The Very Rev. Robert Andrews Willis
‘Tis the most enormous pleasure to be here in Washington Cathedral again, and also to stand in this pulpit again. It’s less than a year since I was here as your guest at the inauguration of the ministry of my great friend Dean Sam Lloyd, and it’s wonderful to be here now, Dean Lloyd, as your guest among this confraternity of deans throughout the world. Let me bring to all of you the greetings of Canterbury Cathedral and the love and affection of that place. These two great holy places have so much in common. And our workings together throughout this week, the clergy and I have shown exactly how much we can share in terms of wisdom and strength, in the telling of our story one to another. And that link has grown through the development of the Cathedral College here with our International Study Center. So I pray God’s blessing on all your work here.
It’s also a terrific pleasure to stand in this particular pulpit. It always is, because as all of you will know, it was carved out of the stones of the central tower of Canterbury Cathedral and given as a gift to Washington at the foundation of this place. It’s the only pulpit I think that I stand in, in the whole world, where the lesson is given very, very clearly to me on the front panel of the pulpit: “The Church of England shall be free.” I have to come to Washington to read that! And it’s a marvelous thing to see the panels, not only of freedom with Archbishop Stephen Langton pointing to the Magna Carta and King John unwillingly signing it, but also panels about those who lived and died that the clarity and communication of the Scripture should be given to those who were worshiping in the English Church and in those churches who take the English Church as their root. So that one sees what it cost someone like Tyndale to have that translation given. And the other powerful statement on this side of the pulpit, I seem to remember, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Well, that clarity is something that we actually all believe in greatly, and it reminds me of the huge compass rose which stands in the middle of Canterbury Cathedral, set in the floor with the words from St. John’s Gospel, the Anglican motto worldwide, “The truth shall set you free,” emblazoned there in Greek.
These stones that give me good support in the Canterbury pulpit are from the stones of Bell Harry Tower. But I use Bell Harry Tower mostly for a sort of, shall we call it, a “Wow” factor, when I take people into Canterbury Cathedral, particularly at night. And there, if you stand and look up, you have the biggest “Wow” factor that Canterbury can give. I have one always whenever I step through Washington Cathedral at the west door, especially on a morning of wonderful sunshine like this. And I have it in many holy places and many sights of creative beauty throughout the world. But Canterbury provides this one in the darkness.
When the floodlights of the Cathedral are on outside and nothing is lit inside, and you say to people, “Look up, but first stand still,” (because Canterbury is full of steps, and litigation these days is heavy, and so “Stand still and then look up”) or better still (and people coming in, security officers checking at night think we’re absolutely mad) “Lie on the floor with your head on the steps and look absolutely upward,” and there, right at the top of the inside of the Tower, is a sight of such beauty I can’t describe it. It’s a combination of architecture and light and extra light with modern flood lights, criss-crossing with shadows and lights and making enormous creative wonder, looking up. Afterwards, one is slightly giddy, and you have to watch yourself on the steps as you go on. And something of great beauty and human creativity, and the desire to give glory to God through artistic creation and human gifts has been given to you. It’s always an encouragement. And there are many such sights in this cathedral church.
This Sunday, just before Lent—we’re oh so near to Ash Wednesday now, when we keep this season of preparation—this Sunday gives us an extraordinary pair of lessons, both of which cause our eyes to look up into glory. And both of them, I don’t know why, in our liturgy as we hear them read—and the Gospel and Epistle will be exactly the same in the English Church today—are unfinished. There’s a bit more. One’s left on a tiptoe of anticipation with both of them, but the anticipation is quite different in each.
The Elijah story is a wonderful one. His disciple, Elisha, knows in his heart that he is about to lose the wisdom, the power, and the support of his teacher and friend., and that that will be traumatic. And there are enough people in the Old Testament lesson that we heard read telling him so. People are always eager to tell you these sorts of things. You know, “I don’t really want to tell you this, but… But do you know that… I feel I have to tell you that it’s going to be really difficult… It’s going to be traumatic… It’s going to be awful…” And the prophets are telling him this all the way along—three or four times—as that was read this morning. “Do you know that you’re going to be losing… We didn’t really want to give you bad news… Did you know you’re going to be losing your Master today?” Yes, I do know. And Elisha doesn’t say, “Shut up.” It’s inferred, though, all the way through: Yes, I do know.
