The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a blessing it is to see all of you this morning. It’s been something like 475 days since we have worshiped together in this building. That’s a long time. And I cannot begin to tell you how glad we are to see your faces, and not only imagine them on the other side of the video cameras. We have all been through so much, but I give thanks to God that we have done it together. Thank you for joining us online for all the Sunday services, the daily morning prayers, and the services of prayer and remembrance for those who have died from COVID-19. You have blessed us these 475 days, and I hope we’ve been a blessing to you.
And for all our friends, our brothers, and our sisters and siblings in Christ who cannot be with us in person today, please know that you are a critical part of this Cathedral family. Our commitment to you, and to our digital worship and ministry, will only increase in the weeks and months to come. The truth is we are no longer a Cathedral bound by the walls of this magnificent building. Because of you, we are bigger than this building. We are, in fact, a Cathedral without walls, and what a blessing that is.
Friends, it seems only fitting that our first Sunday together in person should also be the first time the 4th of July has fallen on a Sunday in 11 years. Because today is a returning and a beginning for this Cathedral and for our nation. It is a returning to something that looks like the time before the pandemic, and yet because of the pandemic, because of all that has taken place in this Cathedral, in the country, in the world over the past 475 days, we are in fact in a very different place than we were in March of 2020. And so this is also a beginning. We are not returning to normal. We are creating a new normal. Because the truth is, we cannot go back; we can only go forward. We cannot go back. We can only go forward.
Okay, so where do we go from here? Before we ask that question, let’s first ask: what have we learned? Or more accurately, what should we have learned? If we should have learned anything in these past 15 months, it’s the fact that we’re all in this together. The virus affected the whole world. None of us were really safe from it, and none of us were able to make it on our own. We needed each other. And this leads me to the second thing we should have learned: that the people we may have once taken for granted, are the very people who ensure our survival. Healthcare workers, first responders, food delivery workers, laboratory technicians, and so many others. All of those on the front lines whose jobs did not permit them to work from home safe and sound behind their computers. Third, we should have learned that every day is a gift and tomorrow is never guaranteed. I have listened to the Bourdon bell here in this Cathedral strike its solemn toll too many times for those who have died in our nation. Two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand, four hundred thousand, five hundred thousand, six hundred thousand lost. My friends, did you know that in the past 15 months, as many Americans have died from COVID-19 as the sum total of all the American service men and women lost on the battlefield in every single military campaign since the Revolution? We should never forget that this life is a gift from God, and every day we have with the people we love is precious beyond words.
Fourth, we ought to realize that we can accomplish anything if we put our minds to it. It’s no small miracle that we have developed the vaccines we now have in such a short amount of time. The creativity, perseverance, and dedication of the medical and scientific communities have been astounding, and we should never forget this. Because we have so many other problems in our society that could benefit from the same kind of focus and attention. Fifth, we should have learned that when it comes to the sin of racism in this country, we have not progressed nearly as far as some of us think we have. We have a lot of work still to do, and we must remember that none of us are really free until all of us are really free.
And finally, we should have learned that our democracy is fragile. And that to maintain it, we must never take it for granted. As our cannon historian, Jon Meacham said, and I paraphrase, “To be on the side of the angels, we must resist tribalism, respect facts and reason, and realize that compromise is the oxygen of democracy.”
So where do we go from here? I think our lessons this morning give us insight into a way forward. Because in this day, when we celebrate our national freedoms, we must, as Christians, ask, not only “What are we free from?” but “What are we free for?” My brothers and sisters and members of the body of Christ, we are free from the tyranny of sin of death. As a result, we are free to live in new ways, free to live in love, free to live in service to others. As Pope John Paul once wrote, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” And what we ought to do is love the stranger. Let’s face it, most of us are not native to this land. Most of us either came from another country, or we had ancestors that did. Some of us have ancestors who were brought here in chains against their will. In this sense, we have all been strangers. And therefore, the stranger in our community, the stranger in our country, the stranger on our border, they are us. And we are them. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in Hebrew scripture, one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But in no fewer than 36 places in scripture, God commands us to love the stranger. He adds, “The Supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”
Second, we need to stand up for the vulnerable and the poor because Deuteronomy tells us we worship a God who executes justice for the widow and the orphan. Throughout this pandemic, we have witnessed firsthand in real time, the disparities in our country between rich and poor, between those who receive good medical care and those who do not. Between those who could make a living safe from the virus, and those who were forced to place themselves in danger every day, just to make ends meet. Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans were 3-3 ½ times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white folks. And 2-2 ½ times more likely to die from the disease. There’s something wrong here. And as we move forward, we must do better.
Finally, we must realize that God loves us all, even those we hate. As Jesus said, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Therefore, as Phil Thrailkill reminds us, “I have to ask myself, who are my enemies and who do I feel justified in putting outside my circle of concern?” I found the words of Thomas Merton most helpful. “Do not be too quick,” he wrote, “to assume that your enemy is a savage because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him, he would no longer be your enemy. Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God, just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy, precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.” In other words, who I label as my enemy may say more about me than about them.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus tells us. And the kind of love Jesus is talking about is not one where we must become doormats to violence and injustice. It doesn’t mean we have to like our enemies or agree with them, but it does mean we must treat them with respect. Because they too are the beloved children of God. As Philip Yancey once said, and I love this quote, “I doubt God keeps track of how many arguments we win. God may indeed keep track of how well we love.”
So, in summary, what should we have learned? That we’re all in this together? That the people we take for granted are often the most important? That every day is a gift and none of us are guaranteed tomorrow? That we can accomplish anything if we put our minds to it? That racism is alive and well in our country, and that our fragile democracy deserves our best efforts? And what should we do, as we move forward? Learn to love the stranger. Stand up for the poor and the vulnerable. Strive to love our enemies, because God loves us all. Even those we hate.
My friends, on this 4th of July, we have much to be grateful for. God has blessed us in ways too numerous to count. But we have been through a lot. Throughout the many months of this pandemic, with sickness and death, we have seen the racism we have experienced, and the threats to our democracy we have lived through, many of us have experienced some kind of trauma in one form or another. There has been far too much stress, too much worry, too much fear. And it will take us all some time to heal and to come to terms with what we have been through. So be kind to yourself. Be gentle with those around you. And if you’re able to, find some time to get some rest this summer. We’ve come a long way, but there’s much more work yet to be done. We cannot go back to what was, we can only move forward and strive to create what might be. As Bishop Curry reminds us, “God has a dream for His creation. A dream for every man, woman, and child, whoever walked upon the face of the earth. And God will not rest until our nightmare is ended and God’s dream is realized. Oh, God has a dream and God will not rest until God’s dream is accomplished, and miraculously, God will not do it without us.”
May it be so. Amen.