In Honor of John Thomas Walker

by | Sep 29, 2019

But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you! 
Ruth 1:16-17

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

When the day drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face toward Jerusalem. 
Luke 9:51 

There’s a saying that’s made the social media rounds in recent years, widely and mistakenly  attributed to Mark Twain:

The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, 
and the day you discover why you were born. 

Its origin is most likely a sermon. It sounds like something someone like me would say in a sermon. In fact, with credit to whomever said it first, I’m saying it now, with a slight, but significant variation:

The most important days in your life  are the day you were born, 
and the days (for there are more than one) when you discover why you were born.  

Let’s start with the first important day: 

The fact that you and I are here at all is a miracle. “It is strange that we are here,” wrote the Celtic poet John O’Donohue, who himself left this earth far too soon, “The mystery of existence never leaves us alone. Behind our image, below our words, above our thoughts, a world lives within us. . . Fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form. Yet in our mediocrity and distraction, we can forget that we are privileged to live in a wondrous universe.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (London: Bantam Press, 1999), pp.13-27.)

While we were born on a particular day, nearly everything about us on that day was as yet unrealized possibility. Every day since has provided opportunities for us to step toward or away from whatever possibilities God placed within our DNA.

The next most important days are those when we move in a decisive way toward our destiny–physically, emotionally, spiritually, communally. “The human journey is a continuous act of transfiguration.” O’Donohue wrote, “Once the soul awakens, the search begins and we can never go back.” There is within the human soul not only the desire to live, but a quest to answer the most elusive of questions: why? Among the species, we are God’s meaning-making creatures. 

I’ve spent much of my life thinking about questions of meaning and, with varying degrees of success, trying to answer them for myself. What I’ve learned is that this holy grail of our existence, this pearl of great price, isn’t something we discover on a single day. For there are many paths before us, many ways to live purposeful lives, some that we discover in early childhood or that others see in us when we are young; others that we realize gradually over time; and still others that are thrust upon us by circumstances we could have never anticipated and do not choose. Think of our spiritual ancestor Ruth in this light–how in response to devastating loss she claimed a new future alongside her beloved Naomi. 

The search for meaning and purpose can’t be separated from the mystery of our existence, and our continued existence, against the odds. We feel the connection most acutely whenever we survive a trauma or catastrophe that others do not. For we realize anew that our life is a gift and   that it comes with responsibility to live it well, if nothing else to honor those who lives were cut short. 

It’s misleading, though, to suggest that we discover our purpose in life in the way we might happen upon a coin on the sidewalk. More often than we not, we must work hard to create meaning with whatever raw materials we’re given. It’s possible, of course, to drift, sometimes for years, in mind-numbing distraction or frenetic activity. Tragically, it’s possible to have the sense of meaning for our lives beaten out of us by external cruelty or inner despair. Nonetheless, whenever by the grace of God we wake up, claim our dignity and a destiny that has been revealed to us; whenever we stand up and realize that we have good, meaningful work to do and to do now–no matter what it is and how we came to it, no matter our age, station in life, public recognition or lack of it, no matter our success or failure in accomplishing that work–whenever we set ourselves toward our Jerusalem, even if it means sacrificing ourselves so that others might live, then we are most alive. The glory of God, wrote one of the earliest Christian theologians, is a human being fully alive. 

Think of those days, when you knew what you needed to do, and why. Think of the people you   most admire. Aren’t they the ones who know the precious gift of being alive and dedicate themselves in pursuit of a dream? 

There is considerable debate among Christians as to when Jesus knew why he was born–how and when it became clear to the fully human Jesus of Nazareth that his destiny was to be the incarnation of God’s love for the world. The biblical account is predictably ambiguous. Some versions of his life are emphatic that he always knew, from the womb. Most suggest, however, that it was a series of revelations over time: at his baptism when the Holy Spirit spoke to him; in the desert of his temptation; when he read in his hometown synagogue from the scrolls of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for God has appointed me to preach good news to the poor,” in his encounter with the Syrophoneician woman who dared him to expand his horizons beyond his own people, and on the mountain of his transfiguration, when he realized that his destiny was to die young. There were a series of moments, not just one, of discovery and clarifying purpose. And because he realized that his destiny was to die, he needed not only a reason to live, but a purpose worthy enough to give his life. 

In light of that ultimate realization, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. In other words, he walked from the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee in northern Palestine where he grew up and had created quite a movement for himself, to Jerusalem in the south, where all prophets of ancient Israel went to die. And as you heard in the gospel text, walking with that kind of intention leaves little room for distraction or half-hearted commitment. You were with him, or you weren’t, but he was going.  

I wonder, toward what destiny have you set your face? 
Toward what collective destiny have we set ours? 

Today we commemorate the birth of this Cathedral: On September 29th, 1907, the foundation stone was laid. It lies deep within this building, anchored on eleven feet of solid concrete, buried under half a million tons of Indiana limestone. In the heart of the foundation stone lies a smaller stone that came from Bethlehem, and on that stone are the foundational words of the Christian faith: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

1907 was a heady time for our nation and the Episcopal Church, and the event itself must have been glorious, with President Theodore Roosevelt, the Bishop of London, 62 bishops representing 4 continents of the Anglican Communion joining Bishop Satterlee, the first bishop of the brand new Diocese of Washington, to mark the day.  One account of that day helps us picture the excitement of “a new diocese, a new century, the emergence of the United States as a world power, the optimism born of prosperity and innovation, the belief that Episcopalians were destined to be the nation’s spiritual leaders–all this and more convinced Bishop Satterlee and his financial backers to launch an audacious plan to build the huge, Gothic cathedral from which they could keep watch over the capitol.” (Robert Harrison: John Walker: A Man for the 21st Century (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Press, 2004), p. 61.)

