The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: What It Means to Be Church

St. Paul's, Winston-Salem

January 20, 2012

The lections for this sermon were Isaiah 2:2-4 and Luke 10:1-9.

Have you noticed that we are pretty much sitting on the high point in this city?  I don't see any very big mountains outside these doors, but I know there are at least small mountains in this diocese.  Do people in the Piedmont have mountain envy?  How do North Carolinians feel about mountains?  West Virginia may claim to be the mountain home that's almost heaven, but Isaiah is challenging God's people to become that mountain.  He says, "the mountain of the Lord's house will be the highest of the mountains, and ... all the nations shall come flocking in.  Let's go climb that mountain and learn God's ways, instead of war."  This diocese is invited to be a mountain of peace, a tower of justice, a community raised up to build heaven on earth. 

In early Israel, there were lots of complaints about people who kept climbing up the local mountains to worship at altars to other gods.  When Solomon got the opportunity, he built a temple on the biggest mountain around - Mount Zion - for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Like human beings all through the ages, some of the Israelites began to assume that God was only present in that house made of human hands, and that worshiping in the Temple in Jerusalem was one of the most important works of their lives.  Well, yes - and no.  It's essential to know who and whose you are, but we don't always have to remember it in a temple.

We still wrestle with that tension - God is with us and within us, among us, and all around us, yet we still focus on holy sites, places that have been hallowed by the prayers of many through the ages.  And Jesus is still calling us out, saying, "go" out into the fields ripe for harvest.  Go on out there, become a mountain - and a fountain - of God's love for the world.  Be and build a community in which others can meet God, and learn holy ways of living in this world. 

That's our reason for being, that's what it means to be church.  Jesus' directions are pretty simple, even though we are always piling on more architectural details and decoration.  He says, GO!  He doesn't say 'stay here.'  He's sending those 70 out into the world - "to every town and place where he himself intended to go."  Can we imagine anywhere that isn't included?  Antarctica?  Yes, even there, if there's somebody around.  Even 1000 leagues under the sea, with submersibles in the vicinity.  Definitely in the Mediterranean off Italy right now.  Go - into the whole world, everywhere.

Jesus starts with a warning - pay attention, there are wolves, at least, out there, and maybe dragons!  Isn't that why we're not sent alone?  Pay attention, be alert, but go anyway, and don't take the arsenal along.  He sends people the way he goes himself, undefended and open to whatever and whomever he meets.  No backpack stuffed with emergency equipment.  No lunchbox.  No credit cards.  You're going to rely on the hospitality of those you meet.

I've always been puzzled by the charge not to greet anybody on the road.  Is it so that we're not distracted from this urgent mission?  Or is it another warning against wolves, like the robbers who did in the fellow on the Jericho road - the one the Samaritan found?  I wonder if it's because we're supposed to keep moving until we find a community where we can settle for a while, and spend enough time to meet people who will share their bread with us - which is what a true companion is.   Only then are we likely to listen long and carefully enough to hear the pain and dis-ease that cries out for good news.  He says that if our offer of peace isn't accepted, then don't worry about it, just chill - keep hanging out.  Let them feed you, and be thankful.

That very last sentence of the gospel sums up what we're supposed to be about:  'when you find a welcome, share a meal, heal the sick, and say, here is the kingdom of God.'  That's a mountain that can teach and draw others in to build a community of peace.  That's Isaiah's heavenly picnic on the mountainside - you know that image, the favorite at funerals: 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.   And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces... (Isaiah 25:6-8). 

That's the kind of mountain we're supposed to become.  It's meant for this life - not just after life.

So much so that Jesus worked at being that kind of mountain himself.  He fed people and he ate with them - even the scandalous types.  He sat people down by the thousands and got the disciples to produce a feast for that picnic.  He healed people right and left, whether they said thank you or not.  And he told people about God's dream for a healed world - what we call the reign of God, shalom, the beloved community, or even the city that holds Mount Zion:  Jerusalem, the city of peace, the city of dreams.

That is God's mission, which has a church as partner.  Our work is creating communities like that, one household at a time, one city at a time, one encounter at a time, one mountainside picnic at a time.  Those communities can be signal-fires and light houses, shining beacons offering the light of the world, especially when they develop in the coves and hollows of this world, in the dark underbellies of dying cities, or the despairing gatherings of destroyed and displaced people in Native reservations and refugee camps.  God knows this world needs more mountains of light and hope.

Building those communities takes as long as it takes, and it begins to work when we sit down and stay a while, and share some daily bread.  That eating time is about more than taking in calories.  It's about having the leisure to explore what's going on with our companions.  I think that's why Jesus says don't stop for fast food or "hi-how-are-ya" on the road.  Sit down, stay there a while, and spend some holy time hearing your tablemates into speech.  That's where the healing and the hope come from in human community - it's a sabbath rest of re-creation.  It is about remembering that we were made for relationship - with God, other human beings, and all that is.

Have a picnic.  Go to Starbucks and sit.  Find a mountainside and start listening to companions and your own heart - what do you dream about?  What are your dreams for your town or city, your own family, this part of North Carolina?  What dreams do we have for this nation?  Where are we being sent, and who's going with us?  What are we willing to leave behind in order to travel light and receive hospitality?  That's mountain building work, all of it.  I can almost hear it - North Carolina, mountain of justice - almost heaven.  

Almost heaven, for there will need to be little mountains in every part of Galilee drawing in the hungry and hurting to a banquet of peace and justice.  And then the whole earth WILL rejoice.

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