As I was preparing this sermon I received an email that suggested I have some explaining to do. The message came from a friend who is a dean at a University, and who seemed a little confused as to just what it meant to “install and seat” a dean. “I’ve been a dean for sixteen years,” he wrote, “but have never been ‘seated.’ I’ve been told to sit down and shut-up, but never officially ‘seated,’ so I am anxious to check out the process.”
Well, to those who have come here to check out the process, I hope you won’t be disappointed. And if what we are doing here perhaps seems to be much ado just to show a dean to his seat, then all I can say is, welcome to the world of cathedrals. Cathedrals by nature do things grandly and beautifully, even seating deans. In everything they do they muster all the resources at their disposal to offer an experience of God and the things of God that stretch our imaginations and beggar our words.
And of course this day is significant not simply as a celebration in this beautiful Cathedral building, but because it marks an important civic and religious moment. We welcome the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of our Anglican Communion. The Mayor of Washington has sent his greetings. Gathered here today are distinguished bishops from across our church, and clergy and lay leaders from the Diocese of Washington and beyond. And we are honored to have ecumenical representatives among us here, and to have our interfaith friends from the Muslim and Jewish traditions participating in the service.
All of this signifies the multiple missions of this National Cathedral, articulated in the three touchstone phrases that ring through its life. It is called to be “a house of prayer for all people,” “the chief mission church of the Diocese of Washington,” and “a great church for national purposes.”
One of the most telling moments in this Cathedral’s life happens daily at the west entrance as visitors, tourists, and worshipers first make their way in. You can often actually hear the gasps of awe as they step into this holy space. My guess is that many of us here have experienced the spell that cathedrals can cast. Some years ago I had the occasion to spend several months in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral, where I first experienced the spell for myself. And there I came across a description by the novelist Susan Howatch of her first encounter with that gracefully beautiful building. She had come to Salisbury in a time of intense personal turbulence, and what happened to her there marked the beginning of her conversion.
I looked out [she says] and saw this fantastic sight…the floodlit Cathedral, gorgeous, stunning, out of this world, certainly out of any world I’d been inhabiting. It was radiant, ravishing. I stopped dead and that was the moment when the scales fell from my eyes. I felt I had been presented with some extraordinary gift. I could now see and recognize the overpowering beauty of the Cathedral – which was the sign pointing beyond itself to the reality which was still hidden from my conscious mind…I was being systematically seduced by the Cathedral…
That’s the power cathedrals have, and certainly this one.
But we shouldn’t forget that from the beginning Christians have recognized the dangers in buildings such as this. The Hebrew prophets believed that their people were at their most faithful when they were pilgrims traveling through the wilderness, before kings and temples tempted them to turn away from God. Jesus himself went occasionally to the immense Temple in Jerusalem, but his own ministry was devoted to wandering from village to village preaching and healing far from any grand edifice. The early Christians of the New Testament were clear that their Lord was in their midst, in the life of the community, in the presence of the Spirit leading them, not in any building. And down through the years leaders such as the twelfth century monk Bernard of Clairvaux would rail against what he called the foolish extravagance of cathedral buildings.
And yet, cathedrals have been powerful channels for God’s love and truth. Into cathedrals come the curious, the seeker, the broken-hearted, and the lost, and there like Susan Howatch they catch glimpses of God’s love for them. And over the decades this Cathedral has served in vital ways: as a haven for the sacred arts, a forum for debate and discussion, a platform for pastoral nurture and prophetic proclamation, a quiet place for solace and meditation, a destination for pilgrimage and personal transformation, a center for theological reflection and ecumenical conversation. The world, and our faith, would be much the poorer without the ministry of places such as this.
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It took nearly a century to realize the dream of a great church in the nation’s capital. What a privilege and responsibility have been entrusted to us, by those who built this magnificent Cathedral. Now it is our high and holy responsibility to make of the life both within its walls and beyond an offering worthy of the devotion that brought it into being.
In praying and thinking about what lies at the heart of this Cathedrals’ life, I have kept going back to a moment Rowan Williams, our Archbishop of Canterbury, has described. He was visiting an Orthodox monastery some years ago and was taken to see one of the smaller, older chapels. It was, he says,
a place intensely full of the memory and reality of prayer…The monk showing me around pulled the curtain in front of the sanctuary, and inside was a plain altar and one simple picture of Jesus, darkened and rather undistinguished. But for some reason at that moment it was as if the veil of the temple was torn in two: I saw as I had never seen the simple fact of Jesus at the heart of all our words and worship, behind the curtain of our anxieties and our theories, our struggles and our suspicion. Simply there; nothing anyone can do about it, there he is as he has promised to be ’til the world’s end. Nothing of value happens in the Church that does not start from seeing him simply there in our midst, suffering and transforming our human disaster.
That is the truth at the heart of everything that happens here in this Cathedral. Amid all the activity, all the grandeur, all the splendor of our liturgies, all the work of volunteers and docents and committees and classes and tutoring and tending to the fabric of this space and paying bills and preaching sermons – at the heart of all of it is the simple embodiment of love that hung on a cross for us and will stop at nothing to heal and reconcile us all, until the world’s end. Everything in this Cathedral’s life should mirror that.
