I’m privileged to represent the Interfaith Community in the District of Columbia. I come to you as a person who has been in the Chaplaincy since 1958, retired three times, and even the title that you may have seen in the newspaper, I was an interim Dean until May 10th, and now revert back to a Dean Emeritus of Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. I come to you aware of my Texas roots, and who better can say a word on behalf of the District of Columbia?
If I had to select a prayer for this occasion, in addition to those you’ve heard, and perhaps some of those from the Book of Common Prayer, I would select one from a book of children’s prayers that was given to me many years ago by the President of our University. Presidents, you know, get a lot of magazines, and he sometimes doles them out if that’s the word, to the various departments. This one, I think, was America Magazine. But anyway, it had a religious center, and he sent it over to the Chapel office. I have a method in my preaching class where I ask the students to stay in touch with what’s going on. One of the theologians said we are called to have the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in another.
So I looked, but this book of children’s prayers, one of them goes like this:
One child prayed, “God, where does yesterday go? Have you got it? Have you got it? “ We stand and gather together, get our common worship. We worship with people around this country and the world. But we also stand on the eve of a great celebration in our heritage. They fourth of July — the fact that I will celebrate my birthday on the 2nd is just a prelude to these celebrations. But we celebrate it in a place in the District where many of the nation’s treasures and their representatives are here. We do so in a House of Prayer. We are grateful, the Bishop, the Canons, and those who minister here because in serving our local parish it serves the nation and the world. We gather here with the refrains perhaps and the echoes of many celebrations, most recently the passing of one of our Presidents. And so many, many of our leaders have come to have their services, memorials, right in this place.
So in view of that celebration, I find the child’s prayer as a interesting way for us to stand in our heritage, think of those who though they have passed, their spirits are living still.
But, “where does yesterday go? Have you got it?” That’s a profound prayer. And coming from a child, it makes you wonder just who should be dismissed to go elsewhere where the worship service takes place. The prayer contains what I call a priestly inquiry that I as a chaplain have learned to work with by studying with Kenneth Underwood. He wrote a book called Prophetic Inquiry, embracing what we do and research history and in any ways, it’s called Prophetic Inquiry, called it because prophetic inquiry involves people who don’t only take the soft ways to their doctrines. Those who take up serious,…. probably at their expense.
As I was coming in someone asked me if I knew, for instance, about the Staggers, who used to teach at Howard, and began to take his Sociology class into the alleys, highways and by-ways of this city. And understandably, he had colleagues who said, “Well, why are you doing that?” They said it in a nice way. “You won’t get your promotions that way.” But he began to know about all these alleys round in here, and he began to have them come up to the School. And then that was a “living sacrifice.” He apparently had responded to something in his inner spirit where he wanted to follow the calling that is within the calling of a profession.
But coming from a child it makes you wonder just who should go downstairs, and it contains what I call a prophetic inquiry. For instance, when we gather together today, and we will gather around the monuments within this particular Cathedral and in the various places, we’ll go all around the country. We ought to be convinced that when loved ones die, when those who have lived by the promised path pass one, when death seems to have the last word, when power seems to have no limit, when the official records of our generation seem to have no record of or time to mention as peace makers but only its war makers, when monuments are built mostly for our heroes of war, sometimes we overlook the heroes of faith. And when it is said of values too, that out of sight is out of mind, then inquiry into where yesterday goes is a vivid and honest expression of our concern and not of despair.
Thank God for an inquiry based in wonder rather than in despair. The child’s first word is to God and places inquiry in a saving context. Ups and downs are likely to be a bit more cynical of those of us, but given our griefs we are more likely to be sure of where the rest way it goes. For many they seem either to go up in smoke or be buried in a grave. We are tempted to be sure that God doesn’t act. But we do experience vital signs. But often we are so proof-oriented that we like the first hearers of the Resurrection are still full of doubts and despair. It’s not easy to believe that all of those vital signs have meaning when a loved one goes on.
