Biennial Conference 2008: Opening Eucharist Sermon by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church

The Opening Eucharist of the National Association of Episcopal Schools’ Biennial Conference 2008 took place on Thursday, November 6, at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel in Tampa, Florida. The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, was the celebrant and preacher at the service. Below is the text of her sermon on that occasion.

Zechariah 8:3-17
Psalm 146
James 3:13-18
Mark 9:30-37

Did you hear Zechariah’s words? "Thus says the Lord of hosts:  Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem… And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets." Are the streets of your city filled with elders sunning themselves on benches, watching over playing children? When a community takes the welfare of children seriously, it can change the landscape and the cityscape, and begin to change the world.

About 20 years ago, St. James, Cathlamet, a rural congregation with 46 communicants in good standing (according to the Red Book 2007), and perhaps 20 people in church on Sunday, began to take the welfare of children seriously. At a time when the bottom was falling out of the local labor market, and mothers who had previously stayed home with children were going back to work or to school, a parishioner noted the lack of child care in the community and asked the vestry if she could use two Sunday school rooms for child care. She expected that seven children could make the program self-sustaining. From that humble beginning has grown the St. James Family Center, which is now the third-largest employer in Wahkiakum County, and provides pre-school, childcare, Head Start, teen programs, parent education, and also manages the county’s domestic violence shelter. They have dramatically changed the environment for children in an isolated part of Washington State. Their programs have been recognized and funded by the Gates Foundation. Most of what they do is based on providing education and nurture for children and their significant adults—both parents and other concerned members of the community.

When the children are cared for, the community thrives. That’s what lies behind the Masai greeting, “how are the children?” That’s what Jesus is getting at when he says, “whoever welcomes a child welcomes me, and the one who sent me.”  When the world is able to make the traditional Masai response, “all the children are well,” then the kind of peace that the prophets look for has indeed been achieved.

We live in a world hungry for that kind of peace, and indeed, humanity has always hungered for that prophetic vision—for a city where it’s safe to grow up and safe to grow old. That hunger drove a good deal of the conversation in our presidential election. People on both sides of the campaign repeatedly expressed their desperate hunger for a world where war is ended and everyone has the ability to live in peace.

You have gathered here, as educators, to ponder how to build a world like that. Your work with young people and their significant elders, yourselves among them, can form new generations who will build a world of streets safe for playing.

As this service opened, we prayed the collect for William Temple, whose feast we celebrate today. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944, and much focused on building a world that looked more like the reign of God. The words of the collect offer some hints about how we do that: “that we may rejoice with courage, confidence, and faith in the Word made flesh, and may be led to establish that city which has justice for its foundation and love for its law.” The city of peace, which is what Jerusalem means, is one founded on justice and love. Above all else, that must be the vision that shapes our teaching work.

Jesus, present among us in human flesh, welcomes children as an immediate image of a community of justice and love. It’s a community of justice, for it does not discriminate in the ways the world does—it welcomes those who don’t wield worldly power. That just society welcomes the weak and small—it doesn’t just tolerate them or put them off to one side. It welcomes them and expects great things of them. A society or a learning community can only do that kind of work if it sets aside all pretensions to what James calls the world’s wisdom. That kind of community doesn’t create competitive systems based on economic or physical power. It builds a body where the gifts of each are valued and called into service.

Learning communities—and I am convinced that all spiritually healthy bodies of people have to be engaged in learning, for as S.I. Hayakawa said, “the day we stop learning is the day we begin to die”—learning communities expect each member to grow up into the full stature of Christ, and to use all his or her native gifts to help to build a city where children can play in safety and elders grow old in peace. The congregation at St. James puts it in this kind of shorthand, “we don’t let adults here do anything of which children are capable.” That is a servant approach to teaching.

Servant leaders and servant teachers put aside their own ego needs for the benefit of those whose servants they are, for the sake of Jesus in their midst. That’s what James means when he says that wisdom from above is “willing to yield.” That is what God does in setting aside infinity and ubiquity to enter human flesh—theologians talk about God emptying God’s self in Jesus. It’s also our task—to get out of the way so another may grow or try or serve and be the image of God in our midst. It is what is meant by helping another to develop his or her gifts for ministry—the ministry we share, to build that great city of justice, peace, and love. That’s actually what our Catechism says the Church looks like when it’s pursuing its mission (BCP, 855).

Episcopal schools have an outsized ability to do just that—to form and encourage and help children and young people develop into ministers of that kind of city. They don’t all have to be Episcopalians to do that work, and in fact, in God’s economy, they will probably build a better world if they’re not all Episcopalians, for they’ll have learned how to work with others who share only some of their values. The task of our schools is to form saints, whether or not they are overtly Christian or Episcopalian. This educational ministry is about developing ministers of justice, ministers of love, and peace ministers who will see their life’s work as building a city like Zechariah’s. Those ministers may serve as doctors, queens, or shepherds on the green, but also as presidents and senators, teachers and judges, parents and scientists, athletes and musicians. In whatever way they walk through life, your task is to educate young people who will be capable of leading others toward a changed and healed vision of human community, toward that great dream we share called the Reign of God.

The events of the last couple of days have given us a wonderful laboratory. How will the people of this country begin to build a city and world that reflects that prophetic vision of peace, justice, and love? How will those who have hurled unkind and unjust epithets at their opponents in this election put down their verbal weapons and begin to build bridges instead? How will the work that all the educators in this room share help to facilitate that reconstruction and resurrection? That is indeed servant work, and the Prince of Peace has shown us that it is indeed possible to build a city of peace, a city that is safe and welcoming for children—all the world’s children and all the children of God. Amen.

© 2008 by The Episcopal Church, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Used by permission.