I thought this well worth pondering from
Katharine Jefferts Schori ( the Presiding Bishop of Episcopal Church in the United States of America. She is the first woman elected primate in the Anglican Communion)
There’s an institution in New York City called the Doe Fund. Its motto is Ready, Willing and Able. Early in the morning, trucks bearing that logo can be found on the streets of Manhattan, and out of those trucks come workers with garbage cans, brooms, and equipment for collecting litter. Some of the trucks disgorge workers with pumps and containers for collecting used cooking oil to be recycled into biodiesel. The Doe Fund takes its name from John Doe, the traditional moniker for a person whose name is a mystery. Its founder is a Roman Catholic layman who’s convinced that employment and learning personal responsibility are the key to ending homelessness. The fund assists people who are trying to leave homelessness by providing jobs, support in sobriety, and help with developing employment skills and a sense of their basic human dignity. Each year the Doe Fund helps several hundred people transform their lives.
Those people are overwhelmingly from minority populations, more than half have been in prison, and most have substance addiction issues. That motto, Ready, Willing and Able, is a proud witness to dignity gained. That’s also pretty much what we hear when Jesus asks James and his brother John if they are able to drink the cup that he will drink. Yep, they say, “we’re ready, willing, and able.” Their journey in some sense moves in the opposite direction, but it is about the same kind of vocation. James’ and John’s charge to fish for people is about serving whoever turns up, and following a leader who has nowhere to lay his head. They are becoming workers without a permanent home because they’re focused on worldwide cleanup and the transformation of all communities. The goal is a healed society where all have the dignity that comes of right relationship with God and neighbour. We usually call it the reign of God, or the common weal of God.
That commonweal of God work is a prophetic vocation, often deeply unpopular and challenging, and born of the dream that dignity for all is a deeply divine warrant. That kind of prophetic witness, in both word and deed, is what made Jesus so offensive to the powers at hand. The same kind of prophetic witness got James executed by Herod, the first of the inner circle of disciples to be martyred. It is what Jesus himself pointed to when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37). But prophetic work is not primarily about death and homelessness, even though either may be a byproduct. Prophetic work is about more abundant life for the whole world, and it is about a home everywhere, a home for all. When Agabus and the prophets go down to Antioch and tell of a looming famine in Judea, the whole community shows itself willing and able to respond to that demand of the moment. The people in Judea are losing their ability to build a home of the sort that God intends for all – enough to eat, freedom from oppressive government, the ability to worship. Together the company of prophets and the early Christians in Antioch determine to respond in the way they are able. They are helping to gather the chicks under God’s wings.
Prophets and disciples are meant to be ready and willing to respond to the challenge and opportunity of the moment, in whatever way the spirit is calling. We continue to tell their stories and celebrate their lives so that we might be encouraged, and literally given a little more heart-strength to challenge indignity that results from injustice. Dignity means a sense of worth, suitability, or honour, and it is the state in which God created all that is. The indignities came later. One of the eucharistic prayers in the Episcopal church’s prayer book says that we have been created worthy to stand in God’s presence. When we treat others as less than that, we reject God’s good creation, and in a very real sense, we deny our own dignity. Prophetic work helps to restore the dignity of creation, and acknowledges that creation reflects the utter dignity of the creator. We get in trouble when we limit dignity to lesser things, or deny dignity to some. Dignity is really what James’ mother is after when she pesters Jesus to put her boys first when he becomes king. She wants them to have the important chairs closest to Jesus. Jesus responds by asking if they’re willing and able to suffer indignity, even die, in order to restore dignity to others. What do the English call the circle of greatest dignity in this realm but the Court of St James’s? It’s not just the site of royal courtesies and where the monarch receives emissaries from other realms.
The Court of St James’s takes its name originally from a place of healing, the Hospital of St James, a leper hospital dating from at least the 13th century. The dignity originally offered to lepers is carried on in the dignity and courtesies extended to representatives of other nations, whatever their political reputation. All those lesser dignities have their roots in the dignity of human creatures who bear the image of God. We miss something essential when we mistake the lesser dignities for the divine one we all bear. The other difficulty we all know too well is the human tendency to insist that some are not worthy of respect, that dignity doesn’t apply to the poor, or to immigrants, or to women, or Muslims, or gay and lesbian people.
Prophetic work is about challenging human systems that ignore or deny the innate dignity of all of God’s creation. That’s the aspect of prophetic work that’s dangerous, for those systems often respond with violence – the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the disappearance of righteous gentiles who rescued Jews during the Second World War, or the expulsion of a Ugandan bishop because he asked the church to treat the gay and lesbian members of his society with dignity. Members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church) are engaged in prophetic work right now. The IFI is in full communion with TEC and the Anglican Communion. A month ago, two lay leaders were assassinated by masked men on motorcycles. Four years ago a retired bishop was assassinated in his kitchen. Two priests have been similarly murdered, as have leaders in other denominations. All have been working to bring dignity and basic human rights to farm workers and labourers. Our own prophetic solidarity and advocacy just might bring some accountability from the former government and justice from the present one.
Can you imagine what might happen if a good number of Anglicans and Episcopalians insisted that our governments pay attention to human rights in the Philippines? The search for dignity is work that all members of Christ’s body share. We’re invited to join the band of prophets, share the meal and drink the cup. It can be dangerous work, but most prophets I know are also filled with joy. Prophets generally decide that it’s not worth living in a system without dignity. Better to lose that life, and exchange it for one that builds up, because we lose our own dignity when we tolerate indignity for some. The journey down to Antioch and back to Jerusalem led our ancestors to discover that one’s own dignity is mixed up with that of every other human being, and indeed all of creation. James made the same discovery. The work of the cross is the most life-giving journey we know. Are you ready, willing, and able?
This is the text of a sermon delivered at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Sunday 25 July 2010, the feast of St James