One of the Gospels, particularly Luke now, is on target in setting a scene of shock and trimmer. You remember there was an ending. Mark talks about an ending, and when Jesus had charged those who first experienced the Resurrection to go and tell the Disciples, remember they were shocked and they didn’t say a word. Luke picks up for his community, he goes a little further because he said, “It’s finished, or into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”
So we have been called here to take the legacies of our founding fathers and mothers, as we celebrate this Declaration of Independence.
Nothing is final. There are those endings. Did you remember some years ago when the musical award went to the play called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Some critics do not give it any good marks. At least they didn’t before its selection for Tony. They were concerned that its box office success was based on the gimmick of having the audience vote each night for one of several possible endings. And that may be a clue for those when sometimes we think that it seems like so many have left with the unfinished task.
But yet we have so many monuments here on this occasion, of people who took it as far as God gave them life to take it. And we celebrate and keep wondering in our situation, we can see that God always makes it possible to pass. You can call it a mantel perhaps. Somebody to take the cloak of authority, priestly, prophet, to take it on.
So as we come to hear the echoes of that Declaration of Independence, we ought to look for the vital signs. The liturgical colors for this Pentecost is green. Somebody’s written a book you know called Greening of America? I think that’s the way we ought to take our text today. As you see, what can we do at this time? Green? Grief? We’ve been shocked. We’ve had deaths. We’ve had grief. How can we let that Declaration resound?
I think the Sixteenth Psalm mostly gives us a perspective on how we can do that. And I think this because one perspective on our yesterdays that intrigues me is what Harold Bosley, who was a Methodist minister out at Evanston, Illinois, …he has a title most striking that shows me possibility of a title. And I was not required to have one. It’s a blessing and a liberating joy which gives me time to wrestle with the Scriptures, my students really have this privilege, as I advise them to do as I say, not as I do.
Seriously though, I do not know any appropriate other than this responsive Psalm. It says the lines are falling to us in pleasant places. For poetry reasons I like the King James. “Yeah I, we have, a goodly heritage.”
Well, you can affirm that. Yesterday is not gone off fatally, but the memories can come back to revive us, and we can respond to the call. When you remember that, you will not be those who have no life in them. You will be a sign of the resurrection and the workings of the Spirit because it is the Spirit that gives life.
I mention this because Dr. Bosley chose the Sixteenth Psalm, fifth verse. And you know what he entitled his sermon back in 1937? Here was the title: “Pick the Right Ancestors.” Pick the Right Ancestors. We stand here today round that Declaration of Independence. When you go down on the Malls, we’ve only added now another celebration, recognition of World War II, a lot of ancestors there, in more ways than one.
And so on this day when asking where does yesterday go? I would say, pick the right ancestors, thus liberating. Do you know what that means? It means that those who have gone on, some prematurely, have left us a heritage. And if that can begin to resonate, and in our country through our churches, then life is alive as Howard Thurmond once said.
Look, look, look, what that freedom of ancestor source does to the family portrait. Look what it does to the family portrait. Wherever you come, Texan, I understand that I have some Indian blood in me, you figure where you’re lines go back, but America at its best has a heritage of bringing people with that freedom light from all over the world. We now of course are concerned because there has been a great tragedy. But we should let nothing spoil our joy.
Pick the right ancestor. Look at who are in your portrait. In the Church, now we were just taking pictures over here. And now it’s all mixed when we all get to heaven. I’m going to be interested to see what the family portrait is like. I have some African, some African Bantu in me, I’m told. I suspect that any ethnic senses, there are varieties of tribes and groups, some of even the prophetic militant students I used to consider, that’s good, a means of getting rid of all of our tribalisms. Yet they rise up every once in a while. But this is a great experiment. All I declare, says Jefferson on behalf of that conference, all are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
Remember Alex Haley in looking for Roots? They were deliberately destroyed and hidden during slavery. You see, God does not call us outside of our particularities for within them there are some vital signs. And to avoid particularities will be to throw away yesterday. We have our treasures not only in earthen vessels, but in our particularities.
