Presiding Bishop’s sermon at Grace Church, Jamaica

Posted Jan 22, 2013

Grace Church, Jamaica, NY (Long Island)
310th anniversary celebration
20 January 2013

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Happy Anniversary to the oldest church in this diocese, and the second oldest in New York!  For three centuries you’ve been a good example of what the collect prays for: “may your people shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.”  This body of people called Grace has helped start at least seven other congregations, you founded Jamaica Hospital, and you continue to shed light into the community around you.

That’s the kind of reality that Isaiah is talking about:  he’s going to keep after the people of Zion until their healing shines like the rising dawn or a burning torch.  Then the people will be called God’s Delight and Married to God.  “You will be wedded to the Lord and God will rejoice!”

That’s a striking image, but it’s reasonably common in the Old Testament – God is married to the body of faithful people.  It’s NOT a way of saying that “God is on our side – and not yours.”  It IS about a positive and fruitful relationship of intimacy, knowing God in a way that reflects God’s own creativity.  That marriage is a life-giving relationship that brings justice not only to the people of Israel, but to the whole world.  Fidelity and abiding relationship produce justice and peace, which is God’s intention for the whole of creation.

That’s part of what 310 years has meant here in Jamaica.  And it is what the years yet to come can bring, with the faithful partnership of the people in this body.

Every marriage in this Church begins by remembering the story of Jesus at Cana:  “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church…”[1]

Jesus goes to a wedding with his mother.  [Most of us have probably done the same!]  The hosts run out of wine and she prods him to do something about it.  All jokes about stage mothers aside, he’s not interested.  But then something within him responds, and he asks for water which becomes wine – full measure, pressed down, and overflowing – wondrous wine – to bless and seal this wedding.  But it isn’t simply about the couple getting married.  This wine is to celebrate, mark, signal the union between Jesus and the people of God – it’s a sacrament, an outward sign of spiritual reality.  This is what Isaiah is talking about – God married to God’s people.  That’s the reason for all those gallons and gallons of wine of surpassing excellence and remarkable vintage – well aged wine, strained clear.  That’s how the prophets describe the heavenly banquet, the arrival of the reign of God.  Jesus reveals his glory and the disciples believe in him – they give their hearts to him, which is what believe literally means.  They fall in love with God in the deepest and most profound way possible.

Shocking stuff, that wedding and its gallons of wine!  No wonder the scribes called Jesus and his band a bunch of drunkards and gluttons.  This is an image of peace-filled abundance, meant for all people – ALL people.

Every time you celebrate a marriage here, that’s what we proclaim about the purpose of the marriage – it begins in the hope that the two will become an example for all God’s people, sharing hope and evidence of the reign of God.  That hope extends beyond any two individuals, and it is what Grace is for.  That is what your elder sister Trinity, New York, is for, and it’s what every Christian community of faith is for.  Each of these Christ communities is married to God, and expected to give evidence of that faithful, loving, and covenanted relationship.

Paul tells us something about the fruits of this kind of marriage:  the gifts given to each one for the good of the whole – wisdom, healing, faithfulness, prophetic words and deeds.  The married are to bear fruit, share the wine, and continue to expand the healed and holy community – we are meant to spread light and joy.  And we’re meant to keep at it through all the years of our lives, even the times that seem endless, lonely, or bleak.

There is plenty of need for those gifts of faithful wisdom, of healing and prophetic work when guns are taken to school by children and the mentally ill.  Those gifts are needed in a nation increasingly polarized over political stances, race, and immigration; they’re needed while we fight wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and live in a country with rising poverty levels and increasing distance between the haves and the have nots.

Martin Luther King shared his prophetic words and deeds in the midst of a world like this.  He shared that vision of a married people, God’s Delight, building a society where children play together and are judged on the basis of their character rather than their color.  There is still enormous resistance to that dream.  Too many believe that healing is a privilege to be earned or paid for, rather than available to all.  Too many children lack access to decent education and too many people despair about finding meaningful work.

A married people understands that we’re all connected, that when we profess to love God it means that we care for all God’s people in the same way we try to care for our immediate families.  The bonds of love that draw us closer to God also draw us deeper into community with one another.  We can’t fuss about who shouldn’t love whom when we’re not doing a decent job of loving our neighbors.

When I read the history of Grace Church I’m struck by the honesty of the writers.  Over and over again they report about conflict and struggle in the church.  Political divisions existed from the very beginning when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel supported the missionary work here in the colonies.  The painful separation from England, the revolution and war which we tend to romanticize as a tea party up north, included spies and terrorists on all sides.  There were clergy here who only kept the peace by agreeing that they wouldn’t hold public services, so they could avoid publicly praying for King George III.  Samuel Seabury, who became your rector when he was only 28, wrote passionate letters supporting Britain during the years leading up to the Revolution.  He even served as chaplain to the King’s American Regiment.  But after the war he became a citizen of this new nation, and then the first bishop in this new church.  His persistence laid the groundwork for repairing the relationship with the Church of England, and the eventual development of the Anglican Communion.  He understood in his bones that we are related in that biblical sense, married to God and one another.

There are plenty of other stories in your history about church fights – as there are in every enduring Christian community!  Peace-making, reconciliation, and resolution happen when we remember our vowed connection, our wedded state, and rediscover that we are all members one of another, valued and treasured siblings of our brother Jesus, children of the God who delights in us all.

Every time we gather like this, it is to remember and rediscover that our married state is not for ourselves alone.  This wedded bliss is not for personal satisfaction; it’s meant to bless the whole world, so that the ancient vision of the marriage feast might spread out to the whole world.  It is Dr. King’s dream as well – a dream of healing, full bellies, God delighting in playing children and joyful adults, and justice everywhere.  It is the work of each one of us – in the midst of this community of Grace, in our daily lives as students and parents, bus drivers and doctors, legislators and voters.  Together God’s married people can spread the banquet and pour the wine.

That’s why we’re here.  Come to the marriage feast.  Invite the world to enjoy the wondrous festal banquet, and help build a world where ALL have a place at that feast.  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!  And let the people say, Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 423