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Presiding Bishop's address at the TEAM conference

3/14/2007
[Episcopal News Service]  At the March 14 closing session of the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference, which has described itself, in part, as an international conference on prophetic witness, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the participants that they stand in a long line of Jewish and Christian -- including Anglican -- prophets. The full text of Jefferts Schori's address follows:

The church moving forward in prophetic witness

Boksburg, March 14, 2007

It is a great joy and delight to be here with you and I am terribly sorry that I could only come to the last two days of this conference, but we had a new bishop to consecrate in the Diocese of Hawai'i on the very other side of the world. I needed to be there for that last Saturday. I think the insight I would offer to you from Hawai'i is that it is a place that understands and lives multiculturalism. They are comprised of all of the ethnicities around the Pacific Ocean and some from beyond the Pacific Ocean, and they live together as brothers and sisters in that church and in that place. That is a gift that could be given to the rest of the Communion.

I am immensely grateful to Archbishop Ndungane for his vision in organizing this conference, for it is abundantly obvious that it has already changed lives and that it will continue to do that for years to come. I thank him as well for his invitation to speak today about our church moving forward in prophetic mission.

I'd like to begin by reminding us of what our prophetic tradition is and what it means. What is a prophet? Literally, one who speaks for God. One like Isaiah or Jeremiah who dares to critique the evils of human systems and also dares to speak a vision for what God believes things should look like – the godly characteristics to which a human society could and should aspire.

The great prophets of the Hebrew Bible routinely offered a different perspective of what Israel and her governors should be paying attention to, particularly feeding the poor and caring for orphans and widows and aliens. And the reason for doing so, one that's repeated over and over again, is "because you were slaves in Egypt." Out of that horribly dehumanizing experience in Egypt comes a particular vocation to remember and respond to others in like circumstances. The prophets remind Israel that all humanity is kin under the skin. Israel may be a chosen people, but that choosing is for the greater life of others. At a very important level, it is only the small details of history that have led some to the promised land and others into radical poverty. The great prophetic vision of universality that emerges in Isaiah proclaims that Israel exists for the world – and we, too, are Israel.

Our tradition has a rich heritage of prophets. Jesus speaks of himself as Wisdom's prophet in the gospels, and his deeds and words can perhaps be most creatively understood in a prophetic framework. His choice of companions, his parables, his cursing of fig trees and overturning of tables, are all ways of speaking for God about the dismal state of the world and the yet unmet possibilities of God's dream for creation. Even the scandals that we call the incarnation and the resurrection make more sense in a prophetic framework. They are God's response to those who "cry in the wilderness." That pattern of divine attention to crying in the wilderness underlies all of what we call salvation history – and it's important to recognize that it's not over and done with at the last page of Revelation. God hears and God responds by continuing to lure us into a world that looks more like eternity, more like a heavenly banquet, more like God is Lord and not we ourselves.

God's vision for this created world has a great deal to do with the aims of the Millennium Development Goals – with hunger, education, illness and lack of health care, with the full and equal dignity of all human beings, and with ongoing care and stewardship for all of creation. We are here talking about the MDGs because we affirm that we are involved with the lives of others, whether they live next door or across the world, whether they are Christian or Anglican or not, and even whether they are currently living or not. When we say we believe in the communion of the saints, it certainly includes those who have come before us, but it also at some level it must include those yet to breathe this air of earth. We are caretakers and caregivers of all of God's creation, both present and yet to come, and that is an important Christian recognition of the eschatological implications of the MDGs.

Those MDGs begin with a recognizably prophetic naming of the ways in which God's children suffer – the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry each night, the reality of human suffering when children die needlessly and disease takes life without cause, of women who die in childbirth and the children who are born lacking the care that would ensure a healthy beginning and real possibility of abundant life. The MDGs hint at the kind of vision that prophets have always held out – a world where all have not only enough to eat, but abundance enough for feasting, where all children can expect to live out the full years of their lives in health, where no one is oppressed because of gender or disease or disability, where all can enjoy the abundance of orchard and vineyard. But the MDGs only begin to address that kind of eschatological vision. The first goal seeks only to cut in half the kind of desperate poverty that keeps people starving. It does not reach beyond to that vision of a heavenly banquet. The goals are a great start, but it will take the vision of faith, a vision rooted in God's intent for all creation, to keep us moving toward that kind of radically abundant life for the whole world.

