The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori - We Are the Kingdom of Heaven

Bunia, Congo

24 July 11

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate

The Episcopal Church

Nearly ten years ago, when I was Bishop of Nevada, I went to Kenya to try to build partnerships between three dioceses there and the Diocese of Nevada. I spent most of the time in the Diocese of Machakos, where a mission partnership was already developing. An Episcopal congregation in Nevada had been working with a nearby evangelical church to help build a health clinic in rural Machakos. The vision for the work came from a Kenyan man who had moved to Nevada more than 30 years earlier. His mother had died because there was no clinic or hospital within easy reach of where they lived. He worked as a nurse in a hospital, and he wanted a clinic for the village where he had been born.

The partners in Kenya were not part of the Anglican Church of Kenya, and in fact they saw each other as significant rivals in the work of evangelism. But the Bishop of Machakos was head of the regional health board, and it was part of his job to oversee the construction and operation of clinics, no matter who ran them. Part of my reason for going was to help make a connection between the Anglicans in Kenya and their evangelical siblings, so that more people might have access to health care. It was an interesting dance at first.

The bishop of Machakos and I stood on top of a hill near where the clinic was being built, and looked out over a lush and fertile countryside. We talked about the work of overseeing - that kind of ministry that bishops are supposed to exemplify, but the same kind of ministry that all God's people share. We joked about the difference between overseeing and overlooking. He told me of his frustration with many of the men in his diocese, who sat by the side of the road or in the village beer halls, drinking up the money their wives earned from farming. He said he never saw men carrying anything, only the women. Thanks be to God it's a different situation here.

A year later he came to visit the Diocese of Nevada, for our diocesan convention. He was horrified by many things he saw - our convention met in a casino hotel, because that's where the big meeting rooms are in Nevada. He stayed at my home, and when I fixed breakfast, he couldn't understand that a bishop might do the cooking. Our convention included some challenging conversation about human sexuality, which shocked him. But we built a friendship based on our common love of Jesus, and our belief that God's mission is bigger than any one of us, or any part of the body of Christ. There was great treasure in that friendship and partnership, and I think each of us saw a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

We shared our sorrows and our joys and challenges. That is the kind of field where Jesus says we might find beautiful pearls. That is the catch of fish, some of which are edible and some not. The kingdom of heaven is all around us, in the midst of the messiness and pain of life. We're never going to find unalloyed joy - indeed joy becomes deeper and more lasting when we have known sadness, grief, and pain in our lives.

When you look around this nation, what do you see? The aftermath of war? Continuing violence, and women and others who are deprived of basic human rights? Yes, that is certainly part of it. What else do you see? I see remarkable resilience, hope, the ability to celebrate the presence of God in the face of life's tragedy. That is the kingdom of heaven, my friends, surprising as it is.

The seeds and pearls of the kingdom of heaven are to be found in the aftermath of war, as people discover strength they did not know before. I have seen it in Liberia, as people who fled have returned to help rebuild a nation. We're seeing the same kind of early hope in South Sudan, even though we know the road will be long and difficult. Your own nation has hope and it has great abundance - indeed Congo is a veritable garden of Eden, filled with natural resources. Yet those resources have often served only the wealthy and powerful.

Solomon is remembered as one of the wealthy and powerful of his day. But that was not his reason for living. When God offered him a gift, he asked for wisdom to help him govern rightly. Wisdom has to do with finding the kingdom of heaven in unlikely places and circumstances. The wisdom of good oversight cares for all people, not just those who are near us or like us. Wisdom for living in the way of Jesus takes the best of the old and keeps on looking for the kingdom in the new, for God is still at work, creating and blessing all that is. As members of the body of Christ, we all share that work of discovery and blessing.

In Orthodox churches, the gathered faithful are called the kingdom of God, and those words are often painted over the doorway into the church. We, too, are the kingdom of heaven, even though each time we gather we are a different body. We gather to celebrate new joys and make new laments. We trust that God is continuing to work in the midst of all of it, blessing, healing, and bringing abundance.

That fishing parable takes all the fish into the net, but the good ones aren't sorted from the bad until the end of time, because we trust that God is still at work. God doesn't give up on any of us. We don't get to do the sorting - that is God's job. The kingdom of heaven lives in hope - always.

Part of the challenge of Congo's future has to do with being able to bless the best of each person - male and female, imprisoned and free, of whatever family or tribe. All are part of God's family, and all are essential to bringing the kingdom of heaven in this place. The role of men and women in this society is one of the most challenging realities- Congo needs the gifts of both, and both need to be free to use and develop their gifts. The kingdom of heaven will need strong and well-educated women and it will need men who can share in the nurture of children, who know that love is not about domination or violence, but rather about partnership. The kingdom of heaven is going to require that all the householders throw out old ways and ways that will not serve mature people of God.

All of us, women and men alike, need to grow up into mature partnership. Jesus' own community included women and men - Mary Magdalene and Peter, Mary his mother and James his brother. Together we are an image of that kingdom of heaven. Look around at this nation. It is filled with an abundance of hope and possibility. It has great treasure in the faith of its people and the gifts of God's creation. The kingdom of heaven is around us, and within us, and among us, if we are willing to seek it. May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to find it in our sisters and brothers.

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