Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Jubilee Morning Meditation

May 21, 2012
Frank T. Griswold

Leviticus 25:8-12
Luke 4:16-30

Note: Bishop Griswold’s meditation was not delivered from a printed text. The following is the transcription of an audio tape.

What I’d like to do with you now is share some thoughts that I hope will stimulate your own reflection, and invite you, through those thoughts, to enter personally at a deeper meaning of jubilee. Thomas Merton once said, "We must learn to waste time conscientiously." This morning is a purposeful wasting of time in order to discover, at the heart of that time, more fully the mystery of our life in Christ. To give one another the gift of silence, to give one another the gift of space, allows the word of God which is in our hearts ready to be kept to spring more freshly into consciousness because it isn’t, as it were, bound by other words, other concerns. So give yourself freedom, give yourself space; don’t take your spiritual pulse and say, "What am I getting out of this?" Relax, and trust the Spirit to speak deep within you. And may that Spirit that speaks within you be truly—for you and for others—a word of life.

Let me begin with some of the words we heard in our first reading. "You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your own property and every one of you to your own family." In short, you shall go home. Go home: back to your roots, back to the source. "That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces."

In these words, "the Sabbath rest," that time of recreation and restoration is extended. And not only are all set at liberty, but they are to return home to where it all began. They are to go back and recover their sense of identity in their ancestral soil: the olive grove, the pasture, the familiar yet forgotten forest—home. In its own way, the land, too, is allowed to go home, to return to its natural state, to recover its equilibrium and undergo repair. It is released from usefulness and the self-serving manipulations of those who sow and reap. Nothing during the jubilee year can be harvested and one can only eat what the soil produces of its own accord.

This morning we are suspending the business of the Convention; we are setting ourselves free from sowing and reaping the fruits of legislation. This may make some of us uneasy, because this is, after all, the purpose of our being here—to make decisions, to perfect and debate resolutions that will determine the direction of our common life in the days ahead. But there are other decisions to be made as well—fundamental decisions that will ground all else that we do—decisions about what it really means to be the people of God, what it means to be called, to incarnate the compassion of Christ and to live lives of communion which reveal the unyielding and tenacious love which passes ceaselessly from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. This communion is not our creation.

It is the inner dynamic of God’s own life. God’s own life and being shared with us in baptism, and deepened and nurtured in the Eucharist, the communion of the body and blood of Christ, in which we are bound not only to Christ but to one another.

Communion is God’s deepest desire for us; communion is to go home, to return to our roots, to reclaim who we are and are called to be in grace and truth. And therefore our morning together is an opportunity to release ourselves from useful productivity and purposeful accomplishment and to let Christ, through the agency of the Spirit, lead us home, back to our roots as persons of faith, back to those places and moments in our lives when the Hound of Heaven nipped us in the heel and God laid claim to us and called us by name.

In order to make this journey home, let us look to Jesus—" the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," as we are told in the letter to the Hebrews, and learn from him who is the way, the truth and the life. Where do we start? We begin with Jesus in maturity undergoing baptism at the hands of John. This is where the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, begins: with Jesus’ baptism and the descent of the Spirit and a voice from heaven: "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." Notice that at that shattering moment no task is assigned, no agenda given, no test is prescribed. Jesus is simply loved by God wildly and with divine abandon, nothing—and I stress nothing—is asked for or required of Jesus other than to accept God’s delight and pleasure in his very being.

Does God delight in you? Have you ever dared to ask the question? Do you let God delight in you?

It is worth noting that the Greek word in scripture to will, "thello," I will that you do something—in its noun form, of course, God’s will— the verb to will also means to take pleasure in and feel affection for. We have so reduced and so limited notions of God’s will to orders and commands: "do this, do that"—when God’s will is fundamentally a matter of divine affection and delight.

Those of you who are parents might think of yourselves in relationship to your children. As your children grow to maturity, what is your will for them? It isn’t that they perfectly obey your every thought and command. Your will for them is your desire for their flourishing, their happiness. And you agonize with them when they seem to be going in a wrong direction and you rejoice with them when things go well. That is your will for your children: their deepest well-being. And that is God’s fundamental will for us. And so, Jesus’ identity and self understanding, born at that baptismal moment, is rooted and grounded in knowing that he was loved infinitely by God, whom he addressed in answering love as Abba, father.

I think our greatest sin against the Holy Spirit is to deny God’s love which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And here I would point out that Carl Menniger, that great figure in American mental health, once observed that the primary cause, from his perspective, of mental illness lies in people’s "inability to forgive themselves for being imperfect." Think about it.

Scripture helps us here, too, to see how we resist and push against that deep love that God seeks to enfold us in. There is a verse in the letter to the Hebrews. It is normally translated in this fashion: "Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners." But if you read the variant text printed at the bottom of the page, which may well be older than the official text, you hear these words: "Consider him who endured such hostility against themselves." Self-directed hostility, I think, is one of the great sins of the church.