So we come to celebrate the final and resonating heritage that we have.
Another view, and a final one, on where does yesterday go? Some think that it’s unfinished, but unfinished isn’t fatal. There’s a phrasing that lent me some years ago when I was working on this. It came from a columnist, I think Meg Greenfield, who wrote a reflective article, at that time Newsweek, and it was featuring one of our Presidents. I think he was from California. Her thesis was that sometimes all of us experience that disgrace seems always to be alive and well in Washington. And there always seems to be a come back for those who were once considered finished. And her roll call, you can put in the names in of people that we thought it was all over but somehow in God’s greening they came back.
You remember some of them in Hebrews. By faith, Abraham. By faith, Sarah. And all of these resonate because they’re saying how yesterdays do go. Where do they go? They go into the Easter roll. So when we call the roll of those saints who have labored and those faithful ones, whether on the battle field. I remember when Martin Luther King spoke in this particular pulpit, privileged to serve, to study with him for a year. I thought all was lost when he was shot on that balcony in Memphis. But every time we lift up a hymn of Zion, every time we pick up that part of his mantel, yesterday goes somewhere, and we have the confidence it’s not lost because God has it.
So when we celebrate our days, declaring our heritage, remember the Psalmist has it, the lines have fallen to us in pleasant places, not obvious at first, the mantel if you will, we have a goodly heritage.
I close by sharing with you when I was a Chaplain with Patricia Harris. You remember she got to be Secretary of Housing, Education. We served together on the Howard campus. I remember when she got ill and she tried to teach a class from a bedside, she got me one day and said, “what am I going to do?” And we prayed with her as we watched her die, and she left us. And she lies right in this place here. I just felt so badly because she had so much to give. She was a first in so many things. She was a first juris doctor. She was one of the first ambassadors, and we thought it lost. But you know, she loved children. She and her husband had a child, but together they didn’t have one because she gave her life in civil rights, in law, advocating for people of all cultures. She was important when Dr. Lyndon Johnson came out and talked about to fulfill these rights. You sometimes feel like that. But you know, although she did not have any children, this is my felling to you. She liked children. So we went down to HUD and housing. They were trying to find out some way to capture this faith that God has it. You know what they decided to do? They did not have a nursery. So the people there began to put money to have a nursery so that families could be close to their children. And as I spoke on her behalf one time, these particular affirmations that God has came to me, she did not have children by her genes, but she had many, many children through God’s grace.
God has it! God has it! And I want to say this. Where does yesterday go in our heritage? All the monuments, though they’re in stone, they’re in living stone. The Easter faith and the Pentecost faith says the spirit still shines.
I saw in the paper one day where around the Washington Monument the engineers were very concerned because they were many spots on that Monument. And that’s very important, because that Monument you know is very tall. It guides airplanes here. So they had to figure out what happened. And when they soon discovered what happened it was very simple. What had happened was the thousands of visitors who come, bit by bit, had knocked those big spot lights out of alignment, so all that they did was, they didn’t have to go through a whole engineering regiment, they adjusted light #2 so it would pick up where light #1 left off, and so with #3. So that has been has always been bathed in light. That’s a symbol of where yesterday goes in our heritage. That’s a symbol of our faith with the Easter faith. That’s the symbol of dawn. No, we do not bury the dead in the sense that we bury them without faith. We bury them in the confidence of the Resurrection, affirming with Galatians that our freedom is ours, yes, but it is a responsible freedom. Affirming with the psalmist that we have a goodly heritage, and still standing in the prophetic that God calls us not to stay in keeping the old job, and nothing’s wrong with that, but to become not merely a freedom fighter, but in God’s name, become a freedom follower.
Thanks be to God. Amen.