The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Taking Up Our Cross

Trinity Church, Williamsport, Diocese of Central Pennsylvania

Celebration of ministry of baptized; confirmation


by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

We came over here Friday on the train from New York. We weren't very far into New Jersey when the train stopped - and it wasn't at a station. We sat on the tracks for 10 or 15 minutes, and the very solicitous conductor came around to tell us that there was a disabled train ahead of us, and that he didn't know how long it would be, but they were working to fix the other train. Eventually we would move. He came around again, twice, in the next half hour, to tell us the same thing. After a while I turned to Dick and said, "we need a new verse for that old saw, "if you have time to spare, go by air. Maybe, ‘to hang around, go by ground.'" A bit later the conductor made an announcement, "we'll let you know if any new developments develop. Thank you for your continued kindness and patience."

Some people think this is what Jesus means when he says, "take up your cross," that we're supposed to respond to life's unexpected events with grace and good humor. Patience and kindness are certainly appropriate and useful spiritual gifts, but the kind of wisdom that Proverbs and Jesus are talking about actually goes a lot deeper.

A word about proverbs and wisdom. The image of lady wisdom is a bit better known than it was before we started to use the lectionary in the 1979 prayer book, but we still don't hear about Wisdom very often. In the Hebrew Bible (OT) Wisdom is a personification of God, sometimes understood as God's active presence, not unlike the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. She also shows up as God's fellow builder in creation, like a holy architect or master builder. Wisdom stands in the street and invites the foolish to turn in and feast at her table, to take in what is good and reject the foolish. Wisdom is what James is alluding to when he challenges teachers to be careful with their tongues. Jesus is spoken of in the gospels as Wisdom's child and Wisdom's prophet, and he clearly does the same kinds of things Wisdom does - inviting whoever is hungry to a bountiful feast, and offering the Word of God as the main course. Compare the close of this Proverbs reading, "those who listen to me will be secure and live at ease, without dread of disaster" with the words of Jesus, "those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it." Hear echoes also in "fear not" and "my burden is easy, my yoke is light."

The kind of wisdom Jesus challenges us to receive is about the hard work of the kingdom. If we acknowledge Jesus as king or lord, then we're also going to have to recognize that following him isn't just about patience and kindness, necessary and useful as they are. Kindness and patience are signs of the converted or wise heart, but they are not the only fruits of that deeper wisdom.

I get letters periodically complaining about something the church has done, or what its leaders are talking about. They're usually variations on "the church is going to hell in a handbasket, we're losing members, and what are you going to do about it?" I've had several in recent days about health care, along the lines of, "How can you possibly think it's the church's job to engage in politics? I go to church to feel safe, not to be harassed about politics!" I write back and point out that loving our neighbors is about healing the sick, and that a systemic change is probably the best way to ensure that every sick person has some access to health care, and that in this country politics is the way we change dysfunctional systems. I understand politics as the art of living in community, and Jesus actually talked a lot about that kind of politics. And yes, even in the church, some people may get mad and leave if they think they're going to be asked to help or be responsible for other people.

Taking up our cross and following Jesus isn't always sweetness and light - there certainly isn't much of it in the suffering that precedes Easter. But the assurance of the gospel is that God can bring new life out of the worst that the world can dish up, and following Jesus to Calvary is the way to find that resurrected life.

A bishop from Pakistan was in my office last week. He talked about the blasphemy law in Pakistan, and how it's routinely misused to settle grudges against Christians or other minorities. A number of Christians have died recently in riots, murders, and house burnings that have followed spurious charges of blasphemy or disrespect of the Koran. He also told me that he'd just been to visit his brothers in Canada, all five of whom emigrated there decades ago. They don't understand why he stays in Pakistan. His response is, "I must keep going back. We will not change this injustice if we don't continue to show others we love them." Yesterday I had news of a church burned by extremists in a village in another diocese of Pakistan.

People of faith in this country do need to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, remembering that his mission instructions are usually about healing people and bringing good news. And yes, health care reform in the U.S. and peace in Pakistan are going to require some changes, because the systems we have now hasn't yet reached God's dream of wholeness and a healed world. We've had a pretty good example of the pain involved in the public conversations about health care in the last couple of months. But you and I don't live in the midst of darkness, we live with hope for light. When you think about health care reform, who is "living in dread of disaster" right now, as Proverbs puts it? Is it the wise or the foolish?

I had a very interesting conversation on that train ride over here. A young man stopped and asked me "are you a sister in the faith?" I said, "I hope so!" His response was, "do you have a word for me?" I offered the end of the Proverbs reading because I was wrestling with it right then, "those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster." He knew it was from Proverbs, and asked where, so I gave him chapter and verse. "That's a good word," he said, and went on to his seat. He came back 30 minutes later and engaged me for quite a long time. He said he had read that there were 11 major religions in the world, and something like 30,000 denominations, and was trying to figure out how to pick the right one. He was no beginner, either. He quoted a lot of gospel, by chapter and verse, including the part where Jesus says, by your fruits you will know them. He went on and on, about how some preachers think that the gospel is about collecting riches, but no, that wasn't what Jesus meant. Nor was going to war, or thinking that God can only speak in one way or through one tradition. A wise young man.

How do we know spiritual wisdom when we meet it? By its fruits - yes, patience and kindness - but also justice and healing and peace. Sometimes those fruits don't emerge for a while, until after Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday. But we keep picking up our cross anyway, and walking down the road after Jesus.

When that young man got off the train, he didn't wish me "happy trails." We said to each other what I will say to all of us, "a blessed journey." As we take up our cross, and follow Jesus down that blessed way, our refrain really ought to be, "on the road again."

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