The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Overcoming Fear of "The Other"

Presiding Bishop's Sermon at Southwark Cathedral, London

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


I come from a notorious place. Gambling and prostitution are legal in Nevada. Ministry there means that many congregations host 12-step programs not just for alcoholics and drug addicts, but for those addicted to gambling. There are a few groups for sex addicts, too. A story quietly circulated when I was there, about a priest who encouraged the local madams and their employees to visit the churches he served. One congregation made a warm enough welcome that the women of the night returned frequently. Other congregations acted more like Jesus' fellow dinner guests - "who let her in here?" The women didn't return to those dinner tables.

I don't know what it's like in the Church of England, but in some circles the Episcopal Church has the reputation for being a place where you have to dress correctly, and know how to act - i.e., you really should know all the responses by heart, and how to find your way around the several books we use in worship - or you shouldn't even bother walking in the front door. Yes, I'll admit that there are a few places like that, where the local pew-sitters are more afraid than their potential guests, but there are lots more communities where all comers are not just invited, but welcomed with open arms.

I have an old friend, a quirky priest who's been a college chaplain for decades, who tells about the summer he traveled across the United States visiting different churches. He was camping, and didn't get a bath every day, but he talked about what a different reception he'd get when he wore his collar, even when he was grubby. The Bishop of Rhode Island spent part of her last sabbatical learning what it's like to live on the street. She tells about sleeping in homeless shelters in some of her own churches, and then going upstairs to church on Sunday morning. She was never recognized, but she learned a great deal about the welcome and unwelcome of different congregations.

It's hard work to get to the point where you're able and willing to see the Lord of love in the odorous street person next to you in the pew. It can be just as hard to find him in the unwelcoming host.

What makes us so afraid of the other? There's something in our ancient genetic memory that ratchets up our state of arousal when we meet a stranger - it's a survival mechanism that has kept our species alive for millennia by being wary about strangers. But there's also a piece of our makeup that we talk about in more theological terms - the part that leaps to judgment about that person's sins. It's connected to knowing our own sinfulness, and our tendency toward competition - well, she must be a worse sinner than I am - thank God!

That woman who wanders into Simon's house comes with her hair uncovered - "oh, scandal! She's clearly a woman of the street!" And she starts to act in profoundly embarrassing ways, crying all over Jesus' feet and cleaning up the tears with her hair. And, "oh Lord, now she's covering him with perfume! We can't have this in a proper house - what will people think? And I guess now we know just what sort of person that fellow is!"

The scorn that some are willing to heap on others because we think they've loved excessively or inappropriately is still pretty well known. Yet it is this woman's loving response to Jesus that brings her pardon, and Jesus' celebration of her right relationship with God. She doesn't even have to ask. Jesus seems to say that evidence of her pardon has already been given - full measure, pressed down, and overflowing - just like her tears and hair and cask of nard.

It's the same message Jesus offers over and over: "perfect love casts out fear" (1Jn 4:18). It's actually our fear of the wretchedness within our own souls that pushes us away from our sisters and brothers. Fear is the only thing that keeps us from knowing God's love - and we most often discover it in the people around us. Jesus wasn't afraid to eat with sinners, either Simon or the other dinner guests, and he wasn't afraid of what the woman of the city was going to do to his reputation.

The forgiven woman of the city is sister to the prodigal son. They are both our siblings. We can join that family if we're willing to let go of that fearful veneer of righteousness. It covers our yearning to be fully known, because we don't quite think we're lovable. That veneer is the only thing between us and a whole-hearted "welcome home." It's risky to let that veneer be peeled away, but all we risk is love.

That's what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians. He knows that all his work at observing the fine points of the law is like piling up the layers in a piece of plywood. Those layers of veneer may make plywood strong, but in human beings they have to be peeled away, or maybe traded for transparent ones. The layers won't right our relationship with God. Love will. Paul says, "if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a sinner." The veneered self simply can't be vulnerable enough to receive the love that's being offered. Can we see the human heart yearning for love in that person over there? Can we recall our own yearning, and find the connection? That's what compassion is - opening ourselves to love.

Practicing compassion rather than judgment is one way the layers start to fly off. Think about all those dinner guests. The party's going to be far more interesting if we can find something to love about the curmudgeonly host and his buddies. Rejecting them is going to shut down any real possibility of compassion. It's risky, yes, but the only thing we risk is our own hearts, and the possibility they'll overflow as readily as that woman's tears. It's a big risk to let the layers go, but the only thing we risk is discovering a brother or sister under the skin.

Jesus invites us all to his moveable feast. He leaves that dinner party with Simon and goes off to visit other places in need of prodigal love and prodigious forgiveness. His companions, literally his fellow tablemates, are the 12 and "some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities." Hmmm. Strong, healthy women, and three of them are actually named here: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Together with many others they supported and fed the community - they became hosts of the banquet.

Those who know the deep acceptance and love that come with healing and forgiveness can lose the defensive veneer that wants to shut out other sinners. They discover that covering their hair or hiding their tears or hoarding their rich perfume isn't the way that the beloved act, even if it makes others nervous. Eventually it may even cure the anxious of their own fear by drawing them toward a seat at that heavenly banquet. There's room for us all at this table, there are tears of welcome and a kiss for the wanderer, and the sweet smell of home.

Want to join the feast? You are welcome here. Love has saved you - go in peace. Lean over at the peace and say the same to three strangers: you are welcome here. Love has saved you - be at peace.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church