I was just told that Martin Luther King delivered his final Sunday sermon from this pulpit and this is my first time giving a sermon, so if there were an atheist bone in my body it’s gone now.
It’s a great honor to be here and to be in this church where I’ve spent so much time. I live a few blocks up that way so when summers out and I want to take calls I come up to the lawn here and I take my calls in my office, which is this lawn. I take my kids and I throw baseballs out there. I go to Open City for breakfast, the coffee shop, and play Scrabble.
This is where I listen to my various worship leaders. Everybody from Handel to Matt Maher to Bruce Springsteen. The holiest of the troika.
I consider this the second most holy spot in Cleveland Park after the awesome Giant that just opened up on Wisconsin Avenue. Such is the sanctity of this place that when the rapture happens and NPR listeners are called to the heavens I think this will be the spot they leave from.
Now some buildings we pass through but some buildings are our teachers and to hang around this building is to be taught. I have some in my life and I’m sure we all do. Chartres Cathedral is a building that has lifted and taught me. I went to a school called Grace Church School at 10th street and Broadway in New York and I sat in that church every morning at school and that taught me you go to Israel you see the Western Wall the Al-Aqsa Mosque. You go to Capitol Hill and you see the Capitol.
We build our buildings and then they build us. These buildings are not faith but they are preparation for faith. A building like this calls forth awe and I don’t think there is faith that is possible without awe. A building like this calls forth reverence and reverences the mother of moral life. We see beauty and we follow beauty to God. The poet John O’Donohue wrote: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”
Plato understood that we chase a ladder of beauties. He said when you educate the young first introduce them to beautiful people, a beautiful face, and beholding that beauty they’ll think well this is beautiful but there’s an even higher beauty which is the beauty of a beautiful building. And then when they experience the beauty of a beautiful building, they’ll realize this is a beautiful beauty, but there’s a higher beauty which is the beauty of a beautiful idea. And from that beauty they will sense an even higher beauty, which is the beauty of social justice in a beautiful society. And from that beauty they will sense the ultimate beauty which is the highest and transcendent and universal beauty which transcends time, transcends space, to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted and that is God’s beauty. And so we climb the ladders of beauty and we desire for the highest ladders.
It’s odd in our culture that we do not have a word for moral longing. For the longing for God and for the longing for virtue. The Greeks used to use the word eros, but typically for us we’ve translated that into meaning a desire for sex, but that’s not how they meant it. C.S. Lewis used the word joy. For him joy was not fulfilling your desires it was having the highest possible desires. And he experienced joy at the moments when the highest desire for the Holy infused his soul.
A hero of mine Dorothy Day used the word ‘loneliness.’ Loneliness for her was not being solitary. It was the loneliness and the delicious longing, the loneliness she felt for God. And so, this longing that a building like this inspires and a service like this inspires, it is what orients us toward the good and toward the Holy. It warms us; it delights us.
And a building like this reminds us that we’re broken and sinful creatures, that we are the crooked timber of humanity and that our life is distracted by a million tweets and a thousand cable TV channels and the occasional Friday night pundit.
There is an eternal order to things. There’s a story to our species and it’s a coherent story and it’s a good story that these columns represent an order, which is an eternal order. And if you know about Gothic architecture you know that this side of the building desperately wants to fall in on top of us; and this side of the building desperately wants to fall in on top of us and what seems like an eternal stability is a pressure against pressure creating a great strength. And that pressure and that strength point toward providence, it points to our destiny for our kind that there is one God, one law, one love, one destiny toward which all living creatures ascend and it is embodied in this universal order. And so being around this great building reminded me of that.
But not all the times I spent around this building were good times. When I was in a period of pain and confusion I would often come out and walk down and walk around these grounds and walk through the Bishop’s Garden. And there was a time three or four years ago when someone I loved very much was in mortal peril. And I came out and I walked around the grounds at night and I ended up on a place I often end up, which is a bench on the north side of the lawn there, under a tree. If you’re driving along the street you can see this bench which is still there. And I was there in some sadness, great anxiety and some despair, and a friend of mine named Anne – who is now my fiancé and is here – we had not really been in touch much that day but she was taking the metro home, and something called her to get off the metro a stop early, and to walk up Macomb, up to the Cathedral. And I was there sitting on the bench in despair in the darkness of the night when I saw her walking up the little hill there and leading me in prayer, which was probably the first sincere prayer of my life.
