I rise first in this magnificent house of prayer to acknowledge the One who has made our gathering possible, the One who early this morning opened up the sable draperies of the night and told the sleeping sun it was wake-up time. And after the sun had taken its flight and the moon had taken its slumber, and an extra touch for you and me so that we could gather in this place in a spirit of festive joy and shout with gladness, “This is the day that that the Lord hath made,’ and we should rejoice and be glad in it.We give our thanks to Almighty God, to the venerable bishop of this diocese, a person who in a short time has made a useful and indelible imprint upon the city and who offers to us much promise in his journey, and to the incomparable dean of this Cathedral, a man who, in the journey of his days, has left indelible finger prints upon all that he has touched and all he has encountered. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to come and say a word from this Canterbury Pulpit and to minister to you on this, a day which is set aside to celebrate the place where I was born, the place where I was nurtured, and unless something strangely happens, the place from whence I will be launched to the high place in glory.
I would direct your attention briefly to a passage of Scripture. It is found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 5:14 this is written: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” I would direct your attention to some focus today on this very simple theme: the peculiar summons of this hill. It takes no great inspection of Scripture to figure out that God has an unusual affinity for mountains and for hills. It was on the rugged slopes of Mount Ararat that humanity first saw the rainbow of a new covenant that followed the deluge of judgment and despair. It was on the smoked summits of Mount Sinai that God in his glory descended in anthropomorphic form and extended his finger as a pen and used rock as a stone to write on it the indelible commandments that bind us all. It was from the vistas of Mt. Pisga that Moses beheld the glory of the land that was promised. It was also on the mount of beatitude that Jesus expressed, sitting ex cathedra, the timeless, ontological expectations that he had for his church, for his people. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said. “You are the light of the world. A city that is on a hill cannot be hid.” It was on the blood-soaked summits of Golgotha, on or near another mount called Zion, that Jesus became the Agnus Dei peccata mundi, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. God has as peculiar summons for mountains.
I don’t know if you’re aware of it or not, but you happen to occupy this moment in time, the space that is the highest place in the District of Columbia. And, therefore, if God has some peculiar summons for the mountain, then the exegetical question posed for us today is what summons does he have for this mountain, this mountain called St. Albans, this highest place?
I submit to you that there is a peculiar summons for this mountain. The first summons for this mountain is that this hill must be a hill of conscience for all who come here. Our land is a land of great and soaring words, words of equity and equitable life: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Words of inclusivity and community: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.” Words of hospitality and non-discriminatory invitation: “Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” The monuments of this city in the valley that is below are the treasuries of these soaring words. The peculiar summons of this hill is to be a place of transcendent conscience to the powerful who visit and worship in this place that they may understand that lofty words and eloquent speech are absolutely meaningless unless they are the experience of all who hear them. This hill must be the place where all are reminded that truth will speak if she has a spokesman and a place for her noble challenges to be expressed.
The second summons of this hill is to foster community. In the history of the cathedrals that were built around the world, the cathedral was always a crossroad and a gathering place for the community in which it stood. From the towers of this high place, one can see all of Washington. One can see Anacostia and Spring Valley; one can see Friendship Heights and Shaw. From this high vantage, like no other place in this city, we can see our plenty and our poverty, our joy and our nightmares, our soaring hopes and our paralyzing despairs. The peculiar summons of this hill is to be a gathering place where the streets of this city become neighborhoods, where divisions are transformed into community, and where people can understand that in this city all boats rise together, because all are children of God.
I know this truth to be sure, for you see thirty-three years ago, in that crossing, I received my diploma from Anacostia High School while standing in that choir, directing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the soaring sounds of your great organ and state trumpets. Now the son of Anacostia and the son of Shaw has parents who come to watch me in the Canterbury Pulpit to speak to the children of Spring Valley and America and the world. Oh, how glorious is the summons of this hill. And how urgent is the need for all who live in Anacostia today to know that there is a place where they can come and see the soaring vistas of the what-can-be rather than just perish in the suffocating hopelessness of dreams that died before they had their birth.
And finally, (I once heard it said that if you hear a minister say “finally,” you’re a great optimist.) the highest summons of this hill is like Peter and Paul, after whom this Cathedral is named, to tell the city, to tell the nation, to tell the world that Jesus is Christ. In a time of terrorism and war, somebody needs to hear that Jesus is still the Prince of Peace. In a time of greed and narcissistic insularity, somebody needs to speak and let someone know that Jesus still walks among the disinherited, forsaken, and gives to all he walks among hope, dignity, and relief. Somebody needs to know that he yet fills the empty, yet fixes the broken, yet heals the wounded, yet redeems the lost, yet overcomes bigotry and hatred through transforming grace and the unstoppable omnipotence of his hand. In short, the highest summons of this hill is to make sure that our eloquent liturgy, our impassioned sermons, our soaring hymns become the felt expression of a troubled and disturbed world, so that in every corner because of some water that flowed from this hill, someone will be able to sing and really mean, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him north or south, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world.”
All that I’ve attempted to say to you is summarized in the experience of a young man that I’ve been privileged to minister in the place where I serve. He came to us by way of a reformed pharmaceutical distributor (a drug dealer). We started to work with him. We saw his great promise. And it was time for him to take the SAT, so we paid for his fees and sent off the papers, but I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to them. And the time came, and I asked him, “Well, son, aren’t you now able to take this test, aren’t you supposed to take it now?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, where will you take it?” I thought one of the local universities—that’s generally the way it’s done. He said, “Huntington.” I thought a moment and said, “Well, there’s a Huntington stop on our Metro. It’s been years since I took that test; perhaps it’s Huntington, Virginia.” He looked back at me and said, “No, sir. It’s Huntington, West Virginia.” I then became very parental and said to him, “What in the world possessed you to take this test so far away from Washington? It takes at least seven hours in a car to get to the capital of West Virginia, and Huntington is an hour on the other side of it. What got into your head?” And he looked me and said simply, “Well, the school I’m applying to is there, and sir, I just want to see the mountains.”
So he left. I thought about it, still fussing with God. And God then said to me, “Did you hear what he said?” I said, “Yes, Huntington, eight hours from here.” He said, “No, did you hear what he said? He said ‘I wanted to see the mountains.’” So, Dean Baxter, I took it upon myself to call in my assistant and tell them to clear my calendar and to make excuses for me in all these places that I had to go and to tell them I had a pastoral duty I needed to discharge. And I put that boy in a car and drove 976.25 miles, and somewhere along in the journey, I stopped so that he could see the vistas of his mountain. The other day he graduated; he’s on his way to college.
The peculiar summons of this hill is not just to enjoy the architecture; though grand it is, but to make sure we walk in the spirit of those who heard that peculiar summons and gave life to it. People like John Thomas Walker, who answered that summons; people like Francis Sayre, who answered that summons; people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who stood in this very place and preached the final formal sermon that he would give in his lifetime.
Let us then be true and faithful, trusting, serving everyday. Just one glimpse of God in glory will the toils of life repay. And when you get to the other side he will not ask you where you lived. When you get to the other side it will not matter how much money you amassed. The only thing that will interest God is whether or not when he gave you a peculiar summons on one of the hills, did you say like the prophet, “Here am I, Lord. Send me”?
May history record that we were not dull to God’s peculiar summons in a troubled world, and may history further record that God used you to help some kid see a mountain and become a future and not a failure. Somebody ought to say, “Amen.”