Rebuilding Our Foundation

by | Sep 25, 2023

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.
Matthew 7:13-14, 24-25

Good morning, friends. I’m so glad to be with the Cathedral community and our guests today, all who are physically present and you who are worshiping with us via technology. Whatever the challenges and joys of your life, I pray that you may have a palpable sense of God’s love for you as we worship and wherever in your life you could use a little mercy now.1

This weekend holds special significance for the Cathedral. In addition to our annual commemoration of the laying of the first foundation stone 116 years ago, we have dedicated to the glory of God the Now and Forever Windows by renowned artist Kerry James Marshall, and beneath the window, the soon-to-be inscribed poem, American Song, by the equally wondrous poet, Elizabeth Alexander.

May we never cease to give thanks for the artistic genius, careful planning, and soul-searching process that brought these stunning works into being.

Pondering the meaning of today, I was reminded of another Elizabeth Alexander poem, Praise Song for the Day that she wrote for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and recited from the steps of the US Capitol:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Say it plain: many have died for this day.

Jesus speaks to us this morning about the importance of foundations. Appropriately, the parable of the house built on solid rock is found at the end of the most concise summary of Jesus’ foundational teaching, known to us as the Sermon on the Mount (in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5-7). There he tells us, and we hear it plain, what it looks like to follow Him in the way of life-changing, world-transforming love.

The Sermon on the Mount famously begins with words of blessing: blessed are the poor in spirit; those who mourn, who are merciful, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the humble, the peace-makers and the persecuted.

Jesus then exhorts those who follow Him to be like the salt of the earth and light for the world; to seek reconciliation with those who have something against us; to honor our vows, whether we feel like it or not; to refrain from evil and the judging of other people.

Be on your guard, he warns us, against the corrosive love of money and the power of self deception.

Don’t congratulate yourselves for loving those who love you. No, he says, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Give generously.

Pray honestly and without a lot of words.

Be like trees that bear good fruit.

In conclusion, as we heard today, he tells us that while God’s love is universal and unconditional, following Him is, in fact, like walking through a narrow gate. It’s a hard road, he says, that leads to life. Then he says this:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise ones who built their house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

So let’s consider the importance of good foundations.

In architectural design and the construction of any building, not the least of which a cathedral, the foundation is the lowest, load-bearing part of a building, typically below ground. In the broadest sense, applicable to all dimensions of life, a foundation is an underlying principle or structure upon which other aspects of life are built and sustained. We speak of the foundations of any given academic discipline or commercial endeavor, the moral foundations of a community or nation, the relational foundations of a family, the spiritual foundations of a life. Because once we build on top of our foundation we can’t see it any longer, we can easily forget that it’s there or that it matters.

Jesus’ warning is clear enough: if your foundations are like sand; they cannot hold you well. Be wise, and build your lives upon solid rock.

It’s impossible to argue against that kind of advice, and who would want to?

So when we are at the beginning of any endeavor–be it a relationship, the raising of our children, establishing the networks in our communities, or building actual physical structures, we do well to tend to the slow, painstaking, soon-to-be forgotten work of building a sure foundation. Yet we also know how tempting it is to cut corners, move too quickly, and hope that we’re not the ones around to clean up the mess when the rains come.

In fairness, I daresay that most of us do the best that we can in foundation building. And when our faulty foundations fail, as they will, we learn the hard way, as we must, what must be done to start over and rebuild a firmer foundation. Sometimes, tragically, the wreckage is too great and we can’t salvage what we’ve lost. But if circumstances are kind and God is gracious, we’re given the chance to clear the debris, save what we can, and begin again.

Those of us who have traveled around the sun awhile know that this is a pretty steady rhythm of life, this building and rebuilding of foundations, replacing faulty ones with ones that hold true. It’s certainly the story of human history, and the evolution of knowledge.

Are you with me so far?

I’d like to broaden the lens a bit further, and when we do, we see that for most of us, most of the time, we live and move and have our being on foundations that others have built–not merely the buildings we live in and the subterranean structures that support our homes and communities, but also the building blocks of our identities and communities, our churches and faith traditions, our national and increasingly global institutions.

Sometimes we realize, or discover, or are forced to reckon with the reality that part of this inherited foundation that we assumed was sound is faulty and cannot hold. We realize that core aspects of our identities and communities were built upon foundational assumptions or beliefs that at best were rooted in ignorance, or worse, lies perpetuated by those who stood to benefit from them.

To be honest, as I’ve been speaking, I’m counting on the fact that examples of what I’m describing have come to your mind, from your life, or field of work or study. That you know what it feels like to come to terms with the fact that some part of your foundation–self-constructed or inherited–could no longer hold the person you are or simply wasn’t true, that the foundation that you were taught as a child, or picked up along the way, was misguided, or blatantly, a lie.

