immigrants was no better in many northern states than the slaves they replaced, and many were dispatched with equal impunity when they demanded freedom. The church was one of the players in addressing those varieties of injustice, but it usually wasn’t this one, which more often counted mine owners and steel barons as its members.

One tribe or nation targets another race or tribe as expendable or as an exploitable commodity – for its labor, its land, or the wealth of resources it appears to control. That has produced a very long trail of tears through history – from Pharoah’s empire, to Greece and Rome, the German Third Reich, to Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, and those who cross the southern borders of this nation today. Yet the impulse to seek God’s image in the other continues – Patrick stands in the same line as the converted Paul, Sojourner Truth, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela… even in the darkest hour hope continues for that green blade newly rising.

People of every heritage claim to be Irish on this festival day, because underneath the mythic hype around Patrick, there is still a hint of peoples and nations and clans gathered as siblings created by the One God.

This place, Kanuga, is named for the Cherokee gathering place that it was long before Europeans appeared. You have heard the outlines of what ensued, with the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and the wholesale expulsion of the Cherokee and their neighboring tribes in 1836. The Trail of Tears still echoes here.

Some 70 years later, George Stephens bought this land to build a summer community for lowland Carolinians – for people with sufficient privilege to take an extended vacation. Stephens made his fortune in newspapers and banking, having founded the predecessor of Bank of America.[4] He discovered this beautiful spot in 1909, he dammed the creek and induced others to come and build cabins here. The dam failed in 1916 and the community foundered, going through four bankruptcies before Bishop Finlay of Upper South Carolina bought it as a summer camp for the surrounding dioceses in 1928. If you talk to people of a certain age and race in this part of the world, you soon begin to hear some of the lore around this privileged place. While campers of all races and families come here today, this was fully a part of the old Jim Crow. No one of color came here to rest. Sabbath was for owners only.

This Chapel of the Transfiguration was designed by the Scots architect Grant Alexander and built in 1940. Look at the planks of this overturned boat. These are native yellow pine boards, cut on this land. Some probably came from seedlings that sprang up while the Cherokee were here. Look more carefully. Can you see the signs of floods and wet tears? Can you see the sweaty fingerprints of its builders? There’s probably blood up there as well, from splinters and nails. Those marks are still evident in the rafters, even if they’ve disappeared from the boards down lower – either sanded or washed away. The invisible are not so invisible if we’re curious.

Those marks up there are rather like the cross on our foreheads – branded forever in our souls, but only particularly noticeable in the earthy mark that begins Lent. Human beings still subjugate one another in attempts to possess that earth, still despise the common earthy origin of brothers and sisters, still use one another like ore or oil mined from the earth. We do it because we cling to one patch or field or nation as our own, even though we are descendants of wandering Arameans and followers of the One who had no place to lay his head. For all the otherness that human hearts despise is born of the desire to own and possess and control what is ultimately and eternally a gift. The striking reality is that most of the enslaved and subjugated races throughout history are defined by their generous hospitality and unwillingness to assert exclusive ownership rights. Generosity is the fruit of servanthood.

I wonder what would happen if we really taught what Jesus preached about giving ourselves away? What if we sent young people to residential schools that enculturated them in that ethos of loving neighbor as ourselves, rather than Greek fantasies of entitlement and privilege? (you might think of recent racist fraternity outpourings).[5] Do we have the courage to dismantle or transfigure those systems of privilege? In spite of their history, and indeed because of it, places like this one can help with that transfiguration. Camping here for a while can be an opportunity for healing. But we can’t stay here.

Patrick, like Jesus, lived on the road, walking lightly on the earth to meet those called stranger or enemy. That requires curiosity about the other, requires courage to meet those people, and a willingness to share their lament. By the rivers of Babylon, and in every place of privilege and oppression, we’re meant to go and sing the Lord’s song of liberation and kinship in Christ.

[1] Confession I:15-16, cf. They Still Speak 57
[2] Matthew 13:52
[3] And of other tribal groups like the Scots and the Welsh