78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church: June 29 sermon by Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
“There are times when the weight of our historic experience seems like it is unbearable,” Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America said in his June 29 sermon to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. “And yet, it is precisely at such moments that Christ can become most powerfully present to us.”
Presiding at the Eucharist was Bishop Mike Klusmeyer of West Virginia
Preacher: Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America
The following is the text of the sermon.
Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
Before beginning my formal remarks, I would like to say what a privilege it is to be among you today, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, for this Community Eucharist. I would especially like to thank Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, your Primate and Presiding Bishop, a great church leader, and my dear friend, for generously extending this invitation.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The readings for today—from the Book of Ezekiel, the Psalms, Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, and the Gospel of John—seem on the surface to have very little in common. But on reflection, there is a common thread weaving them together. Each of the readings deals, in its own way, with the idea of “exile” or “displacement.”
The prophet Ezekiel offers an image—which our Lord Jesus would also later take up—of a shepherd gathering in his scattered, lost sheep: seeking them out in the distant countries, returning them to their own land:
“I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away,” Ezekiel says of his urgent mission. “I will bind up that which was broken, and strengthen that which was sick” (Ez 34:16).
Psalm 87, on the other hand, is a hymn to a lost homeland, sung by those who remember, with pride and nostalgia, the now-distant land of their birth:
“Of Zion it shall be said, ‘This man and that one was born in her,’ …The Lord shall count in the records of the people, that there, this man was born” (Ps 87:5-6).
St. Paul, writing to Timothy, speaks of a different kind of displacement: the exile from human society that comes from his unjust imprisonment. He knows he will never return to the world he knew; but in one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, Paul confides to us his faith that his exile is ultimately the doorway to a greater reality:
“I am ready now;” he writes; “the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith. For the future, a crown of righteousness is waiting, which the Lord shall give me at that day. And not only to me, but to all who love him” (2 Tm 4:6-8).
Thoughts about exile have held a special meaning for me this year, as a bishop of the Armenian Church. For it was exactly one hundred years ago that my people became exiles from their historic homeland, in the cataclysm that would eventually be known as the Armenian Genocide.
* * *
The Ottoman Turks launched this deadly plan to transform their disintegrating, multi-ethnic empire into a homogeneous state. Their vision of a new Turkish state covered territory which included the Armenian homeland, so the decision was made to annihilate every Armenian man, woman and child through deportation, starvation and wholesale murder.
The genocide of more than one and a half million Armenians began in 1915. When it was over, two out of three Armenians living in that country had perished—the victims of a systematic extermination of Turkey’s Armenian population.
In this manner, our people were effectively eliminated from their homeland of nearly three thousand years. Even the memory of the Armenian nation was intended for obliteration: churches and monasteries were desecrated, and small children—the seed of the future—were snatched from their parents, renamed, and farmed out to be raised as Turks. More than 2600 churches and monasteries were destroyed. More than 4000 clergy were killed.
Sadly, such brutality set the tone for the 20th century: a tone which would be heard again in the Nazi death camps, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Rwanda and Darfur. And it echoes in our own days, in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, in Africa, and other desperate places.
* * *
As you can imagine, these thoughts have weighed heavily on me throughout this year, both as a leader of the Armenian Church, and as one of many exiles from our lost homeland. There are times when the weight of our historic experience seems like it is unbearable.
And yet, it is precisely at such moments that Christ can become most powerfully present to us. For myself, during this Genocide Centennial year, I felt His presence in the incredible outpouring of support and encouragement Armenians have received, from friends, co-religionists, national governments, and even from people we had never met before. All of them asserted their solidarity, their understanding, their recognition and appreciation of what the Armenian people endured.
Like you have done today, this outpouring of good will made us realize as never before that we are not alone. That the burden of pain and exile was not something my people alone have experienced. Others share that burden with us, in different ways. And most of all, our Lord shares that burden with all His children.
That is the deep meaning today’s scriptures hold for us. Through them, we are led to the realization that we are all exiles: scattered sheep, lost in a wilderness. Displaced souls longing for our true home. Prisoners awaiting release, knowing that we will be led where we do not want to go.
And yet we are also assured that a crown of glory is awaiting us. For the truth is that wherever we may live, Christ’s faithful followers—just like their master—have no real home upon this earth. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” said our Lord Jesus (Mt 8:20). Our true homeland is God’s kingdom. And human life is the exile’s journey of return. Along that path we will experience all of life’s drama: its sorrow and pain, but also its joys and beauty. And all the while, we await the sound of our shepherd’s voice—the Shepherd who has never ceased searching for us, to gather us in, and deliver us home.
I want to conclude by thanking you all for sharing in our journey this year. Your generosity, your encouragement, and your abiding friendship are great blessings for myself, my church, and for my people. May God bless you, and may He guide all His children to their true home in His eternal kingdom. Amen.
The 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church is meeting through July 3 in Salt Lake City, UT (Diocese of Utah). The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is held every three years, and is the bicameral governing body of the Church. It comprises the House of Bishops, with upwards of 200 active and retired bishops, and the House of Deputies, with clergy and lay deputies elected from the 108 dioceses and three regional areas of the Church, at more than 800 members.
The video services of the daily Eucharist during General Convention 2015 have been produced by the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org
General Convention: http://www.generalconvention.org/
Diocese of Utah: http://www.episcopal-ut.org/
Salt Palace Convention Center: http://www.visitsaltlake.com/salt-palace-convention-center/