In some instances that realization is horrifying. In others it is sheer liberation. Either way, the process of coming to terms with a faulty foundation, deconstructing it, and starting over is not an easy process. It’s disruptive and unsettling. It creates a bit of a mess, as we sort through the debris for what is worth keeping and what isn’t, find the right materials, to build a foundation, as Jesus said, that can not only hold us amid the storms, but lead to life.

Those who are part of the Cathedral community know why I’m here. This has been a wonderful weekend of celebration and we now have two powerfully, moving windows depicting the courage and tenacity of millions of Black Americans determined to claim their rightful place in this country and their rights as human beings and dignity as children of God.

But amid our celebration, we do well to take a moment to remember the windows they replaced, depicting two generals of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as icons of Christian virtue–men who themselves owned slaves, betrayed their country, and fought a war to create a new country intending to preserve and expand the enslavement of Black people across the American continents.

After the Confederate windows were removed, they spent nearly a year on loan to the National Museum of African American History & Culture as part of an exhibition entitled: Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies.

In that exhibition, the Cathedral, through our windows, represented a discredited yet powerful historical lie, perpetuated for generations and with lasting impact today, known as the Lost Cause, which extolled Confederate leaders like Generals Lee and Jackson as saintly figures, the war itself as a noble cause to preserve a noble way of life in which slavery was a benign institution that benefitted the enslaved.

The historical period known as Reconstruction–generally dated 1865-1877–was a time of breath-taking advancement for formerly enslaved Black Americans that was, in the end, violently, systematically dismantled by many of our white ancestors who were determined to maintain racial supremacy and reunite white society, North and South, at the expense of Black Americans.

It is as painful to acknowledge that period of our history as the 300 years of slavery that preceded it, for at the moment when we had the chance to rebuild this country after it was nearly destroyed in the bloodiest of wars on the best of democratic ideals enshrined our foundational documents–that all are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–instead our white ancestors preserved and fortified the foundational lies of racism and white supremacy.

At critical junctures in years after the Civil War when Black Americans rose up in self-determination and resistance–most notably after both World Wars and during the Civil Rights era, monuments and windows like ours were conceived, paid for and installed all over the South and here in Washington, DC. The symbols of the Confederate cause, as we know, remain a powerful expression and rallying cause for white supremacists movements in our day. We’re not talking simply about history now. White supremacist movements are alive and growing.

This Cathedral participated in the perpetuation of religious underpinnings of racism and white supremacy, as did nearly every other white institution of its day. I daresay that for the majority of white worshippers and visitors in this Cathedral who walked by those windows, we didn’t know it. But Black worshippers and visitors–they knew. You knew. You knew what we chose not to know; and what we knew, for years, we tried not to know, or minimize. Until we couldn’t any longer.

I played a part in all that, and I apologize. I didn’t see it at first, and when I finally did, thanks to a few doggedly persistent Black leaders of this diocese that wouldn’t let me look away, and our former dean, Gary Hall, I hesitated.

One day the late Rev. Robert Hunter, alongside the Rev. Vincent Harris, sat in my office and said to me, “Bishop, will you be a compass, pointing the way, or a thermometer, only moving when heat rises?” I’ve never forgotten that.

As you know, it took two incidents of horrible racial violence in which Confederate symbols featured prominently for us to act. I’m grateful to Dean Hollerith and the Cathedral Chapter members who made the decision to remove a part of our foundation that was at odds with everything this Cathedral and the teachings of Jesus stand for. More than simply removed, the Cathedral leaders went a step further and replaced them, when the time was right, with artistic imagery telling a more complete history and acknowledging how Black Americans all along have been the ones to move us toward our ideals as a nation and a church.

So the dismantling began, which gave space for a new pillar of transformative beauty and power, built on a solid foundation, worthy of the struggle of Black Americans and our deep desire for this Cathedral to, in reality, be a house of prayer for all people. And we would have missed, what we would not have seen, were it not for the taking down of what never belonged here and replacing it with expressions of those countless ones who walked and continue to walk that road which leads to life.

Jesus was right. The road to life isn’t an easy one, especially when it requires a dismantling and reconstruction of foundations that cannot hold. But it is, as Jesus promised, and we can attest from our experience, life that awaits us. Beloved Community is one step closer to its fulfillment whenever what we thought was foundational but isn’t is taken down and replaced with what allows the human spirit to thrive.

So if any part of what you thought was foundational in your life is collapsing now, or needs to be excavated because it cannot hold and is not true, know that your God is with you, and it’s Jesus beckoning you to walk on, through that gate to the life that awaits you on the other side

And for all of us in this place, this church, we must say it plain.

Will we never forget that many have died for this day,

We must remember our history,
As we walk toward freedom,
Believe in Beloved Community
And sing sacred words, just and true.

May our lives and this place be portals where the light comes in.2

1A Little Mercy Now by Mary Gauthier
2Words from Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, American Song, inscribed at Washington National Cathedral.