The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who do you turn to for hope and encouragement in these conflicted and challenging times? Where and to whom do you look for the light in the darkness to be inspired, to rekindle the gift of God that is within you, to make a difference and live a meaningful life, particularly in these conflicted and challenging times? I think if each of us reflects a bit on our lives, we can remember those persons who crossed our path at critical moments. Mentors, who could be teachers, family members, coaches, coworkers, and maybe even a minister or two slipped into that list. You know who they are, and you give God great thanks for them. But I want you to consider something else: that each and every one of you—each and every one of us—has been that person for someone else. We, too, have the gift of God that abides in us and is called forth at times to be a source of hope and encouragement and inspiration.
As we reflect on those questions and on our lives, it takes us to that extraordinary Second Letter to Timothy, easily the most personal of all the pastoral letters in the Bible. In that letter we encounter Paul who was in a very tough place. Over the course of the next three weeks, you’re going to hear much of that letter. We learned that Paul is in prison. He’s been in chains and things are not going well in the church—churches he’s planted in Asia Minor. That’s to put it mildly. There are deserters, there are detractors and those seeds of the love and salvation of Jesus Christ are about to go fallow. Paul at his first trial was really alone. None of his supporters were there to be with him. He writes this letter, so we believe, in what he knew was towards the end of his life. So what’s he to do—this man has committed his life to the promise and salvation and life-giving love of Jesus—when he sees that his churches may go under?
He reaches out to his young disciple Timothy and encourages him and calls him to remember the deep and abiding faith that he inherited from his grandmother and his mother and indeed from Paul, and he encourages him to not only remember but to rekindle the gift of God that is within him. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and self-discipline. It was a critical reminder to Timothy. It is a critical reminder to you and me that God’s gifts abide in us, not with the spirit of cowardice, but the power and love, the very sort of love and power that is so badly needed in these times. I think I’m particularly drawn to this letter to Timothy because I, too, am the inheritor of a profound faith, not just from my grandparents, but from my parents. It humbles me more than I can possibly say.
I think that it’s important that we share our faith stories, one with another, because that’s one way that we encourage one another. That’s one way that we offer hope, one to another. I hope that you will share some of your faith stories with me, including all of you who are worshiping with us online today. These stories matter. They’re transformative and they encourage us when we most need it.
I have the deepest remembrance—visual memory—of my maternal grandmother, in part for whom I am named. She had a tough life. Her mother died when she was three. She never really knew her father and she was bounced from family member to family member as she was growing up until she met and married my grandfather. It was a joyful time finally for her in her life. Then when my mother and her identical twin sister were just about three years old, a terrible tragedy happened. The oven exploded and my grandmother came close to losing a good part of her leg and her foot. They managed to sort of stitch her back together, but they told her that she would never walk. But they didn’t know my grandmother, who loved God, who trusted in God for her very being. She was in a wheelchair for years and eventually through sheer grit and determination and prayers, she graduated to crutches and by the time I came on the scene, my grandmother walked with a profound limp. She was terribly disabled, but she walked without assistance.
And here’s my deep, deep visual memory of my grandmother: that nothing would keep her from going to church every Sunday to her beloved Saint Raphael’s and when she got to the front of the church, she would put her hands on the hand rail and literally haul herself up the front steps of that church. God had given her gifts and nothing was going to keep her from deploying them. She was head of the Altar Guild, a fearsome head of the Altar Guild. For those of you who know the church, you know what that means! That’s probably in my spiritual DNA, as well. But I will never forget my grandmother’s dedication and commitment to God. I think sometimes when one is really clear, you know that your life is utterly dependent on God. We receive much from those who’ve gone before us. It’s always important to remember and to give thanks and to lean in and to step up to what we’ve inherited.
I was reminded of that again this summer with one of my mentors, the Reverend Dr. Luis León, who was the long-time rector of St John’s Lafayette Square, affectionately known as the Church of the Presidents. It’s across Lafayette Square from the White House. Luis was born in Cuba, baptized in the Episcopal Church in Guantanamo, and then, at the age of 12, like many people in that time frame—which was about 1960—he was part of the Peter Pan diaspora from Cuba. It was a time when many parents were terrified, as the revolution was beginning to happen, of what would become of the safety of their children and their lives. You see the story of parents who risk everything for their children is not a new story.
Luis, at 12, was put on the plane by himself. When he landed in Miami, there’d been a communication snafu and no one was there to meet him. He spent the first couple of days in an orphanage. Eventually it got sorted out and a family took him in and he says that the Episcopal Church essentially raised him. This Cuban American immigrant, former refugee, decades later, was called to be the head of one of the most prominent churches in the United States. In that position, he got to know some of the presidents, and he had the profound honor of offering the invocation at the inauguration of President George W. Bush. Then in 2013, he was invited by President Obama to offer the benediction at his inauguration. My husband and I, like millions of other people, proudly watched online. We were so proud of Luis.
It wasn’t until this summer that I learned something really important about that morning from him, and I would say for all of us. As Luis stepped forward to offer that prayer, not just in front of the President and the Vice President and all of our government and hundreds of thousands of people on the mall and millions of people online, he looked up and he saw a woman who reminded him of his mother. In that split second he decided to do something he hadn’t planned. You can imagine that he’d planned this prayer pretty carefully. It was carefully written out and timed, and Luis got up and he prayed an incredibly beautiful and inclusive prayer, so needed. As you remember, that was a challenging and conflicted time, too. Then, as he got to the end of the prayer, he began to pray in his first language: Señor Presidente, señor Vicepresidente, que Dios bendiga todos sus días. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, may God bless you all your days.
I cried knowing what a profound witness that was for this immigrant to stand before millions of people, in honor of his mother, for the faith that he had inherited, to touch and transform and remind us that our country is blessed with a rich diversity. Our world is blessed with a rich diversity. He leaned in and stepped up, rekindling the gifts of God that abide in each one of us. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love.
My brothers and sisters, that is our inheritance. That is our opportunity and responsibility in these challenging times. They may be challenging, but they’re not impossible. As we know from scripture, all things are possible for those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purposes. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.