Presiding Bishop's sermon at Executive Council meeting in Portland, Oregon
2 Lent, Year C, RCL
4 March 2007
St. Michael and All Angels, Portland, 9
On Friday I went over to Good Sam hospital to visit John Scannell. I took the MAX and the Portland Streetcar for the first time. I've actually never lived in this city, and my previous forays around here were always by car. I found a remarkably clean and efficient system, not just conventional public transit, but with some amazing adaptations. You know, there are hooks to hang your bicycle from if you want to commute a longer distance than just on MAX. There are electric ramps that permit wheeled vehicles like strollers and walkers and wheelchairs to get on the train more easily. And at some point I was looking out the window and I noticed just how many electric wheelchairs there are on the streets of Portland – far more than I see in New York or in Las Vegas or any other city in this country. I saw people going about their daily business in a city that takes accessibility very seriously. In some very important way, the need to use a wheelchair has gone from a major problem to an accepted challenge in this city. The city as a whole has adapted to the needs of a few, in the sense that the whole is better off when the few are encouraged and enabled to live full and equal lives. As the Philippians writer says, a body of humiliation has been transformed into a body of glory. The city has taken the needs of a part of its population so seriously that it has moved beyond mere words of welcome to deeds of welcome.
Now, I imagine that the adaptation required in this city wasn't easy, that it involved a series of struggles over how much it would cost, and who would be inconvenienced, and even why should we bother. And I imagine that a piece of the process had to do with the legal requirements of the Americans with Disability Act. Sometimes systems need legal sanctions before they will respond. Whatever's been involved, however, this city has become a beacon of light and hope for the differently abled, and it's had something to do with the push that's come from prophetic voices.
There is certainly a piece of that struggle over the prophetic voice behind Jesus' words of lament over Jerusalem. A city that stones prophets is not one that's willing to listen to their challenge. The lament is about a city that is not living up to its name – for the "salem" part of Jerusalem, is actually shalom, it's about a city of peace with justice. The ancient vision of Zion is of a city that draws all nations toward its light, it's a city that can hear the prophetic call for justice, the cry for peace that means every human being and every child of Abraham is heir to the covenant promise of God. We understand that covenant promise in the same words that Jesus heard at his baptism – you are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased. It has its root in the stories of our origins in Genesis: God created human beings in the image of God, male and female God created them… and, if you keep reading, God said that it was very good.
Jesus laments over a community's unwillingness or inability to serve the needs of all God's people, an unwillingness to see all human beings as worthy of healing and welcome. This gospel passage comes soon after a story about healing a woman with a disability – a daughter of Abraham with a bent back – but doing it on the sabbath. Another question about whether or not it's right to heal on the sabbath comes right after this passage. The ancient rules said, "no healing on the sabbath" because healing was understood as work, and the community around Jesus is struggling to make sense of this rabbi's willingness to ignore those rules. And, indeed, Jesus insists that he's going to keep on healing and casting out demons until the powers that be put an end to him, until they silence this prophet.
And then comes that striking lament, "how often have I yearned to gather the children of Jerusalem together like a hen gathers chicks under her wings, but you wouldn't come!" Who is he talking to? Who are the children of Jerusalem? They must certainly include the offspring of those who have throughout history been putting prophets to death – in other words, it can't just be the righteous ones in the family. This brood of chicks includes those who heal on the sabbath and those who believe religiously that it's absolutely wrong – "please wait till later in the week, and don't defile the Lord's day!" And Jesus laments the fact that they won't gather under the wings of this mother bird. "Keep us O Lord as the apple of your eye, and hide us under the shadow of your wings" is too hard to stomach if those people are going to be there, too. You know, I've certainly heard folks say, "well, if so-and-so is going to be in heaven, I don't want to have any part of it."
That seems like a pretty good definition of a "body of humiliation" – when one part cannot stomach another. And that stomach-turning response all too often ends in violence. The prophets make a business of nauseating, offending, and repelling folks who want to insist that you can't heal on the sabbath, or shouldn't make life easier for somebody in a wheelchair. At some point, most of us find it challenging to gather under God's wings with somebody, whether it's a rebellious teenager, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the driver who just cut us off in traffic, a child abuser, or our mother-in-law.
In the midst of our current struggles in this church, I am reminded of another story of healing, one that tried to bring together both offended and offender. Right after I moved to Nevada, I went to a meeting of Living Stones – which is a group that is focused on the full flourishing of the ministry of all baptized people. Jim Cruikshank was there, and told us about the Diocese of Cariboo. That diocese doesn't exist anymore, even though its congregations are still distributed across part of British Columbia, but its people continue to worship together and to serve their communities. Earlier in its history, Cariboo, in partnership with the government of Canada, was involved in running residential schools for First Nations people. A great deal of abuse went on in those schools, and not just in Canada, even though we in the United States have not heard the stories of that abuse in the same depth that Canada has done. Jim told the story of his ministry as a bishop of that diocese as the stories of abuse began to surface. He saw part of his vocation in that time as the willingness to sit and listen to the pain and suffering of those who had been abused, in some ways acting as a substitute for the perpetrators of that abuse, most of whom were long dead. When the stories were told and the hurt expressed and the offender in the form of Jim Cruikshank confronted, healing could begin. The Diocese of Cariboo sought reconciliation as well, it dissolved its corporate structure in order to offer what it could in restitution. The people of that diocese have in some sense offered their lives in prophetic witness, in order that healing might begin on a new sabbath. A body of humiliation is becoming the body of Christ's glory in that part of the new Jerusalem.
The body of humiliation begins to be transformed into the body of Christ's glory when we're willing to gather under the hen's sheltering wings. It's probably most essential when the world looks most fearful. After all, Jesus raises this image when the fox is prowling around the chicken yard. And he puts his hearers on notice that if they cannot or will not gather under the hen's wings, they are going to find the henhouse empty. It seems to be a prophetic warning that they won't be able to find God in the usual place, or the place they expect to find safety – like the Temple, or the church – if they're unwilling to go looking for God in the stableyard, with the other chicks mucking around in the straw and manure. Those chicks may be panicked, they may wander far afield, they may have broken legs or missing feathers or even parasites, but they all have a home in the same place. The great and glorious structures built by human hands where we expect to find God are no match for the humble cries of need and pain and brokenness all around us. It is in Christ, who is both suffering servant and mothering hen, that we begin once again to find our home and our safety, as well as our vocation.
The body of our humiliation has something to do with our unwillingness to see the image of God in the least among us, as it has something to do with our eager turning away from those in pain, even when we think that pain has offensive roots. When we can embrace that humiliation, we just might begin to turn toward the glory of the true Jerusalem, of a city and a community restored, a world healed, a light that draws all nations to God, and the glory of Christ risen and revealed.
This body of humiliation is being transfigured into a body of glory every time we gather under those feathers, even if we're jostling and jockeying for a place. As the poet said, "hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul." [Emily Dickinson] It's the hope that is already in us that will lead us home.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church