Episcopal Church House of Bishops Fall 2014 meeting: Presiding Bishop’s Sermon at St. John’s Cathedral, Taiwan
The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church is conducting its fall meeting in the Diocese of Taiwan September 17 – September 23. On Sunday, September 21, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached at St. John’s Cathedral, Taipei, Taiwan. The following is the sermon presented by Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori.
21 September 2014
St. John’s Cathedral, Taipei, Taiwan
House of Bishops
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
How do we decide that something is unfair? Is it different than being unjust?
When I was a child, we had family rules about sharing. If there was one piece of cake to divide between two kids, one cut the cake and the other got to choose the first piece. That was fair. If we had company for dinner, the children were reminded that guests were served first, and we weren’t supposed to ask for seconds until they had had all they wanted. That was called hospitality. But when we looked around and began to notice that some people never seemed to get anything, then we started to talk about injustice.
Fairness involves judgments about whether people get a similar portion of whatever goods are at hand; justice is about whether people get what they deserve.
Jonah is royally ticked off because he thinks the Ninevites aren’t getting what they deserve –they’re not being punished for their evil ways. God has given mercy rather than their just deserts. When Jonah leaves the city to sulk, he enjoys the pure mercy of shade under a bush. But when the bush withers, he gets mad, because he thinks he deserved its shade. “Just kill me,” he says, “I can’t stand this – it’s not fair!” And God reminds him that the 120,000 Ninevites are worth a whole lot more than this blasted plant. Mercy trumps justice, especially Jonah’s understanding of justice.
Paul is sitting in a similar place as he writes to Philippi, but he has a very different reaction. He is poised between life and death, but he’s not nearly so anxious about the outcome. Living or dead, he is with Christ, but if he’s going to live, he decides he will use his life fruitfully, as a witness to good news. Paul is not bound up in the fairness question. He has a deep confidence in God’s abounding mercy, whether he lives or dies, whether he suffers or flourishes.
The vineyard owner hires workers and treats them equally, whether they work all day or only an hour. He sees that as justice – giving each one the necessary wage, to all their daily bread, “whatever is right.” But the ones who have worked all day long feel slighted – “those latecomers got more than they deserved!”
What is justice? And what do we do when we discover that others believe that ultimate justice is a lot bigger or a lot smaller than our view of it?
Capital punishment is the human dilemma where this comes up most urgently. Is it just? Nation after nation has abolished the death penalty in recent years. It’s been ended in most nations where The Episcopal Church is present, starting with Venezuela in 1863. Ecuador and Colombia eliminated it more than 100 years ago. Honduras in 1956. Curaçao was the latest, in 2010. Only the United States and Taiwan continue to execute people. In the last three years, the United States has executed about 40 people a year, and 30 thus far in 2014, including Lisa Coleman, a black woman, last Wednesday. Taiwan executed five people in April of this year, after putting five or six to death in each of the last three years.
The good news is that many people are raising questions of justice about the death penalty – about the adequacy of defense, the reliability of prosecution evidence and tactics, as well as the capacity to carry out an execution without causing undue pain and suffering. All of that, however, stands in opposition to the position of this Church since 1958 – that capital punishment is fundamentally wrong, a violation of the intrinsic worth of every human being, of the divine image each one bears. Yet the reality is that all Episcopalians live in societies where there is disagreement over what justice looks like.
Jonah apparently expected something like the death penalty for Nineveh – that it would be annihilated like the city of Sodom. That’s an all too common reaction to apparent injustice – well we’ll just destroy the wrong-doer, we’ll kill the enemy. Yet God’s mercy is greater than retributive human justice. Jesus challenged us to love our enemies. Bishop Azariah told us on Friday that he focuses on loving his neighbors – all of them – for he apparently does not want to define anyone as enemy.
There is great power when we can shift from demanding justice as punishment for wrongdoing to giving thanks for the grace of God’s presence – God’s presence with us and in our neighbors. It’s a shift from defensiveness to open-hearted vulnerability that ends by producing compassion, mercy, and godly justice.
We visitors in Taiwan have seen that kind of mercy here in this diocese. Over and over, we have discovered abundant compassion rather than minimalist understandings of fairness. When a church many years ago from South Carolina helped St. James Taichung to build a church, that congregation in Taichung responded with profligate compassion by helping to build 12 churches in the Philippines. The chaplain at St. John’s University does not just offer occasional pizza for a few Episcopal students – he provides 20 meal plans to students for the whole academic year. The parish kindergartens here and across the diocese don’t just serve parishioners – they reach out to all children from the neighborhoods, of all creeds and none, to see that they get what they need and deserve. The people of this diocese are reaching out to the elderly, the imprisoned, the handicapped, and the lonely, bringing life and dignity and abundant mercy.
True and godly and eternal justice makes more of self, it enlarges hearts and creates more life and greater abundance. The pinched kind of self-centered justice that Jonah and the vineyard workers were looking for chooses death rather than life, and misses that expansiveness. When we know that we are held in the palm of God’s hand, whether we have suffering or joy, we discover that we can choose that deeper sort of justice, and choose it for all our neighbors.
May we remember God’s mercy on the Ninevites. May we remember Jesus’ telling the criminal dying next to him that they’d be together in paradise that very day. We will find our daily bread of life in the mercy we offer our neighbors.
 St. James, Greenville, SC