The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Growth and Vitality

The Presiding Bishops Preaches at St. James', New York, Bicentennial Celebration

Proper 28, Year C

by Katharine Jefferts Schori


Three weeks ago, Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary burned. It has heard countless prayers and student sermons since it was built almost 130 years ago. Last Thursday, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Houma, Louisiana, also burned. Although the parish was founded in 1855, the building that burned was finished in 1892. This congregation of St. James has worshiped in three different buildings - and each of the earlier ones has been demolished or repurposed, and this one has been radically re-imagined, significant parts of it torn down, and rebuilt.

When Jesus encounters a bunch of tourists gawking at the beauty of the Temple in Jerusalem, he says, "the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another." It's a reminder that every human construction passes away, but it's also Jesus' way of saying that those who live in the eternal needn't be afraid of death, change, or opposition. You may be terrified, you may be hated by people around you - or you may hate what's happening around you, but your deep rootedness in the love of God will bring you through those trials. God is always doing a new thing. The seminary community in Virginia and the congregation in Louisiana will both find new life, even though the details of their worship life and other aspects of their community life will certainly look different in the months and years to come. The familiar has passed away, and a new creation has begun.

The ability of this congregation to move, change, and grow through the trials of displacement and disruption over the last two centuries is testimony to the deep rootedness of God's dream in this community. We change, as human beings and as the Body of Christ, because we haven't yet arrived at that vision Isaiah sets out before us -new heavens and a new earth. Isaiah challenges people to hear God: "be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating, for I am about to create the city of peace (which is what Jerusalem means) as a joy, and her people a delight." That great vision is where we're going, toward which we're changing, and it is the intent for all that God has created.

Human bodies are continually undergoing demolition and reconstruction, from bones to blood to skin cells. At the molecular and cellular level, we are quite literally not the same people we were a year ago. The cells of our bodies are continually being destroyed and new ones created - and when that process stops, we die. This body gathered as St. James this morning is not the same one that gathered here last Sunday, a year ago, or the one that will gather in December. Yet this body is most clearly growing and thriving. St. James' ability to embrace that kind of re-creative change is at the root of your health and vigor.

Growth and vitality have something essential to do with the ability to look outward and embrace new and life-giving possibilities, and let go of what is no longer life-giving. The most vital elders among us are the ones who are still learning and discovering, intrigued by the new things their juniors are up to - like Facebook and flashmobs. Less vital and dying human beings and human communities are generally only interested in themselves.

The body of St. James may be 200 years old, but it's deeply committed to looking beyond its own self-preservation. Think about other temples in this city that are in the process of being torn down, remodeled, or repurposed, from church buildings to city offices and schools, from bureaucracies to parks and public spaces. Thank God for the imagination that's bringing us the High Line Park! And we live in hope that the Second Street subway will eventually be finished!

Life of the lasting sort lies in that vision of Isaiah's - ‘no more weeping or cries of distress, a joy-filled city, no early deaths, everyone with a house and an orchard - i.e., meaningful employment - and no more bearing children for calamity.' Twenty-seven hundred years later, the cries of distress aren't much different - hunger, homelessness, random violence, inadequate schools and employment - and it is still the witness of people of faith that begins to re-create the city of peace.

Jesus says that when the going gets tough, when we begin to think that destruction or change seems hopeless, then "this will give you an opportunity to testify..." And don't worry about just exactly what you're going to say or do - if you're deeply rooted in God's yearning for a healed world, it will be pretty obvious - the words and wisdom to respond will be given you. When apartheid began to emerge into the awareness of the wider world, St. James responded. When the South Bronx and Northern Ireland became hellholes of violence, hatred, and despair, this congregation responded. When hungry people began to gather on the stoops and in the doorways of this neighborhood, you answered. When you began to hear of need in southern Malawi, you offered hospitality here, and you went there looking for ways to partner. In all of this witness, you've remembered that ancient vision of a reconciled world, and responded. You have given witness to the faith that is within this body.

The third century of St. James' existence is bringing new challenges - greater interconnection, instantaneous communication, increasing social and economic polarization, even the frenetic pace of life in this city. Life, creativity, and witness will depend on the ability to be open and flexible, and not to "prepare your defense in advance" but rather to be open to the wisdom the spirit will offer. Your long history of deep interconnections, both in this city and across the globe, is an immense strength on which to build. You have repeatedly been witnesses to a healed world - your leadership can and will help others to do the same.

Your creative re-building will involve this church - not just the building, but the ways you gather to be fed and to serve in the larger world. Maybe you know about St. Lydia's Dinner Church in lower Manhattan - it gathers people to cook and share a sacred meal on Sunday evenings, in homes or in more traditional church space - the kitchen! This very diocese is beginning another cycle of reconstruction. Your bishop called for the election of his successor yesterday, and your part in that process will help to build the next chapter of witness here.

How many of you were involved in the bicentennial week of mission? What a stunning example of witness in the midst of the world's suffering - gardening at St. Ann's in the Bronx, mural painting at Jan Hus Presbyterian, building a Habitat house, feeding the hungry here, at Yorkville Common Pantry, at Trinity, St. Mary's West Harlem, St. Luke in the Fields, and working at the Osborne Association. With a little help from your friends, many got an opportunity to testify.

As long as that vision of a city of peace, a healed world, a joyous people, continues to draw us into the future, the reality that Jesus came among us to proclaim will invite us to creative reconstruction. What else is resurrection, but God's ability to build something new and life-giving out of the world's destruction? Until we arrive at the fullness of that prophetic and godly vision, the world's structures will continue to undergo deconstruction and creative reconstruction. It may come upon us without warning, like fire, earthquake, or violence, or we may actively choose to let go of inadequate and unjust and sinful structures and partner with God in creative transformation. However it starts, our work will not be done until we arrive at that new heaven and new earth, Jerusalem a joy and its people a delight, the wolf and the lamb dining together rather than on each other. We can rest when they no longer hurt or destroy anywhere in God's holy creation. Not before. Until then, abundant blessings on the dismantling and the rebuilding. Onward into the third century of holy recycling, godly re-creation, and the transformation of creation into God's intended dream of shalom.

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