It’s such an honor to be at this pulpit. This is my second time here. I, I got to preach a sermon several years ago before COVID, and I have to admit that the audience in the hall was bigger. The turnout was bigger back then, but the gift is the same. Just to be in, in these arches and spires.
I’m speaking to you here on independence weekend in our nation’s Capital and our nation’s cathedral at a time when we are going through over rocky ground, going through hard times, the sins and wrongs of our country are fully exposed. There’s a sense we’re not fully living up to the dream of our country. And so my subject today is beauty in a storm. This is a church service and our concerns are with the highest thing. So if you don’t mind, I thought I’d start by talking about Jesus.
There are many different lenses through which to see Jesus. There’s the Florence lens of Renaissance art, the pale wispy white guy with his two fingers raised. There’s the Oxford Jesus of C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien, the common masterful Azlan always in the control.
My background is Jewish. So I see Jesus through a Jerusalem lens. To see him in that lens is to see him embedded in the Jewish world of 2,000 years ago. That world is nothing like the peacefulness of an American church pew. It’s nothing like the quiet domesticity of a modern Bible study. It was a world of strife, combat and fractious intensity. The Holy land then, and it is now was a spiritual and a literal battleground. The primary factor was foreign occupation, Jews and Jewish Homeland had been oppressed and occupiers for centuries. The Babylonians, the Syrians, the Romans certain questions would have been electric in the air.
Why are we oppressed? Who amongst our people is betraying us and collaborating? How do we survive as a people under the crushing burden of their power? Everything was fraught, semi-hysterical and tension-filled. Desperate gangs roamed the land. Minor league revolutionaries were perpetually rising up. NT write lists seven separate revolts between the years 26 and 36, about the time of Jesus’s ministry.
A few decades after the crucifixion, an Egyptian Jew led a religious band and they marched into Jerusalem and were slaughtered by Roman soldiers. The mass suicide at Masada came a few years after that. Galilee was a common origin point of these revolts. Galilee was a poor, hardscrabble, tough zone on the fringes. The historian Simon Dubna was exaggerating, but not by much, when he wrote, “from Galilee stemmed all the revolutionary movements, which so disturbed the Romans.”
If you were Galilean, you were mad, bad and dangerous to know. Pressure from the occupation was bad. Partisan fighting within the Jewish world was also intense. It was a profusion of cults and factions – the Essenes and the Pharisees. It was a time of great intellectual ferment – rabbis rose up, Hillel al Tarf, Rabbi Haina Bendosa was a first century healer and miracle worker who lived about 10 miles from Nazareth. He was a man of intense passion, who like Jesus cared less about minor religious regulations and more about the purity of the inner life.
I’m trying to describe a world in which everything was loud. Everything was pressure packed. Words and hatreds clashed by day and night. When you see Jesus in this context, you see how completely bold and aggressive he was. He lived in a crowded angry world yet took on all comers. He faced stoning in Nazareth. He offended the rich of Capernum. John the Baptist was beheaded for leading a ministry and Jesus walked in his footsteps.
He entered Jerusalem at a time of power jostling between Roman and Jewish elites. Pontius Pilot’s power was aiming the high being. The high priests were trying to take advantage. Jesus walked into a complex network of negotiated and renegotiated power settlements between various factions. And he challenged them all with a stroke. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he pierced through them and went right to the core. At a moment of elite polarization, he was bringing access to the kingdom directly to the poor. He was offering triumph directly to the down trodden. He fit in with none of these factions and plowed through them all.
When you see Jesus through the Jerusalem lens, the Beatitudes are even more astounding. In the midst of conflict, here was another way, another path, a higher serenity. They were an inversion of values. They were beauty in the storm. Romano Guardini put it beautifully – in the Beatitudes, something of the celestial grand jury breaks through. There are no mere formulas for superior ethics, but tidings of sacred and Supreme realities entry into the world. Jesus was love and beauty in the midst of muck and violence and the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
You don’t have to be Christian. You can be atheist, Jewish, Muslim, whatever, and you can be astounded by this man and astounded by the faith he inspired. When you see him in this context, you see the beauty is more powerful when it’s in the middle of the storm. It’s beauty in the storm. That is powerful enough to inspire a leap of faith.
Faith is weird. Faith doesn’t make any sense. Faith is the hope in something unseen. It takes something truly remarkable, truly counter-intuitive, truly beautiful, to inspire a leap of faith. Events have got to push somebody so hard that only faith can explain the unexplainable. And of course, faith is not just a decision you make. One day, it’s a decision you make every day. As Frederick Buechner put it – you’ve got to wake up every morning and say, “can I believe all that all over again?” And Buechner says, “if you wake up 10 days in a row and you say, yes, you probably don’t want faith. That your faith should be maybe three days out of 10,” but Buechner says when you say that, yes, it should be great laughter.
So faith itself is not serene. Faith itself is a storm. It is pushing toward the beauty you tasted amid the storms of life. It is making that beauty, not an interruption as Chris Wyman says, but part of your life Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik understood how bumpy faith is, especially in moments like these and moments of storm. He wrote that the popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous and torturous where you find its complexity. There you find its greatness. It is in a condition of spiritual crisis of psychic ascent and descent, contradiction arising from affirmation and negation. Religion is not at the outset of refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and the desperate an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous turnt of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments. What keeps faith alive during storms like now are the awareness of beauty, the essential goodness at the ground of our being.
