[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached the following sermon Oct. 18 during Evensong at Holy Trinity Church (Church of England) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Holy Trinity Church (Church of England), Geneva
18 October 2015
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
When I was first ordained and began to work in a parish, one of my responsibilities was to take communion to the nursing homes where some of our parishioners lived. Usually a couple of our members would go ahead of time and gather those parishioners and any others who were interested, and we’d have a short service in an activity room. If we were fortunate, someone was there to accompany a few familiar hymns on the piano.
I still remember one of those early services. We had sung hymns and said prayers, distributed communion to those in the room, had a blessing and another hymn or two, and then people began to go back to their rooms or on to the next activity. Various people not actively involved in the service were sitting around the room doing other things, and a younger couple came up to retrieve a woman in a wheel chair, and one of them said to me, “that’s the first time I’ve ever seen her take communion. My mother is Jewish.”
The woman had held out her hands when it was time for communion, so I served her. How was I to know? Yet her children weren’t horrified, just a bit surprised. She probably didn’t have all her faculties, but she knew she wanted to join in.
Jesus and the Pharisees are wrestling over the same kind of thing. Where are the boundaries? What rules are essential, and which ones are not? And our question is often, ‘whose bread and body is it – ours or God’s?’
The quiet in this city on a Sunday is really quite amazing. I’ve only seen a few eating establishments open to feed people, and as my husband and I were walking down to Emmanuel this morning, the fountain we noticed last night was quiet, and I said, the Sunday laws must apply there, too! I was later assured that it starts to flow at 10 am, on the dot!
Jesus is being confronted about laboring on the sabbath, both for picking grain and healing a man with a wasted hand, and he answers each with counterexamples – when eating sacred bread was insisted on as a necessary gift, and the duty to rescue an animal from drowning. He drives home the point by saying that not to eat what was given, and not to rescue an animal, is to completely misunderstand what God is up to, it is to miss God’s dream for all creation.
The consistent dreams of a healed world, what we call the Reign of God, are about people having enough food and drink, shelter, freedom, and the ability to live in peace – and enough left over for a feast. That is only possible if all the gifts of creation are used for the good of the whole. The rules are meant to limit selfishness, not to prohibit eating or deliverance. The rules are continuing reminders that God is God and we are not, that the rules are guideposts on the road, rather than the road itself.
The problem is that it’s often a challenge to know when to bend the rules, change them, or dispense with them. One of the hallmarks of the Anglican tradition is a willingness to make decisions like that in community, using the resources of tradition and the discernment of the present community, to make sense of what is required of us now, in a particular time and circumstance.
The early Christian community decided that Jewish purity laws no longer applied. Peter’s “aha” moment came when he dreamt that pretty much anything that God had created could be eaten. Paul insisted that there were some limits, especially that Christians not offend or mislead others by eating meat that had been dedicated to idols. Why offend people unnecessarily, and why do it in their presence? Instead, do the loving thing, and eat it at home, or when they aren’t around. His counsel was given for courtesy – the term Julian of Norwich used for the love of God – for courtesy and the preservation of relationships.
Jesus goes on to challenge his questioners about their love of the rest of creation. The work involved in rescuing an animal on the sabbath should actually be a priority for life, all life. After all, the rules about sabbath rest were made to give people a chance to rest from work, in order that their lives have meaning beyond their work. It doesn’t mean that work itself is unholy. Would we close hospitals on Sunday? Veterinary hospitals? Ignore a ewe about to give birth? Should be ignore the species being extinguished by a warming earth – do we not have responsibility for them as well?
Maybe a better guide to the rules is, “what brings more abundant life?” That seems to be what Jesus taught.
What would he do with the great refugee influx here and in several other parts of the world right now? Are we supposed to apply the ancient rules about keeping out the foreigners, or the vision of prophets like Isaiah, who insisted that Israel was supposed to be a beacon of light – i.e., justice and peace – to the whole world? Israel wrestled with this question as much as we do today. The conclusion at some times in history was to keep the community boundaries close, lest the worship of God be polluted or go astray.
Jesus himself wrestles with the boundaries. Initially, he rebuffs the Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her daughter. He’s quite clear that he’s only working with his own Jewish people, but she pushes, “even the dogs get the children’s crumbs.” ‘Isn’t my daughter worth at least as much?’ Jesus eats with anybody, he welcomes the ministry of public sinners (i.e., rule breakers), he tells the criminal hanging on the next cross that he will be in the kingdom that very day. Over and over, Jesus moves beyond the customary boundaries of his day, always in service of more abundant life.
Paul understands this when he says, ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female….”
One of the members of the Convocation told me about what’s happening in Nice right now. Apparently the mayor has said the city will not accept any refugees. I don’t know if that means that others cannot offer hospitality, or that the city is refusing to provide any assistance, or both.
Rules exist to keep us on the road, to help build loving or at least workable communities – you can’t dump garbage on your front lawn or your neighbor’s, you can’t make loud noise at night, you can’t beat your children or your spouse – those are particular expressions of love your neighbor as yourself. Rules about who can marry whom are usually designed either to keep a community culturally homogeneous, or prevent inappropriately close relationships – and those definitions are culturally bound. Many such rules begin or end with something like “we’ve always done it that way.”
Sometimes the temptation is to use ancient rules like that to exclude certain classes of human being as less than fully human. Women have been relegated to second class status for eons. Too many Americans – and others – think that people whose native language is other than English certainly shouldn’t be citizens, and should probably be expelled. We live with easy assumptions about who is a member of the community and who isn’t, and we are often loath to examine those beliefs.
The gospel writer quotes Isaiah to say that Jesus is there even to serve gentiles – those people from places and countries that seem utterly foreign. And where is Jesus, servant to the suffering, today? Here, right here, is the body of Christ, at least part of it. Listen to Isaiah: ‘here is my servant, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased, on whom I have put my spirit, to proclaim justice to the nations… in his name the nations will hope.’ This is the beloved body of Christ, anointed to bring justice and peace; may we bring hope as well.
Whom then shall we serve? – but gentiles, refugees, immigrants, the poor and excluded, wherever we are and whatever the need – in the search for truly abundant life for all God’s people and all God’s creation.
 Galatians 3:28-29