The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Beyond Locked Doors

Sermon at Diocese of Oregon's Consecration of New Bishop

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


"When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews..."

Do you lock the doors around here? I seem to remember that you do, and there's pretty good evidence that you have a well-controlled system of access - maybe because of fear, or just the nuisance factor.

I'll bet that most of us lock our doors at home, and I know some people who lock their car doors whenever they go anywhere, whatever the neighborhood is like. Every once in a while I get a rental car that locks the doors automatically - it drives me crazy! Who or what are we afraid of?

As a nation we've locked up our borders pretty tight. Each time I've gone out of the United States recently, it's meant a pat down search before I could get on the airplane to come home. Do we really think that only foreigners or people outside the U.S. will try to make trouble? You probably heard about the diplomat from Qatar who snuck a smoke in the bathroom of a plane on the way to Denver. When somebody asked him about it, he made a lame joke about trying to set his shoes on fire. It got the Air Force out, every commercial plane in the air was notified, and it caused enormous fear, disruption, and overreaction. Our fears as a nation focus a great deal on immigration and flying, and when the two coincide, watch out!

John's gospel loads all of his community's fear on "the Jews." It's downright anachronistic, because it's quite clear that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, as an enemy of the state. There may have been some collusion by the Jewish authorities appointed by Rome, but the deed was done by Rome. But by the time John writes his gospel, around the end of the 1st century, his own community is being pushed out of the synagogue because their beliefs are just too far out of line with mainstream Judaism. This line about locking the doors for fear of the Jews has far more to do with the anxiety of John's community than it does with Jesus' contemporaries.

And the repercussions of that "fear of the Jews" have continued to bear bitter fruit ever since. John's fearful attitude is the root of most Christian anti-Semitism. It has contributed to some of the most evil and sinful religious behavior in history, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Our current national anxiety about Arabs and Muslims has something to do with displaced fear of other religious traditions, and it gets a lot of its juice from the attitude of Jesus' later followers to his fellow Jews.

Such behavior is not unique to Christians, however. There are plenty of similar attitudes in older parts of the Bible, where the fear of surrounding nations and their religious traditions engenders lots of hatred. You remember Pat Robertson's attempt to blame Haiti's current woes on old African religious traditions, like voodoo. Well, Ezra tried the same thing in the 5th century BCE, when he brought the last of the Babylonian captives back to Jerusalem. Ezra insisted that the men of Israel divorce their foreign wives, who were undoubtedly the cause of their national woes. And that's the relatively minor stuff!

Human beings have, from the dawn of time, locked their literal and figurative doors against those they feared, often with deadly consequences. Who are we afraid of when we lock our doors? What effect does that search for safety have, on us and on others?

There was a great report here this week of a building owner who hired a spray-paint artist and his friends to decorate the front of his empty building. The owner had finally figured out that having some intentional graffiti on his building, as a mural, would deter others from continually adding theirs, and would probably save him a lot of effort in painting over those tags. Graffiti is graffiti, but the owner decided he was going to choose his art. The perhaps unstartling response has been that various people have called the cops when they've seen the artists out there working in broad daylight! This project got started when the chief artist called the building's owner and asked to use his wall as a canvas. The owner had the courage to open the door, to let down the wall of suspicion, and invite a conversation. They both found new life in the encounter.

Somehow I think that's the kind of thing that is going on with Jesus and his disciples. They've locked themselves in because they're afraid that somebody, probably the Romans, is going to come after them, too. They think they are well-defended against any intruder. But Jesus gets in anyway - twice, first when Thomas isn't there, and a week later, when he is. Love gets through the door or the wall even in the face of abject terror. When Thomas shows up the second time, he demands proof. Jesus treats it as an invitation, and an opening for conversation.

Love can usually overpower our flimsy defenses and get beyond our demands for proof. The only question is whether or not we're going to cooperate, and open our hearts.

Thomas is usually painted as the villain in this story, because he wants some evidence that this phantasm in the room with him is really his friend. But Thomas doesn't reject him outright, he keeps the conversation going until he's sure. That's the role of doubt. Doubt is an openness to something new, and it's actually essential to discovery and growth. The origin of that word has to do with choosing between two things, or being of two minds, and in that sense faith or belief is about making that choice. There really can't be any faith without the ability to choose. Thomas wrestles with his question, makes his choice, and affirms it in saying, "my Lord and my God."

In that choosing, Thomas decides whom and how to follow. It doesn't mean he'll never be uncertain again, or be faced with challenging choices. It does mean he's chosen a Godward direction.

Those choices come to us in all sorts of ways - and particularly in unexpected invitations to open a door or let down a barrier.

There's a remarkable initiative in Omaha, between Episcopalians, Jews, and Muslims, who are trying to buy land together and build some shared worship facilities. They've been working at this for more than two years, and they are very close to buying the land. They started by meeting and eating together, and learning about each others' traditions. They soon discovered that they would have to make a conscious choice not to proselytize each other if they were going to stay in relationship. They wrestled with their fears about conversion, and said ‘no, we're not going to do that. We'll choose that restraint so we can open ourselves more freely.' They will tell you that each community has found their faith strengthened in the encounters, and their understanding of their own traditions deepened. God willing, in the next year, they will build on that land, a worship center for each tradition, and some common, shared facilities, including a center for interfaith encounter.

What door is locked for you? Love can enter through the smallest crack - sometimes all it takes is a willingness to say, ‘I'm tired of being walled up in here all alone.' That's a choice each one of us has.

At the end of yesterday' consecration, people were handed a whistle. Marla Hanley, who's married to your new bishop, first had one given her by a friend, with an invitation to call a friend for help when she felt overwhelmed in a new job. Those whistles are a sound reminder that help is available when you're feeling anxious - all you have to do is ask for a little help from your friends - just like Thomas.

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