Sermon by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Emmaus Celebration
Eucharist October 26, 2008
I spent several hours on the way here stuffed in a tiny commercial airplane. The
person in the next seat was so big that she didn’t fit into her own seat, but
overflowed into mine. Every time she moved, I did too, whether I was ready or
not. It was so constricting that I found it hard to relax enough to really think.
Most of us experience physical confinement or the intense proximity of strangers
as limiting our freedom rather than expanding it. The act of will that’s necessary
to enter a different psychic space is so immense that most of us get a little crazy
instead. It happens to prisoners of war and prisoners of law, and it happens to
us when we become prisoners of scarcity. I was wrestling with scarce physical
space, but the more destructive prisons have to do with insufficiencies of daily life
– like food, shelter, education, and employment. Lots of people in this country
and around the world are experiencing the prison of fear about their financial
future. Any prison, physical, psychological, or spiritual, can take away the
fullness of life for which we were created. The gospel is about opening those
prisons and setting the captives free.
Ezekiel uses a remarkably literal image when he talks to his people and tells
them they need a heart transplant: “Your atherosclerotic, diseased, calcified
heart is killing you, but God’s going to take that one out and give you one that will
bring greater life.” Maybe Ezekiel had seen the corpse of someone who’d died of
heart disease, but I doubt it. He was prescient, however. The kind of heart
disease that kills most of us who eat too much and exercise too little can almost
literally turn our arteries to stone. Those plaques get hardened with calcium, and
sometimes the whole heart can be sheathed in calcium, almost like a marble.
That heart and its arteries can’t move enough to pump fresh blood and let it flow
through the body. There’s no flexibility or vigor left. And sometimes the only
solution is a heart transplant. Ezekiel is talking about spiritual death of the
nation’s heart, and it mostly has to do with possessiveness, what we would call
consumerism or affluenza. It becomes a problem when the nation no longer has
an ability to notice the poor on its doorstep and in its backyard, when there’s no
flexibility or willingness to share, whether it’s space or food or access to political
power. That possessiveness actually builds a prison around us.
Getting a new heart and a new spirit has to do with the ability to be vulnerable, to
get out of our own way, to give up being the center of the universe. It also has to
do with letting go of the stony non-responsiveness called fear, fear that constricts and paralyzes.
Even at a basic biological level, being startled or scared our of
your wits raises your blood pressure, makes your heart beat a lot faster, and
shifts your blood circulation from digestive organs to the big muscles that will
help you run away or fight off your attacker. There is very little flexibility in the
response, and once it’s started, it’s hard to willfully shut it down.
That’s what’s going on with James and John in the gospel. They’re waking up to
the fact that Jesus isn’t going to be around forever, and they’re starting to get
scared. They want to ensure their retirement benefits while he’s still around.
Jesus tells them to hang loose, that he’s not going to fix it all in stone, and if they
want good seats they’d be better off making sure that other people get their seats
first. Their security will lie in letting go of their feelings of entitlement and turning
to help others find their seats.
We live in a very anxious world right now. The fear level has been intentionally
ratcheted up by things like the TSA announcements at the airport: “orange threat
level, keep your eyes on your bags and don’t leave them alone or we’ll have to
blow them up for you just to make sure they’re not a threat.” Other parts of the
world have lived with terrorism for a lot longer than we have, and they are far less
excited by it. It is possible to learn to live with less fear.
But the level of fear also gets ratcheted up by things that seem accidental, like
the stock market collapse or the way oil prices went through the roof several
months ago. The ultimate source of that fear is the same – that somebody else
will take over or take away stuff that’s mine, or all mine. It is related to believing
that there isn’t enough safety, or profit, or space for me to live my life as I want
So what do we do with that fear response, once it’s started? It is possible to look
for the causes of it, and when we understand why hearts are racing, we can
begin to slow them down. I finally got comfortable in that tiny seat when I let go
of feeling pushed around. A good thing, because the next flight had an even
bigger guy in the next seat who kept nodding off and falling over on me! Practice
does make it easier, even for us slow learners.
Think about the basic and unchanging message of God’s messengers – those
angels who startle people by saying, “fear not.” Consider Jesus himself, who
reminds us that “perfect love casts out fear.” And the prophets continue to
remind us that all of us can live in peace and harmony – without fear – when we
spread the goodies around so that nobody goes hungry. Then wars end
because people no longer have any reason to be afraid.
Think about how this is being played out in our political process right now. How
much of the advertising and commentary is directed at human fear, and often in a
way that panders to the worst of human prejudice? One candidate is suspected
of being a Muslim – and the unspoken implication is that he’s the next thing to a
terrorist. The other candidate is accused of being dishonest about his medical
condition – and the unspoken implication is that he will abandon the nation at a
moment of great need. There is a profound opportunity for the gospel in this
election – to set us free from fear. When we’re afraid we cannot make entirely
rational responses, only base and basic self-protective ones. Jesus’ urging is
that we let go of those self-protective stances and remember that God’s love is
bigger than any of our paltry fears. We will all be saved when each one is, and
we cannot save ourselves alone – either by our own efforts or only as individuals.
This diocese is celebrating the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.
You’ve done great work in equipping the saints around here to share that good
news. The Emmaus story, for which this era just past is named, is about
recognizing the presence of God in our midst, even when we’re exhausted and
full of fear. I don’t know what you’re going to call the next chapter in the Diocese
of West Missouri, but it will continue to carry something of that Emmaus spirit –
fear not, for God is with us, and we will discover Jesus with us when we break
bread with the poor and fearful.
Letting go of fear takes only a small shift in awareness. Dick and I were riding up
the elevator in our hotel this morning, when a fellow got on. He saw another guy
in the back with a box, and he said, “Oh, donuts! Mmmm. But I can’t steal one,
because there’s a person of the cloth in here.” So I piped up and said, “But he
could share.” Indeed, sharing would change the climate of worry and fear.
Welcome to the banquet, prepared from the foundation of the world, for those
who will live in community, in the eternal presence of God. Welcome to the