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From Columbus: Text of Presiding Bishop's June 18 homily

[Episcopal News Service]  Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold preached the homily at the morning Eucharist June 18 at General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. At the end of the service, the House of Bishops departed for Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus to begin the process of electing the 26th Presiding Bishop. The text of Griswold's homily follows:

Homily preached at the General Convention's daily Eucharist
Sunday, June 18, 2006
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold

Palm trees and cedars, bushes and vines appear frequently on the pages of Scripture in a variety of contexts. They are used in metaphors, allegories and parables to represent people, nations and God's presence.

In today's reading we are presented with a cedar of Lebanon in a prophetic denunciation directed against Egypt. The cedar represents Assyria, and its high reach -- to the clouds -- is a sign of the nation's overweening pride. Birds of the air make their nests in its boughs. And then, it is cut down by its enemies, acting on behalf of God, in punishment for the nation's wickedness. As the once lofty tree lies shattered and abandoned, the birds of the air settle in its trunk while its scattered boughs lie broken in the water courses.

And then, by way of contrast, in the gospel reading the "greatest of all shrubs … produced from the smallest of all seeds," a mustard seed, puts forth branches of hospitality "so that all the birds of the air can make their nests in its shade."

As I read and reflect upon these two texts what catches my attention is the fact that both the tree and the mustard seed are dependant upon water and soil for their growth. Of the cedar of Lebanon it is said that "the waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall." And, regarding the "greatest of all shrubs" we are told "the earth produces of itself."

Given their common heritage of water and soil, what is it that produces, in one case, a tree of arrogance in which birds make their nests because of its power, and, in the other the shrub which extends its branches in humility in order to welcome and provide shade and shelter for the birds of the air?

Why is it that the life force in one instance leads to life, for the tree itself and for others, while in the other case, that same life force leads to domination and death? Yes, the birds continue to make their home, but no longer do they find shelter in its boughs. Now - they only settle briefly upon its dead and decaying trunk.

Here I think of the natural gifts and abilities which have been planted deep within each one of us. As they grow and mature they are intended to be offered in thanksgiving to the larger purposes of the One who is their source and point of origin. However, there is another possibility. How easily we can cease to regard these things God has given us as gifts and see them rather as possessions. Instead of being offered in the service of others, they become a personal possession and a way in which we define ourselves over and against others. Rather than offering these gifts, we hoard them and deploy them according to our own self-serving ends.

At the conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola there is a prayer to be prayed by the one making the Exercises. This prayer serves as a response to contemplation upon all of God's gifts to the retreatant, including the gift of the world around us. All is seen as an extravagant outpouring of God's imaginative and ever creative love. The person making the exercises is then bidden to reflect and pray in grateful response: Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All that I have and possess you have given to me. To you, O Lord, I return it. All is yours. Dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, for they are enough for me.

Am I able to offer this prayer with my whole heart? Sometimes. But then the very act of praying it has a way of flushing out areas of reluctance or resistance. Do I genuinely want what God may want, or do I instead want God to agree with me?

The very first word of the prayer, "Take" is an invitation to God to overcome my resistance to God's purposes. Take: it is a prayer for self-emptying and that space may be made for God's wild and unpredictable imagination which blows where it wills.

Memory, understanding and will were understood classically as the constituent elements of the human person. Thus, offering them to God constituted the offering of one's whole self.

And liberty: "receive all my liberty." My liberty. My freedom. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free, which as Paul tells us is not to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Receive my freedom. Set me free: free from all my imprisoning urges and emotions, my disabling fears and preoccupations. Paradoxically, my freedom becomes realized in its fullness when it is offered to God's service. My freedom is made perfect as I open myself to God's desire for me and the world around me. Here I am put in mind of a phrase taken from St. Augustine which appears in a Collect at Morning Prayer: whose service to perfect freedom.

To grow up in all ways into Christ into a many limbed-mustard bush, ready to give shelter and shade, rather than a proud cedar who dominates through force and fear, involves a continue stance of self-offering, continual self-examination and repentance: that is allowing God's point of view to become our own. This is true for us personally and as a church.

How much of our memory needs to be healed, relinquished, let go? How much of our understanding needs to be transformed, and purified and reordered? How much of our will needs to be stretched and broken open by the One in whose will is our true home and our peace?

And, how much of this healing, transforming, reordering, stretching and being broken open is possible without the assistance of human agents like ourselves? How much of this is possible without other limbs of Christ's body who become -- and not necessarily in ways we are able to easily welcome -- ministers of our freedom, wielders of God's pruning shears, enabling us to be more fruitful still in God's service and in Christ's continuing work of reconciliation?

May we who through baptism have been planted in the house of the Lord flourish like the palm tree in today's psalm. May we be ripe with the fruit of compassion. And, may others find shelter and shade among our branches.

And -- may we as a church make the prayer of St. Ignatius our own:
Take Lord, and receive all our liberty, our memory, our understanding, and our entire will. All that we have and possess you have given to us. To you, O Lord, we return it. All is yours. Dispose of it according to your will. Give us only your love and your grace, for they are enough for us.

Yes, they are enough -- more than enough -- for us, for me.