Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Second Sunday After Pentecost, St. Luke's

June 26, 2011
Katharine Jefferts Schori
26 June 2011
St. Luke’s, Knoxville
Diocese of East Tennessee

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church in East Tennessee has a new bishop. There was great celebration yesterday, and that celebration will continue for some time. It is a sign of the health and life in this part of the Church, your hopes for the future, and your expectation of being able to pass on this treasure of faith to children and others who haven’t yet crossed the threshold into this community.

Yet that change will also bring challenges. Bishop George Young will do things differently. Some people who seemed to have privileged positions will lose them, or find their status changed. Eventually, when Bp George does something new, somebody will say, ‘the old one was better – can’t we go back?’

John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican who became a Roman Catholic, and eventually a cardinal, had something to say about change: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” You may have a different opinion about where his desire for change took him, but he speaks truth. Change is hard, and it often has a good dose of grief bound up in it. You and your new bishop will both have some experience of that. The grief is about losing the familiar, and even when the change is welcomed and celebrated, something will be lost or left behind.

Look at Abraham. He’s learned a lot about grief and change, from his very first encounter with God – called to leave home, wandering in a strange place for years, promised children and land and blessing, yet not ever being certain of any of those. Now he finally has a son of his own body, and God tells him to kill his son and offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

The community of Israel wrestled with this story for many generations. Jewish and Christian communities still wrestle with this story. Abraham is praised by the angel for his willing obedience, at the same time that an angel stays his hand and provides a ram instead.

It’s pretty clear that Israelites did sacrifice their children at times – Jeremiah is still railing against it in the 7th century BCE. But this story is pretty clear evidence that the religious community was wrestling with ethical questions about the value of life. The community was changing its understanding of what is appropriate use of life and what is not. Out of this comes an understanding that all life belongs to God, and that it is not up to earthly parents to cut short the lives of their children. Yet first sons are still offered to God, dedicated in a religious sense, as the first fruits of their creativity.

Let’s look at the background of this story. When Abram and his nephew Lot leave Egypt and first settle in what we now call Israel-Palestine, they go to different places because there isn’t enough grass to support both their herds. Lot settles in the plains along the Jordan near Sodom, and Abram settles in the land of the Canaanites, and he gets his promise of land, and blessing, and descendants. But the local kings go to war and Lot and his people and goods are captured. Abram musters his own forces and rescues Lot. Right afterward, God makes a covenant with Abram, and again promises him land, descendants, and blessing.

After years with no offspring, Sarah takes matters into her own hands and delivers her maid Hagar to Abram to produce a child, and Ishmael is born. Abram gets another promise of a son to carry on his name and be the ancestor of nations. More years go by, angels come to visit again and renew the promises, tell him that Ishmael won’t be his heir, and change Abram’s name to Abraham.

Three men come to visit Abraham, sitting in his tent. He welcomes them with abundant hospitality, first water, then bread, fine cakes, cheese and milk, and a calf from the herd. One of them tells Abraham that Sarah will have a child within the year. Sarah is eavesdropping, and the old woman laughs at the idea – which is where Isaac’s name comes from – it means laughter.

The angels leave and travel to Sodom – and these two stories are intimately intertwined. When Abraham hears what God plans for the city of Sodom, he’s concerned for his relatives, and he argues with God and tries to bargain – if I can find 50 good folk there, will you stay your hand? God says yes, and Abraham continues to bargain – what about 45? 40, 30, 20, 10?

The angels travel to Lot’s house, and get invited in after saying they would be happy to spend the night in the town square. But the locals come and pound on the door demanding that Lot turn his guests over, so they can abuse and destroy these strangers. The upshot is that Lot and most of his family are rescued, but God destroys the town. The big sin of Sodom is a failure of hospitality. When divine guests arrive at Lot’s home, they are abysmally treated. When guests arrive at Abraham’s home, they are feted and bring blessing.
Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom represents a major challenge to the ethics of the day. All the wretched residents of Sodom should be destroyed, shouldn’t they? Like human beings down through the ages, and like the guys pounding on Lot’s door, later readers have misapplied these texts to call down retribution on people they don’t want to welcome.

Back to Abraham, asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s the angel who changes the ethical calculus, by staying Abraham’s hand, preventing him from killing his son. And then God provides the ram, seeming to validate the change of plans.

Christians take on this story, making it their own. The son of promise is now the son of God, a lamb provided to redeem humanity. Yet the sacrifice is not demanded, but offered. In the sacrificial religious worldview, the ethical calculus has shifted again. God does not demand anyone’s death, even though human willingness to offer one’s life on behalf of others has cosmic redemptive consequences. That is ultimate hospitality, welcoming all parts of life, even death, on behalf of others.

That’s what Jesus is saying to his disciples in the gospel – whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and welcomes God’s own self – like those angels welcomed into Abram’s tent. And anyone who is able to make even the smallest offering of life and hospitality opens the door to immense blessing.

Yet opening that door means being open to change, vulnerable to whatever new thing God is up to, and some kind of dying. It means letting go of our old ways of dividing up the world into good people and bad people, welcome people and excluded ones. Think about the struggles we’ve had over slavery, and race politics, and Native Americans, and sexual orientation and gender identity. We still have difficulty with fully including children in our religious communities. But changing those old understandings is hard work, and it usually involves grieving.

Somehow churches have to be hospices for the inhospitable, places where human beings can grieve the death of exclusion and shutting out. We have to be willing to welcome even the unwelcoming. We’re here to practice more abundant life – and laugh at the impossible idea that the old can produce new life!

Inhospitality just can’t tolerate humor. What might it mean to welcome someone with a cup of cool water? I have a friend who was having a fight with her husband, who suggested she step out on the patio until she cooled off. After a few minutes he went out there with a cup of water and offered it to her. She poured it over her head, and they both dissolved in laughter.

Open the door, and welcome the stranger, even when it’s your own self, even when it’s a pinched excluder. Open the door and see what new thing God is up to – and laugh with the angels!


Bishop Jefferts Schori


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