The Corner

Serendipity at St. John the Divine


At the eleven o’clock service at Manhattan’s St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, many elements of the worship were chosen with the 9/11 anniversary in mind. The great hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” asking for God’s strength in the face of trial; the standing ovation for the many New York Fire Department officers in attendance; and, most of all, the hymn “All My Hope on God Is Founded,” which includes the following words, uncannily appropriate though written (in their English form) over a century ago:

Mortal pride and earthly glory,

Sword and crown betray our trust;

Though with care and toil we build them,

Tower and temple fall to dust.

But God’s power,

Hour by hour,

Is my temple and my tower.

For a religious response to 9/11, that’s hard to beat.

The words are eerily appropriate, but they were clearly chosen for the service for precisely that reason. What makes the service’s Bible readings even more uncanny is that they were not chosen specifically for a service that occurs on September 11. The readings are those prescribed by the Episcopal Church for a Sunday in this part of September once every three years, and they were chosen before 9/11 even happened. All three have to do with forgiveness and judgment. In Genesis 50, Joseph forgives his brothers, who had sold him into slavery; in Romans 14, Paul warns us not to judge or despise one another, because each of us alike will stand accountable before the judgment seat of God; in Matthew 18, Jesus tells Peter he must forgive those who wrong him, not seven times, but 77 times.

When texts like these fall by happenstance into a service on such a emotionally wrought civic occasion, the pewsitter has a reasonable fear that the preacher will draw a facile political lesson which — coincidence of coincidences — just happens to be the same conclusion the preacher would have drawn based on his or her own secular-political views. I am delighted to report that the preacher today — the Most Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church — did not do this. She made no explicit comment on Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya, or Iran, or the Arab Spring. Her sermon discussed matters of the human heart: What should the attitude of the Christian be, when faced with attacks or affronts? Bringing up affronts was a good idea: After all, most Americans live their lives blessedly free of physical assaults — we’re surely one of the safest countries, in that regard — but we all encounter insult and cruelty in other forms. Do we seek vengeance, or do we try to repair the broken bonds? (It’s a rhetorical question, I acknowledge: All but the saintliest among us do both, and the real question is, Which motive do we allow to preponderate in our hearts, as time passes?)

One part of her sermon that I found especially appropriate for 9/11 was her discussion of Joseph. The reason his brothers hated him, she reminded us, was that he was his father’s favorite: It was his brothers’ envy that possessed their hearts, and led them to conspire against him to slay him. Bishop Schori did not draw an explicit analogy to the seething resentment some people in the rest of the world feel toward the United States, which causes them to strike out with murderous intent against the innocent. I am not even 100 percent sure she had this analogy in mind. But to me, it was clear as day. Still, the next part was both clear and intentional: She quoted Joseph’s declaration of forgiveness to his brothers, What you have intended for evil God has turned to good. And she pointed out that, after Joseph forgave his brothers and provided for them in the famine, the brotherly bond connecting them all was stronger than it had been before the original thoughts of murder had entered their hearts.

As I said, there was no political program in the sermon. There was something more important: guidance for the heart, and the suggestion of a hope that God’s plan will prevail, over all the forces human hatred can marshal.

P.S. I hope readers will forgive me a patriotic side note, on this of all days. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked Bishop Schori not to wear a mitre when she visited a British cathedral. You see, the Church of England, unlike the U.S. Episcopal Church, is still in full dithering mode as to whether women can be bishops. It makes me proud, for what must be the zillionth time, of those who rose up in our War of Independence. Today, Bishop Schori showed herself quite worthy of the mitre. 

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