Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, Diocese of Springfield
St. John the Divine, Champaign, IL
by Katharine Jefferts Schori
I started Lent this year at an Ash Wednesday celebration in Haiti. It was a remarkable experience, with several hundred people and all the clergy of the diocese gathered in the open-air cathedral. That is a shelter with a roof but no walls, on the grounds of the historic cathedral which was destroyed in last year's earthquake. The nation's only philharmonic orchestra played during the service, the orchestra begun at the cathedral as a ministry of the diocese. The Episcopalians in Haiti sang and played with a solemn hope and faithfulness, and they're filled with a somber kind of joy. They know God is at work, even though the outward signs are small and slight.
A year ago, as Lent followed on the heels of the earthquake there, there was very little music, and the sermons were about already having had Lent. Haitians needed to be practicing resurrection. I'm not so certain that's bad counsel at any time, but a disaster challenges our faith and hope in new ways, and calls for new approaches to old disciplines.
It probably felt like disaster when God told Abram to go: ‘leave your home, your family, the country in which you have grown up. Leave all that behind, in favor of a new land and a new nation, and I will bless you, so much that your name will bless the world.' Suddenly he was being asked to live his life on the road without all those old comforts or the taken-for-granted stability of home.
Jesus himself lived on the road - the son of man with nowhere to lay his head - and his words to Nicodemus say something quite similar: you have to be born from above if you want to see the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not like what you know now, even if you have seen some hints. It requires dying to the old, choosing transformation, relinquishing the unquestioned and unconscious supports of home, and
approaching life with new eyes and new hope.
Lent is a time to practice leaving home, and letting go of the familiar, in search of the new thing God is already doing. It's about choosing life on the road, rather than a settled world where nothing ever changes.
When I was in Haiti I met one of our Episcopal missionaries. This young woman is a recent college graduate, whose degree work gave her a significant ability in French and real-world experience of third world and developing societies, including a summer in Africa. Since she arrived in Port-au-Prince last summer, she's learned Creole, and functions amazingly well and comfortably in a very different culture than the one she grew up in. She's made a conscious choice to serve in Haiti because she understands the gift and possibility involved in leaving home.
Nineteenth century missionaries who went out to the frontiers of the evangelized world often went for life, not really expecting to come home again. Some of them packed all their worldly goods up in a big wooden box which was intended to serve as their coffin. The average length of service for those missionaries was 4 months - most died pretty quickly, of disease or by violence. Yet missionaries continued to choose to leave home. Following Jesus is about life on the road - and indeed the road or the way is what his early followers called being a Christian.
The current disaster in Japan is being served by others who are willing to leave the shelter and comfort of home in search of a new world of healed and restored relationships. The earth has moved yet again, and the sea has leapt up and swept the coastlines. Home has quite literally moved out from under many people in northeastern Japan. The aftermath has challenged the courage and willingness of many to go and bless others. The stories of selfless response are being told in quiet ways and only hinted at in other circumstances. Neighbors are reaching out to neighbors who were strangers a moment ago, to help look for the lost or the dead, to serve the hungry and thirsty, to shelter the homeless and the naked. Workers in those nuclear power plants are leaving the shelter of safer spaces to try to cool overheated fuel in Fukushima. Some will know illness or early death as a consequence of their sacrifice. They, too, are answering the spirit's call to be born into a world that sets aside fear, in favor of love of neighbor, nation, and the larger world. Their names will be a blessing to many, and the members of their nation will be more numerous than if they had not chosen to leave the safety of home.
Where and how are we answering that call to ‘go, leave your family, home, and nation'? The students who come here have to physically leave home, even if they've grown up in this community. One of the challenges of university life is meeting, working, and living with people from vastly different cultural backgrounds, even when they speak the same language. Leaving home has something to do with leaving preconceptions behind, and cultivating an attitude of welcome to all the differences and strangeness we encounter. We will find blessing there.
On Friday the clergy of this diocese had a fascinating conversation about the tendency of some faith communities to think that worship is their only significant work. The reality is that we come here to be fed and equipped for life on the road - we're not meant to spend our lives coddled in the comfort of this community. At the end of the service we're sent out to meet God on the road - in neighbor, friend, and stranger, in disaster and in rejoicing. Some new Christian communities are discovering that feeding and nurturing can happen on the road, that they don't need a permanent home for worship, and they make a conscious decision to live lightly on their journeys, meeting in homes, public spaces, or rented rooms. Others decide that the particular ministries to which they're called need more stable facilities, and a building follows. The centennial of this chapel tells a history of faithful service to a community passing through. This body will endure and persist as it continues to be a way-station for the hungry.
My husband and I had dinner last night with an 86 year old fellow whose whole life is a witness to leaving home. For more than 50 years, he's been a passionate mentor of young adults - and right now he's eager to go to Japan to help rebuild the social and community infrastructure, if they'll have him. He is deeply invested in God's new creation, happening all around him.
Eternal and abundant life is available to anyone who wants to leave home. When we're willing to suffer the supposed indignity of rebirth - i.e., acknowledging that we don't know it all already - we have the opportunity to encounter God already at work in the world around us. Why did God send Jesus into the world, except to invite us into new life and possibility? The road we travel with Jesus may be perilous, it may involve dying to everything we think is essential, but it is the only avenue to new and more abundant life. Go on out there and get on the road. Happy trails.
[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]