And now in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before I begin, I want to say a word of thanks to Bishop Mariann Budde and Dean Randy Hollerith and the team and the staff of this Cathedral and diocese, to thank them for this invitation to preach this morning on this All Saints’ Day. Five years ago, I was installed as Presiding Bishop of our church. I count that a great blessing in my life, and I thank God for it. And they were kind enough to say, “why don’t you come on back on your anniversary?” So, thank you to them. Thank you to the Cathedral. Thank you to the wonderful Cathedral Congregation online and thank you to the people of the Episcopal Church.
Allow me if you will, to offer some reflections on a text that comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. We just heard the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and these words of Jesus and that sermon from Matthew, chapter seven. Jesus said, referring to the Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone, then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain fell, the floods came and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock.”
My grandma used to love that hymn based on this text that said, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
In the sermon on the Mount, which begins with the beatitudes, blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit and blessed are the merciful, the compassionate, there are teachings of Jesus that Matthew has ingeniously brought together and put in one place. And they have been called the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus spoke those words, that is the setting, on a mountain top. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful, the compassionate. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that God’s righteous justice might prevail in all the world. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake, when you are persecuted just because you tried to stand for love and compassion and decency. Blessed are you when you’re persecuted like that, for the prophets who came before you were persecuted. And when you do this, when you’re compassionate, peacemakers, justice seekers, when you do unto others, as you would have them do unto you, when you love, love, love, even your enemies, when you do that, you are the light of the world, the salt of the earth.
Charles Marsh, who teaches at the University of Virginia wrote a book on the spirituality of the civil rights movement says of Jesus and his teachings, the following. “Jesus founded the most revolutionary movement in human history. It was a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to a community who followed him to live that love in the world.”
Those first followers took Jesus at his word. They dare to live his way of love. His way of love, it changed them. And they in turn changed the society around them.
Jesus says of these teachings of his, “everyone who hears them will be like someone who built their house on solid rock.”
The storms came, the winds came, the rain came the thunder roared, the lightning flashed and the earth even quaked. But that house did not fall. It will not fall. Built on the teachings of Jesus, it cannot fall because it’s built on a rock. “Christ, the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Some years ago when I was the Bishop of North Carolina, the good people of the diocese were kind enough to grant me a sabbatical leave for three months, after I had been there six or seven years, to rest and to do some study and reflection. I made a decision that I wanted to study the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters, five, six and seven. I also decided that I wanted to take violin lessons and I did. Somebody said, do you play the violin? I said, no, that’s an overstatement. I took violin lessons. That’s about as much as I can say of my art history. But I took violin lessons and I did do some rest. I did study the Sermon on the Mount. While I was at it, I hadn’t planned to do this ahead of time, I got curious and I started reading up on the arguments of Christians in the 19th century, over the issue of slavery in America. There were those who made arguments in favor of the maintenance of slavery as being justified biblically. And there were those, the abolitionist, who argued against the institution of slavery as contrary to the word and the will of God on biblical basis.
And so I started reading some of the arguments on both sides, and I noticed an interesting pattern. That those who argued for the maintenance of human slavery of one person, enslaving another person, one child of God enslaving another, one human being created in the image and likeness of God, as Genesis one says, and another, I began to see a pattern. Those who argued for the continuation and maintenance of human slavery, never used Jesus and his teachings. They never touched where Jesus said, “you shall love the Lord, your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” They never touched Jesus when he said, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” They avoided the teachings of Jesus like the plague. Where Jesus said, “as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it unto me.” They avoided the Jesus who said, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse. You pray for those who despitefully use you.” They avoided the Jesus of the parable of the good Samaritan. They avoided Jesus like the plague, because if bigotry is your game, Jesus is not the name.
But those who argued for an end to slavery, they ran to Jesus. They quoted him, they cited him. They referred to him because the way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love is the way of life that liberates us. All the old slaves understood this well, when they said, “If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.” Not some of us. He died to save us all. And I realized something when we, who are Christians build our lives as Christians on anything other than the teachings of Jesus, whose way is love, we are building our house of faith on shifting sand. But when built on Jesus and his way of love that house is built on solid rock. It will not be easy, but it is built on solid rock. Rock that can stand the test of time. Rock that not even the very quaking of the earth can destabilize.
I believe with all my heart, that the way of love that Jesus has taught us is the way to heal our nation. The way to bring about true justice, the way to set us all free. All of us. Dr. King once said, and he said it over and over again, “We will either learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” The choice is ours, chaos or community. I believe that Jesus and his way of love has shown us the way to community.
