[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs press release] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached the following sermon June 9 during the June 8-10 meeting of the Executive Council at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The Holy Eucharist used the day’s proper (1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24), Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17).
Linthicum Heights, MD
9 June 2013
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
That widow in Zarephath is starving because of a drought. There’s no water for the fields, not enough for growing grain. It’s hard for people in a part of the world like this to imagine – flooding is far more common here than drought. It’s even worse in Europe right now, where rivers are overflowing their banks in hundred-year floods for the second time in 10 years. Yet if the clouds dried up and the rain stopped it wouldn’t take long before this lush green disappeared. Groundwater supplies are shrinking almost everywhere, and wells must reach deeper to tap aquifers.
Drought and access to water are still major issues in the Middle East, and they are primary obstacles to peace. Hunger and thirst have driven Elijah to Zarephath, yet he finds a small family in as much difficulty as himself. The widow says she’s going to fix a tiny meal and then she’s going to lie down and die. The response is the most significant kind of healing possible. Elijah assures that widow that her supply of flour and oil will last until the rains return and the next harvest comes. It’s a deeply powerful witness to God’s care for the least and the forgotten.
The great joy in the food aid that the widow receives is the act of the same God whom Mary and Hannah extol – the lowly one has been raised up, God has remembered the people everyone else forgets. That’s divine justice. The raising of widows’ sons in Zarephath and Nain reminds us that God’s justice is always overturning the powers and principalities of this world. Defender of the poor, feeder of the hungry, cause of rejoicing for the hopeless – this is I AM WHO I AM, present and at work in the world. The psalmist proclaims that justice in every way imaginable: in God’s help for all the downtrodden, as the one who gives justice and food, who sets prisoners free, makes the blind see, who loves the righteous, cares for the stranger, sustains orphan and widow, and yes, frustrates the way of the wicked. The God who cares about the most unnoticed life is the one who restores creation. This is the God who frustrates the wicked and turns enemies into advocates, as Saul the destroyer becomes Paul the creative proclaimer of good news and abundant life.
As we began, we prayed that God might make us partners in abundant life, builders of the divine vision of peace: The collect says: ‘O God, you’re the source of all good – help us to think of what is just, and then guide us to do it.’ [it’s clearer in Spanish!]
Famine in the ancient world was a fairly common occurrence. It wasn’t inevitable, however, that some would die of hunger while others sat around with full bellies. Joseph’s work in Egypt is a telling response to the ability of faithful people to do justice.
The wild weather we’re experiencing – floods on both sides of the Atlantic, storms in tornado alley, fires in the west, melting glaciers and sea ice – may seem inevitable to some, but it is related to our wasteful use of the earth’s bounty, and dumping carbon into the atmosphere. We must pray with the psalmist that God will frustrate the ways of the wicked, that God will help us to recognize what is just, and then act on it.
We are here on this earth to be witnesses and partners. The raising of helpers from among the dead and the dying is still going on all around us. Saul was a long way gone, maybe even stinking already, when his confrontation with blindness told him to “rise.” That urgent word comes to all of us.
The church and community garden projects springing up everywhere have something in common with that widow’s supply of flour and oil. Those gardens invite people to rise into a life of justice at many levels – slowing down enough to put our hands in the dirt and remember the source of all life, turning our attention away from frantic consuming, even taking carbon out of the atmosphere, and reminding us of the very real hunger of our neighbors.
The presidents of China and the US have been meeting in something of a garden – albeit a very hot one – to talk about the weather as well as hunger in North Korea. Pray that their work will bring greater justice to millions of people.
Hunger is ultimately at the root of much human struggle. Wars and human migration are often the result of a search for food security. Last weekend I visited a camp for asylum seekers in Munich. The residents are people like those widows and their children, with no real means of support, whose only apparent answer is to find a way across the border into Germany to ask for help. They come from Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Romania, seeking food and jobs. The German government gives basic aid, and houses them in refugee camps that are more attractive than what we imagine in Sudan or Nigeria. The one we saw in Munich is a decommissioned military fort. It’s basic, but it’s functional. Food staples are distributed twice a week, but the refugees have to cook for themselves – and it’s commodity food. Married couples without children can’t live together – each room has to house several people, so the men are in one place, the women in another; only families with children share a room. Unaccompanied teens have their own barracks, with chaperones.
The social worker who oversees life there says the government doesn’t want to encourage dependency, so they make sure it’s not too comfortable. People stay in the camp for a month or two before being resettled in smaller groups in other communities. Life is hard and boring, and work is very difficult to find, because the jobs go to Germans first. Children can’t go to German schools while they’re in the process of seeking asylum. The social worker, together with a number of volunteers, works to provide basic schooling in the camp, some individual and group therapy for traumatized people, and a sense of order in the midst of chaos. Parishioners bring clothing, supplies, and companionship, including very popular gym classes for Muslim women! I spoke with a Palestinian man there who has fled the violence in his homeland, looking for peace. There is peace in that camp of asylum-seekers because of the witness of caring human beings who become evidence of God at work in that place. Everyone is being invited to “rise” and find life in the face of what others see as hopelessness.
We met another group of peacemakers at a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity – the order that Mother Teresa was part of. Four nuns live in a city building that also houses a shelter for a dozen women, and a winter shelter for a few men. Every day around 100 people are fed a hot meal, and food is distributed to several dozen families on Saturdays. The sisters make pastoral visits to the homes of the people who come for food. The kitchen work and serving is done by volunteers, in two shifts each day – one to prepare the food, and another shift to serve and clean up. It’s a post-modern version of a medieval monastery, welcoming all comers as Christ himself, offering hospitality of the deepest and most gracious sort. The mother superior, who is an Indian woman, welcomed me with a hug that was like a mother greeting a wandering child. She held my hand, laughed, and answered our questions. That community offers the welcome of friends of Jesus.
That is what Jesus was up to in Nain, raising the dying and downtrodden, feeding the hungry, turning the injustice of the world upside down, making peace, and giving evidence of more abundant life. That’s what God is always up to. Rise, friends, rise and live! Live as I AM in this world. Think of justice and then do it.