City of God, sermon by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
People often ask me why an Episcopal bishop would sign e-mails with the Hebrew word Shalom. I tell them that for me it is a continuing verbal symbol and reminder of what it is I'm supposed to be about, and in fact, what all Christians are supposed to be about.
That word “shalom” is usually translated as “peace”, but it's a far richer and deeper understanding of peace than we usually recognize. It's not just a 1070's era hippie holding up two fingers to greet a friend-”peace bro.” It isn't just telling two arguers to get over their differences. Shalom is a vision of the City of God on earth, a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care and meaningful work. Shalom is a city where justice is the rule of the day, where prejudice has vanished, where the diverse gifts with which we have been so abundantly blessed are equally valued.
The biblical image of Jerusalem is a city like that- that's what the “salem” part means. And that word for peace shows up all over the Middle East. Islam comes from the same root, and it means submitting one's will to God's in the search for that just community. The greeting we exchange with each other at the Eucharist is another reminder-”I will be in peace with you, let us be people of peace together.”
When Jesus goes back to his hometown and reads that passage from Isiah in the synagogue and says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he's talking about this version of shalom, the reign of God springing up all around. When he says, “Today, this has happened,” he doesn't mean that all the work's been done and finished, that God's reign is fully realized. I don't know about you, but I look around out there and see a fair bit of poverty, lots of prisoners, quite a few people with broken hearts, and lots who have no access to health care. The work is not finished, by a long shot! But we do see signs-interfaith networks and soup kitchens and music that brings balm to the wounded souls.
And we don't just see signs in the work that every parish does. Each one of us had the potential to be a partner in God's government, to be a co-creator of a good and whole and peaceful community. Each one of us has been given abundant gifts to do that work. All that's needed is a vision and a heart. The vision is one that Isaiah spells out-a society of peace and justice. The heart is a work in progress for all of us-sometimes a harder heart, sometimes a softened up enough to feel compassion, our hearts tell us to get off our duffs and use our gifts to do something about those people around us who are in pain, who don't know peace.
When you think about your gifts, consider what you're good at, what gets you up in the morning, where your passion is, what you love about living. For some, it's probably sports-soccer, swimming, golf, tennis, football. What in the world do they have to with Shalom or the reign of God? Whatever we do can be a witness, an example, that leads other people towards sharing our vision of Shalom. What's sometimes called old-fashioned sportsmanship is about treating our opponents with respect, and permitting them to have as much dignity as us, both in victory and defeat.
Some people are gifted as teachers, or parents, or mediators. How each one goes about living out that vocation can be part of building the reign of God. In lots of cities, I see people standing on the street selling newspapers, and I usually buy one. Most of the people I meet in that encounter are good ambassadors for what looks to be like the reign of God- they are happy to meet a stranger, and they treat this stranger with respect. The guys I meet do their work with a dignity that denies what most of society would say about them.
In the newspaper recently, there was a series of letters to the editor about a Muslim student who had left high school because of the way she'd been treated. Let's remember that our baptismal covenant does not distinguish between Christians and others- we promise, with God's help to see and serve Christ in all persons, and respect everyone's dignity, and it doesn't say anything about religion, gender, age, sexuality, nationality, and so on and so forth. The reign of God is not going to be realized until all of us can live together in peace. Those letters to the editor were from students at a local high school, inviting the young Muslim woman to join their school, where they believed she would be welcomed. The students who wrote those letters were using a public forum to build a more just society.
That's the kind of work each one of us has agreed to do: to use every resource at hand to build the reign of God- to use the gifts we have, the ones we think we might have, and the ones we haven't discovered yet, to be willing to speak aloud our vision of peace, whether in the newspaper of the halls of Congress, and to dedicate our lives to making that vision come alive, to give our hearts to it, to believe it, with every fiber of our being.
Building the reign of God is a great and bold adventure, and it the only route to being fully alive. If we don't set out to change the world, who will?