I asked a number of different people if they would like to preach this week. I live in a community of people who are rarely reluctant to preach. Mostly they love to step up and say something. This week, no-one wanted to preach, so being the Dean of Chapel and the backstop for everything, the honor fell to me. It was difficult to figure out what to say on this strange week, caught between MLK Day and the inauguration.
But, eventually I came up with what needed to be said, and so many lovely people have asked to read the script that I post it here. I make no boast. It is just a sermon, not brilliant, but somehow it turned out to be pertinent to my own little community on this day. I post it here for them. If anyone else finds it useful, God bless you.
Psalm 122, a song of ascents.
Excerpts from Mr Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, and his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122, 6, 8)
It is good to come back to Marquand at the beginning of this new semester, and find you all here ready to sing and pray and worship together. As the Psalmist wrote, “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go up to the house of God.”
We come in here, day after day, week after week, to gather for worship. And we gather around a particular narrative of worship: we aim to be interdenominational, welcoming and hospitable, attentive to many different voices, inclusive of many variations of belief and practice, and to weave all of this together into one thread of worship in which different voices remain distinct, and yet inform each other.
I hear myself telling people this narrative so often: to prospective students, to returning alumni, and in places where I travel to lecture or consult on worship. People all over the place have heard about Marquand, and are intrigued. They ask how we make our worship so varied, so vital, so inclusive, so creative.
It’s a good narrative that we tell. It’s a good vision. And I know, from the testimony of a huge number of alumni, that its often only after people leave here that they discover the effect Marquand has had on them; they tell me that this diverse, idiosyncratic, and sometimes slightly chaotic mix of traditions has served to shape their own spiritual growth at a depth they didn’t even realize was happening while they were actually here.
All of that is good. But it would be dishonest not to admit that in the everyday, there are times when—in the moment—people find Marquand frustrating and too much to deal with. One person’s inclusive language is, to someone else, an offensive rewriting of their tradition. One person’s exciting revelation can be bewildering or alarming to other people. Some people sense sincerity in an extempore prayer, while for others anything less than a carefully and artfully pre-written prayer lacks seriousness.
We are—a bit like ancient Jerusalem, perhaps—a great combination of people from up and down the land, and all around the globe, coming in to God’s house, and there discovering that our local habits are by no means universal. We tell the story of inclusion and embrace. But we have also made the surprising discovery that we are so diverse that any one of us can, at times, feel quite alien.
One of the things that has been writ large in public life over recent months is the negative effect of deceptive narratives. People are sick of being lied to; tired of finding that while some facts were spun, others were concealed, and what they were given was nothing like the truth. People are angry to find that they have been promised one thing, only to have the promise whipped away from under their feet. It’s happened countless times around the world in recent years, and the cumulative effect of spin and lies is coming home to roost. The feeling of betrayal that has crept across Europe and America in the past couple of years is palpable.
Now I’m talking today about worship, not politics. But the political stage is the backdrop to absolutely everything else at the moment. And so I’ve been thinking lately about how we frame our narratives: about what it means to tell the truth; about what it means to be both truthful and inspiring.
Everyone knows that when you are dealing with information, you can produce quite different results depending on the way you present the facts—and that is not necessarily sinister. Read your classmates’ papers, and you will see the same facts presented in quite different ways, because the facts are marshaled to forward an argument: we do that all the time in our books and articles and papers. But the more you hone those skills, the more you become aware that, given a degree of power and a willingness to sacrifice ethics, it wouldn’t be that hard to learn how to manipulate the facts, spinning some and concealing others, in order to maximize power and control outcomes.
But there are modes of speech where another kind of spinning takes place: this time not unethical, but inspirational. A way of setting out the stall not merely as a set of facts, but as possibilities that spark the imagination, that draw the creative mind into play, that inspire a series of unpredictable but positive reactions. These modes of speech are called aspirational narratives, and they spin the facts, not to maintain or hold on to power; but to invest power in others.
An aspirational narrative is a story about how the world could be, told in order to bring that story into reality. It can be found in a work of fiction, a poem or a speech, it can be in a sermon, or a private correspondence. It can appear in a mission statement—or even in a strategic plan. It’s what an author gives to their reader, what a good mentor presents to a student, a parent to a child, a coach to an athlete, a pastor to her flock. Aspirational narratives are not merely candid about how things are, and they are certainly not cynical (because that shuts down the imagination). They are delivered in the optative mood—and you have to pay attention to spot that in the English language because we don’t have a conjugated form of the optative; it’s created by the way the words are arranged for a hopeful, positive effect. It gives us the best reading of how things are, and hints at the promise of how things could be.
