Based on Deut. 30:15-20; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Mt. 5:21-37
It was a long slog for the alto soloist. Not because the music was uninteresting and strewn with vocal passages of the character of high craggy mountains and deep dark valleys. But because, evidently, the soloist was overwhelmed by the flu in front of the full house. Verdi’s Requiem, ramped up by the Houston Grand Opera, was magnificently produced. The conductor commanded forces of the size and sound of the whole Fifth Army. Verdi’s music was as powerful and well-performed as ever. And somehow the alto soloist sang all she had to sing: with conviction, power, nuance, and expert technique. Suddenly, during the second movement of this mass for the dead, the unusual happened. She had to exit the stage, so to recover, and also to get her music cleaned up. The music carried on. The production would not be stopped. She returned. And exited and returned several times more, always back on cue, once even sharing the score of one of her front and center colleagues. She was ill. Nonetheless, she persisted. And her team was stalwart with her.
I’ve sung with outstanding choirs; opera too, way back when. I can guess what was said before everyone came on stage. The conductor or chorus master, or whoever would have reminded them of what they have learned, what they had been through, and what they were to do now—and that they were one people, a team!– as they took that stage upon which a whole unseen country would gaze. Their mission was to inspire their audience. If anyone in this mission force would falter, fear not, press on, and everyone else would have your back. While of course there were soloists and a vast orchestra and an even vaster choir of 180 voices, there was only one body there, all together with its strong and mutually reinforcing different talents. No soloist’s flu would compromise that power. Maybe that human frailty for the moment even drew further strength from the massed force of beautiful art; its voice pleading God that despite the day of wrath to come, God would be merciful and all those beloved and unknown whom we mourn would be blessed with wonderful rest. It was all so powerful that I expected the four horsemen of the apocalypse to ride in on the air anytime to plant finally the eternal sign of peace for which so many truly human hearts yearn.
Oh, there was the younger couple in front of us snuggling and kissing, reminding me of the Seinfeld show when Jerry tried to hide that he and his date were making out in the back row during a showing of Schindler’s List. There are people unaffected by art’s purposes in this fallen world who succumb to more physical and shallower interests. And there are those who even are bent on art’s destruction, who seek to warp its power for themselves by trespassing incessantly the border between truth and lie. Thereby they aim to amp up fear, all more to control than to be vulnerable to the good, the true, and the beautiful. What hard-shelled soul-less lives they have, lived falsely under the patina of flaking gold-gilt while wearing the terrorizing mask of arrogance. Nonetheless, those who are indeed opened by the fractures and fissures of really-lived human life know what beauty is, even if it comes with the words of a Dies-Irae—The Day of Wrath and a prayer for mercy and peace: Dona Eius Pacem. Those who plea and work for peace, as they say, “soldier on,” not so much like a military warrior but as a sick but persistent alto. She persisted. Nonetheless, those whose hearts have been broken open for the good, the true, and the beautiful persist! And the whole body together as one covers for you as you take a breath.
Moses’ summary and charge to his people after forty years of basic training in the wilderness was to choose life by keeping God front and center of their common life always. Moses did not say “choose life” just for one time. And he surely was not saying something far narrower as a social policy or ethical statement. To all the forty years-long trained faithful who were listening, Moses summarized and charged them into their mission; that they were one body now and were to keep God at their center, so that they and their children’s children would live full and true, good, and beautiful lives. With God’s help, they had persisted. Now they were to persist as one with God and NO OTHER idol at their core. No gold-gilt calves, no compromise of their faith by overtures to national soil and blood, erd und blut, and surely no obeisance to anything other than plain truth. This was just the right word before going on stage, because Moses’ people after all were first ordained to be a blessing to all peoples. There was no question of course that God’s people would get sick during their new mission. But Moses’ people were one people now, their sum was greater than their whole, they would cover for each other, and God for them all, for God’s purposes. The new but old world would still challenge them in every way. Nonetheless, they would persist, and they would know then also he most wonderful freedom.
Jesus means to do the same to us. From that Mount he proclaims a summary and charge of who and how we are to be before his one people take the stage in daily life below the mountain. What we so often miss in this otherwise frightening speech—to our great loss—is that Jesus’ words are not first about our individual personal misbehaviors.. Jesus’s word “you” is best translated here with the southern “y’all.” He speaks in the second person familiar plural. He is speaking to the team –the chorus, the orchestra, the whole divine production to which you and belong! Y’all together are the team known by mutual forgiveness. Y’all are the team who will resist and persist beyond all the unhuman agendas that fracture mutual trust and mutual respect. Y’all together are a people of such sheer and clear integrity that no person or news agency or investigator or congressional committee would ever need to spend ridiculous amounts of time and money to discern truth from fiction in you. Your forgiveness will be sincere and your yes will mean yes. Oh, there are instructions about individual behavior. The team is not to be known by its corruption, but by its dedication to God’s beautiful rule. Jesus’ mix of hyperbole with new rules of human equality intend to keep us centered on the one true all-abiding Lord of Grace. This is all for the sake of our strong inspiring performance of God’s goodness and truth and beauty to the world. We too are blessed to be a blessing! And when any among us fall ill—which happens!—this one body, this Christ the King Lutheran Church, this greater church called universal, this assembly within this time and this space which is infused too with all the saints of all time and all space—this, THIS ONE BODY OF CHRIST will cover your sickness and sin, will see your redeeming, and will give you the strong grace to resist and persist through the temporal and spiritual evils now rather clearer than in our pasts that want to distract us from the real true, good, and beautiful life that Christ offers now.
With prayer and neighborly care and focus always on the One who makes us one, for the sake of the world, we persist. At our different times, we will get sick. We will be tempted. We will be refused, denied, disrespected, assaulted, ignored. Nevertheless, we will persist. Our children’s children too will know joy. This is the work—the opera!—into which Jesus goes with y’all at every moment.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX