Sermon preached at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio during the gathering of bishops and spouses of the Episcopal Church
The chief priests and the elders approach Jesus. They are outraged. Their power to control, dominate and decree the very will of the Most High has been overridden by one who dares to speak, dares to teach with a different kind of power: the life-giving love and mercy of God. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? How dare you challenge the order of things? How dare you call into question by your indiscriminate acts of healing, by your profligate welcome of tax collectors and prostitutes, the carefully constructed righteousness upon which the identity of our nation and our power as God’s chosen depends?”
By what authority? By the authority of his own self-emptying and transparency to God: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being formed in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Jesus’ self-emptying was a profound act of availability – availability to God’s passionate desire for the well-being of human kind and the whole creation transformed, healed and made new through a dynamic of radical reordering, of shalom: the unrelenting peace of God which passes all understanding and knows no rest until all walls of division have been breached and broken down and we are overtaken by “a new heart and a new spirit” which renders us makers of peace and ministers of reconciliation.
How do we get there? How does shalom become the truth of who we are and have yet to become? Ezekiel gives us the answer: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” To repent is to turn: to turn from fondly held falsehood: the self constructions of our egos, and to turn toward the searing and convicting and liberating truth that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” – reconciling us to himself in order that we, made limbs and members of Christ’s risen body through baptism, might be one with Christ in engaging God’s work of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ. This, the Prayer Book tells us, is God’s project and therefore the mission of the Church.
As a nation, we are accustomed to waging war: wars on poverty, illiteracy, drugs, cancer, terrorism, and now we are faced with the possibility of war with Iraq. As the costs involved and the uncertainty of the outcome become clearer the debate on war with Iraq becomes more intense and the question arises not simply should we or shouldn’t we, but how are we as a nation called to be an agent of reconciliation in our troubled and broken world, rather than an instrument of retribution.
I take very seriously the notion that we are one nation under God – a God who cares equally for all the peoples of the world – a God who weeps as Israelis and Palestinians kill each other in seemingly unbreakable cycles of violence; as children starve to death in the Sudan; as AIDS devastates whole villages in sub-Saharan Africa leaving only orphans; as the working poor in our own land are further deprived of the minimal means to lead lives of dignity.
We are called upon as persons of faith to wage something other than war. We are called to wage reconciliation: to engage actively in dismantling and deconstructing all that holds back and blocks the free flowing of God’s unrelenting compassion, a compassion which embraces all things, reorders all relationships and brings all people together in a fierce embrace of shalom. Shalom, that deep peace which is more than a human construction or the enforced containment of hostility we usually mean by peace – shalom: that deep and true peace that flows from the heart of God, a peace we have obscured and buried under the weight of what Ezekiel calls all our transgressions.
“Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit,” Ezekiel tells us. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” proclaims Paul. Repent and give root room to God’s imagination, God’s way of seeing us and the world around us with eyes of everlasting and all embracing love.
To adopt God’s point of view in place of our own means letting go of our fears, our suspicions, our mistrust and our judgments of one another, the ways in which we see ourselves over against one another, our tendency to define ourselves at the expense of others. “I am better, more virtuous, more accomplished, more important because I am not like you.” To adopt God’s point of view means attending to the language we use, which can either draw us together or drive us apart. How we speak to one another, determines in large measure how we respond to one another. This is true not only with respect to us personally within the community of faith and as a conference of bishops, but as nations as well. Even as we consider the threat posed by Iraqi weaponry, we must look at the rhetoric that has been used by the present administration: intemperate, extreme, dehumanizing: guaranteed to produce an equally strong response and avalanche of verbal threats from the other side.
We as Christians are not immune to such behavior. If we are to speak with any credibility to the world about reconciliation we must, through repentance, embody reconciliation in our own lives. We must become the very thing we preach.
Here I am put in mind of Francis of Assisi, that great exemplar of God’s shalom who himself once made a pilgrimage of peace to the Muslim world and who said to his fellow friars, “Preach the gospel always and when necessary use words.” That is, the word cannot simply linger on our lips; it must find a home in our life.
In this case the word is reconciliation: that active process initiated by God and revealed on the cross as Jesus stretches out his arms and draws all people and all things to himself. We share that ministry of reconciliation, and it is reconciliation that brings about, or rather reveals what already exists: shalom, God’s peace.
Reconciliation does not mean passivity in the face of evil, or avoidance for the sake of some false peace. It means facing into truth, as difficult and as costly as it may be, but doing so knowing that even the enemies of truth have a place in the heart of God. Reconciliation requires entering into the reality of the other, their fears as well as their assertions, and not simply imposing our own. Reconciliation requires self-examination: what is it about me/us that provokes such strong reactions of hostility? Is there the potential of seeing myself/ourselves through the eyes of the others that calls us to change our ways? Reconciliation takes time, takes endurance, involves suffering: the crucifixion of one’s own unyielding rightness in order to find another way, a new place in which both can stand in a changed relationship to one another. Reconciliation requires careful and measured speech: convicting accuracy rather than sweeping demonization. Reconciliation seeks the common good: it is about all things being drawn together in shalom’s embrace. Reconciliation counts the cost of various forms of engagement and seeks always the way of suasion rather than that of bold assertion. Reconciliation is profoundly aware of “collateral damage” to those who are potential victims rather than beneficiaries of a proposed course of action.
As a church, as bishops, as persons of faith, as a nation we are called with Christ to the ongoing and costly work of reconciliation. Lest we lose heart, remember that on the cross it has already been achieved. With the authority of Christ, which is nothing less than God’s unyielding desire for the full flourishing of all, let us press on knowing that God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA