"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….The wolf and the lamb will lie down together."
This text from the third section of the book of Isaiah that we heard on Sunday was written after the remnant population of Judah had been freed from decades of exile in Babylon. You know what people say—“it may be good for the wolf, but I’m not so sure about the lamb.”
I believe you can relate—you who have known schism, you who have been disenfranchised over our long history, you who have experienced being aliens in a strange land. You who for any reason have experienced the world as something other than the dream of God for us. This passage reflects a core truth of the Christian gospel: God is changing this world to make it as it was meant to be—a place where a wolf and a lamb can actually lie down together.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Inaugural Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, says this when reflecting on Dr. King’s understanding of a moral imagination rooted in today’s text from Isaiah: “A moral imagination is grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” where the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” and trusts that it will be made real (Isaiah 65). What is certain, a moral imagination disrupts the notion that the world as it is reflects God’s intentions.”
As Christians, we live in-between the new heaven and the new earth Isaiah describes and the world as we know it now, too often marred by sin and pain. Our work, as people of faith, is recover a moral imagination about our world, so that we can build the world God dreams for us. To do this, we must learn to plant the dream in the center of our present reality.
National Geographic once carried a story that made quite an impression on me. The writer described the tradition of the Ama. The Ama are women in Japan who carry on a time worn tradition of free diving for sea food and for pearls. Diving into cold waters with limited sight of what lies beneath the surface, these women must be powerfully attuned to the ocean.
One of the most fascinating practices of the Ama was initiated by Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Mikimoto Pearls. He asked the women not only to search for pearls, but also to help plant the nucleus of a pearl in oysters then re-embed them in the ocean so he could cultivate pearls throughout the sea, even where there were none to be found. When the Ama resurface after replanting the oysters containing the nucleus of the pearl, they make a deep whistling sound called the Isobue.
Those who know the whistle say it is a painful sound to hear. It is a sound that reflects both the beauty and the pain of the sea. The vocation of the Ama is not so different from our own. Submerged in the waters of baptism, we are called to plant the pearl of great price, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth into the vast sea of challenge and pain in this world.
Our work this past year has included some planting of what we pray will be the nuclei of future pearls. I would like to highlight a few places where we have planted:
You have come through seasons of challenge. I believe now, we have the opportunity to turn toward the future, building on the strong foundation of the past in this historic diocese. Like the Ama, we can dive deeper and plant new treasures amid the landscape of our history. Treasures our world desperately needs.
When a Japanese girl is born into households with Ama lineage, the family celebrates by cooking a vibrant red rice. They know that the Ama will not die with their generation. I love this image of cooking the red rice—a celebration of such a singular calling. A modern day Ama said in an interview, “This is work without a beginning or an end. I wish to keep working for a long time.”
Likewise, this work of being Christians, being Church here and now is work without a beginning or an end. You and I step into the waters with all the ancestors to continue that which has no beginning, no ending. Ours is the privilege of continuing the journey.
Like the Amas, we are called to dive, attuning our Spirits not to our own fleeting impulses and desires, but to the call of God through our baptism. Trusting God is doing a new thing. Trusting that God is redeeming this world, forgiving the sinners, repairing the breaches, healing the broken hearted, restoring his justice, renewing his creation, reclaiming the lost. Trusting not in our own strength but in the goodness of our God. Trusting that the lamb and the wolf can actually both get a good night’s sleep, side by side. This is our sacred call.
So, boil the water, prepare the red rice. I want to keep working for a long time. I want to be a sea whistler, to learn my own Isobue. And judging by your presence for so many generations, around this holy table, in this beloved community, despite every challenge you have faced—schism, rejection, exclusion, neglect, disrespect,—judging by your faithful, strong, persistent presence here, I suspect you do, too.
Now is the time for us to dive deep into our baptismal waters. For, we are singers of the Isobue; we are the planters of the moral imagination of our God.
“For Demus Sake.” That is what my older brothers thought they heard my grandfather say each time he blessed our food around our table at holiday gatherings when we were all young. The question among our generation for years was, “Who is Demus?” A long lost relative? A little known saint? We were never quite sure. Until one day, our eldest brother found the courage to ask. It took our puzzled parents a moment—and then, with a smile on her face, our mother said, “Redeemer’s Sake, Sweetheart. Your grandfather is concluding the prayer in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
And that, my beloved friends, is what a Southern accent will get you around the family table! What you think you hear may be entirely different than what is actually said!
For decades, our family gathered at my grandparents’ home for holidays. Then, as our family matured and my grandparents aged, the celebrations moved to our family table with my parents hosting. From the bowl of black olives and the bowl of salted pecans on the table to the beautiful tablecloths and napkins our mother used—everything told us these were special occasions.
The table was often a place of joy, a place where we wanted to linger, a place to tell the old stories again, to laugh out loud at their endings—as if we’d never before heard them, even though most of us could recite them by heart. Holidays were a sacred time. I still to this day feel my holiday table is incomplete without a bowl of black olives and a bowl of salted pecans.
It is also true that the sweet innocence that began at our grandparents decades earlier did not remain forever the same as it had been. There was division in our family and eventually there was even a lawsuit in my mother’s generation. For years, some did not speak to others. The closeness we had known was broken. There was illness and death too. There were years when seats that had been filled were empty. We felt the absence of those who were missing. That will be true for us again this year, as some we love will be missing from our table.