I always love quoting my friend, Catherine Cox, who once said that when her daughter was born, she realized she loved her more than evolution required. And that points to the enchantment of the world. It points to the incredible care we have for each other at the core of our bearing, the power of love in the world. And we get reminded of that and that essential goodness of transcendent love through those moments of beauty, the moments we glimpse from time to time.
I’m a big admirer of Dorothy Day, who lived in the first part of the 20th century, and devoted her life, not only to serving the poor, but living within the poor, among the poor, she was a beautiful writer. And at the end of her life, Robert Coles asked her if she would write a memoir. And she said, you know, I tried, once I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote at the top of it, a life remembered. And then she told Coles, I just sat there and thought of our Lord and his visit to us all those centuries ago. And I said to myself that my great luck was to have had him on my mind for so long in my life. That’s just a moment of tranquility and beauty that inspires.
Now I turn to our country. Our country is in a storm, or maybe an earthquake. I think the earthquake started and around five or six years ago, forces of protest and activism rose up. On the one hand, the populism elected Donald Trump. There were school shootings. There were young adults facing the reality that their life might be worse off economically than their parents. There were the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, the beginnings of the black lives matter movement. An earthquake of all sorts of dimensions had begun COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd hit like hurricanes in the middle of that earthquake. They are not the source of the change we’re enduring, but they have accelerated every trend.
And there’s a growing awareness that we are struggling to rise up to this moment. We had one great task this year to defeat this disease and we are failing at it. We have failed to care for the common good and the social whole. There’s great marching. There’s also great shock. People are changing their opinions. They’re facing police brutality. They’re facing the sins endemic so long in our culture. And it’s hard to know where things will sit. It’s hard for me as a commentator to make sense of it all some days. So it’s testing faith.
Americans are less patriotic now than at any time in our history. 71% of Americans are angry about the country. Only 17% of Americans are proud about the state of our country. A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country, how African Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work. And none of it makes sense. None of it inspires faith and none of it do, they feel a part. And we have to admit that a lot of today’s distrust is earned distrust. People lose faith in each other when people are untrustworthy to each other. Institutions fail, people don’t look out for each other. And this is a danger.
When congregations lose faith in God, the church collapses. When people lose faith in each other, the nation collapses. If you don’t breathe the spirit of this nation, if you don’t have a fear sense of belonging to each other, you’re not going to sacrifice for the common good. And I think if we look around, we see that beauty is produced by storms as well. There’s beauty, even in the storm, we’re in.
In 1770, amongst another moment of national storm, that storm produced the preamble to articulation. All men are created equal and they’re endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. The storm of the 1860s bought Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. With malice toward none with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.
I’ve been reading Albert Murray of late. He’s an African American writer who in the 1970s published a book called The Omni Americans. One of his points in that book is that the storm and the struggle of being an African American in this country created a culture of beauty and strength. That was manifested, particularly in his mind, in the blues. He wrote that the blues ballot is a good example of what the blues are about. Almost always relating a story of frustration. It could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts of black life in America. The sense of wellbeing that always goes with swinging the blues is generated, as anyone familiar with black dance halls knows, not by obscuring or denying the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances and conduct, but rather through the full sharp and an inescapable awareness of them. When a black musician or dancer swings to the blues, he or she is making an affirmative and hence exemplary heroic response to the human condition. It is in the storm directly facing this storm and making an affirmative response. And we see beautiful responses around us.
And so I guess the first message I’d like to leave you with, is one familiar to our tradition, be not afraid. Storms are normal parts of life. Storms end. Storms are moments of transition, when bad things go away and new things are born. They’re moments of creativity.
The second thing I’d like to leave you with is that in storms, it seems we have two systems of response. We have the normal bodily response, which is fight or flight, fear and anger. But another style of response emerges from our souls. From that core piece of ourselves that doesn’t have any shape, size, color or weight, but gives us infinite value and dignity. And this response is an aesthetic response. It’s the one that causes us to hunger for beauty, to be called by beauty to partake in beauty, to pay attention to compassionate actions, to sacrifice for a neighbor, to keep a neighbor safe.
These actions and these acts of beauty, like the Sermon on the Mount, like the Lincoln Second Inaugural often involve flipping the script, upending values. On one level, these acts of beauty and pure gift and loving care are radically illogical. They are vulnerability in the face of danger. They are gentleness in the midst of bitterness. They are compassion in the midst of strife, but these are the acts that have the power to shock. These are the acts that have the power to open hearts. These are the acts that have a power to shock a revolution in our culture and in our consciousness.
We don’t get to choose our condition. We do get to choose our response. And even in the bitterness of this hard time, I’ve seen individual acts and collective acts of giving and change and facing hard truths and uncomfortable conversations that are a little sparks of beauty in what has all been rocky and dark. Thank you for your attention. God bless our beautiful nation.