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. 

Most Popular

U.S.

In Defense of Coleman Hughes

Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Making Sense of the Iran Chaos

One would prefer that correct decisions be made according to careful, deliberate plan. But a correct decision made impulsively, through a troubling process, is still nonetheless correct, and so it is with Donald Trump’s decision to refrain from military action against Iran. The proposed strike would represent a ... Read More
Education

College Leaders Should Learn from Oberlin

Thanks to their social-justice warrior mindset, the leaders of Oberlin College have caused an Ohio jury to hit it with $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case where the school couldn't resist the urge to side with its “woke” students against a local business. College leaders should learn ... Read More
Film & TV

Toy Story 4: A National Anthem

The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a ... Read More
Elections

Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep. Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Madcap Caution of Donald Trump

The worry last week was that the Trump administration was ginning up fake intelligence about Iran blowing up oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to justify a war against Iran. Then, this week, President Donald Trump said the Iranian attacks weren’t a big deal. The episode is another indication of the ... Read More