The Cathedral, we might say, was officially born that day, but it, too, was mostly unrealized potential. Its construction faced setbacks almost as soon as the cornerstone was laid. Within a year, Bishop Satterlee was dead. Within a decade, World War I began, followed by the Great Depression and a second World War. Successive deans, bishops, lay leaders, visionaries, philanthropists would take their turn in trying to get this Cathedral finished and at the same time address the question of why? What is this Cathedral’s purpose, its reason for being? 

Today we also remember a man who not only answered, but embodied the Cathedral’s purpose with compelling vision, deep faith, a joyful spirit, and prophetic truth: Bishop John T. Walker, who died 30 years ago on Cathedral Day. 

Bishop Walker stands out in the long line of admirable leaders for many reasons, not the least of which was his determination to have the Cathedral finished on his watch, debt free, with a clear and compelling vision, also fully funded. 

Called to this place in the mid-1960s as Canon Missioner, John Walker quickly became a spiritual and political leader in Washington. A former teacher and the father of young children, he took a special interest in the Cathedral schools while also advocating for the public school system in Washington. An African American whose life bridged the worst of Jim Crow and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, the first to desegregate nearly every institution he attended or served, he knew the pernicious evil of racism and yet refused to be defined by it. His children describe their home as a refuge for many, of people coming for dinner and staying for a year. He had the ability to treat everyone he encountered–from custodians to presidents–with the same warmth and respect. He was, in the eyes of some, a moderate, yet he never shied away from the pressing issues of his day. As a result, John Walker was beloved as few leaders are, so much so that he was elected bishop of this diocese twice, first as suffragan bishop and then as the first African American to serve as the diocesan bishop of Washington. 

As bishop, Walker realized that tending to both the Cathedral’s existence and destiny fell to him. His predecessor had worked mightily to finish building Cathedral, but in 1978, construction was suspended for lack of funds. In a move that still takes my breath away to think about, Walker named himself both bishop of the diocese and dean of this Cathedral. He then set about not only to raise money to finish the Cathedral but to ensure that its purpose was never in question.  This was to be a house of prayer for all people, a church for national purposes, a sanctuary of grandeur and artistic genius with a gospel commitment to the common good, respectful civic discourse, intellectual rigor, social justice, and genuine hospitality. He poured himself into the hard, necessary work of raising money for the Cathedral’s completion while embodying its mission every day of life. He inspired many people to join him in that endeavor. He inspired a generation of young people, now leaders in their own right, to live purposeful, faithful lives. Then, on the day to mark the beginning of a full year’s celebration of the Cathedral’s completion, Cathedral Day, 1989, Bishop Walker died. 

Reading the accounts of that day, you feel grief rising from the pages, the stunned sense of loss, the free flowing tears, the immediate resolve to carry his light forward. Noted laywoman of the Church, Pamela Chinnis, wrote: “John Walker’s legacy to us–whether we be women, blacks, young persons, or builders of the Cathedral–is the conviction that what may seem impossible can be possible if we, like him, are faithful witnesses of the God of justice and compassion.” (This is a summary of Walker’s life, as presented by Robert Harrison. He quotes Chinnis in the book’s introduction, p. xxxi.)

Many in leadership at the Cathedral now, including our dean and the chair of the Cathedral Chapter grew up under the spiritual guidance and inspiration of Bishop Walker. Others with us in the Cathedral today were blessed to work alongside him, and took up his mantle when he died. Whenever I walk through the Cathedral, I feel John’s spirit, cheering us on.

Dean Randy Hollerith recently wrote:

As we plot a course for the Cathedral over the next five years, we choose to embrace its creative tensions rather than run from them. We cherish its multiple identities. In a world that seems in constant turmoil, our faith compels us to answer the prophet Isaiah’s call to be repairers of the breach. This Cathedral has been blessed with a distinctive position at the intersection of civic and sacred life, and we aim to be a witness for Jesus Christ and to serve as an agent of reconciliation and moral leadership. We make no claims of having all of the answers; rather we seek to serve using the unique gifts God has given us. We recognize that the stones that make up this Cathedral–with their rich history and visibility within our nation’s capital–need to be living stones, providing a distinctive voice within the civic and religious life of our city and our country. (Randy Hollerith, “A Bold Vision,” in Washington National Cathedral’s strategic plan)

In closing, let me say again to all gathered: 

The most important days of your life are the days you were born and the days you discover why you were born and, then, like Jesus, set your face toward your destiny. Borrowing from the late poet Mary Oliver, I ask you, “What are you going to do now with your one wild and precious life?” 

To the Cathedral’s leadership, I say this: 

The most important days of this Cathedral’s life includes the day the foundation stone was laid, September 29, 1907, and all the other days when people like us discovered and dedicated their lives to its purpose. May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of this day.