And here, too, we have in the book of Revelation Satan presented to us as the accuser who accuses our comrades night and day before God. And I think here of the interior voice of accusation that resides within so many of us always finding fault instead of driving us into the arms of God’s mercy. This accusing voice turns us more and more into ourselves in a spirit of hostility and self-accusation, which then gets projected outward onto others. I think much of the anger in society and in the church comes from this projected self-castigation.

Here I would point out that as you look at the gospel you can see that genuine remorse, genuine repentance, opens us to God whereas self-hatred imprisons us more and more within ourselves. Look at Peter—Peter, who repents and is able then to enter into the depthless love of the risen Christ, and Judas who simply turns within himself and destroys himself. Our liberation and our homecoming is to let God say to each one of us, "You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased." Our identity, our true identity, is that we are deeply, deeply, profligately and irresponsibly loved by God. Jubilee is a time to go home to that love.

Some years ago—and I was telling this to the Daughters of the King the other night—I, together with a group of young clergy, went on retreat to a Benedictine monastery outside of Elmira, New York. We were all full of ourselves. We had the answers to all the church’s and the world’s problems. Most of us were curates having to endure the idiocies of rectors who were out of date. In any event, at the end of the retreat the ancient abbot picked up his Bible and read to us from the book of Revelation words of the risen Christ to the angel of the church in Ephesus. And this is what Christ says: "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers. You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them to be false, and I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name and that you have not grown weary." We all saw ourselves in that wonderful picture of absolute faithfulness and hard work. And then a curious smile played across his face and he went on: "But I have this against you: you have lost your first love." And every one of us was convicted. All of us, in one way or another, had become technicians of the sacred, manipulators of the things of God, and had lost that deep sense of having been called out of a sense, first of all, of having been deeply loved by God. So whether we are ordained or in other areas of the life of the church, it is very easy to become technicians of the sacred and to lose contact with the root and ground of our faith: the very love that animates and gives authenticity and validity to our words and our actions and gives power, power to the gospel we seek to proclaim. So, there at the waters of the Jordan, Jesus knew who he was—with no agenda given—simply knew that he was deeply loved.

Following his baptism, with the voice from heaven still ringing in his ears, that same Spirit who bore down upon him in the waters of the baptism, drives him out into the wilderness. This is one continuous action on the part of the Spirit. And there in the wilderness, as we well know, Jesus faces temptations—the fundamental temptation to possess and claim as his own his newly experienced sense of belovedness: claiming it as something to cling to and to enjoy on his own terms. In the wilderness Jesus struggles with the question, "How do I respond in answering love to this overwhelming sense of belovedness? How do I receive it as gift, not as possession?" I think here of the words of Paul in the letter to the Philippians, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited but emptied himself." He did not cling to his belovedness but offered it freely in the service of Abba.

There in the wilderness the Spirit, with the assistance of Satan, helps Jesus to explore and recognize his own potential patterns of self-assertion and ego gratification which, if given in to, will undermine the relationship of belovedness. The wilderness then becomes an occasion of self-knowledge, of wisdom, so that Jesus can then move from the wilderness into his ministry where he will be tempted again and again, but he can return to that deep knowing that came to him in the wilderness. "One does not live by bread alone," Jesus says to the devil, "but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Jesus emerges from the wilderness not only with a sense of his identity but now with a sense of vocation. Vocation which, I think, is best expressed in words from John’s Gospel where Jesus says, "My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to complete, to accomplish and to fulfill his work." "Vocation,"— says the writer, Gail Godwin, in her book Evensong—"Vocation is that which keeps making more of us." So Jesus’ vocation is not simply a path; it is the way in which he will grow more deeply into his own identity. And so, too, with us, if something is genuinely a vocation, it may be burdensome at times but its demands will not ultimately diminish us, they will increase us and lead us more fully into the selfhood that God desires for us.

Jesus’ radical availability to God’s will, Abba’s loving desire, was the way in which he discovered who he was and became more and more himself. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee with a sense of his identity and a sense of his vocation. And we find him, in the Gospel, returning to the hometown synagogue. My sense is he entered into the room with a sort of whispering around the edges: "He’s back…He looks a little gaunt," some of the mothers might have said—after all he’d been fasting in the wilderness forty days and forty nights. And then, the president of the synagogue, relieved that one of the hometown boys who had disappeared for awhile is finally home again, hands him the scroll and invites him to do the free reading for the day.

Now, whether Jesus already had in mind the opening verses of the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard yesterday, or whether he simply unrolled the scroll and there they were, we do not know. But in any event, he picked up the scroll and read: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me"—and he could say, "yes, yes—my baptism"—"to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bring release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." And my sense is that as he read those words, he knew the content and direction of his mission. Identity, vocation and mission now all came together as the word of God leapt off the page, embraced him and said, "This is your life: this is the meaning of what you have been called to do." He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And I’m sure he read the words with a kind of authority and urgency that made the reading much more than "Oh yes, just another reading." He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he must have been aware of that. A silence pervaded the synagogue. Something had happened—no one knew what really had happened. And as Jesus takes the word of scripture into himself, and allows it to find a home at the heart of his own identity and his sense of vocation—my food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work. He says, "Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

And with that, jubilee becomes the absolute center of his ministry and every single thing that happens in the Gospel beyond that point, including his free leaping onto the cross, is in the service of jubilee—in the service of release, freedom, reconciliation, re-creation. And so there is no way whatsoever we as Christians can avoid jubilee. Jesus is the personification of the Lord’s favor. "For freedom Christ has set us free," says Paul, in the letter to the Galatians. Do we dare enter into and claim that freedom?