And too, in the earlier years at my grandparents’ and parents’ tables, what we enjoyed was created by the labor of others who were not at the table with us. For decades, those meals were prepared by people who worked for our family in a system rooted in racism and the inequity it fosters that has undergirded many white households in this country for centuries.
There was also denial of the experience of people close to us who were lesbian or gay—an invisibilizing of their lives and loves. These dimensions of family life were the pain that ran alongside the joy at our table. As my own family began to build our table life together, we too had times of joy and times of pain. To this day, we sometimes linger into the night to see something through.
At all of these tables, we have had the full range of experiences—both good and bad—common to family life. I have noticed one thing. When we make ourselves vulnerable—when we have the courage to make the table a brave space, these are the times when we grow.
It occurs to me that the trajectory of my family’s holiday table bears some striking resemblance to the trajectory of our diocesan table. We have known joy, customs passed with care from generation to generation. And, we have known division, lawsuits born of schism that involved people leaving the table instead of staying to work things out—and telling others they did not belong at the table. There has been loss through illness and death, and also, running like a fierce current beneath all the rest—multi-generational pain caused by racism, homophobia, and the making invisible of others who are different than the majority gathered at table.
When we come around the table, as we do now, we have an opportunity to disrupt all the old stories that tell us some people are better than others, the old stories that tell us disease, destruction, and sin have the final say. The old stories that tell us we cannot transcend our pain, our anger, our grief . We have an opportunity to prepare a table where we feast on bone deep justice, on gospel hope, on real redemption.
But preparing such a table takes effort. It takes courage. It takes humility. It takes stamina. Staying through the night, together, when we need to. Mostly, I believe, it takes vulnerability.
We, beloved members of this diocese, gather with much joy this day—the joy of being one body—one in mission, one in love, one in courage. You have been through the fires of division. As we gather at table this day, the first thing I want to say to you is thank you. Thank you for your witness, for your resilience, your courage, your clarity, your compassion. You inspire me, every day.
We also gather at table knowing the sting of trial. You have indeed been through the fires. We have had lawsuits a plenty. We have had people leave our table. We have had pain and loss and betrayal.
And, some among us have know the pain of disenfranchisement, the indignity of exclusion and injustice for centuries. Our African American congregations have not had the same seat at the welcome table that the rest of us have enjoyed—these members of our diocese did not get seat, voice and vote in this Convention until 1965. They have not had equitable access to resources, equitable voice or agency over the long arc of our history. Yet, they have stayed. Thank you to our African American congregations. Thank you for your grace-filled, strong presence among us.
Our LGBTQ members, too, have been turned away, shut out, and told they were not invited to serve, to serve in God’s church. Their very presence distributing elements of our communion was rejected. Thank you to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members. Thank you for your grace-filled, strong presence among us.
Now, we have an opportunity. A choice is before us. We can paper over the cracks, as they say. As my closest friends would say, we can “make nice” about our challenges. Or, we can take another path. We can determine here and now to make new history. We can determine to ground our lives in the belief that God is building a new world. A better world. A stronger world. A truer world. We can decide to take this opportunity of our new season to do work that perhaps we have never done before in quite the same way—work to set a table of justice, of truth, of freedom, of fierce love for everyone.
This, I am confident, is our call. It is a call that demands our all. It is the call to 360 degree love, as Valerie Kaur would say. Love of self, love of neighbor, and always the most difficult one, love of opponent. For us to do this work well, we need to center the voices that have been silenced in the past—we need to listen first to those who have known the pain of not being granted full access to the table, those who have known the pain of displacement, of indignity, of alienation.
I believe we have the courage to build Isaiah’s new heaven and new earth.
I am so honored that our friends from beyond South Carolina have come to help us begin this new season, to set our table for the feast God longs to share.
Archbishop Cyril Ben-Smith, the Primate of West Africa is here to begin a journey of discovery with us as the International African American Museum prepares to open here in Charleston. The Archbishop presides over the dioceses where the ports of deportation are located for the people who made the tortured journey from those shores to ours to face the horrors of enslavement when they crossed onto land at Gadsden’s Wharf. We are thrilled to welcome you, Archbishop Ben-Smith!
Bishop Moises Quezada Mota and his wife Mary Jeanette Quezada Mota have come to be with us so we can rekindle our long relationship with the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. I have already been blessed by the wisdom and leadership of Bishop Moises in the House of Bishops, and I am eager to reinvigorate the longstanding partnership between our dioceses. We are delighted to welcome you Bishop and Mrs. Quezada Mota!
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, The Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, who leads people like us all over the church to build beloved community, is here to guide us in building one table that is strong and just and welcoming. Canon Stephanie, we know you to be a wise, deep, fierce priest, writer, teacher, and catalyst for change. We are so blessed by your presence!
The table is set for a feast these two days. May we begin a new season with open, vulnerable, brave hearts. This, I pray, for our beloved diocese—for Demus Sake—or, in case you need translation, for the Redeemer’s Sake.
Now, let’s hear from folks around the diocese who share their thoughts in the video we are about to see to help us set the table for our time together… (the video below was shown at this time)
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.