Mr Thomas Jefferson’s words—among the most inspiring ones of the Founders—are by definition aspirational narratives. They ring with hope and dignity. You don’t have to read very much history to discover that he was certainly not writing about a state of affairs that he had already brought into being—either in the nation, or in his own household—and right to the end of his life he grappled with the serious contradictions between idea and reality. But the gap between his words and the degree of progress he made towards realizing them doesn’t make them dishonest words. We recognize them even now as aspirational narratives: words to live into; visions to stretch towards. Mr Jefferson was brilliant, and deeply thoughtful; I think you can construe from elsewhere in his writings that he knew very well the world might never perfectly realize this vision of an equal society. But that’s no reason not to state the ideal, and no reason not to strive towards it. As Oscar Wilde said a century and a half later, in one of his famous one-liners: “Shoot for the moon: you may miss, but at least you will land among the stars.”
Thousands of years earlier, King David* wrote: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” an aspirational narrative if ever there was one. The heart of the world lies in the divided mess of Jerusalem, and in the long and fractured history of that beautiful city, peace has mostly eluded her. King David—like Mr Jefferson—was not afraid to speak of what could be, and, in fact, he states candidly both the aspiration and the call to action that is needed to realize the vision. “Pray,” he says, “for the peace of Jerusalem,” and then he adds: “For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.”
Older translations say ‘for the sake of my brothers and my companions,” and most newer translations, aiming for gender inclusivity, render this as “for the sake of my family and friends.” But that seems to imply that David is concerned only with the people who matter to him—his circle of special people. ‘Family’, of course, can cover a great many relationships, not all of them joyous. Nonetheless, ‘family and friends’ denotes the group of people you include in your life events—holidays, weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, and so on. But that is not quite what David is talking about. By companions he means the people he hangs out with, the people he chooses to be with. But by brothers, he means the people in his wider community that he can’t get away from, but doesn’t necessarily find easy on a personal level. It might perhaps be better rendered with this phrase:
“For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say “Peace be within you, Jerusalem.”
Your companions are the people you hang out with, and perhaps a wider circle of people you feel at ease with, and are happy to see. Your community includes the rest of the people—the ones you don’t understand, the ones you don’t get or who don’t get you, the ones who make you feel threatened or anxious, the classmates who so irritatingly disagree with you, the chapel- or church-goers whose prayer style or doctrinal statements make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.
David prayed, not just for the sake of his companions, but for the sake of the whole community. The ones he liked and the ones he didn’t. The ones he agreed with and the ones he didn’t. “For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” David’s vision was not only hopeful for peace in his own private life. All truly aspirational narratives extend far beyond your own little circle: they hope for the wellbeing of the world beyond—which means that they always end up being costly as well as inspiring.
There was never going to be a complete and permanent peace in Jerusalem, but he prayed for it anyway. Not just for himself and his friends, but because the community needs peace.
There is not too much peace in America right now. But we should pray for it anyway. Because the community needs peace.
There is not always peace in Marquand Chapel. But we should pray for it anyway. We should keep talking our aspirational narrative; keep telling ourselves that we can worship together and find fellowship with people who are not like us. Because if we can’t do it here, how are we going to make peace in the streets of New Haven, and New York, and Chicago, and D.C., and Houston, and every other town and city across this land? Our narrative is really about something far bigger than a program of Divinity School worship. It’s about forming ourselves as people who can take the lead in the big wide world—who can confidently say that we know a religiously diverse community is possible, because we’ve been there; who can say that the richness of an inter-faith community is a genuine alternative possibility to a world that keeps blowing itself up, because we’ve been inside a microcosm of that very thing. Our aspirational narrative has a far bigger embrace than just our little community. It’s a vision to live into for the sake of the world, and it is fueled by those little shafts of light that shine through on the days when we are at our best.
So pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
And pray for the peace of America.
Pray for the peace of New Haven, and Yale Divinity School, and Marquand Chapel—for the sake of your companions, and for your community too.
And shoot for the moon. Because we will miss it, I’m sure. But we may just end up among the stars.
*King David is traditionally the figure to whom the Psalms are attributed, but was not necessarily the author.