So, here we are: the people of God, baptized into Christ, limbs of Christ’s risen body, each of us with our own identity, vocation and mission— an identity that is rooted and grounded in God’s boundless love for each one of us, a love we seldom dare to claim.

I think here of a poem written many years ago by an Anglican priest, George Herbert, in the 17th century—a country parson near the city of Salisbury in England. And he knew something intimately about struggling with the tenaciousness of God’s love. He says:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
[Where was his focus? His focus was on himself.]
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
[See how he clings to guilt and shame.]
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
[And then the poet does what we so often try to do: "Alright God; I will let you love me if I can do something that will allow me to feel that I am worthy of being loved. If I can accomplish something worthy in my own sight, then I can accept, in some way, that you love me." And that is what the poet means when he says,]
"My dear, then I will serve."
[But Love, as the risen Christ, has had enough of this and says,]
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Struggle and yielding to the divine Love. So I invite you to see jubilee, as I said at the beginning, as an invitation to go home: an invitation to return to God’s love— to accept your own belovedness, warts, imperfections and all. Remember what Christ said to Saint Paul, who was embarrassed by a thorn in his flesh, a burden that he was reluctant to carry, and so he says, "Take it away and then I can really feel that I am free—that I truly am in the new creation." And Christ says: No. It stays. My grace is all you need; my power comes before realization, not when you think you are strong and perfect, but in the midst of your weakness.

So, allow God to love you. I think that is the invitation of today. Maybe there have been moments in your life when you have known that, but you have completely forgotten. Fear or busyness or professional responsibilities, in some way in the church have occluded that awareness. But you need to go back to your roots—go back home again and remember that belovedness. Maybe, too, that belovedness has been mediated to you through people around you that you take for granted but you need to give thanks for. And your vocation—what is your deepest desire as a person of faith? Is your food to do the will, that is, to enter into God’s gracious and affectionate yearning for your flourishing in accordance with God’s own project? Is your sense of vocation rooted in a sense that "my food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to complete his work"? And then your mission, the way that you live out that vocation: how are you called to proclaim the good news of jubilee in remission and forgiveness—in undoing indebtedness, in setting others free from those judgements that we cling to and define them by. There is so much suspicion and hostility in the church, and alas, there are those who delight in misrepresentation and spreading ill report. And there are still others of us who delight in reading about it, especially when it is about people we don’t like.

So, where do we need to turn jubilee from some cosmic abstraction into some practical discipline of forgiveness that we extend to one another? There may be someone in this assembly who terrifies us, who we have judged as beyond what we have perceived to be the boundaries of the Christian community. Do we need to seek that person out, or some person who represents that community? Do we need to say, "I’m sorry. I welcome you in the freedom of Christ. I welcome you in the belovedness with which God welcomes me."

These are some of the thoughts I set before you as we enter into this time. You have on your tables a jubilee booklet which has been graciously presented to us by Trinity Church Wall Street, and you will find on page 8 some suggestions for reflection. I am going to suggest that you give yourself freedom in the time that follows—freedom to let God’s love work in you in whatever way it wishes to. Some of you may need to go off and do what I was doing before the liturgy began; out here, there is a wonderful view, through the windows, of the mountains and I found myself simply standing there and being drawn out of the complexities of the Convention into a sense of God’s vastness. Maybe you need to look out a window. Maybe you need to take a walk. Maybe there is someone you need to walk with in a quiet way. Behind the platform here, on the floor there is a labyrinth you are free to walk. You might walk the labyrinth as a way of walking from the edges to the very center of God’s love for you and then carry that love out again and extend it to others. There may be other ways you wish to spend your time, but remember that in silence and seeming wastefulness of time, God can often say very deep and very profound things to us.

You can ask yourselves, "what do I need to set myself free from? What is God inviting me to allow to pass away? What judgments and assumptions and suspicions is God asking me to give up?" All of this, however, flows from our own belovedness. We cannot extend to others what we have not, in some sense, received ourselves. And the love of God can heal us and transform us as no other power, no other force in this world, possibly can. So there you are. I suggest that you take some quiet time by yourselves. You may decide at your tables that you are going to come back and have some communal conversation quietly before we conclude our liturgy. I am sending around to all your tables what you might call a bookmark that simply says, "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased." It might help center your thoughts. You might stick it in your Bible or Prayer Book and at some time of particularly fierce self-judgment, it might fall out on your table and remind you of a truth you have forgotten.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA