Our Values Matter
A sermon from The Most Rev. Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
And now in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, father, son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them….” Matthew 5:1-2
The Beatitudes, just read in a variety of voices from around our country, are part of a compendium of some of the teachings of Jesus that tradition has called “The Sermon on the Mount.” They are so named because the setting for these teachings of Jesus is on a mountaintop. That is not an incidental detail.
In 1939 the late Zora Neale Hurston published a novel that retold the biblical story of Moses and the Hebrew freedom movement recorded in the book of Exodus. She told it in the idiom of African slaves in America, but she wrote it as an ingenious critique of lynching and the immorality of Jim Crow segregation here at home, and a critique of the rising tide of fascism, authoritarianism, hatred, and bigotry around the world that would lead to the Second World War. She titled the book, Moses, Man of the Mountain.
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and taught them.”
The mountain is not an incidental background detail. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and began to teach them. Matthew was deliberately and intentionally invoking the memory of Moses around what Jesus was doing in the sermon on the Mount.
It was on a mountain called Sinai that God confronted Moses and challenged him to live beyond mere self-interest and to give his life in the service of God’s cause of human freedom. “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land, and tell ole Pharaoh, let my people go.”
Years later when the Israelites had won freedom, it was on that same mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments; God’s law and principles for living with freedom.
And at the end of his life, it was on another mountain, Mt. Nebo, that God allowed Moses to, as the slaves use to say, look over yonder to behold a promised land.
Centuries after Moses, in Memphis, Tennessee, a follower of Jesus named Martin, on the night before he was martyred for freedom’s cause, spoke of hope in the biblical language of the mountain. “I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land.” No, the mountain is not an incidental detail.
The mountaintop: That is where prophets and poets look over yonder, to behold not what is but what ought to be. To behold the promised land of God; a new heaven, a new earth, the kingdom of God, the reign of God’s love breaking in, the beckoning of the beloved community, a reconfiguration of the landscape of reality from the nightmare it often is into the promised land of God’s dream for the human family and all creation.
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and taught them.”
What did he reveal from that mountaintop? He told them about the way to the promised land.
Blessed are you when you’re poor and broken-hearted. Here’s the way.
Blessed are you when you’re compassionate and merciful. This is the way.
Blessed are you when you’re humble and meek. This is the way.
Blessed are you peacemakers who will not cease from striving until human beings learn to lay down their swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.
This is the way to the promised land.
Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst that God’s righteous justice might prevail in every society, in every age, for all time.
This is the way.
Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.
Love God, your neighbor, yourself.
Love when they spit, shout and call you everything but a child of God.
This is the way. the way to the promised land.
When you live something like this, when you look something like this,
when we love like this, then we are on our way to the promised land.
You may be thinking, this sounds wonderful in church, but will it work in the world? Can such lofty ideals about hope, beloved community, and the reign of God be translated into human reality and society? Some years ago I was in the public library working on a sermon. I took a break and walked around the stacks looking at books. In the religion section I came upon a little book with an old black binding, published by St. Martin’s Press titled, The Great Sayings of Jesus.
The forward to the book was written by Richard Holloway, who once served as the Primus or presiding bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He said that in Gospels generally and, “In the Sermon on the Mount, in particular, we get from Jesus something of God’s dream for a transformed creation. But the epilogue [the rest of the Gospel story] reminds us that the dream is costly, that dreams are cruelly disposed of by the world as we know it. Yet the dream lives on, nothing can kill it for long; and Jesus goes on breaking out of the tombs into which we have consigned him.”
“The dream lives on.” Do not underestimate the power of a dream, a moral principle, eternal verities, virtues and values that lift us up and move us forward. For true and noble ideals and the dream of a promised land have their source in the God who the Bible says is love. And God, as my grandmother’s generation used to say, God is still on the throne!
Our ideals, values, principles and dreams of beloved community matter. They matter because they drive us beyond service of self alone, to commitment to the greater good of us all. They matter because they give us an actual picture of God’s reign of love, and a reason to struggle and make it real. They matter to our lives as people of faith. They matter to our life in civil society. They matter to our life as a nation and as a world. Our values matter!
They matter in some simple and yet significant ways. A number of years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a wonderful book titled, All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
Here is a list of the things – the values – he learned:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Imagine a world in which these basic values don’t matter.
Share everything? Imagine a world in which the value of sharing is replaced by greed and selfishness.
Play fair? No, cheat, lie, steal. That would make for an interesting World Series, NBA Championship, Super Bowl, election, democracy.
Wash your hands before you eat. No, let’s spread the germs.
