Presiding Bishop preaches in Radnor, Pennsylvania

Posted Sep 21, 2015

St. David’s, Radnor, PA (Diocese of Pennsylvania)
300th anniversary
20 September 2015

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

Longfellow saw this church as “An image of peace and rest… among its graves.”[1] That’s lovely, but it doesn’t capture the liveliness of this parish and congregation. The character of this place seems a lot more like your namesake, Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales. St. David was a tireless Christian leader, an energetic monk and abbot, and a bishop who kept challenging the larger church to focus on what was most centrally important. He’s famous for charging his people to “be joyful, keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and talk about.”

That’s pretty much what Proverbs says about a capable wife, and the description of the virtues of a wise housekeeper and householder applies just as much to every faithful Christian. Go back and read it again. The capable wife is more like a domestic engineer; she’s a manager who is an investor, strategist, gardener, weight-lifter, clothier, entrepreneur, supplier of the needy, and wise teacher. This is a human image of Wisdom herself, who is named as God’s architect and master builder, and it’s a reminder that all of us are meant to be co-creators with God. As God is concerned about the sparrow and the lilies of the field and the “least of these,” the wise housekeeper is doing the little things that make communities thrive. Feeding, clothing, investing, strategizing, and responding to new conditions are the little things that build communities and the body of Christ.

Three hundred years on, St. David’s isn’t thriving because its members are arguing about who’s too important to do little things. I think it was your rector who said, “We have a very active group of people who want to learn more about God and make a difference in the world.” You’re keeping the faith and doing what Jesus and the saints have always taught and modeled. Out of that grows joy and a feast of abundant life. Is it perfect? Not yet, and it won’t be until Jesus comes back, but when people turn back to the very particular, incarnate ways of loving neighbors we find a whole lot more joy – and the world knows just a little more peace.

The gospel shows Jesus challenging his competitive friends to let go of their struggles for position and deal with one another the way they might care for a child. When Jesus picks up that child as an example, do you suppose it was a sweetly smiling little girl in her Sunday best? Or a screaming, hungry baby who needed a diaper change? Was it an obnoxiously mouthy eight year old? Or a teenager with terminal attitude?

In Jesus’ day children were property. They had no rights, and were often most valued for the physical labor they could contribute. Girls had some monetary value for the bride price they might bring. All the children were put to work as soon as they could carry a few stalks of grain. Jesus tells his friends that if they want to be important in his kingdom they’ve got to care for the least important people in the community, and not just care for them, but treat them like they’d treat Jesus himself. It’s another version of “those who feed and house and clothe the least of these will be members of my kingdom.”[2]

Right now the world is seeing a lot of dying, injured, and hungry children, many of them scared to death as their parents flee violence in the Middle East. A year ago this nation was responding to a wave of refugees from Central America – almost all of them children, sent across the border on their own or brought by their mothers to keep them away from drug traffickers and gang wars.[3] How many of our own ancestors came as children and teenagers fleeing famine in Ireland, conscription in England, or sheer hopelessness in the face of no land and no work at home? Welsh people first came here seeking religious freedom and the ability to teach their children their own language and culture. Later, iron workers and coal miners came looking for employment and economic opportunity. Their descendants built this church and community, and they have had an important part in building this nation.

Our religious ancestors are migrants – Adam and Eve, kicked out of the Garden; and Abraham, a “wandering Aramean,” called by God to leave home in search of a better home for his people. He went to Egypt, and his people endured generations of slavery before the exodus in search of a promised land of peace and plenty. Human beings have been moving since they first began to wander around and out of Africa.

Jesus is in some sense God’s migration into human flesh. He came among us in a time of chaos, mostly the result of state violence and Roman oppression. The poor of his day, ironically called ‘people of the land,’ the small farmers and artisans, were losing their land to taxes. There are parallels in our own colonial history, in the oppression of the original people of the land and in the royal exploitation of colonists and settlers. New ethnic groups who came here, either willingly or as slaves, have been routinely subject to exploitation and racism, and treated like the children of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ striking challenge to his disciples is to welcome those un-noticed and often exploited children. In another place, he says we have to become like those children to enter the kingdom of heaven.[4]

The public debates going on around us, in Pennsylvania, in the US, and globally, are focused on competition for scarce resources. When people are acting like the disciples, we don’t just want to know that we’re more important than somebody else, we often want to blame some other person or group for what we’re afraid of. It’s epidemic in election rhetoric – we’re worried about the economy, our own safety, changing weather, and our own jobs, and we pin the blame on some politician, an immigrant group, a different religious tradition, or the neighbor who parks in the space in front of our house. For a millisecond, we think that putting people in their place has righted the world… and then the fear and struggle return, just as urgently as before.

Jesus’ response is counter-intuitive. Deal with the squalling infant! When it stops crying, you will have some sense of your importance, because for this one tiny life, this child made in the image of God, you have healed the world. Sometimes we get paralyzed in the face of the world’s chaos – what can I possibly do? One life at a time, responding to the least among us and around us, we’ll get an answer. Keep the faith, and do the little things that Jesus taught us. Keep caring for the children of God here and in Guatemala, Uganda, and Haiti. And unless he comes back before then, 300 years from now, you’ll still be at it. But you will have shown countless human beings that they, too, are beloved children of God – that they are more important and have greater dignity than they or you or we would ever have imagined.

Rejoice and be glad, for when we welcome that child, we meet Jesus himself. And we will know that the kingdom of God has come near.


[2] Matthew 25:31-46

[3] And Texas is trying to keep their parents from obtaining birth certificates for new American children born in the U.S.

[4] Matthew 18:1-5