It is wonderful to be with you this today and to have this chance to
bring you greetings from the people of New York and especially of the
Diocese of New York; my joy in having this opportunity is not only
official, as it were, it is also quite personal. This great Cathedral
Church has a very special place in my life and in my heart.
I remember Sunday visits here when I was a child and the nave was yet
to be completed. To this day my sister volunteers in the Herb Shop and
helps arrange flowers. I was a candidate for ordination from this
diocese and was ordained deacon by Bishop Creighton, right here in the
Therefore, I am grateful to your vicar, Bishop Eastman for this
invitation to speak. In addition, I want also to take this opportunity
to congratulate you on the selection of your new dean, Sam Lloyd. I have
known him for many years, in fact since his days in Chicago. He will be
By the coincidence of geography and history the Episcopal Church in
New York and the Episcopal Church in Washington share a prominence that
lays upon us the privilege of responsibility.
In both cities the Episcopal Church has a great cathedral, a
cathedral that serves far more than our own constituency, narrowly
defined, as Episcopalians. This Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saints Peter
and Paul intentionally and quite self-consciously identifies itself, and
is by charter The National Cathedral. In New York, The Cathedral
of St. John the Divine has, as part of its founding Charter, the mandate
to be a house of prayer for all people.
Not only do we two great Cathedral communities share a similar
founding vision, each of us, to the best of our respective abilities,
lives out that vocation with focused commitment. Further, we each bear
our witness in cities that have their own distinct and unique
prominence. The city of Washington is the seat of government of the most
powerful nation that the world has ever known. Within these city limits
reside people who, quite literally, control, or at least have an
enormous influence upon the future course of human history. Or, should
they make the wrong choices their decisions could end human history, as
we know it. New York City is, for its part, the economic heart of this
most powerful nation. The decisions made by those who live there have
consequences that touch not only governments around the world, but reach
into even the most remote villages in forgotten backwaters of countries
we hardly knew even existed.
As a consequence of that prominence we find our selves in peculiarly
important yet, at the same time, decidedly perilous positions. As our
reading from St. Matthew so vividly reminds us,
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the
wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of
heaven has come near.”
And then a few lines further, speaking to those who had come out into
the wilderness to hear him, John adds ominously,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves,
“We have Abraham as our ancestor” for I tell you, God is
able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax
is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not
bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fires.
From where, precisely, did this voice of terrifying hope come? Where,
exactly, was this warning voice to be heard? It came from, and is to be
heard in, the wilderness. It came from the very edge of the civilized
world: a place deserted, barely touched by human hands, a worthless
uninhabited place. The voice came from a place furthest from the seat of
None of that is accidental.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself makes dramatically
clear the importance of vast distinction between the centers of
political and economic power, on the one hand, and the voices of the
periphery, on the other. He does this as he draws the listening crowd
into a deeper understanding of John the Baptist’s role in
God’s self-revelation. The device Jesus uses is a series of
rhetorical questions. He asks his listeners,
What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft
robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then
did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a
The challenge for us in this is that we, as a community of
proclamation, do not live in the wilderness: anything but. We live in
the very midst of those who wear soft robes and live in royal palaces.
In fact it is not too much to say that we are the people who wear those
soft robes and live in palaces, royal or otherwise. So how is it
possible for us to proclaim hope, a hope that is real and grounded in
the reality of the world? How is it possible for us to be a place where
the truth can be heard and spoken, even if it is a very hard truth? How
can we avoid the seductive temptation of offering comfortable
reassurance of the virtues of our own vices?
The answer, it seems to me, is simple. We need to listen to voices
crying in the wilderness. We need to listen to voices at the periphery
We who inhabit the centers of power of this world have a very special
vocation. It is to listen to those others, those that so many
would prefer to dismiss as being of no account. We need to listen to
those at the edges not because they have a monopoly on the truth. Not
because they are always right. Not because they have some automatic
claim to prophetic truth. That’s romantic nonsense.
However, we do need to listen to them. We need to listen to them for
the simple reason that they are our brothers and sisters. What’s
more, through Christ, we know that they have a perspective on the truth
that is unique to them. That grasp of the truth belongs to them, not to
us. It is only by listening to them, and sharing their vision that we
might hope to glimpse the truth that God has revealed uniquely to
But right here there is a problem. All too often when we say,
“listen to,” what we really mean is “agree
with.” How often have we heard someone say, “You’re
not listening to me!” when you know what they really mean is,
“You’re not agreeing with me!”
When I say listen, I mean something quite different than simple
agreement. I mean: engage—take seriously—encounter the
other. All too often we operate as though there were just two options to
choose from: agreement or disagreement.
Far too rarely do we take seriously the notion that by listening we
might actually be changed. Perhaps just a little. But by listening we
come out of the encounter at a new place. Nothing in life is really as
simple as agreement and disagreement.
The mortal danger which faces this great Cathedral, and my own, is
the danger of falling prey to the seductive glory of the power of
kings’ houses rather than the glory of the power that is
God’s love made flesh and blood in human lives.
But we need to do more than listen – hear – and
understand. We need also to proclaim. To use the bully pulpits we have
been provided to give voice to the voiceless – not in a mechanical
or reflexive way, but rather with a clarity and conviction that comes
from having wrestled with the truths, half-truths and downright errors
that mark the understandings and convictions experienced by all people
As central as this insight is in terms of the vocation that we have
as Cathedral communities and church communities everywhere – there
is a further dimension of the claim of the desert on each and all of us.
It is this. We need to listen to those voices that come at the edge of
our own lives to discover there what treasures of insight await us
– if we will but take the time to listen – to engage –
to encounter – the other just because they are our neighbors, our
sisters and brothers.
One of the truly startling things in life is that where one person
sees only a barren desert that they would never dream of entering
voluntarily – another sees the comfort of the familiar. I am
convinced that the promise and the challenge of the wilderness, the
wilderness from which John the Baptist first declared his message of
saving repentance, nestles closely at the edge of the life that each
and all of us live. It is a wilderness that is to be found in the
interior of our souls as well as in the society within which we live and
move and have our being. God has given each of us our own custom fitted
wilderness – right at hand. The question is, will we have the
courage to enter, to encounter and to listen.
Earlier this week I heard a friend talk about how much he had learned
during the course of a lifetime working with and listening to prisoners
who had been jailed for all sorts of horrendous crimes. As he worked
with them over the years, as he listened to their stories of struggle
and failure and glimmers of hope, he heard them not as a disinterested
observer but as a fellow traveler on a common journey. It was this deep
listening that opened to him a glimpse of God’s goodness not only
in their lives but his own as well.
The challenge that Advent always places before us is that of facing
into and embracing the hope that comes to us from the desert places in
our world and in our lives.
May it be that God will give us the courage to listen with such
intensity and to speak with such clarity that his promise of hope will
live in us, for the benefit all God’s children, today, tomorrow
and unto the ages of ages.