And so that’s on this grand building, in the shadow of this grand building that was a moment of humble humility and suffering and comfort. And Anne and I found out we had a lot in common. We both had a tree on this property that we found especially beautiful; they were different trees. And she took me down to a little chapel down the steps there folks–I gather it’s called the chapel of the Good Shepherd–and it’s this tiny little chapel that probably holds 10 or maybe 16 people; and reminds us even in a church as majestic and big as this that in moments of suffering we really don’t want this size. We want something small. That God comes to us in small form in moments of suffering.
A hero of mine is the Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who was with his wife when she was dying at a hospital in Boston. And he tried to pray to God in that hospital room in the gigantic facility and he found that God would not come. So he left the hospital and went home and went to the smallest room in his home. And he said: “I pray to God, not the exalted king, but the God, the close friend the brother. He was right there in the dark, his warm hand, so to speak, was on my shoulder. I hugged his knees. He was with me in the narrow confines of that small room taking up no space at all.”
And so these small places are part of what this building offers and part of the way they lead us too. But then when we come inside the church we see the Saints, we see the stories, we read the passages and we hear the sermons. And we’re reminded that religion is not all that grace, and awe and reverence and not only about pleasant things. It’s also about binding. It’s about commitment. It’s about falling in love with a word and a truth and then building a structure behavior around that love for the moments when love falters.
And if you want to lead a good life it can’t just be about absolute freedom. It can’t be about eternal individual options and complete autonomies. The good life is a life of restraints.
We just had readings from Matthew and Paul and Deuteronomy and if you paid attention of those readings you heard they were tough readings. They were not all sweetness and light. They were not like you come in here and we give you an A-plus. They were about the possibility of Hell, the possibility of forsakenness and the possibility of sin and the likelihood in fact the inevitability of sin.
I teach at a school called Yale–I only teach at schools that I couldn’t have gotten into–and often you get an a-plus for walking in there. And at some churches and synagogues and mosques you get an a-plus for walking in there. But the teachers who we remember are the ones who started out with a C-minus and then loved us toward the A. And that is what God has want to do.
We find that to be free it’s not enough to escape restraints. You must embrace restraints. That if you want to play the organ you have to chain yourself to the organ to learn to have the freedom to really play. Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, says freedom is not the absence of restraints but choosing the right ones. And one could see life as a progression from a life when you’re 20 of open options to when you’re older of sweet compulsions. And those readings were about compulsions and I, personally, was so glad to hear them because so often religion sacrifices itself for faith as practice in America; sacrifices itself by being too congratulatory and too bland.
I went to the school called Grace Church School in New York an Episcopal school. I went to an Episcopal camp for 15 years. I know there are people of many denominations in many main line and other denominations but often religion sacrifices its power by being too bland. And though certainly the mainline denominations have been the Chicago Cubs of the 20th century; elegant, charming, winning and losing; and the biting truths we read about today are the antidote to that. Jesus saying, “You know you didn’t murder someone. Congratulations, that’s not good enough. You didn’t commit adultery. Congratulations, that’s not good enough. You brought offerings to church. Sorry that’s not good enough.”
There’s a peace inside of each of us that is the thing that decides and every decision you make makes that inner peace either a little more holy or a little more despairing. And you can make those decisions by just having a thought while you’re hurting no one, while you’re sitting alone in a room, but the stakes are eternal. And that what really matters is how have you bound your soul, how have you bound it to the faith you swear allegiance to and the things you say you believe in?
And so with binding I’ll end by talking a little about politics. I was really struck by a question that we just had in the question and answer period about how to protest the current moment. How to resist the current moment. How to be in the current moment. And it put me in mind in the moment since that has happened is what kind of moment are we in. Are we in a Bonhoeffer moment? Are we in a moment where there’s a possibility of authoritarianism and a dark night of fascism descending upon this country? I personally don’t think we’re in that moment though it’s something to be watching for. But if you’re in a Bonhoeffer moment than strong resistance and taking morally hazardous action against power is the obligatory thing to do.
