Dean Lloyd: “Wind and Fire on Mount St. Alban”
Every now and then someone asks me a question such as, “How’s life up there on Mount St. Alban?” “There you are,” they seem to imply, “hovering over the city. What’s going on up there?” And sometimes, when I have my wits about me, I answer, “Well, it’s windy up there.”
If you’ve been around this Cathedral for very long you know that there’s something to that. It’s nearly always at least a little windy—sometimes it’s a light breeze, often it’s a fairly steady wind, and there are times when it’s hard to stay on your feet and keep from being blown away.
But when I say it’s windy I mean more than that. I mean that life in this Cathedral nearly always seems as if the wind is blowing, something is happening, something is on the move, and our main job is to pay attention and let the wind take us where it wants us to go.
And now, based on the couple of nights of our “Lighting to Unite” event, with the Cathedral being lit up with colorful images, including one that makes the Cathedral look as if it has burst into flames, we could also say that not only can it be windy up here, it can be fiery, too. Sometimes the heat and energy up here seem so intense that you think fire could spread anywhere.
In the life of the church we call the wind swirling around this place ‘Spirit,’ ‘Holy Spirit.’ And I have to say, from the first time I set foot inside this majestic Cathedral, with its cool grey stones and massive aura of permanence, I’ve sensed that there was something else going on inside it, stirring around in here, something warm and alive and wanting to move, like wind and fire.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, what we call the birthday of the church. It marks the day when a group of anxious, unimpressive disciples gathered in an upper room, and the Holy Spirit descended on them “like the rush of a mighty wind” and like “tongues of flame” in the air…
In Episcopal Church circles, the words ‘Pentecostal’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ have often made people nervous. They have been associated with narrow thinking and wild behavior—neither of which appeals to most of us, at least in church. There is an inscription on the 18th century tomb of the Countess of Huntington just outside Winchester, England, that captures what has been the Anglican approach to worship. “She was a just, godly, righteous and sober lady,” it said, “a firm believer in the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.” Episcopalians have tended to like our worship dignified, orchestrated, all the words written down, and finishing in under an hour and fifteen minutes. In general, we prefer our pews bolted to the floor.
That sometime Episcopalian Garrison Keillor once offered his own testament to our traditions. “I love to visit Episcopal cathedrals,” he said. “It’s like going to Europe and still being home in time for lunch.”
But of course, from the beginning, beautiful stones and stained glass were only part of this Cathedral’s story. Because inside, wind and fire have been, from the start, quietly stirring people here to serve the city and the nation, to reach out to the poor, to do the work of reconciliation.
The deepest source of everything that has happened has been God’s Spirit, the energy, passion, and wisdom of God that has kept blowing through this Cathedral and this Close, leading, teaching, stretching, showing our predecessors where they needed to go. It has always been windy up here on Mount St. Alban, and now it seems as if the wind and fire are picking up.
A remarkable century of building is behind us, and a new one stretches before us. And so we have come together from every part of the life of the Cathedral and the Close to be commissioned for our work of the next century. We are greatly honored to have as our presider today the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. We welcome representatives of the many ministries of the Diocese of Washington—the members of the Protestant Episcopal Foundation Board and the Cathedral Chapter, the Heads and representatives of Beauvoir School, St. Albans School, and National Cathedral School, and All Hallows Guild. We are all part of the Diocesan and Cathedral Close family and in important ways we belong to each other and need each other if we are to be all that we can be.
And today as always, we welcome worshipers from across this city, nation, and world—including those who strolled in this morning looking for a nice, brief church service to start their Sunday. In fact, there’s rarely a week when I don’t greet people from Korea and India, Ghana and Nigeria, Colombia and Puerto Rico, Germany and Syria. In fact, Sunday morning in this Cathedral often seems like that first Pentecost morning we heard described a few moments ago when crowds had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost from every corner of their known world.
And that is what our “Lighting to Unite” celebration the three nights of this weekend has been about. To complete our Centennial year we wanted to invite the whole city to join us and our interfaith and embassy friends to celebrate our oneness as human beings as we gazed at riveting images projected on the Cathedral itself and listened to music and dance from around the world. We wanted to offer the city a Pentecost that was for everyone—of any faith and no faith.
Now, this morning, we Christians tell our story of how God is seeking to make the whole world one. While a small group of disciples were gathered in the upper room, the wind and fire they experienced drove them out into the street speaking in the languages that could make them understood to all those foreigners from across their world. At Pentecost, the babble of different languages, the chasms of misunderstanding, were overcome by a power to understand, to hear the other, to experience communion and reconciliation. The church was born as a movement through which races and nations could begin to hear each other, where people who were hostile could be reunited, where parts of individuals’ own disjointed lives could be put back together.
