We’ve talked a bit before about a research project that has been ongoing for some time on the faith of Americans. It’s a major national study that started at UNC Chapel Hill over a decade ago by looking at teens in particular, and then expanded to include younger adults, and by now its assessment of where all of us are spiritually as a culture has by become incredibly influential. The initial thing sociologists noticed in this study, back in about 2005, was that no matter what religion younger Americans said they belonged to, when asked to talk about what their principles were, how they knew right and wrong, what God was like, they all did something similar. Virtually none of them referred to any of the theology, practice, or vocabulary of the tradition they said they belonged to. De facto, it just wasn’t in the picture.
In other words, the Jews did not say “My family keeps Sabbath, and taking that break every week has taught me that there’s more to life than your career.” The Catholics did not say, “My goal in life is to emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary in saying yes to whatever God asks from me.” The Muslims did not say, “It was fasting during Ramadan that made me decide to get a job that helps address world hunger.” Whatever religion they claimed to be part of, almost none of them was capable of talking about it. They were articulate about other topics, but when it came to being a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, they could only resort to platitudes that sounded the same in people of every background.
The readings we heard today were, for all practical purposes, selected for us in 1969. That is when the first three-year lectionary was crafted, the schedule of readings on which all subsequent versions in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are based. I think anyone who has been an Episcopalian for awhile probably has at least one story to tell about a reading from the lectionary, taken right out of the book, chosen ages ago, that perfectly addressed some current situation. It was fun a couple weeks ago at the 1662 Evensong to see the reactions of some of our guest choral group, ecco, as they experienced this phenomenon for the first time.
Our readings, so often, are directly on point, and often in ways we wouldn’t have invented. So if you actively practice your faith in a church like ours, one of the spiritual skills you end up building is attentiveness to what God is doing in the texts that are given – the lessons, the hymns, the bits of a prayer you’ve heard a hundred times but that light up today for some reason. This is not a skill that is common in our current culture, but it is one that it’s important to develop in order to be active, conscious participants in a liturgical church.
I woke up the other day with a line from a song by the band U2 in my head. Any of you who know U2 know that they were formed both by having grown up in Dublin Ireland during the period of the Troubles just to their north, and by having had an intense involvement with Christianity early in life that permanently shaped their work and their behavior. They return over and over again to making theologically informed art exploring themes of violence, injustice, and ideologies that drive people to hate other people. Of all the artists I know, U2 are among the most effective at exposing evil.
The lyric I woke up to is a pretty obscure one; it’s from a song called “Peace on Earth.” "Peace on Earth" is a fairly typical U2 song in that it's ultimately addressed to God, and it follows the model of a classic lament Psalm from the Bible, complaining to the Lord about injustice, lamenting how his Word gets used either to fuel or to paper over conflicts, and crying out for the coming of the Kingdom. It starts: “Heaven on earth; we need it now. /I'm sick of all of this hanging around. /I'm sick of the sorrow, I'm sick of the pain, /I’m sick of hearing again and again/ that there's going to be peace on earth.”