Every September we say happy birthday to this Cathedral. We give thanks for all that went into the building of this magnificent structure. We celebrate the wonderful diversity of the community of faith it gathers and for the ministries of well over 2,000 volunteers and staff. We look with hope to the future and God’s further call. The good news is that God is with us always. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever in good times and in times of testing.
In September 1989 we completed 86 years of building as the last stone was set atop one of the west end towers. The then President of the United States, George Bush, and 25,000 others gathered to join in the festivities. That was only part of the story. Days before then Bishop and Dean John T. Walker, who was so instrumental in the life and construction of this Cathedral, suddenly had fallen ill. As his life ebbed away at a nearby hospital, we had to continue the preparations for a new beginning as we said goodbye to a beloved friend and pastor.
I vividly remember rushing from his hospital room back to the Cathedral just in time to stand in John’s place on the platform next to Provost Charles Perry. We said prayers of thanksgiving for all who had labored in building the Cathedral and in forming its corporate soul. The last stone was hoisted up from the ground and set in place ten stories above us almost to the moment when Bishop Walker’s soul ascended into heaven.
That day of celebration and grief says a lot about the ministry of Washington National Cathedral. The Gothic architecture is the language of faith in stone and glass. Those who pray, worship and serve here are a modern pentecost. In language, race and nationality you are the world in microcosm. The music, the worship and the great arches above us lift our eyes and thoughts upward. That is only part of the picture. Living in the life of this Cathedral community month by month, year by year is to experience occasions of transcending joy; of God’s presence; of being drawn into the mystery of faith; and to come face to face with death, national crises, the consequences of human sin, joyful beginnings and sad endings.
The story of Jacob at Bethel in the Hebrew Scriptures speaks to us today. Jacob was raised in what we would call a religious home where the faith of his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, and of his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, had been formed through their personal encounters with the living God. Not so with Jacob. His was a derived faith based on the witness of others. It comes as no surprise to many of us that religious families can have dysfunctions. We are all a work in process.
The second born of fraternal twins, he was given the name Jacob, which in Hebrew means supplanter. And so he was. With his mother, he conspired against his father and brother to gain both the hereditary title as family head and the major portion of his father’s assets. A bitter sibling confrontation erupted causing Jacob to flee for his life. We meet Jacob in the wilderness both literally and figuratively for to be cast out of family and clan was become a non-entity. Alone and despairing, estranged from family and alienated from God, Jacob had a dream. He saw a ladder from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Over come with awe in the presence of the living God he could only stammer, “God is in this place.” Jacob, of all people, heard in his spirit the promise of a new family and the call to be God’s agent of reconciliation in this world.
Did Jacob live happily ever after perfect in every way? Definitely not. That may happen in fairy tales but not in the bible. Our faults and foibles may be transformed to the glory of God over time, but we are who we are.
I think of Jacob when, late at night and no one is around, I come here and walk down the center aisle in the dim light. Like Jacob at Bethel, I sense God is in this place. The holy mystery is palpable. It is like the gateway to heaven. When I come back in the daytime, the Cathedral is filled with all sorts and conditions of people—clusters of tourists trying to see the Cathedral in thirty minutes before the next trolley comes, pilgrims at prayer, vergers preparing for the next service, troubled persons seeking help and so it goes. Washington National Cathedral is a busy crossroads where 1,000,000 people from around the world pass by every year. In the midst of all the coming and going God is present.
A central role for Washington National Cathedral is to be a Bethel (house of God) not only for individuals but for the nation. Here I move into that uneasy meeting place of faith with politics. Someone will say, preacher, the church should stick to religion and keep out of politics. We should be careful about partisan politics, but to stand apart from the morals and ethics of civil discourse is to deny the insights of faith in the quest for justice, truth and equity. As people of faith the only way we can avoid the civil forum is to ignore much of the biblical law, most of the prophets and nearly all of the Gospel.
I am honored be here this day in the presence of Francis Sayre, who guided the life of this Cathedral from 1951 to 1978; Charles Perry, whose watch encompassed 1978-1990; Sanford Garner, who served in the critical transition period of 1990-1992; and Nathan Baxter, who has been dean from 1992 to the present. Each, in turn, has stood in this pulpit and brought the reconciling word of Jesus Christ to political situations that confounded human wisdom and threatened to rend our society. The cold war was an ideological struggle that drew most of the world into warring camps. The nuclear dilemma brought us to the brink of mutual annihilation. May we never forget the civil rights movement and the role played by so many poor African American churches across the land; of Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached his last sermon from this pulpit; and of so many believers who put their lives on the line to begin to exorcise the sin of racism from this nation.