Sometimes the wind can blow so hard it pushes people in whole new directions. A new Spirit of life and communion can bring a dead church back to life, as it did through St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, Martin Luther in the 15th, Teresa of Avila in the 16th, and John Wesley in the 18th, and through the birth of the Pentecostal Movement in the 20th century.
The Spirit can move through a whole people, as happened nearly twenty years ago when Eastern Europe threw off its Communist oppressors. The Spirit was moving in the West two centuries ago in the struggle to end slavery, in the struggle for full equality for women, in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and in the growing movement in our time to save the Earth before we destroy it.
That Spirit filled one human life completely. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said to his disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he gave them their mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
That has always been the Spirit’s mission—to so fill and stir the likes of you and me that we become healers, bridge-builders, architects of a renewed world. And the purpose of this Cathedral is to be a channel for the work of God’s Spirit of healing, reconciliation, and justice.
No one needs to make the case in our time for the urgency of this work of the Spirit. We are caught between powerful forces driving us closer together such as the Internet and globalization, and at the very same time, equally powerful forces driving us farther apart with tribalisms of every kind. Gazing now into the 21st century, we see great questions facing us: Can we humans learn to deal with our conflicts and differences without resorting to violence and destruction? And can we change the way we relate to our fragile Earth before we destroy the nest that bears our life? Can the Christian churches of Europe and North America be renewed by the work of the Holy Spirit to again be powerful agents of hope and health?
We need a movement of the Spirit in our time. One of the highpoints of our Centennial year was the five days that Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent with us, talking about what it means to forgive, to reconcile and heal. Listen to his picture of the work of the Spirit:
There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things, to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, and justice, a process that removes barriers. And…as he hangs from his cross with outflung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone, everything belongs. No one is an outsider, all are insiders, all belong…in the one family, God’s family, the human family.
That is the calling of this Cathedral. It’s to be a place of wind and fire, where we experience a Spirit of oneness when we gather here, and are sent out from here to be healers, binders, reconcilers.
Through this Centennial year, you know, we’ve been seeing that windy, fiery Spirit at work here. We sensed that joyful Spirit in the birthday weekend celebrations last fall. We sensed the Spirit of communion in our Pray for Peace Service, where many people came to hear old dinosaur rock stars, such as Graham Nash, and found themselves praying with Buddhists, Sufis, and Jews for a more peaceful world. We sensed the Spirit when Congressman John Lewis stood in this pulpit 40 years after Martin Luther King preached his last Sunday sermon here, now lighting a new fire to continue the work of racial healing. We sensed the Spirit in an Easter vigil service the night before Easter morning when a Spirit of Easter joy sent many of us out in a daze over what we had just experienced. We sensed the Spirit in the Breakthrough Summit just a few weeks ago. Powerful women leaders from around the world filled this place and committed themselves and more than a billion dollars to fighting extreme poverty by focusing on the vulnerable roles of women in the developing world. We sensed the Spirit week after week in Forums that invited major leaders and thinkers to reflect on the connections between faith and public life.
And we would have sensed it had we been in Mozambique with a member of the Cathedral staff, where a mother in her early 20’s, with two children living and three who had died of malaria, was learning from her local pastor how to use mosquito nets for the first time to protect her children. “When the rains come,” the mother had said, “the children start to die.” Through this Cathedral-guided Christian and Muslim program, children are getting a chance to live. We call that wind and fire.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said. What a gift it is to be part of this extraordinary enterprise. Many of us look to this Cathedral for an experience of rare beauty and peace, an island of sanity in a high pressure life, and it is that. But it is also meant to be a windy, fiery Spirit-filled place that catches us up with a passion to serve and heal a frightened, alienated, world.
Today we in the Cathedral, Diocesan, and Close communities are being invited to commit ourselves to the work of healing and reconciliation. We should be careful, though. As a friend of mine once put it, “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit to come.” Because when the Spirit starts moving, priorities start changing, hearts start shifting, people start reaching out, and new things become possible.
Even the non-Christian writer D.H. Lawrence understood the power of this thing called Spirit when he wrote, “Not I, not I but the wind that blows through me, if only I let it borrow me.”
Today we are committing to letting that Spirit borrow this Cathedral, to let the wind blow and the fire flame as we carry out the Spirit’s reconciling work.