Sermon Text

August 28, 2011 11:15 AM • Pentecost XI

Sermon

The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope

The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope

The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope

Transcribed from audio recording.

Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth—come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.

The first thing that I could see, looking out my window, was our Cathedral still standing: strong, proud, eager to continue her service as the spiritual home for the nation. That is our legacy and that is our call.

Well, it’s been quite a week. The earthquake came out of the blue, then came the hurricane. As you know from your own study of Hebrew Scripture, including the portion that we heard this morning about Moses’ call, one of the ways in which Moses worked to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt was working through the plagues. So it would not surprise me if we see the locusts hovering, waiting to come our way, when we walk outside!

But seriously, here we are; and I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is for us to see all of you and for us to be together: still standing, as our beloved Cathedral is still standing; shaken, but still standing strong. In the past few days, we have been so heartened…and deeply moved…by the generosity and outpouring from our friends near and far. Our interfaith service in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., was held yesterday at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—they reached out to us—and here we are, today, out of the generosity of our good friend Rabbi Bruce Lustig and the good people of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, who reached out and opened this beautiful sanctuary to us so that we could be together today and next Sunday. Our friends at St. Alban’s Church on the Close have reached out: I’ll be officiating at a wedding that’s been relocated to their beautiful place next Saturday. And our friends at St. Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, have reached out as well. We have much to be thankful for and to give gratitude about, even as we begin to deal with our own issues ahead of us.

On Friday I was returning to Washington from a quick trip to Texas to check on my father. And as we were approaching National Airport and had just come below the cloud cover, the first thing that I could see, looking out my window, was our Cathedral still standing: strong, proud, eager to continue her service as the spiritual home for the nation. That is our legacy and that is our call. And together we will meet this challenge.

There have been a lot of challenges over the course of the Cathedral’s history and our history together. We all know that today marks the forty-eighth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. We’re all familiar with that. What we probably don’t remember quite as well—but it’s terribly significant—is that Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon from our Cathedral: March 31, 1968, from our Canterbury pulpit. As I was preparing to preach today I read his sermon again, and I was struck by the eternal truths of the words that he spoke that day. I’d like just for a few minutes to explore some of those with you, because I believe they’re as vital today—and as urgent today—as they were in 1968.

Dr. King basically addressed three things that were on his heart and mind that day. The first, not surprisingly, was racial injustice. And yes, we had come a long way in 1968, with the Civil Rights movement, and the passage—which Dr. King was so much a part of—of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. But he said we had not yet cured this nation of the disease of racial injustice. He said that “the black man’s burden is still the white man’s shame.” My brothers and sisters, we have not yet cured our country of that disease.

I read recently a report from the Department of Homeland Security that splinter groups from the Ku Klux Klan have been continually on the rise since 2008, when our first African American president was elected. The insidious disease of racism is still with us. And our Cathedral has a vital role to play in continuing to speak the truth.

The second thing that Dr. King addressed that day was poverty. You may know that he had shifted in his focus; while the Civil Rights movement was very much a part of who he was, he began to focus on the issues of poverty and war, because he felt that poverty and militarism and racism were all inextricably connected. And in that day he quoted the statistic that 40 million Americans were living in poverty. We’ve not done a great job in the war on poverty either. Today, one in eight Americans lives below the poverty line. Almost one in four children are at risk of being hungry. We know that 1.4 billion people, across this globe, live in extreme poverty. Our Cathedral has a vital role in continuing the war on poverty as we seek to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, physically and spiritually.

The third thing that Dr. King addressed that day was the war in Vietnam. He took a lot of criticism for that—he took criticism for everything—but he particularly stepped out in faith to criticize the war in Vietnam. He felt it was one of the most unjust wars in his time. And he made the point again about the interconnectedness of poverty, and war, and all of those issues: he said that it took $500,000 to kill each Vietcong soldier, when at that time the United States was spending $53 per person for each person who was poverty stricken. $500,000 dollars…$53 dollars…I’m not smart enough to know those answers. But they’re the right questions to be asking.

At Boston University, Dr. King’s alma mater, the Institute for International Affairs estimates that, since 9/11, the United States will have spent somewhere between 3 and 4 trillion dollars in our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I don’t know the answers, but they are the important questions of our day. And our Cathedral is so uniquely situated to bring together the leaders of this country and around the world to grapple with those important questions.

We have a legacy, we have a call and a purpose. We’re also going to have some challenging days ahead. But like Martin Luther King, our faith and our determination are what ground us. Dr. King used to talk about how in 1957, late one night, he got a particularly threatening phone call. And he went into his kitchen—and he wept, and he prayed; and he heard God say to him, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice—and I will be with you. You’ll never be alone.” Dr. King talked about that as his mountaintop experience that we so often heard echoed in his speeches: that he’d “been to the mountaintop” and he’d seen the Lord. That’s what he was referring to: that everything he did was undergirded in the faith, knowing that he never would do it alone—that God would be with him.

We are going to have some challenging days, and weeks, and years ahead of us. But I know that we are prepared to be steady and steadfast, working together to meet those challenges, to shore back up our beloved Cathedral to be the spiritual home for the nation. We have important work to do, important questions to raise and address: elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, we will work together.

I want to leave you with one last image on this day. The oldest part of the Cathedral is Bethlehem Chapel. Buried underneath that altar is the foundation stone of our Cathedral, which is actually two stones. The larger stone is a stone that was quarried in Bethlehem: the place where our Lord and Savior was born, and walked, and moved, and had his being. Embedded in that stone is American granite, which for me symbolizes our grit and determination as Americans to stand tall, to stand steady, and move forward—and do what we need to do, undergirded by the light of Christ, to shine forth to a broken and hurting world. As we do that we remember what Paul did and said to encourage a church in Philippi, that “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us” (Phil. 4:13).

Amen.