The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
When you are having one of those weeks or times in your life that you need to be reminded and reassured of God’s steadfast love and presence in your life, what Scripture do you turn to? What reminds you that God is ultimately in charge and that God has promised to never leave us or forsake us, that we are never alone? I’ve had one of those weeks. And the Scripture that I have turned to repeatedly is Psalm 46, which the choir sang a little earlier.
“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved
and the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
You may know that that is the text that Martin Luther used for writing the famous hymn “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
Part of the reason why I continued to turn to that Psalm this week, as some of you may have read in the papers or seen in the news—and certainly for those of you all who are facile with social media—the Cathedral did something bold and courageous on Friday, inviting into this house of prayer for all people, some Muslim friends to offer their Friday prayers in the north transept. This grew out of a relationship of my friend and colleague Gina Campbell and Ambassador Rasool of South Africa as they planned a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. They began to dream: what would it mean if, in our time, we had a different expression, a new expression, for the Cathedral of being a house of prayer for all people? And as you may have read or you may have heard, there were many people who were very affirming and supportive. I can assure you there were many who were not. It’s been that sort of week.
And it has caused me to step back a bit and reflect and pray on how do we live faithfully into our foundation as a house of prayer for all people? And I don’t know who said it but some wise sage said “our past informs our present.” So, a short history lesson of the Cathedral.
In 1952, then Dean Francis Sayre invited a Jewish congregation, Temple Sinai, to hold their Friday evening worship in Bethlehem Chapel, the oldest chapel of this Cathedral down on the crypt level from 1952 until 1957 when their temple was completed. That was one expression of this National Cathedral being a house of prayer for all people as our Jewish neighbors offered their Friday evening prayers in their tradition in this place.
More recently, in August 23, 2011, this Cathedral suffered a very extensive earthquake. You can see around you that we’re still working on repairing and restoring this Cathedral. But what I remember and have remembered this week was that one of the very first calls that we received was from our friend Rabbi Bruce Lustig at Washington Hebrew Congregation saying, “Come and worship in our synagogue.” We were shut out of this Cathedral for three months and for the first five weeks we were openly welcomed to offer our prayers in that sanctuary. And Rabbi Lustig said, “Bring whatever you need in terms of Eucharist, a cross, to be faithful to your tradition in this space.” Never in my wildest imagination would I have pictured myself celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, in a synagogue. We were welcomed as neighbors.
Jesus, when asked what is the most important commandment and law said, “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit and to love your neighbor as yourself.” We have loved; we have been loved. And then on Friday we invited our Muslim neighbors and friends to offer their Friday prayers in our transept. I learned that while this may have been a first for this Cathedral, it’s certainly not a first. Three other Episcopal churches in our area have been doing that, some for years: St. Phillips Laurel, Emmanuel on the Hill in Alexandria, Epiphany Church. Loving their neighbors as themselves.
You’ve probably read some of the affirming things; maybe some of you have read the things that were not quite so affirming. I can tell you that my clergy colleagues and friends and I in the past week have received literally hundreds of emails that have characterized us as cowards or idiots or fools or liars or infidels or blasphemers and then a few things that I can’t repeat. It begs the question, what causes that? What is the motivation for something like that? And I have prayed, as we know that good people can and do disagree on things, and, of course, that happens all the time.
But what would cause one to reach out in that way? And the only thing that I can come up with is: if you peel everything else away, at its core, I think it’s fear. Fear. Fear of something different; fear of the stranger; fear of the unknown. And if one’s image of Islam is ISIS, it’s pretty understandable why one would be fearful. And the only thing I know and have experienced in my life that can overcome fear is love. In 1 John 4:18, it says “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.” We love because God first loved us. We are called to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I want to share with you just a few things that Ambassador Rasool said in his sermon on Friday and I brought notes because I want to get this exactly as he said it and not as it’s been characterized. The title of the sermon is Building the Middle Ground, Defeating the Extremes.
“Extremism is not the antidote to extremism. Extremism labels because it cannot debate. Extremism excludes because it cannot embrace. Extremism is angry because it cannot love. Extremism destroys because it cannot build. Extremism has perfected the art of dying for its cause because it has forgotten how to live for its cause.”
“As we sit in this cathedral today we must commit that that which we desire for ourselves by way of freedom of belief, freedom of worship, and freedom of conscience, we must desire for Christians and those of other faiths in the heartland of Islam. This is the time for good people to make common cause.”
Our dean Gary Hall on that day said, “We start today with prayer and hospitality as a way to build a new way of being together for we find ourselves in a new moment in interfaith relations where we can stand confident in our own tradition as we reach out to each other and to the world.”
This is the time for good people to make common cause. That’s what we’re seeking to do: to be faithful in this generation, in this time, in this expression of being a house of prayer for all people. But we’re very clear that we are Christians. We’re not threatened by something or a different expression in another tradition.
C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it rise, but because by it I see everything else.” That is the lens through which we are called to see the world and sometimes, friends, we have the opportunity to put on a wide angle lens, loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and spirit and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.”“ I may well be a fool, but if I am, I hope that I’m foolish out of love.” “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”Psalm 46
Thanks be to God. Amen.