I happen to think we’re in an Exodus moment. We’ve crossed the Nile. We’re disorganized. We have become attenuated from one another, we’ve become attenuated from what we believed in, we’ve become attenuated from law, we’ve become attenuated from virtue and attenuated from faith. The founders of this country wanted to create a golden seal when this country started and they wanted it to be Moses handing down the law. And they didn’t want the Exodus story because it was liberation from Egypt, that was the easy part. They wanted to celebrate Moses and put him at the center of our national experience because it was about binding down with law. And to me the current president didn’t overthrow something. He walked into a vacuum of disorder and chaos and attenuation. If you go around the country you find this collapse of the social order, what Rusty Reno calls a crisis of solidarity. Nineteen percent of millennials say they can trust their neighbor. People don’t trust each other anymore.
There’s an epic rise in loneliness. Thirty-five percent of people over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. There’s an epic rise of suicide since 1999 so that we now have 25 percent more suicide deaths than deaths from car crashes. The single fastest growing religious group is unaffiliated. The single fastest growing political affiliation is unaffiliated. We are becoming attenuated from one another. We are becoming isolated in ourselves. The social capital has weakened and we in the educated class have ignored and estranged ourselves from our fellow countrymen who are not in that class.
So this was a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of intimacy that the current president walked into and responded to. It was also a crisis of moral injury. There used to be a sense, “Hey I’m not the richest guy in the world, I’m not the most famous guy in the world but I obey my God. I can be counted upon by my neighbors. There’s a dignity in that and I have a dignity.” And a lot of that ethos has disappeared and people who are not rich and famous feel they are invisible.
And so to me in an exodus moment of course there has to be resistance, there has to be correcting of errors, but mostly there has to be rebinding. A rebinding morally. We live in a culture that is over-politicized and under-moralized. We don’t talk about words like sin and redemption and grace in the common parlance because we’re afraid they’ll be thought too judgmental or too self-righteous. And so we get a demoralized fear. There has to be a rebinding of the social fabric.
I have a friend named Bill Milliken who counsels young people and he’s been doing so for 50 years and people always ask him, “Which program really can transform lives?” And he says, “I’ve been doing this for 50 years, I’ve never seen a program transform a life. The only thing that can transform a life is a relationship.”
And so even those of us who are middle-aged white guys need to start talking about love. We’re sitting in the most emotionally avoiding city on the face of the earth. I’m not necessarily a gushy guy. My friends say that me talking about emotions is like Gandhi talking about gluttony. It’s not the normal thing. And yet there has to be recalibration in that realm, there has to be a social recalibration. In a society that is too cognitive, we have to talk a little more emotionally. In a society that’s too individual, we have to talk a little more communally. In a society that’s too utilitarian, we have to talk about our faith. And so to me ninety percent what has to happen is not revolt and not resistance but repair.
I currently feel the current regime will collapse on its own. That sin carries the seeds of its own destruction and that what will be there something to repair it in the moment of crisis. And when we come to a place like this we don’t get political instruction but we get instruction on the repair of our hearts and the repair of our souls and even in the repair of our communities and our fraternity to one another. And that we used to have those conversations not only in places like this but in the culture at large.
There were a couple of brothers who led those kind of conversations and I’m going to close by reading a quote from each of them. They were the Niebuhr brothers–Richard and Reinhold. Reinhold was the more famous of them but Richard was kind of a tougher of the two and he saw his brother on the cover of Time magazine and elsewhere talking about how to use religion in the public sphere. And he was sort of disgusted because he said you know you talk about religion as if it’s some social program. So he wrote a letter to his brother and he wrote:
“You think of religion as a power–dangerous sometimes, helpful sometimes. That’s liberal. For religion itself is no power, but that to which religion is directed is power and that is God… I think the liberal religion is thoroughly bad. It is a first-aid to hypocricy. It is the exaltation of goodwill, moral idealism. It worships the God whose qualities are ‘the human qualities raised to the nth degree’…Has it ever struck you that you read religion through the mystics and ascetics? You scarcely think of Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. You’re speaking of humanistic religion so far as I can see.”
And that is a good reminder to all of us not to ignore the mystery, the unfathomability and the savage goodness of actual religion. I think Reinhold took some of that on board but maybe not all of it. But he did believe in talking openly about a faith and rebinding a nation’s wounds around eternal truths. And I’ll end with a passage of his which is famous and is one of my favorites:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous acts is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.