The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: A Holy Vision of Shalom

Sermon at Christ Church Cathedral in Mobile, AL

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Originally preached on 5/31/2009

I watched a powerfully moving video last weekend, made for public television. It was the first installment of a series called We Shall Remain, about interactions between the Native peoples of what we now call the United States and those who initially came here from England and have variously been called invaders, explorers, settlers, or colonists. The first video is about the Wampanoag people and the English who settled at Plymouth, in what's now Massachusetts. It opens by talking about the origins of Thanksgiving.

If that event, the Wampanoag-English feast, really took place, it was the result of courage, trust, and generosity, in the face of enormous loads of fear. The English died by the dozens over their first winter from starvation and disease, but in the spring the Wampanoag taught them something about how to survive - to harvest the bounty of the land and sea, and to plant appropriate crops. Interaction between the two groups was aided by Tisquantum, a Wampanoag who'd been enslaved by earlier explorers and carried first to Spain, and then to Newfoundland as a translator. He eventually returned to his native area, a year or so before the Plymouth settlers arrived.

But the fear on each side was immense. Fear by the English of people who spoke a different language and observed vastly different customs. Fear by the Wampanoag of invaders, with more powerful weapons, and the ability to resist the diseases that had devastated native peoples in the years preceding their arrival. Fear on both sides that one group would wipe out the other.

There was self-interest at work as well, in overcoming the fears that beset each group. The Wampanoag needed allies against their neighbors the Micmac and the Pequot. The English needed to learn how to live in this strange place. And so they began to act like what Isaiah sets before us as a vision of the divine dream: the wolf living with the lamb, a child playing with a snake, and an end to violence and war on God's green and fertile earth.

That holy vision of shalom, of a place and time where fear has been banished, is what draws together people of good will, and people who struggle to find a better will within themselves. That vision continues to push communities of faith toward a just peace in the Middle East, where Christian, Muslim, and Jew can raise children who don't see the other as enemy, in communities where those children can play in the streets together, and in villages where ancient enmity is resolved.

Our respective communities keep that dream alive by telling the great stories of our faith, and connecting them with those times when we've seen a glimpse of their reality. There's a very particular example of this happening right now in Omaha, Nebraska. A Jewish congregation, a Muslim congregation, and the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska are trying to buy land together so they can build a shared facility. Each congregation will have its own worship space, but they will share other meeting places, green space, and a parking lot. It's not just good practical theology, it's pretty sound environmentally. They are together being remarkably careful stewards of all the gifts they've been given. They have promised not to try to convert each other; and they will try to learn from each other, in the expectation that their own faith will be deepened and expanded.

There are congruent initiatives going on in Israel-Palestine, with groups of parents, children's initiatives, and human rights groups that seek to broaden the vision of their own members and others about who bears the image of God.

The feast that Christians celebrate today is intimately connected to the expansion of our awareness - of the image of God, of God's possibilities and desires for all creation, and for the ways in which we might participate in God's dream. The coming of holy spirit we remember and celebrate today is an expectation of wisdom, grace, inspiration, generosity, and courage. We tell the story over and over again because we need to be reminded, because we haven't yet received all that holy spirit has to offer, because we're still not quite able to engage and cooperate fully.

Americans of all faith traditions have stories to remember and tell that will challenge us. The stories of the first peoples of this land have been too often ignored and forgotten. If we can hear them, they will give abundant opportunity for us to hear God's lament and challenge. The spirit does not always sing sweetness and light in our ears - and the Pentecost images of tongues of fire and mighty wind are good reminder. That spirit may burn away old constructions of reality or ancient prejudice, and it may set us alight with a passion to transform this world toward a pasture of lions and lambs cavorting together. The coming of holy spirit as tornado or hurricane may destroy old certainty and open vistas for new possibility.

I've heard the spirit speak challenge to Americans to hear the stories of our elder brothers and sisters in this land. What would spirit say to us about our respect for their elder status, perhaps beginning with the Poarch Creek band? What does the average Episcopalian or Alabaman know of their history here?

I've read this week about high school students in Montgomery County, Georgia, who still attend senior proms based on racial identity. Their parents refuse to recognize that their children have friends across the color spectrum and no longer share the prejudice of their parents. But who pays for the parties? What will it take for the spirit to burn or blow through Georgia and throughout this land?

I've heard the spirit challenge us all to consider how we view our enemies, especially the ones jailed in Cuba or in Abu Ghraib. Do they have dignity, do they deserve our respect, even if we believe them capable of great violence? What did Jesus himself say about enemies and forgiveness as he hung on the cross?

I've also seen the spirit blowing around this diocese, making peace of that shalom sort in many places - a new home for a family of Sudanese on Cherokee Street; construction projects in the Dominican Republic; feeding and childcare in parish after parish.

What does it take to make peace? Jesus gives it away, but not the way the world gives. Maybe he means that we don't have to pay taxes on our good fortune, or that it doesn't require paying shipping and handling to get the package tomorrow. No credit required! He says, "peace I leave you, my peace I give you. Don't be afraid."

It might be more accurate to say, "don't let your fear immobilize you." We're all afraid of something, even a mighty wind or a dose of fire, because it's going to change us. Holy things do that. But as someone said, "courage is fear that's said its prayers." May God give us all the courage to receive a mighty dose of Holy Spirit and change this world toward shalom and salaam, the peace God has already given us the tools to build.

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