Presiding Bishop preaches in Costa Rica

Posted Jul 1, 2013

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently visited Costa Rica and preached the following two sermons.

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Dedication of Hogar Escuela Episcopal, Heredia, Costa Rica
29 June 2013

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

When I was a child, I attended a church school for the first few years.  The nuns who taught there were filled with grace and taught us much about what it means to live as a minister of Jesus in the world.  They also showed us what it’s like to be loved, and to be at play in the fields of the Lord, like those sheep who lie down in green pastures, or frolic on the hillside.  On feast days we went to school and played, watched movies, made funny hats, and rejoiced.  The rest of the time we studied hard, and were given grades in deportment and penmanship as well as mathematics and French.

During Lent each student was given a small white plaster lamb with her name on it, and all the lambs were placed at the foot of a statue of Mary, with seven steps or levels leading to the top.  Each week of Lent we watched as some of the lambs moved closer to Mary, and some stayed where they were.  Their movement depended on how well the students had done in their studies during that week, and the nuns’ evaluation of your behavior.  In spite of the inevitable comparisons the custom invited, there was something comforting about being one of the sheep, and knowing that others were loving and looking after us, whether we’d done well or not during the past week.

The saints we’re celebrating today were shepherds of rather different flocks.  Peter had charge of the Jewish flock, based in Jerusalem, while Paul went looking for Gentile sheep all over the Mediterranean world.  The Bible records some of their significant disagreements over how to lead, and those disagreements were based on the kinds of human sheep they were responsible for.  They needed different approaches to tending those flocks, and they gathered teams of leaders to help feed, house, and teach the sheep in their care.

Shepherds in Jesus’ service have a message about the good news of the kingdom of God, and it’s only effective if it can be heard and understood.  It doesn’t make sense to feed steak to babies who can’t yet chew or digest solid food yet.  It may be very important to feed it to their mothers!  Jesus, the good shepherd, responded to what the people he met told him they needed.  He didn’t set out banquets for people who were blind, or try to remove spirits from people who were hungry.  If people didn’t name their need immediately, he asked what they wanted, or struck up a conversation.  He did encourage others in the community to feed the people who had been healed, as a sign that they had been restored to their place in the flock, and to their role as a member of the community.

This school is the result of hearing the needs of the community and responding as a shepherd would.  It has involved a lot of shepherds:  the one who gave the land – and then gave a bigger piece of land, those who designed this school, those who helped to build and supply the building, and supervise its construction, and those who have painted these murals.  This school has been prepared to receive many lambs, to feed and nurture them in body, mind, and spirit.  It will need the continuing shepherding of teachers and cooks and overseers who will help keep it healthy and moving toward good pasture.

If this school becomes the home or shelter for which it is named, it will reach out to the wider community to feed and tend the lambs and sheep who live around here, including some who will never enter this place.  That shepherding begins with the first students who come here.  If they are formed to care for others, to become shepherds themselves, the wider community will be blessed as a result.  It may be something as simple as learning to share a book, or how to mediate playground arguments, and it may be as profound as learning to trust other people and live with a deep source of hope.  These little shepherds can learn justice here, and how to help others create justice, but only if good shepherds help to teach them.  The older shepherds have to be sheep as well, knowing that they are members of the same flock.

This school can become a source of shepherds for people farther away as well, as those little shepherds leave this school and begin to move out into the world.  What will these children do as they grow?  We don’t know yet, but we have abundant hope for all the varied kinds of shepherds they will become.  We can share in forming them as sheep and shepherds of a flock that reaches around the world – for there are lost and hungry sheep everywhere.

Peter and Paul resolved their differences – or more correctly, learned to manage them – when they responded to people in their particular kind of pain.  When the community in Jerusalem was hungry, they helped collect funds from the more distant Christian communities and then sent it to help buy food.  And the community in Jerusalem became a fount of hospitality for pilgrims who came to remember the sacred story.

Something similar has happened here in the building and equipping of this school.  The needs and concerns of others have prompted people in both places to listen to the cries of sheep far away.  And as the sheep have moved their attention beyond their own little flock, they are becoming shepherds of the wider world.  Jesus was pretty clear that he had sheep of other flocks than the ones in his immediate neighborhood – and that mural is a wonderful image of that reality.

Ezekiel sets out a beautiful and powerful vision of the shepherd as one who seeks out the lost and heals the wounded and sick.  He’s also clear that the great good shepherd is looking for something more than simply quiet in the flock.  He says that God “will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  The fat and the strong aren’t simply healthy sheep – they are the ones who have begun to “lord it over” their weaker brothers and sisters.  In some sense they need a diet of drought and famine.  Relationships of justice need to be restored, so that there is grazing and water for all.[1]

This nation and this church have a pretty good understanding of what justice looks like.  Teach these children about justice and teach them well.  Show them love and justice and they will do it.

[1] There are different translations of this passage.  Some read in the way I have cited here.  In others, it says, “and I will guard (or watch over, or care for) the fat and strong.  I will feed them appropriately.”  The shepherd will guard the strong so they can’t hurt the weaker sheep, and will feed them what they most need.  The contrast is stronger in Spanish translations.