Beyond the chaos to community that that reflects something akin to the beloved community. Something akin to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Something akin to the reign of God’s love. Something akin to what John in the Revelation saw as a new heaven and a new earth. Something akin to that heaven in Revelation seven, when John looked up and saw in heaven, and he said, “Behold, I saw a host that no man could number, a folk from every stripe, every type I saw, every race, every nationality, every political party. I saw all stripes and types of humanity. All God’s children.”
Oh, heaven’s a lot bigger than we thought it was. Cause grace is greater than we could ever imagine. I’m a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus because I believe that Jesus has shown us the way, the way to become the beloved community of God. That is the way for us America, with all of our divisions, with all of the injustices, that way of love. It’s the way life.
On the great seal of the United States, created and devised by the founders, you may remember that it’s the one that on the front has the Eagle and above the Eagle, there are these banners and inscribed on the banners, the Latin word E pluribus Unum, “from many one.” E pluribus Unum. That Latin phrase comes from the writings of Cicero in ancient Rome in the days of the Roman Republic. And it was Cicero who wrote and said, “When every person loves the other the same way he loves himself, then one from many.” E pluribus Unum becomes possible.
On the great seal of the United States is the hope and the vision, that many diverse people, all of God’s children, might come together and become one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. That that this American experiment might actually be a reflection of God’s dream of a beloved community. Whereas the old slaves used to say, there’s plenty, good room, plenty, good room, plenty, good room for all God’s children. And that the key to becoming E pluribus Unum is love. When I love you as much as I love myself, when we love each other, E pluribus Unum, America becomes possible. I’m a follower of Jesus because I believe he was right originally.
I was going to preach this sermon from the great Canterbury pulpit at the National Cathedral. When the Bishop and Dean invited me to come, this was pre-COVID. And my plan was to be in Washington and preach for the morning service, and then COVID-19 hit. And then the pandemic. And that held off making a final decision, still hoping that maybe there was some way I could get to Washington. And finally, I realized that it just wasn’t wise to do so. And I must tell you that I was a bit, I was disappointed, because I was looking forward to it. I was disappointed, but I figured, okay, I can borrow a church somewhere in Raleigh. You know, I used to be Bishop there. I’m sure somebody would let me borrow a pulpit. And then it dawned on me, wait a minute. This is the Sunday, the Feast of All Saints, just before an election in America, in a critical moment in our life and history. Go over to St. Augustine’s University. One of our historically black colleges, founded by the Episcopal Church. Go over to St. Augustine’s and preach from that pulpit. And the Reverend Hershey Molet and all the staff here and all the folk here were kind enough to make this possible. And I came here, but before coming, I remembered this chapel. I remembered that this very building in which I stand is composed of rocks and stones quarried from this very land. That this very pulpit where I’m preaching from is made of rock and stone quarried from this very land. And that this college, this university was founded through America’s worst nightmare, in the midst and after the Civil War itself.
And the bishop of this diocese, Thomas Atkinson, and many other people after the decimation of the war, realized that even in the midst of despair, you must carve out a stone of hope. They called out a stone of hope to start a school, to educate newly freed slaves. This very school started by a Episcopalians in North Carolina and the Freedmen’s Bureau of North Carolina. In days as James Weldon Johnson said, “When hope unborn had died, they carved out, chiseled out stones of hope.”
They started this school to educate newly freed slaves and their descendants. This very chapel was built by the hands of former slaves, where they could worship the God and father of us all. And this very school educated and has educated generations of people. Teachers and scholars, and once upon a time, most of the nurses who were public health nurses in the Carolinas, in Southern Virginia, were educated right here at St. Agnes hospital and school. This school produced most of the black Episcopal clergy in the Episcopal church. At one time, it sent teachers out into the world to educate. This school has made a difference. It has carved out hope, chiseling it from stones of despair.
Now I realized that this very sacred place may be a wonderful reminder to all of us. That even in the darkest midnight, as long as there is a God, there is hope. Even when there is crucifixion, as long as there’s a God, There’s a resurrection. The old preachers used to say, as long as there is God, Easter is always coming.
I’m a follower of Jesus because I believe his teachings, his spirit, his example. He is the solid rock on which we can stand. He was right. He’s right today. As Dr. King once said, “History is replete with the bleach bones of civilizations that have refused to listen to the one who said, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“My hope, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ. The solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.