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.”
Heaven on earth, we need it now. That’s not the line I woke up thinking about, but it rings true. These past several days have been difficult in many ways. Certainly the climate in our nation has been full of political drama and polarizing talk. Amongst all that, I’ve been privileged to watch many of you in this parish act deliberately on your own consciences without disrespecting parishioners who feel differently or vote differently. It’s a tough line to walk, especially when the world around us is badgering us with opinions and, from whatever side, demanding outrage. In the heat of the moment, I doubt any of us can be 100% confident of our own assessment of how we’re doing at being faithful, but we can take comfort in the fact that there is such a thing as truth, and eventually it wins, even if you or I happened to get something wrong this week.
As Deacon Chris mentioned last Sunday, our lectionary has us looking at Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for several Masses in a row. I was reading Monday an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, where he comments on this text. You may know Bonhoeffer as the German pastor and theologian who was executed for standing up for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. In commenting on the question of how we apply the Sermon on the Mount, he focuses on the importance of realizing that Jesus is speaking about neither an idealistic religious retreat from reality, nor an ideological religious system over against reality, but – well, let me read it to you. The Sermon on the Mount is the word of one who did not relate to reality as a foreigner, a [social] reformer, a fanatic, or the founder of a religion, but as the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body, who spoke out of the depth of reality as no other human being on earth before…. [A]ction in accord with Christ is action in accord with reality. Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principle, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.
This is how, as he does in today’s Gospel, Jesus can say that his body, his followers, are the salt of the earth, that we are the light of the world. Because he is the salt of the earth, he is the light of the world. Any claim we have to be able to be described that way is grounded not in our being nice or flavorful or shiny, but on our being in him. Acting in ways that originate in him and that are therefore in accord with reality. Now as soon as Jesus speaks this truth, he acknowledges that unlike him, we will fail at embodying what is real and true. He goes there right away: you are salt, but what if the salt has lost its taste? You are light, but what if the light gets hidden? Because we are fallen people, we do not always act, in Bonhoeffer’s words, in accordance with reality. But Jesus always does. Always. And it is by starting with him and cleaving to him that we, bit by bit, despite all our confusions and failures, can express some of his reality in a world that can seem very unreal.
Sometimes when I look at social media these days, it seems that many people who use religious language start elsewhere – by cleaving to their existing political opinions and then quickly digging up some Bible verse that can be taken to support what they already think. I say this about people on all sides of issues. But I just wonder if we can do better. If we can put ourselves in the position to hear the word of God in our lectionary, to listen to the voice of generations before us in our liturgy and our hymns, and to let that shape our thinking. To let our actions originate in Jesus Christ. The church is here to help people learn to do that with integrity. And I do see people at Emmanuel trying conscientiously to start their action and their opinions down below the partisan language, down below politicized categories. That doesn’t mean we will agree, but when we start from this shared commitment to Jesus, we become able to see each other as people of good faith -- which these days is a major achievement.
And that, in a sense, brings me back to the U2 song I was talking about. Apart from being a lament Psalm, "Peace on Earth" has another thing in common with many U2 songs, that it talks about what a monstrous effect starting with abstract ideas, big ideologies that leave no room for disagreement, can have on how people behave. The song zooms in, near the end, to the story of a terrorist bombing that happened in Northern Ireland in 1998, and it pictures those who were killed there as yet more victims of abstract ideology. Yet another politico-religious idea that someone thought was more important than people. And so, just as we do when we pray for the dead, the song names the people: Sean and Julia; Gareth, Anne, and Breda. Real people. Five real people.
Many of you will know that this past week we lost a dearly beloved parishioner, Larry Bouton, mentor to generations of acolytes here, someone who taught youth and adults alike to love the liturgy and to serve God through it. You may also know this same week, another dearly beloved parishioner, Pat Weston, who served faithfully on the Altar Guild and the intercessory prayer list and in the choir, is very near death. Both of them, of course, were much on my mind all week as they were in that holy space between this world and the next, this sacred and profoundly significant moment where we re-encounter the preciousness and grandeur of one single human soul. So it was really the names of Pat and Larry that were in my heart when the song woke me up, but the lyric itself goes: Sean and Julia, Gareth, Anne and Breda/ Their lives are bigger than any big idea.
Their lives are bigger than any big idea. The religious affiliation you have, the country on your passport, the political party you belong to are all, in those terms, big ideas. And there are a lot of other big ideas coming at us very fast, demanding we get outraged and pass judgments in one way or another. And don’t get me wrong, deciding where you stand is important. Please take action as your conscience directs.
But we can’t let those big categories obscure people. Wherever you decide you stand, on anything, it affects a person, someone who will one day be hovering between life and death with loved ones weeping for them, someone who was made for God’s love, someone for whose sake God was willing to become, as Bonhoeffer said, the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body. Because of sin, reality is broken, and so Jesus took all its brokenness into his own body on the Cross, so that our incomplete, small lives could become as big as his. He believes you are worth that, and Sean and Julia, Gareth, Anne, and Breda, and Pat and Larry, and every life of every person of every race and faith and nation and language who has ever lived.