Frank Sayre spoke the word of the Lord during the riots when the city went up in flames. He brought the gospel to bear on the Vietnam War while Nathan Baxter was soldiering there never dreaming he would be dean one day. There were assassinations that plunged the nation into shock and grief and our nation’s bicentennial celebration that joined us in patriotic pride. With more faith than hard cash the Cathedral completed construction of the central tower and the nave in time to mark the country’s two hundredth anniversary. Charles Perry and John Walker struggled to bring peace to South Africa and to end apartheid. We welcomed heads of state and buried presidents, fought racism and struggled out from under a burden of debt. Sanford Garner and I presided over a vigil just before the Gulf War when the Cathedral was packed with petitioners standing shoulder to shoulder, wall to the wall. Months later in a service of thanksgiving for the end of the war and a memorial to those who had died, it was like Jesus and the healing of the ten lepers. Only a few returned to give thanks. Nathan Baxter came when the Cathedral construction was completed, and we said to him lead us into the promised land of program. Meanwhile, around us is a city polarized by economic disparity, racial division and political cynicism currently compounded by an escalating presidential crisis with national and international repercussions.
Are we to be content to sit in this Cathedral with our minds exclusively on things spiritual, while the world cries out in pain and frustration? Not if we believe in the message of Jesus Christ that sends us into the world to continue the work of healing, proclamation, peace-making and reconciliation.
The founding fathers and mothers of this nation based their dream on a citizenry that shared certain ethical and spiritual principals sufficient to define norms of civic behavior and social discourse. Look back again to the story of Jacob. The trials of life—even when self-inflicted—helped mold him into the person God intended him to be. For the individual, the society and the nation there must be the voices along the way that speak the word of God in love. One hundred years ago, even before the corner stone of the Cathedral had been laid, Senator George Pepper, a member of the chapter of this Cathedral and advisor to the first bishop wrote,
The capitol and the Cathedral [are] symbols of the free state and the free church. May the one bear witness to us and to all future generations of the pricelessness of the heritage which the [founders] of the republic have bequeathed to us and may the other be in perpetuity a solemn reminder that the republic can endue only so long as underneath it are the everlasting arms.
None of us is yet perfected nor are our institutions including the church. For the individual or the nation it is not always clear at moral decision points as to what is right and what is wrong or what does the greatest good and is the least harmful. Many times we have been wrong before we could be right. Still, faith must never lose its voice in the greater society. This great Cathedral is national because it has no financial or political connection with the government. Religion in general and Christianity in particular has something to say in the public square. We provide a forum undergirded by faith where people of good will—often from many religious traditions, but all concerned about our national soul—can come together to seek God’s truth.
Our role is not to pontificate. We make no laws binding across the land. We cannot tell the world bank and our Congress how the wealthy lending nations are to alleviate the crushing national debts of the poorest nations. What we can say is that God has a special love for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien. We are to respect the dignity of every human being. Economic decisions must be concerned with the needs of the poor. When an American CEO makes $50,000 a day and an overseas worker of the same company $5.00 a day, God calls us to judgment.
The faith community cannot formulate military strategy but we can remind the strategists that peacemaking is the calling of every believer.
We are not called to judge too quickly or absolve too easily. God will take care of that. What we can say is that God’s word sets forth basic principles that enhance our common life whether we are professing believers or not. Some of those essential truths are:
- We should treat others as we expect to be treated and judge them as we hope to be judged.
- The same ethical principles apply to all, whether we are president or ordinary citizen.
- Leadership at every level has a call to raise the moral and ethical standards of civil society.
- Private moral decisions always have public consequences.
- Good people with high principles can come down on opposite sides of a particular moral issue.
- Confession and repentance bring forgiveness but the consequences of words or deeds cannot be erased. However, they may be eased by restitution coupled with new resolve and changed ways.
- Justice is a fine balance between judgment and mercy.
- Sometimes there is no solution to a particular problem but God can create one.
Jesus Christ came to show us the way. In his earthly ministry he asked more questions that went to the core of our motives than he gave definitive answers. He excluded no one from his presence and let condemnation come from the conscience of those who heard him. He called imperfect people to be the bearers of the good news of the gospel. He did not offer personal salvation to anyone but called all who would follow him into the community of faith. He takes us as we are, shows us what we can be and gives us the grace to make the change. Amen. </P