The Rev. Canon Frank M. Harron II
The story of Cedric Jennings, as told by Ron Suskind in his recent book, is gaining national attention. It is a story that, as the reviewer in the New York Times observed, makes personal and dramatic many of the issues we are facing in our nation today, including not just racism but the growing gap between an expanding middle class and those who seem trapped in deepening and intractable poverty. The power of the story of Cedric Jennings, however, is that he shatters our assumptions and expectations and is defying the odds for someone in his circumstances.
Cedric was born and raised here in Washington. He attended D.C. public schools, finally graduating from Frank W. Ballou Senior High School.
But Cedric’s mother had a dream for her son; her dream, which became his, was that against everyone’s expectations, including his father’s, who has spent most of Cedric’s life in jail, he would go to an Ivy League college. It seems that mother and son’s deep involvement in their African-American, Pentecostal church gave them this odd belief in the power of the unseen. At one point in the story even Cedric’s only friend in high school, where he is outcast for his dream, taunts him. She scoffs: “What kind of fool spends his life trying to go somewhere he ain’t even seen?” The force of her jeer was that it was true; Cedric had never been to such a wondrous place in his life. But that did not daunt his determination, which grew out of his faith that with God nothing is impossible.
The impossible became true. Cedric is now a student at Brown University. It is rough going. According to Suskind’s account, he feels as alienated from the middle-class, African-American students there as he does form the white students. But he is still preserving. His dream now is to graduate from an Ivy League college.
I find this story very moving. I find myself pulling for this young man whose faith gave him this foolish idea that with God all things are possible.
But there is something about the purity of his faith that almost feels nostalgic. We all want to believe that occasionally someone defies the odds and there is hope where we had taken hopelessness for granted, that there is success against what we assumed were overwhelming odds. We all want to believe that we live in a world where occasionally the impossible becomes true. We all long to believe that personal relationships that are now listless and careless can be renewed and caring again, that communities and even whole nations can become more just and fair and generous, although we had come to assume the status quo was so deeply entrenched the best we could do was to not rock the boat and get our share. We yearn for proof that God has not abandoned this world to the powers of selfishness and greed. We want to believe and we want to act, but we are stuck where we are in the status quo. We privately wonder if anything unexpected can or will happen in our lives and in our world. We sheepishly admit that the prophet Jeremiah’s words, which we heard asserted so forcefully just a few minutes ago, washed over us as so much pious, warm water. “When I act in the world,” Jeremiah says speaking for God, “it is like a fire or it is like a hammer.”
In the ancient world among most if not all primitive religions and cultures, fire was a symbol of divine intervention. By consuming that which seemed permanent, the gods made it possible for something new and unprecedented to happen. That you probably knew. But I was amazed to learn as I prepared this sermon that among ancient religions and cultures, the hammer, too, was understood to be a means through which divine shattering of the status quo opened up the possibility for something fresh and undeserved to begin. Some ancient cultures would ritualistically melt down a hammer head and apply it where the people wanted the gods to interrupt and change things.
It is in this blunt, actual sense of burning the current structures to the ground or shattering the status quo into bits that Jeremiah uses fire and hammer to represent God in action. He goes on to declare that this is one of the ways we can know for certain that God is in action, that this is not mere human intervention. God is more imaginative, less bound by the past and by prior assumptions about ourselves and on another than we are. We can be godlike in this way. We, too, can believe and act against the prevailing consensus. It may put us out of sync with the world, but perhaps that is just one assurance that we are engaged in God’s work in the world.
Jesus resonates with Jeremiah in the Gospel you just heard when he makes it clear that when one sets out to believe that with God nothing is impossible and acts on that belief, that person could be out of sync with family and friends. Cedric’s father taunts his son from jail that he is a “whitey and a wimp.” Do you remember how his only friend in high school ridiculed Cedric? “What kind of fool spends his life trying to get somewhere he ain’t even seen?”
Here this morning, in such close proximity to God’s word, we are reminded that we should not be so complacent about the way things are in our lives and in the world. Our faith teaches us that barely beneath the surface of things, just out of sight, God is at work. As the psalmist affirms in today’s psalm, God is always working out true justice, especially for those who in this world usually are denied justice. And by all the little choices we make in our daily lives we end up choosing between two very different alternatives. We chose to align ourselves with the appearance of power or real power, which is almost always disguised in the needs of the poorest and most marginalized.
This whole massive structure where you find yourself this morning is an audacious confrontation to the status quo in our lives. It invites you to examine your own personal life and to pray to God to shake up and renew your most personal relationships with spouse and children and intimate companions and friends. It stands over this capitol city, calling a whole nation to renew its commitment to justice and generosity. In our lives, personal and corporate, this majestic Cathedral, as unexpected as it is on the skyline, calls us to seek and expect God to intervene and turn upside down the status quo. And each of us makes the decision if we want to be part of the past or God’s future.
From here, “let the whole world see and know that things which had been cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with God, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”