The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
It is well with my soul.
In the name of the living God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Amen.
For as long as I can remember, baseball has been noted as America’s favorite pastime. Now, given the events of the last week, perhaps at least in the Washington metropolitan area, hockey may have the edge—go Caps! But it’s been baseball’s honor for a long time. Interestingly enough, over the past two or three years, there’s an American pastime that’s leapfrogged over almost all the others in terms of popularity. Today, believe it or not, it’s second only to gardening. And, in like manner, people who count these things say that it’s the second of most frequently visited related websites. Second only to porn sites. Now I know I have your attention, right?!
Can you guess it? What has captured so many people in this country? Genealogy and ancestry—who knew? But more importantly, it begs the question, what’s that about? What is it that we’re looking for? Why are we going back generations? What are we seeking? I would say at our heart, it’s an answer to some of the deepest questions. Who am I? Whose am I? Where do I come from and, most importantly, where do I belong?
Now, genealogy is not new. We know that. My family’s done its history. I bet many of yours have too. If we’re really honest, going back in our country, it was the preoccupation of many of the white elite to trace their ancestry to who came over on the Mayflower. Mine didn’t—and if we’re really honest, for everyone who claims an ancestor on the Mayflower, if it were true, it would be a fleet of ships, not just one. Don’t get me wrong. Families are important. Our family histories tell us something, don’t they?
But if we’re going to go back to trace our roots, why not go back to the beginning? Say, Genesis. The story that you heard a part of in the Old Testament reading today comes from the third chapter of Genesis and ties to what is actually the second creation story. Yes, folks, there are two in Genesis. A little bit of context about Genesis: Genesis was written thousands of years after the fact. It wasn’t intended to be an eye witness account. CNN was not there tweeting the latest breaking news. It was rather a faithful attempt from the Israelites to try and explain the inexplicable: creation, earth, humankind, good, evil, sin. How in the world would one capture that?
The book of Genesis tells the story, our story, of a faithful people and their encounter with God and one another. In the story, the second creation story of Genesis, God creates ʼĀḏām from the soil of the earth—Adam—and God tells Adam that you can eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden of Eden except one, the one at the very center, the tree of good and evil. You eat of that tree, you’re going to die. Well, you know the story. Eve comes along and then a talking snake and they end up eating the fruit. But here’s the point. They don’t die. Keep reading in Genesis. Adam goes on to a ripe old 930 years.
What does that tell us? It tells us that God is faithful. The central question of Genesis, and I would argue the entire Bible and our lives, is this. Do we trust God enough to have our best interests at heart or do we decide we need to take things into our own hands? The Bible and our lives are replete with stories of us taking things into our own hands. But God is faithful. When we are fickle and we falter, when we fall off the rails, God is there, continually calling us back. Frederick Buechner in writing about Adam and Eve says, “If God really wanted to get rid of us, the chances are God wouldn’t have kept hounding us every step of the way.” And that is true. When we’re unfaithful, God is faithful and trustworthy. That’s our story.
Our family stories, as I said, are really important. They tell us a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from. But I think so often, in trying to trace our roots, we’re looking for something special, something to make us special. We all have our heroes and heroines in our family histories and others, not so much. All of us have characters, do we not?
One of my favorite characters in our family history was Uncle Ed. Now, Uncle Ed was sweet and kind and generous, but he was a world class character. He came to live with my grandmother after his wife died and my grandmother was physically disabled. It was hard for her to walk, so Uncle Ed took on a couple tasks in the house. His job was basically to take out the trash and get the mail. It’s not so hard. To fully paint the picture: Uncle Ed, when he moved in with my grandmother, bought a red Corvette. I can’t tell you why because it was awfully difficult for Uncle Ed and my grandmother to wrestle in and out of that red Corvette. And, just to make it even better, he had it specially outfitted with a horn that when you hit it played the bugle call to post to the Kentucky Derby. You could not miss those folks driving around town!
The part of what I remember with great fondness about my Uncle Ed was how he perfected the art of expending the least amount of energy to accomplish a task. So when it was time for him to take out the trash, he’d go to that red Corvette, and he’d very carefully place the bag of trash on the back edge of the trunk and he’d pull out of the garage along the driveway at a pretty good clip. When he got to the end of the driveway, he’d hit the brakes so the trash fell off the back, drove the car back into the garage, and he was done. Same sort of process with the mail: drive the car out, put the window down, reach out, get the mail at the mailbox at the end of the driveway, drive back in. He was done.
There was another thing about my Uncle Ed, which I thought was hilarious as a kid, but as I thought more about it, as I’ve gotten older, it actually just makes me sad. My Uncle Ed didn’t go to college, but in his later life, he claimed he did. He said he went to Notre Dame. He went to a pawn shop to get a ring from Notre Dame. Why’d he do that? Why did he feel he needed to do that? To be special.
You see my friends, you don’t have to trace your heritage back to the Mayflower. You don’t have to make up a college degree that you don’t have. You and I, we were special from the moment of our birth. We are beloved children of God, each and every one of us—no exceptions. We’re family, you and I, all going back to God, the creator. I think that’s part of the point that Jesus was trying to make in that Gospel lesson. Jesus wasn’t turning his back on his family. He was broadening the definition of it: that we’re all family in God, are we not? Each and every one of us precious in God’s sight.
I think that deep identity is so important. I think part of this wrestling around with our genealogy and everything else is an attempt in the midst of chaotic and uncertain times to have an anchor, a deep grounding. My friends, our deepest grounding is that we’re children of God, each and every one of us. Saint Augustine said that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” meaning God—our grounding our anchor. Our core being is as a child of God. I think that’s one of the most critical ministries of this cathedral: that all are welcome, all belong, no exceptions.
I was reminded of that so powerfully yesterday as a group of us from the Cathedral community participated in the Pride March. We proudly walked behind the banner of Washington National Cathedral and watched crowds of people break into joyful applause and thanksgiving when they saw that banner that said, you belong, you are welcome. You are loved by God, precious in God’s sight—no exceptions. In these times, if you are feeling alone, afraid, depressed, isolated, come here. Be with us. Because remember, we’re family. We share our stories—the good, the bad, the ugly and the in between.
Remember, you are never alone. God loves you, and so do we.