The prophets God has continually given and sent to us have an ability to speak clearly about what is and what could be. They include the great Hebrew saints who cry out for justice in the gate, and offer a vision of right relationship -- what right relationship really looks like -- and they also include those who have come since the canon of scripture was closed. Francis of Assisi spoke about all creation as sister and brother, even the death that comes to us all. His actions spoke even more loudly about the Christian vocation to care for the hungry and ill. His own diminishment in worldly terms became his increase, and the increase of the poor for whom he labored.

We have a uniquely Anglican heritage of prophets as well – from Elizabeth I, Richard Hooker, and Hilda of Whitby, all of whom talked about for unity in diversity, to George Herbert and Julian of Norwich and their awareness of the movement of the spirit in the small and everyday things of life. Some of the great prophets of our tradition were involved in major critique and change of socially accepted norms. William Wilberforce campaigned tirelessly for an end to the slave trade, as did David Livingstone and Bp. Steere in Zanzibar. In spite of the support that many parts of the Church offered for tradition (which included slavery) in many parts of the church, all of those prophets challenged the spiritual wisdom of their day. In the case of slavery, that received wisdom most often said slaves should obey their masters. The prophetic response offered a larger and more abundant vision that said all human beings are made in the image of God and that all human beings are deserving of full and equal dignity.

That tradition has continued, with Archbishop William Temple, who said this church is the only institution that exists primarily for the good of those outside itself, and with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who challenged another religious system that said some were of more value than others, and then, when the system finally began to crumble, sought to heal the broken community through insisting on the place of both offender and offended in the same body of Christ. That tradition is not dead, indeed it rings through our work in this place and around the world.

That prophetic tradition insists that full and abundant life is meant for all God's creatures, not just those who happen to live in prosperous communities or countries. And I think it is important to note that there is a strand of Christian tradition, not unknown in Anglicanism, that says that prosperity is a blessing born out of righteousness. The prophetic tradition always speaks against that kind of self-righteousness. The prophetic tradition insists that each one of us is responsible for the flourishing of our brothers and sisters, wherever and however they struggle to live. This prophetic tradition challenges all of us to speak truth to power, to say to our governments and to the world that there is something gravely and sinfully wrong with a world where the division between rich and poor continues to expand, where some live in palaces and recline on ivory couches while others starve outside the gates. Another prophet in our midst, AB Ndungane, has put it most clearly when he said recently that the rich are getting "stinking rich." This prophetic heritage also gives us a vision for what's possible, and our brothers and sisters at the United Nations have offered a framework for how we might partner in response.

The Millennium Development Goals are a start, a beginning to that great eschatological vision we have received – where all are not only fed, but invited to a banquet, where no one dies of disease or infirmity before the expected end to life. That vision expects a world where the resources of all are shared so that each might flourish and enjoy that vision of abundant life. But the MDGs are only a start. They're a concrete vision of progress toward that vision, and they are achievable, if we have the will.
 
That will and willingness is the root of our challenge. If we're going to move forward effectively, we're going to have to engage the attitudes that say it's not possible, it will cost too much, it's unrealistic, or is simply the fantastic and futile dream of fools. The faith that is within us is the starting point of a response. The prophets tell us that sometimes our vocation is to play the fool -- the holy fool, to dream impossible dreams and hope in ways that make no human sense.

The history of God's prophetic action in ages past is what we have to carry into this inspired work. If we can say that God came among us in human form, and that all human beings are made in that divine image, then ignoring or repudiating that image in people across the world of next door is an opting out of abundant life, or in more traditional language, it is choosing hell. And it may be important to remember that humor is often an antidote to hellish earnestness. The Orthodox Christians have a tradition that at Easter, they tell jokes because the Resurrection is God's cosmic joke on the devil. If God has done such ridiculous and unexpected things as making us in the divine image, in becoming human, and in rising from the dead, who are we to argue with what seems like an impossible task?