The other thing they say is, this particular bit of the pilgrimage which God has set out for you is going to be particularly rough. Wouldn’t it be better just to, you know, stop just here? Stay here. Don’t go any further. It’s dark ahead. And Elisha says, “No I’m going on.” Someone else tries. “No, I’m going on.” Someone else tries: “There’s traumas ahead. Why not just stay here?” But Elisha’s vocation is to go on, to tread the way right to the end with his Master. And we see the end, and it’s an end with fire and glory, and Elijah being taken from Elisha. And the trauma is there. The pieces of the garments are in his hands, showing his distress.
What we don’t get, the left-out bit, is the next step. For Elisha takes up the cloak of his Master Elijah, and in his hands—and here’s an act of faith—it has the same power to part the waters. That, for him, must have been just as traumatic as losing Elijah, because the responsibility is now on his shoulders. And the great sentence that’s left hanging in the air, not read here, left for us to discover in Lent: “The spirit of Elijah has descended to Elisha.” And the very people who tried to make him stop and stay in the limited part of the pilgrimage where he was for comfort’s sake, are the ones who say it.
And the Gospel, too, causes us to look up, look up and find glory, in a knowledge of who Jesus is. There have been so many times when the disciples have argued, had dissent, been called blasphemers because for Jesus to equate himself with any aspect of Divinity was horrendous to that which was established at that time. And one has had before this Gospel the little incident of the friends at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus said, “Who are people saying I am?” Here we are concerned with the people on the road again. “Who are they saying I am?” They say, “Well, some say that you are Elijah or one of the prophets,” settling us right back in that other story. “Who do you say I am?” And they risk everything settled and ordered and risk the animosity of those around them in settled religion by saying, “You are the Christ.” It’s Peter who voices it for them. In the middle of all their disagreements, “You are the Christ.” And then comes this wonderful story of transfiguration, where what Peter has voiced is underlined by heaven, and in truth they see him in all his glory, and don’t even know what to say, because they are giddy with looking up at God’s glory.
That may seem to be a fitting end. We’ve gone all the way, surely, with the Gospel story, haven’t we? There’s nothing left like the bit of the Old Testament story where we have to read on to find that the spirit of Elijah has settled on Elisha. But if you looked at the Gospel of St. Mark you would find this to be wrong. There is more. They come down from the mountain. And when they get there, still dizzy with the experience of that which is divine being infused again into humanity created in the divine image so that potential is being restored, they find a crowd—a crowd gathered with the disciples who hadn’t come up the mountain with them—for only three had gone.
And there are arguments. There’s dissent, and there are accusations, and in the midst is one of the most moving characters in all the short Gospel of St. Mark, the Father of the Epileptic Boy. When Jesus says, “What’s happening here?” “Lord, I brought my son to your disciples. He often is taken over and writhes around and it’s dangerous for him. He’s fallen into fire. He’s fallen into water. He’s possessed in a way that I can’t deal with.” You can sense all the love of the father pouring into the boy ineffectually. “I brought him to your disciples, and they could do nothing.” Hence, the arguments, the fingers pointing, the accusations. And there they all are. And the three have come down with their Master from the mountaintop where they have been looking up in glory. What is the corollary?
From looking up, Jesus points their view downwards to the floor where writhes the pitiful epileptic body of this young man. And Jesus says, “Bring the boy to me.” Those are the words. The corollary. That’s where we’ve got to with a little bit of anticipation here. The Gospel is not finished on the mountaintop. The Gospel is finished earthed in something far more solid than the Canterbury pulpit, earthed in Christ’s incarnation. “Bring the boy’s humanity to me.” And Christ’s arms take the boy’s body, and in conjunction with what the father has to offer—you remember his words when Jesus says “do you believe that I can do something?” “Lord, I believe,” and the old translation, “Help thou mine unbelief. Complete what is lacking in me”—and together in partnership, maybe the healing will take place. And in the Lord’s arms, the humanity of the young lad is healed. That is the corollary. That is what we anticipate in transfiguration. That is the mission of us all. That is the power of Elijah settling on Elisha and silencing the crowd.
On this day, in this holy place as we gather, we glimpse in Gospel, in Sacrament, and in the beauty of human creativity dedicated to the glory of God, all that is glorious. And we feel almost dizzy with it. But Christ’s finger points that dizziness, that divine potential, back to suffering humanity. And in setting us free to be that image in which we were created, the Divine, he calls us—those on whom his Spirit has settled—to join that mission. In all the diversity, in all the distress, in all the trauma of the division of the pilgrimage, not to say “no, let’s stop here; we know that the next bit of the way is going to be rather difficult,” but to go on. And, with him, to face the world’s need, for his voice is saying to his body on earth, this morning as on every morning, “bring the world to me,” and together we may heal and restore the image of the Divine.