The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: After the Spirit Breathes

Presiding Bishop's Pentecost Sermon at All Saints, Mobile, Alabama


Well, I don't think we're going to get to sing Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry Bones, O hear the word of the Lord. Though I think we should. Ezekiel was preaching to people lost in isolation and hopelessness, exiled from their native land, sure they would never see home again, and feeling that God had utterly abandoned them. That old spiritual is a sacramental way of speaking to that sense of hopelessness and abandonment.

There are some around here who know about being washed out of house and home, downsized out of economic security, or even feeling abandoned by perceived changes in the church of their childhood.

We are all liable to depression and turning inward when the world around us looks dark and grim and lonely. Those disciples in Jerusalem, waiting for spirit, were in a similar funk, even though Jesus had repeatedly reassured them that the spirit would come.

Dry bones, indeed. Dead sticks, strewn across the sandy field, with not a shred of life left; fossils whose DNA has all decayed. Not unlike the killing fields of SE Asia, or the terror of Gaza last winter, or the fear of the war fought here in the 1860s. That abandonment, desolation, and fear is not yet fully healed in any of those places. Paul calls the waiting for that healing, the meantime in which we all live, "groaning in labor, waiting for adoption and redemption of our bodies." The Message puts it like this, "The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance."

Deliverance, too, in an economic situation like ours, with foreclosures rising along with the need for the kinds of feeding and serving ministries in which All Saints is engaged. Sometimes deliverance looks like letting go of the world's definition of significant employment.

I saw a fascinating newspaper article last weekend, an extract of Matthew Crawford's book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.[i] He talks about his own journey, getting a Ph.D. in political philosophy, waiting around for a year before he got a job, and then being hired as the executive director of a policy organization in Washington, D.C. He hated it, and only stayed five months. He'd saved up enough to buy the tools he needed, so he left and he started a motorcycle repair business. His article is an ode to the joys of working with your hands, solving problems that don't have immediately obvious solutions, and the art of listening, deeply, to the mysteries of the mechanical as well as the customer's report. There's probably something in the book as well about the rush of a Harley's engine, even though he works on old European and Japanese motorcycles.

His report is also about listening deeply to his own internal groaning, waiting for deliverance. He might not use language like this, but it's an example of listening well enough, and patiently enough, to finally discern where the spirit is leading. He let the spirit intercede, with sighs too deep for words - even though he's pretty adept at reporting the experience in words, well after the fact. His stint at the policy outfit was dry bones. Now, those bones have flesh and sinew and new circulation.

I've seen similar reports in the last few weeks about college students applying in droves for summer internships in agriculture - to work for as little as $25 a week, feeding lambs, tending crops, and peddling artisanal cheeses.

I heard another yearning in that direction when I was in Jamaica for the Anglican Consultative Council meeting earlier this month. Jamaica is fully capable of feeding itself as a nation, but the ruinous trade policies they confront basically mean they can't afford to - countries like ours subsidize our farmers to such an extent that our exports are far cheaper than what Jamaicans can grow there.

There's a deeper connection in all of this, and it's about how we value the gifts God has given us, like the multiple languages spoken on that first Pentecost. Not all God's children are meant to speak English - or Urdu - or even "southern" - or understand the mechanical language of a Honda or Motoguzzi. The culture of this nation has in recent years tended to devalue manual labor, in favor of what "information workers" do. This, despite the fact that we all need to eat and get our cars fixed and our clothes cleaned. We have forgotten the ancient and appropriate pride in a hands-on job well done. The stunning reality is that those kinds of employment are still healthy - and applications to trade schools are rising.

There are signs of hope that this labor will once again find its proper value. Lots and lots of churches are starting garden plots - sometimes so that neighbors may grow their own food, and sometimes so that church members can grow and share produce with the larger community. We're remembering that Jesus told us to feed the hungry, not, as Archbishop Tutu is fond of saying, simply to "wait for pizzas to fall from heaven."

Shortly after this service ends, we're going to honor the work of many hands, a labor of love that has produced a dignified home for one family. Truly, this community has remembered the ancient charge to care for the sojourner, as well as the orphan and widow. And it hasn't meant simply waiting for a house to fall from heaven. Dry sticks of lumber have made the bones of a new home, one that will be filled the love of this family and this community. Your tired bones have received the spirit and breathed new life into other dry bones - human and otherwise.

There's a fascinating bit in the gospel today that says the holy spirit those disciples are waiting for will prove the world wrong about sin and justice and judgment. Jesus insists that sin lies in turning away from the relationship with God that he's shown them. Sin also lies in denying the goodness of the way God's created us, in our uniqueness and our variety, and trying to be something we're not.

Justice or righteousness ultimately comes from God, and our own attempts at justice will never fully measure up to that divine vision. Judgment is pronounced on the idols of this world, like the ones that insist all people should be servants of the market or the state rather than each other.

And finally, that when this spirit comes, the spirit will guide us into truth. The spirit won't simply tell us what it is. Letting dry bones receive the moist breath of spirit, and new life in the process, takes time and willingness to receive. Those bones have to experience labor - and the labor of an easy yoke and a light burden does issue in new life.

What will the bones of All Saints - healthy and vigorous now - look like in 100 years? Receiving breath and life of holy spirit, wherever it leads, will keep them covered in flesh and sinew. May you receive the groaning and labor as blessing.

[i] Matthew B Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Penguin Press, 2009. New York Times Magazine 24 May 2009.

[Taken by permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]