In every graduation season there is usually one college commencement address that receives all the buzz, and is recognized as the most affecting of the year. This spring it was the address given by the rock star Bono, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Pennsylvania . I highly recommend you read his address, which is easy to find online; it is funny, inspirational, apolitical, and patriotic.
Bono was more shocked than anyone to learn of his award. He claimed that the only experience he ever had with the law was when he broke it. He claims his resume reads like a rap sheet. For those of you who do not know who Bono is, he is Irish, he grew up in Dublin in the 70’s and skipped college to start the very successful rock band, U2. He’s now known as an ambassador for world debt relief, and is a crusader to end the epidemics of AIDS, world hunger and poverty, most especially in Africa .
In his address Bono cited the Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly, whose poem, Book of Judas, contains the following line: “If you want to serve the age, betray it.” Bono then asked, “What does that mean to betray the age?”
His answer was this and I quote, “Betraying the age means exposing its conceits, it’s foibles; it’s phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths.” End quote. Does this sound like anyone we know? Listen to Jesus’ admonition from the book of Matthew: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Bono went on to say and I quote, “every age has its massive moral blind spots. We might not see them, but our children will. Slavery was one of them and the people who best served that age were the ones who called it as it was–which was ungodly and inhuman. Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil rights movement to betray that age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age when on May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and put the lie to the idea that separate can never really be equal.” End quote.
He then put this question to the Penn graduates, “What is the moral blind spot of our age?” He said it might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. A refusal that we might verbally deny, but that we affirm with indifference and inaction in the face of suffering that we cannot, as thinking people, claim to be unaware of. Jesus said the same thing of course when he commanded the disciples to love their neighbors as themselves. “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9: 23-24).
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that there will be consequences to endure if one chooses to stick it out with him. For the church, this means a mandate to be of service to humankind at the expense of prestige and power. And for you and me, it is a summons to sacrifice our own self-interest for the sake of others, and to hold ourselves outside and above our culture’s standards of morality, materialism, narcissism, and perceived success. The bottom line for Jesus is that to be a disciple one must be prepared to live a life of faithful perseverance in the face of adversity. With the power of the cross comes responsibility. To take risks, to speak out for we believe to be the truth. It means to betray our own age by revealing its conceits, it’s foibles; it’s phony moral certitudes and facing the harsh truths. Jesus bucked the system and paid for it with his life. He is telling us in Luke’s gospel that there will always be a price to pay when you take on the world in his name. And as I see it we don’t have a choice.
Like all symbols, the cross evokes more than one can explain. It condenses death and life into one sign. It enfolds some of the deepest fears of humanity–vulnerability, betrayal, pain, forsakenness–and transfigures them into expressions of hope.
While Jesus came to banish the law with the free gift of grace, he did leave us with one immutable law, not written in stone, but on our hearts, and that is our responsibility to bear the weight of the cross. Whether we like it or not we have a portion in the power of the cross. We are called to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ and those not of Christ. It is an impossible burden, but we must bear it. How do we bear the impossible? How do we bear the crushing weight of the world?
We can start by forgiving it. We can start by praying for those who are starving in a world of abundance, for those who are dying of diseases in a world where there are cures and medicines, we can start by praying for the release of captives in countries like the Sudan who are victims of a genocidal final solution at this very minute– we can start by praying for their oppressors, we can pray for the end of all war and terrorism and violence; we can get involved in the political process; we can let our representatives know that we care about what happens to our brothers and sisters in godforsaken parts of the world where our caring can make a difference, and that we vote; we can back our passions with our pocketbooks; we can teach our children well by lifting them from the imaginary worlds of the television and Playstations and taking them to real places unlike the one they know, where there are people unlike themselves. Places like West Africa , or Honduras , or a soup kitchen here in Stuart Circle . This is the power of the cross of Christ.
Listen to this passage from Matthew: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” ( 11:28 ). We need to hold onto this scripture because if we hold on to a heavy cross by ourselves we will be crushed. But if we hold fast to Christ the burden of it will be light. Christ died for our sakes as the ultimate act of self-emptying, self-denial. The sign of the cross is a sign of sacrificial love. And through this gift of grace we will always have hope, for tomorrow is just a few hours away.
We are voicing our confidence that death is not the end, that the grip of evil has been broken. When we proclaim the power of the cross, we are declaring, albeit often with tremulous voices, that at times one must simply endure suffering, that certain things in life must be borne. The power of the cross is a symbol of the longing to give ourselves over to a project larger than our own self-interest, and of the faith that pouring out of one’s life for the sake of another brings new life. Amen.