A Word for Washington

Unsplash — Francis Xavier

The National Cathedral in Washington DC is sometimes called “America’s Church.” It was chartered by Congress in 1893, built on the highest point in the city. It’s the cathedral where funerals of presidents are held, where prayer services are convened during national calamities.

I was stunned to be invited to preach at the Cathedral in early 1999. With the invitation came the text I was to use. It came from the Sermon on the Mount as retold in the Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” Being no expert in righteousness, I ended my sermon on a topic I know: evil.

Reading the sermon recently, I said to myself, “I could preach that one again.”

…Matthew’s text reminds us we need to “be a light” to the world, that we need to be “righteous” — more righteous than the religious leaders of our day, or we’ll “never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Well…I’ve craved a lot of things in my life. “Righteousness” has not been high on the list. The closest I came to liking the word “righteous” was dancing to the music of The Righteous Brothers — who, as it turned out, weren’t.

When someone says “righteous,” I hear “self-righteous.” I think of hypocrisy, frankly. I think of people who use religion only when it is convenient, who dress up in confession only as a last resort when every other alternative has been exhausted. I hear so-called leaders describe their opponent’s adultery as “bestiality,” and his own as “youthful indiscretions.”

One word we should not be unwilling to use is the word “evil.” When all individual behavior is reduced to psychology, and all group behavior is reduced to sociology, there’s not much room left for evil. He killed his parents “because he was a troubled child.” They massacred their neighbors because of “years of hostility.” We assassinate our opponent’s character because “it’s politics.” Another explanation for these things would be “evil.”

We need both the courage and the clarity to call evil “evil” when we see it; else we — as individuals, as a church, as a nation — will never know the value of being righteous.

Somewhere in our political battles in this nation, we need to draw the line closer to civility, because when we stray across that border we flirt with evil. And the church, God’s family, must say so. Else “the salt” has already “lost its savor,” and we have lost our purpose.

When we tolerate bias and prejudice as the basis of our public policy, we are not merely “following the polls.” We’re following evil. And the church, God’s family, must say so. Else our light has gone under a bushel, and we’ve lost our value.

When we say those with cancer deserve research, those with heart disease deserve funding, and those with AIDS got what they deserved — we are not speaking “candidly.” We are speaking evil. And the church must say so. Else we have no integrity, and no courage, and no righteousness.

But if we do pursue righteousness, according to The Great Sermon, we come to a place where our hostilities and our fears and our anxieties are put to rest. We arrive at a place where we can — in the words of Habbakuk the prophet — see God coming across our barren fields, arms outstretched, assuring us of His love. We hear the words of Jesus’ Great Sermon: “Don’t be so anxious about your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, or what you shall wear. Look at the birds sailing above the Cathedral: they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your Father feeds them…. Seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.”

It’s hard not to be anxious. When our relationships are torn, when our careers are at risk, when we watch the virus having its way with us…it’s hard not to be anxious. But here’s a word for those of us who are anxious: Our father knows us, and what we need. If he will feed the birds, he will cradle his children.

We come together for worship. And then we go home, you to your struggles and I to mine. But having seen you here; having looked across this great sanctuary and having felt the power of your prayers; I will go home encouraged that common people can be uncommonly good.

I will tell Max, when he sees his mother’s sick bed and remembers his father’s deathbed, that if desperate times come, and he is all alone, there is a community of faith where he can take refuge. And I will tell Zack, when he grows silent and frightened, that there are righteous people who will defend him.

If, in fact, I should need to leave, I look to you to tell my children that I have not left them; I have only gone a little ways ahead. Tell them you know I saw God coming across the field, because you heard me say, “My God…!” Tell them that they will rejoice again, laugh again, roll on the floor and be silly again because if he will feed the birds, he will cradle his children.

And know that, as you speak to my children, I will be offering this benediction: “Grace to you, and peace.”

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