30 junio 2013
Iglesia del Buen Pastor, San José, Costa Rica

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

I spend most of my time on the road, traveling.  Most people spend their lives closer to home.  But all of us are meant to be on the road, the Jesus road, moving toward the Reign of God.  The very name of this church is a reminder that we are always moving, following the good shepherd toward good pasture, clear water, and a place of peace where there is no more need to struggle for justice.  We haven’t arrived yet, except in moments and interludes, which means we always have to be ready to answer the call, to keep moving “onward.”

Initially, when Elijah threw his mantle over him, Elisha was plowing.  Elijah offered an invitation to come and join him on the road of transformation toward the reign of God.  Elisha resists, saying he wants to say good-bye to his family.  Elijah says, if you’re not ready to follow me, don’t bother, just stay here.  But Elisha responds in a very different way.  He pauses long enough to butcher and cook his oxen.  And then he feeds the meat of those oxen to the people around him.  His journey begins with an act that blesses the community and demonstrates abundance.  He begins by enacting an image of the reign of God.  And then he sets off down the road with Elijah.  Elisha stays on the road with Elijah until the end.  He even insists, “I will not leave you.”

The gospel we heard reflects this kind of movement as well.  Jesus has taken the road to Jerusalem, a road that repeatedly insists that ultimately God is in charge, rather than Caesar or Herod or the powers of this world.  That’s what the Palm Sunday procession is all about, it is the meaning of the road to Calvary, and it is why the prophets kept reminding Israel that the nations will come streaming in to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the Lord.

Jesus has been on the road for a while already.  This part of Luke’s gospel tells of several encounters, beginning with Jesus’ transfiguration, when the disciples hear the voice from heaven say, “this is my son, the chosen one (or the beloved one), listen to him!”  Then a man asks Jesus to heal his only son.  The man has asked the disciples to heal the boy, but they can’t.  Jesus does, and then tells the disciples that he will be betrayed – he reminds them that he’s going toward Jerusalem.  Then the disciples start arguing about which of them is greatest, and Jesus points to a child and says, whoever welcomes this one is the greatest.  Then they report that they saw somebody trying to heal in Jesus’ name, because he wasn’t part of their group, and Jesus tells them that anyone who is not against them is for them.  And then they come to a Samaritan village, where they get no hospitality because Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and Samaritans avoid that city.  The disciples want to punish the villagers, but Jesus rebukes them.

Every one of these encounters offers a hint about where to look for companions on the road, and how to find fellow travelers and fellow ministers or shepherds.  Jesus is showing them how and where to discover God already at work, even in unexpected people – that there are children of God all around them, and opportunities to act like one of them.  He’s also reminding them not to turn aside once they’ve begun the journey.  It’s a counterpoint to the story of Elijah and Elisha – get on the road, and do the work of the kingdom of God wherever you go.  And we hear that again in the last encounters in this morning’s gospel.  Jesus meets others on the road, and he reminds each one that the road takes everything – they can’t stop for funerals or family reunions – there aren’t any time outs.  He’s not being cruel or saying you can’t grieve.  He is saying that every part of life is meant to be lived on the road, as children of God, and heirs of God’s intention for all of us.  We are to be messengers and enablers of the reign of God, in everything we do.

There is no part of our existence that is separate from this journey toward the reign of God.  We discover God’s presence, we discover opportunities for healing and doing justice by staying on the road.  The road is meant to take us home – all of us, and all humanity.  We can’t go there by ourselves – and we will find companions if we look for them.  This journey is urgent, and there will be distractions, but we can learn to be discerning about what is a distraction and what is an opportunity to share good news.

What do we do with all the little encounters in our lives?  How do we respond to the nameless strangers we meet on the road?

I was standing in line waiting to board an airplane not long ago, reading something, when a man walked up.  He didn’t say anything for a moment and I couldn’t tell what he wanted.  Then he told me he was a retired priest from New Zealand, on vacation in the United States.  We talked about New Zealand and the church there for a few minutes, and then he walked away.  I’m not sure, but I think he just wanted a friendly word.

Many of us walk through the city seeing lots of faces that belong to strangers.  Do we see friends or potential enemies?  How would the world change if we recognized each one as a potential ally?

Costa Rica has many inhabitants who were born elsewhere, as does the United States.  Most human communities struggle to include travelers and immigrants, though I think this country does a far better job of it.  The political conversation in the US right now is a deep conflict between those Americans who see migrants as threat and those who see potential blessing, and are willing to recognize that those who come seeking opportunity and blessing are kin.

These struggles happen everywhere.  A bishop from Pakistan visited me recently, and he wanted to tell the story of members of his diocese who were being persecuted for religious reasons – some whose homes have been burned, and others who have been falsely charged with blasphemy, who had to flee and look for refuge elsewhere.  Sometimes the inhospitable are people in our own community, but there is no time to waste calling down fire on them.  Stay on the road, keep looking for grace, keep building justice, don’t be diverted by vengeance – or by the desire to outshine another.

This diocese and the one in North Carolina have built remarkable friendships that certainly began with some doubt and hesitation.  If we can suspend judgment for a while, most of the time we discover that strangers are potential friends – and the challenge is to walk the streets expecting to find a child of God in the strangers we meet, rather than a threat or an enemy.

The good shepherd looks for sheep of all kinds – black, white, brown, foreign, familiar, young, old, frightened, joyous, and tired – and the flock will not be whole or healed until each one finds a place within it.  May our journeys be made in open expectation, looking for fellow sheep.  They want companions, too.  So stay on the road – and find them – and let them find you!