It is early in my tenure as your dean, and the work of discerning what God is asking of us in this time is only beginning. But today I want to offer you a sense of where I believe this Jesus at the heart of everything is calling us.
First, I believe we are called to be a Voice. There is a disturbing absence of thoughtful religious reflection in our public conversation in America today. In print and on television you can readily hear the views of a narrow and divisive religious fundamentalism. It has become so pervasive in our culture now that a number of parishioners I served in Boston were increasingly saying they were embarrassed to describe themselves as Christians among their secular friends.
And yet on the other side of the conversation is a secular culture committed primarily to material prosperity and personal freedom, often drenched in consumerism and violence, dominated by magazines, internet sites, and television that offer little in the way of a vision of what this life is for. What is missing in our public discourse is a generous-spirited, open-minded, intellectually probing, compassionate Christianity.
What we call mainline denominations, the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and others, have lost more than 30% of their members in the last few decades, and have lost even more of their public voice. I believe this Cathedral is called to be a major voice of a faith that is firm at the center and soft at the edges, deeply rooted in the tradition and radically open and welcoming, a faith that embraces ambiguity, that honors other faiths, a faith that searches the scriptures deeply, a faith that calls us to personal conversion, a faith that insists that Christ’s values be embodied in the social order. That faith needs bold proclaimers and communicators.
This Cathedral is called to be a Voice – of generous-spirited Christianity.
Second, I believe we are called to be a Place – a place of reconciliation. These are dangerously alienated. The city in which this Cathedral stands is divided racially and economically, and is the capital of a nation that is polarized politically. Our world and its many religions are riddled with conflict and division.
And yet, as our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures today makes clear, God’s truth is bigger than any one group’s truth. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the Lord.”
We Christians are called, as St. Paul said, to a ministry of reconciliation. “Christ has broken down the dividing walls between us,” we heard from the Letter to the Ephesians. “He came to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near.” We have seen in Christ’s death and resurrection a love that will stop at nothing to heal our divisions. We cannot turn from that work. Ecumenical collaboration, interfaith dialogue, liturgies, programs, conversations and discussions that seek the ways of understanding and peace are essential for us
And our own Episcopal Church is painfully fractured. But the most powerful gift we can offer our world is not the sight of a community where everyone agrees with each other, but one that can worship God and serve the world even with their disagreements.
The church’s most revolutionary act takes place week by week as it gathers at the altar for the Eucharist. Because at that moment we are acting out the only real hope our world has. And that is not that we will agree on everything, but that it is possible to be rooted in a reality of love far deeper and stronger than what divides us.
This Cathedral is called to be a Voice and a Place – a place of reconciliation.
And finally, we are called to be a People – committed to serving a broken and hurting world. The gap between rich and poor in this country has never been wider. Children in this city are growing up in appalling housing, with no health care, going to schools that in many cases continue to fail them. A billion of our fellow human beings around the world live daily on the edge of death from hunger and preventable disease. Those who come into this beautiful space to glimpse Christ must go out ready to see and serve him in the suffering of the world around us.
And that means that as honored as I am today to find myself being seated in this Cathedral, we cannot do this ministry sitting down. Yes, we must sit to listen, to learn, to explore, to pray. But then we have to stand up, to go to work, to speak the truth, to serve Christ wherever he sends us. This Cathedral is called to form a people for mission and service in Christ’s name.
For most of my ministry I have had the privilege of serving in beautiful church buildings, and so for nearly all these years I have wrestled with the tension between the church’s beauty and the world’s pain. No words have been more important to me than some from Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famous minister of Riverside Church in New York City in the last century. Fosdick led that congregation in building a soaring Gothic church in Morningside Heights. In a sermon he preached before they moved into their new church he warned them of the danger their beautiful building could pose.
You know it could be wicked for us to have that new church – wicked. Whether it is going to be wicked or not depends on what we do with it. Very frequently in these recent days people come to me and say, ‘The new church will be wonderful.’ My friends, it is not yet settled whether or not the new church will be wonderful. If we should gather a selfish company there, though the walls bulge every Sunday [in numbers], that would not be wonderful. If we form a religious club greatly enjoying themselves, and though we trebled in numbers our first year, that would not be wonderful.
But if all over the world, at home and abroad, wherever the Kingdom of God is hard beset, the support of this church could be felt, that would be wonderful. If young men and women coming into that church could have Isaiah’s experience of seeing the Lord high and lifted up, and if they too should answer their divine vocation, saying, ‘Here I am, send me,’ that would be wonderful…
If in this city, this glorious, wretched city, where so many live in houses that human beings ought not to have to live in, and children play where children ought not to have to play, if we could lift some burden and lighten some dark spots and help to solve some of our community’s problems, that would be wonderful. If in the new temple we simply sit together in heavenly places, that will not be wonderful. But if we work together in unheavenly places, that will be.
My hope and prayer for this Cathedral as we journey on together is that it will be known not only as a great and holy building, but
as a Voice – of generous-spirited Christianity;
as a Place – of reconciliation and healing;
and as a People – serving Christ and working for justice among the broken and hurting of our world.
That would indeed be wonderful.