We have this surprising hope planted within us, and we have the resources to make this dream possible. The resources are diverse – the vision itself, our communities of faith and the networks they represent, financial and personnel resources, as well as the will and ability to advocate in the systems that perpetuate injustice.

We have heard in the last couple of days that the communities of faith we represent are one of the largest on-the-ground delivery systems for human well-being in the world. Where else but in our churches do people come together week by week to seek health and salvation? And it seems essential to remember that salvation means the health and full flourishing of the whole human person – it is not only a supposed spiritual portion of ourselves that is healed in relation to God, but our whole being. Incarnation means that God took the human condition seriously enough to join it, in all its complexity and organic messiness. Salvation is for all humanity and it is for the whole person, however much we might like to divide that being up into parts that we label physical, moral, psychological, sexual, intellectual, or spiritual. God is for all of us – the whole person and all humankind. If our communities of faith are not involved in that wholeness of salvation, they're missing something absolutely essential. The good news is that increasing numbers of faith communities in our tradition do understand this ancient calling to mind-body-spirit wholeness, and the interconnectedness of the whole body of Christ and the whole body of God's creation. The networks represented here are without equal in this world. The churches where we gather week by week are the most remarkable nexus of possibility for delivering abundant life. We already have the delivery system on the ground that can feed people, encourage education, provide vaccinations and disease prevention, organize people to address water needs, and partner with others. If we understand our mission as transformation of this world, then we must use every resource available to accomplish that mission. See those Christians, how much they love on another and the whole world.

The opportunity that is the Anglican Communion is a gift given for a reason, and that reason is the healing of God's creation. The prayer book that I use week to week defines mission as "restore all people to God and each other in Christ." It is about reconciling and healing the world. Our salvation is wrapped up in the healing of others. We have opportunities to serve this vision of wholeness we call the Reign of God, through the network of our communion – with Anglicans and Lutherans, and other committed partners. We've had that vision planted within us, and we've been given voices and the will to collaborate to see this vision advanced. It will take the best that is within us, the spirit continuing to move us onward, even when it feels like we're wandering in the wilderness. But it is a journey we cannot avoid if we intend to be faithful.

We have many resources on this journey – our faith communities, the knowledge and will that is represented in this room, but we also have a resource in the governments in the many nations we represent. Our voices, raised on behalf of the widows and orphans and the aliens in our midst, can motivate our governments to respond and participate in this vision of healing the world. Like the prophets of ancient Israel, we have been called to proclaim justice in the gate, to rise up and insist that the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, and the suffering provided comfort and relief. We know that is God's will for all of creation.

The MDGs had their origin more than 40 years ago in the calculations of some economists about what it would take to solve world poverty. Those calculations said that giving by the developed nations at the level of 0.7% of their annual incomes could do it, in a finite period of time. The good news is that that awareness is growing. The less than good news is that only the Scandinavian countries are giving at that level. Perhaps that has something to say about what we have to learn from the Lutherans, and we have some Lutherans among us. The developed nations of the world have a responsibility and opportunity to provide leadership, and we have our own opportunity to challenge those governments to lead in life-giving ways.

We live in the first era of human history when it is truly possible to provide the basic stuff of life for all humanity. We have the resources, but they are not distributed in a way that makes this easy work. We also have all the ancient human resistance to sharing those resources – human greed, the lust for power, the desire to be God. Our faith has a great deal to say about all kinds of resistance to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that voice of prophetic critique must be part of our Christian witness.

We also have a growing awareness of the challenges of providing relief and development funds and building partnerships in ways that are most effective. We need to learn to take seriously the gifts that are already present in developing nations, and to partner in ways that are respectful of the dignity of all persons. The Africa Monitor project acknowledges and challenges us to insist on accountability, which is a prophetic task as well.
 
Prophetic work is about holding the body accountable for how it treats all of its members – the poor, strangers, women as well as men, and the rich and powerful who often control government and political systems. Each of us is responsible for the other, and none of us can be healed or saved unless all are. That insight about communities of salvation is a principle that's absolutely central to our Hebraic roots. It has too often been forgotten in the developed world, even in Christendom. None is expendable – not slave, not woman, not child, not the lame or halt or blind. All show us the image of God, and if we do not respond to the suffering in those least, we are ignoring God in our midst. As we have done it (or not done it) to the least of these, we have done it to Jesus, or we have ignored him. We know far more about suffering around the world than we did even a generation ago, which makes it even more incumbent upon us to respond, and it becomes the task of Anglicans and all people of faith is to hold us and the world accountable for that suffering.
 
