[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, on Jan. 25. She was leading an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. ENS coverage of the pilgrimage is here.
The full text of the sermon follows.
Conversion of Paul
25 January 2015
St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, Arabic service
Abrahamic Interfaith Pilgrimage
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
I bring you greetings from Episcopalians in the United States and in 16 other countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Taiwan. The people of this diocese – in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon – continue in our prayers. We ask you to pray for us.
I am here as part of an interfaith pilgrimage, with a group from the U.S. composed of Jews, Muslims, and Episcopalians. We are here to meet God in one another and in the midst of the Abrahamic traditions we share. We have spent the last week in conversation with people who are working to build bridges and make peace. We have remembered that the work requires vulnerability, and a willingness to make space where God might enter and make peace in us and in the world around us. Listening deeply to the story another person tells is an essential and holy way of opening that space. What does that require of us? Slowing down, sitting down in patience, breathing deeply, and focusing our attention on another rather than ourselves. It is a kind of prayer, listening for the creative word of God in another. It is a conscious act of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
This pilgrimage had its genesis in a focus on peace in this land. Yet in listening to the stories of struggle we discover the need for peace, and its possibilities, everywhere. In this land we call holy, what Archbishop Suheil calls the Land of the Holy One, we rediscover that peace is born in setting aside both space and attention for the sake of another. It is an act of blessing, or making holy, that reflects the Holy One who has created us in God’s own image, that we might also be one and holy.
Today churches around the world mark the end of a week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Those who have traveled here will return home filled with ongoing prayer for religious unity, that we may show forth the love of God within us and among us, and make evident the one human family God has created.
There is some real irony in the readings for this morning, which commemorate the Conversion of St. Paul. Originally called Saul, he was a pious and observant Jew who found the new movement of Jesus’ followers deeply objectionable. Their preaching was disrupting the peace in the synagogues, he’s afraid of further chaos, and seems honor-bound to do all he can to expel and end this havoc. You heard how Luke begins to tell the story in Acts: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Threats and murder are hardly a sign of holiness, yet they are often the companions of zealotry in every religious tradition. Zealotry is in many ways the opposite of that act of holy space-making that will slow down enough to breathe in the words and story of another.
Saul has a blinding encounter on his road toward further threats and possible murder. It stops him in his tracks and takes away his sight. It takes three days and an encounter with another before he begins to see a different way. That encounter is with Ananias, who lives on Straight Street (an indication that he brings a direct and truthful message), and he has good reason to fear Saul, but his prayerful listening prompts him to go and find his persecutor.
Ananias prays that the breath of God might fill and heal Saul and let him see. Saul has a conversion; he turns around, expands his vision of what is possible, and embraces a former enemy. His changed attitude astonishes people who knew him only as an angry and threatening zealot: “Isn’t this the guy who used to terrorize us?”
Yet the sad reality is that others soon began to tell his story as one of reversal, as trading violence toward one group for power plays over his own people. What originated in an expanded awareness of truth gets narrowed down again to a tale of winners and losers. Listen again to the last sentence we heard in Acts: “Saul became increasingly powerful and confounded the Jews… by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” That is the story told by a group that still feels afraid and anxious – ‘see how powerful our leader is, how thoroughly he conquers the unbelieving.’ It is not exactly the story of Jesus the humble carpenter, the undefended teacher and prophet of wisdom, or the one who refused verbal battle with Pontius Pilate. It’s antithetical to the words of the Son of Man who called people blessed when they’re hated, excluded, and defamed, who said they should jump for joy, because they should know they’re acting like prophets.
Listen again to the heart of this gospel reading: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life… many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If you want to find life that endures and expands beyond human limitations, then let go of what you hang on to so tightly – possessions and positions and the supreme truth of your own story. Set those down and receive infinitely more.
Matthew follows this story with one about workers in the vineyard who all get the same pay, whether they work all day or only an hour. At the end the vineyard owner asks, ‘Can’t I do what I want with what belongs to me?’ “Or are you envious because I am generous? The last will be first and the first will be last.” Who owns that vineyard? And whose land is this, but the Holy One’s?
There is something about holiness traditions that cannot stand other holiness traditions, and usually only receives them as threatening and murderous. It’s an attitude that insists that boundaries between traditions have to be strong and high, or something essential will be lost.
There is also something about holiness traditions that can rise above those boundaries, or descend deeper into the heart of all that is, to remember and rediscover the One and only source, who alone is Holy. That way seeks oneness rather than division, and remembers that God’s universe is larger and far more curious than human beings can imagine. That is the truth the psalmist proclaims about God’s mercy and justice being for all people.
Deep in the heart of the Holy One there is no division. Distinction emerges in creation, yes, but it is distinction that is bound in relationship, rather than division. We human beings so often want to focus on the distinctions between us, and deny relationship with those who differ. It only divides us from the Holy One, particularly when we judge ourselves more righteous than another. The first shall be last, the last first, and ultimately we are all in this together.
The distinctions of our traditions – rote and ritual, habit and custom and theological formulations – are guideposts, laws, and patterns that shape us for holiness. They help us stay on Straight Street, the way of the Lord, the road of righteousness. But those distinctions are not the fullness of our created nature. If we have the courage to look beyond the fences and guardrails we can catch a glimpse of the Holy One creating new possibility in our hearts. Those roads are flowing from the same source. Slow down, and rest in the truth of God’s oneness. God’s creation reflects its source, and no part can be diminished by that oneness. Slow down, and breathe in God’s creative, loving breath. Fear and suspicion cannot long survive that slowing down. Breathe deeply, receive the breath of God, and listen for the Holy One, creating peace in your heart.
 The readings in Jerusalem’s lectionary are Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 67; Galatians 1: 11-16a; Matthew 19: 27-30
 Luke 6:22-23
 Matthew 20:15-16
 Psalm 67:1-2, 4