Flush. I rest my case.
“When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
No, it’s everyone for themselves.
Our values matter! A world, a society, a life devoid of values and ideals that ennoble, that lift up and liberate, is a world descending into the abyss, a world that is a dystopian vision of hell on earth.
Mahatma Gandhi knew something about the power of ideals, dreams, and values. He said it this way.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
Our values matter!
The values and dreams we hold as a nation, our shared American values, they matter even more. We hold this prayer service in the midst of a national election, in the context of profound divisions that left unhealed could prove injurious to the fabric of democracy itself. The right to vote and to participate in the democratic process is a value of the highest order.
To be sure, no form of governance attains perfection. The preamble to the Constitution wisely reminds us that each generation must continue the evolving work of forming “a more perfect union.” No, our democracy is not perfect, but it offers the best hope yet devised for government that fosters human freedom, equal justice under the law, the dignity and the equality of every human being made, as the Bible says, in the image of God.
Reinhold Niebuhr said it well, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Despite our flaws and failings, we have some shared values. One of them is the preservation and perfection of representative democracy itself, “that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
We don’t think of it this way very often but love for each other is a value on which our democracy depends. On the Great Seal of the United States, above the bald eagle are banners on which the Latin words, e pluribus unum are written. Those words, e pluribus unum, literally mean, “one out of many.” One nation from many diverse people.
But do you know where those words come from? They come from the writings of Cicero who lived during the time of the Roman Republic. Cicero said, “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.” Cicero who gave us those words said that love for each other is the way to make e pluribus unum real. Jesus of Nazareth taught us that. Moses taught us that. America listen to Cicero, Jesus, Moses. Love is the way to make e pluribus unum real. Love is the way to be America for real.
We have some shared values.
Thomas Jefferson gave voice to these shared values in the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We have shared national values. Abraham Lincoln gave voice to them when he said in the Gettysburg Address:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
We have shared national values. Every one of us was taught these words as a child in school.
I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation, Under God, Indivisible
With liberty, And justice, For all
We sing our shared values.
God shed his grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood.
From sea to shining sea.
At a church picnic, many years ago when I was a parish priest, I happened to be sitting at a picnic table with parishioners, several of whom were veterans of World War II and Korea. One of the men sitting there, then well into his 80s, was one of the Tuskegee Airman, the first black air unit to fight.
He started talking about Eleanor Roosevelt, and he spoke of her with great reverence and respect. He went on to explain why. In the beginning the Tuskegee airmen were being trained to fly, yet they were prohibited from flying and fighting for their country because of the color of their skin.
At the time there was a great debate in Congress and the country as to whether or not a black person had the lung capacity to handle altitude. And, if they had the brain capacity to handle the intellectual rigors of flying. Scientists were brought in to argue the case on both sides. Nothing changed. The Tuskegee Airmen kept training.
The tide turned when Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, went to Tuskegee and brought the press with her. While the cameras flashed, she got in a plane piloted by a Tuskegee airman and flew for 45 minutes over the Alabama countryside. The picture of her in the plane with the black airmen went viral. And it changed the debate.
What led Eleanor Roosevelt to stand with them? In a spiritual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ivan Smith said she “wanted her critics to join her in working toward a new America that lived out the Declaration of Independence and the Beatitudes of Jesus.” She was holding on to deep American ideals, the values of this country. And lifting up the values of God.
What led the Tuskegee Airmen to fly, fight, and even die for their country? Between 1943 and 1945 those airmen flew over 15,000 sorties. Recognitions included 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts. In 2007 President George W. Bush awarded 300 Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal.
I was raised by folk like those guys sitting at that picnic table. In her living room, my grandma proudly displayed the pictures of her two sons who fought in World War II, serving in segregated units within the Army Air Corps. My wife has her grandfather’s discharge papers; he fought in a black unit in World War I. This I know: They loved America even when America didn’t love us. They believed in America because – even when America falls short – the values and ideals of America, the dream of America, stands tall and true and will one day see us through.
So whatever your politics, however you have or will cast your vote, however this election unfolds, wherever the course of racial reckoning and pandemic take us, whether we are in the valley or the mountaintop, hold on to the hope of America. Hold on to hope grounded in our shared values and ideals. Hold on to God’s dream. Hold on and struggle and walk and pray for our nation, in the words of James Weldon Johnson…
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
This sermon has been shared with Church Anew with permission by the Office of the Right Reverend Michael B. Curry, The Episcopal Church, in its entirety. The Most Rev. Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the author of the book “Love Is the Way: Holding On to Hope in Troubling Times”.