The good news is that we have a growing capacity to respond to that suffering in a global way. The AIDS pandemic is a remarkable example. Fully 40% of the money that is spent on responding to AIDS and HIV infection goes through communities and institutions of faith. And it is safe to say that much of the rest of the response is urged by people of faith, by those who hold up a prophetic vision of a healed world.

So what are you going to do when you leave this place? How has this experience transformed you for prophetic witness? That witness can come in multiple forms – in prayer, in advocacy, sharing of resources, and developing partnerships. Holding out the vision that God has planted within us is simply a form of prayer; it means, having the mind of God. We will want to add the prayer of lament for the suffering that exists prayers for the courage and will to respond, and prayers of confession for our own complicity in that suffering, either by omission or commission.

A part of our response will need to be ongoing formation and education in our faith communities – about the prophetic tradition that motivates our action, about the reality of suffering around the globe, and about ways we can effectively respond as Christians. I have heard too many in my own land say, "the church shouldn't be involved in politics" to know that this will be easy work. Politics is the art of living in community, and if we read the gospels carefully, we quickly become aware of the politically astute actions and tools that Jesus uses – from his prophetic action in turning the tables in the Temple, to his calling of the marginal and outcasts as his disciples, to his engagement with the powers at his own trial. Jesus the prophet ended up being a pretty effective community organizer, and there is something profoundly political about his encouragement to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus our salvation would reminds us that he is about healing all of life and he would encourage us to use the systems that oppress to better and creative ends, and when necessary to turn those systems on themselves. That is the same deeply prophetic critique that underlies our scriptural tradition.

When many people are confronted by suffering in distant lands, their immediate response is to send money. That is important, but it is not enough. Money without relationship can quickly become manipulation – either an attempted manipulation of our relationship with God, or a dismissal of our involvement in the suffering of others. The great gift of a gathering like this is the building of relationships and partnerships – to see and know another person's gifts, and to understand that together we can accomplish far more than any of us alone. When God created humankind -- in one of those stories in Genesis -- God said, "it is not good that adham, humanity, should be alone. I will make a helper as a partner." Now that applies to all of us, not just the guy named Adam. We are all called to be helper and deliverer for the rest of humanity. Unexpected things happen when we begin to recognize and claim our membership in the body of God. We are all changed in the process, and that very change begins to transform the world. No one will go home from here unchanged.

In creation, we understand that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that loving God means doing justice for all who are made in that image. This gathering has invited us to focus on two aspects of recognizing the image of God in our neighbor – both cultivating a compassionate and capable response to suffering, and inbeginning to know the stranger, whether seated next to us or across the globe. Knowing the stranger – and I would remind us that that Hebrew word "to know" (yada) is one of the most powerful in scripture – it means knowing the stranger and in re-knowing or remembering God's vision for the created world. Knowing the stranger means entering into his life, learning her joys and sufferings, and beginning to know God in our sister or brother. The bonds of affection born and nurtured here in Boksburg are going to continue to transform this larger world for a very long time to come. Because we know our neighbor, and have heard the cries of our brothers and sisters in Burundi or Sudan or South Africa or Nigeria, we can tell that story, and help others in our own contexts to hear those cries in the wilderness. Because we know our neighbor, we have heard the cries of those made captive to consumerist societies, particularly in the wilderness of the developed world and we can tell that story. All of us are invited into the prophetic work of claiming our oneness in God, and striving to make God's vision for our oneness more effectively real and complete in this world. We are sent and commissioned to "become the change we hope for in this world."

In closing, I would like to apologize to St. Francis and to pray: O Lord, make us instruments of your peace in this world. Where there is division, let us heal. Where there is hunger, let us feed and be fed from the same table of your abundance. Where there is illness, motivate us to make all well. Where there is ignorance, may we share your mind. Where there is oppression, give us the courage to set free. And in all we do, may we build your community of shalom on this earth, to the glory of your name and your son, who came among us to heal the world.

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