The following is a transcript of the homily of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry from the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 21. These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.
For More than Oxygen
And now in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.
We have assembled in this sacred place to give God thanks for the life of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to give God thanks for a life that was given to service of others, to cause greater than self. We give God thanks that one such as her did walk among us. So allow me, if you will, to offer a passage of Scripture that I hope does honor to not only her memory, but her legacy that we must live. It comes from the 10th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
“A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Great teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read?’ And the lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus then said to him, ‘You have answered rightly. Do that. Love God and your neighbor, and why you’re at it, yourself, and you will find life.’” Life as God intended. Life that lifts humanity up to the highest possibility of our nobility. Do that. Love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself, and you will fulfill God’s dream for all of God’s children.
Now Jesus didn’t say all of that. I added a little bit, but that’s what he meant. I was probably, I’m guessing, 12 or 13 years old when I had a conversation with my father, or better yet, it was a monologue. He spoke, I listened. He wanted me to do something, and I don’t remember what it was. I’m 69 years old now, so it was a long time ago, but he wanted me to do something, and I have to tell you, I didn’t want to do whatever it was. But of course, I didn’t say anything to him, but somehow my facial expression betrayed my innermost thoughts. And he read my mind, and he blurted out as parents often do with pre-adolescent children, “You know, the Lord didn’t put you here just to consume the oxygen.”
Now I don’t think that was a philosophical, theological thought. I think it was purely a parental response. And I have two grown daughters so I know how parents do that. But the truth is there was wisdom in that statement. The Lord didn’t put me here, didn’t put you here, didn’t give any of us the breath of life, however long or short it will be, just to consume the oxygen.
Now there are students here who have clearly studied the life sciences and know about the process of photosynthesis. Am I right about that? You can’t see them, but they’re nodding. They know about photosynthesis—that process built into God’s biological creation whereby mammals, animals, exhale, if you will, carbon dioxide and inhale oxygen. The plants and vegetation take in the carbon dioxide that we have exhaled—unless we are waiting to exhale, as Toni Morrison taught us. They take in that carbon dioxide and they release the oxygen. Does anyone think that’s an accident?
It’s this symbiotic relationship. This relationship between animals and plants, between human beings and the rest of the creation is how God made the world and intends for it to function. We are here not just to consume the oxygen. We are here partially to consume it. We have a biological and ecological purpose, but we are not here just to consume, just to acquire, just to get. We are here to consume the oxygen and then to give carbon dioxide in plants and trees and those wonderful British gardens that I have seen all over the world. Our plants and vegetations give thanks that we are here, and we must give thanks that they are.
No, we are not just here to consume. We’re here to give. We’re here to give back to this world, give back to each other, give back to the God who made us. And the Bible tells us, though, in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, Moses said it this way, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Of course you need bread, but you do not live by bread alone, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The prophet Micah said it this way, “What does the Lord require of you?” Every human being. Micah said it this way, “The Lord requires of you to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” And Jesus of Nazareth said it this way, quoting Isaiah who’s the first lesson that we heard a few moments ago when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed by anything, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, the great religions of the world. The Dalai Lama would tell you this. The Lord didn’t put us here just to consume the oxygen. He put us here to live and to give and to serve, and as Ignatius Loyola said, and not count the cost. Are y’all with me so far? Can I get an amen out of y’all? Could you say amen? Yeah, we are here today to give God thanks for someone who did more than consume the oxygen. That’s why we’re here. You can clap for her. Go ahead. It’s all right. It’s all right. I know we’re in the National Cathedral, and we have to be on our best behavior, but it’s all right. Clap inwardly. Oh, it’s all right. Yes. Yes.
Her Majesty in 1953, the year I was born, vowed that she would dedicate her life to the service of her people, and indeed, of humanity. And you know what? She kept her word. She kept her word. We are here to give God thanks that it is possible to serve and to keep your word. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said at the abbey the other day, “She served out of her religious faith. She served and dedicated her life to God and God’s service, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth and His way of love as her way of life.”
Listen to what she said. This is Christmas 2014. “For me, for me, the life of Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and anchor to my life, a model of reconciliation, of forgiveness. He stretched out His hands in love, acceptance, and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek, to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
A lawyer came to Jesus. I know there are lawyers in this room. A lawyer came to Jesus, as lawyers often did if you read the New Testament. And he came to him and he said, “Jesus, what is the secret to eternal life?” Which was a way of saying, what is the key to a life that matters now, and that as it matters now temporally will last unto eternity? And Jesus said, well, look, brother, you the lawyer. What does it say in the law of Moses? What did Moses say? And the Lord replied in Deuteronomy, Moses said the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And in Leviticus, he wrote, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, you have just passed the heavenly bar exam. Do that. Love God and your neighbor, and you have found the key to life. Live and serve God. Live and serve your neighbor. Serve each other, and you have found the key to life that not even death can take away from you.
But this was a lawyer Jesus was talking to. Now I’m going to sit down in a minute; don’t worry. This is a lawyer Jesus was talking. And he said, this is good, Jesus, but you are a preacher and I’m a lawyer and we work with words. So can we define neighbor? Can we narrowly define neighbor? And Jesus didn’t play the game. He told a story and you know it as a parable of the Good Samaritan. It was a story of one person who helped another person who was of a different religion, who was of a different nation, who was of a different ideology, who was a different political party, who was a… Oh, I’m getting in trouble now. Who was from a different country, a different person. Jesus told the story of somebody who helped somebody else, over-transcending their differences and helped them just because they’re a human child of God. And therefore, my brother, my sister, my sibling. And He said, do that and you’ll be the neighbor, you’ll be the human that God intended.
God put you here to do more than consume the oxygen. But let me bring this to a conclusion. I was in the airport yesterday on my way here. And I was in line, and I had the collar on, and a man came up to me and he said, “How are you, bishop?” And he asked me, “Where are you going?” And so I told him, and he said, “That’s nice. She was a lovely lady.” And then I asked him, “So where are you going?” And he said, “My wife and I are on our way to Ukraine.” And I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “We’re part of a medical team. My wife is from Ukraine and we’ve gone several times. But my faith teaches me I’ve got to do everything I can to help.”
I never asked him what faith he was. Never asked him what ethnicity he was. I never asked him was he gay or straight? I didn’t ask him any of the questions. I just simply opened my wallet and gave him the money I had in it. And those of you who know Episcopalians, you know that was a move. And then I thanked him, and he went on his way, and I went on mine. That’s why the Lord put us here, to honor God by caring for each other, loving and serving each other.
At the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, the great Mahalia Jackson stood up and sang one of Dr. King’s favorite songs that epitomized why he sacrificed his life. It said very simply:
If I can help somebody along the way,
if I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
if I can show somebody they’re traveling wrong,
then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a good person ought,
if I can bring back beauty to a world of rot,
if I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
then my living will not be in vain.
Then my living will not be in vain.
Dear friends, the God who loves Her Majesty and receives her into the arms of that love created each one of us out of that fountain of love. And we are at our best when we live in that love. God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love. Amen.