Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 17, 2019
The Second Sunday in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Gary Dorrien
Takers of the Divine Nature

In the name of our God, who is our creator, redeemer, and sustainer, amen.

Jerusalem. Jerusalem. The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. These haunting, sad, tender words in Luke point to the cross. It's only the second week of Lent, but the lectionary and the Gospel of Luke remind us already that Jesus is heading to Palm Sunday in Calvary. Matthew places these words after Palm Sunday, which makes more sense if you're a literal type, but in Luke, Jesus is always heading to the cross, and his words in today's reading are an echo of Psalm 18:118, connected with the great Pilgrim feast of Tabernacles, a feast registering Messianic expectation. "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."

The parallel passage in Matthew is more literally chronological, and Matthew stresses that the law remains enforced for Christians is some way, but Luke always has his eye on the whole world, stressing that the way of Jesus is for everyone, and it's not what the world calls wisdom.

Luke begins his Gospel with a story about the world being enrolled for taxation, and he ends with the Book Of Acts, when Paul gets to Rome. To Luke, Paul is a symbol of universality, and Rome is a symbol of universality. Luke spends quite a few chapters getting you to care about Paul, yet he doesn't bother to tell you what happens to Paul because his work is done as soon as Paul gets to Rome. The Gospel is for everyone. Back at the beginning, in Luke's story, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because of the census. This is actually not a good way to conduct a census, but for Luke, this story sets the theme of his entire Gospel, and Acts. Salvation comes from the Jews. It saved the entire world, and the saving grace of Christ is not what the world calls salvation.

The tax registration was a legal measure used by the Roman empire as a mechanism of revenue collection and social control. It was part of a system that was called, without irony, the Peace of Rome. At the center of the Roman empire was a cityscape known for its material abundance, its greed for new commodities and pleasures, and its moral corruption. On the edges of disorder, in the dominated provinces were the ravages of imperialism. Misery, lack of food, shelter, and work, hopelessness among the masses of the impoverished and oppressed. This situation is reflected in Jesus's Parable of the Vineyard, and many scriptural texts that refer to the hunger and diseases of the poor.

The Roman empire was reasonably tolerant by historical standards. It was efficient, productive, and cultured, and some of it's propagandists were morally reflective. But they barely mention the malnourished, the oppressed, and the destitute that you find throughout the New Testament. Some of us were raised on school books that echo the Roman propagandists who called the exploitation of other people order, and their subjugation peace.

The road to Calvary, and the universality of Christian salvation come through in Luke distinctly. From the census narrative, to the temptation in the desert, to the Galilean Ministry, to the journey narrative, to the Jerusalem Ministry, to the passion and glorification of Jesus, Luke presents Jesus as the prophet of righteousness who renounced every form of exploitation and violence, who took into himself by his violent death the suffering of the world in order to redeem it.

To the early church, the cross was the symbol of the way of Christ, the way fellow suffering, love divine. Jesus preached and showed the power of spirit filled love as an alternative to the power of worshiping way of the world.

That came through to me long before I understood anything else about Christianity or had any glimmer that I was heading toward a theological career. I grew up about two hours north of here in a semi-rural, lower class patch of Michigan called Bay County, between Bay City and Midland. My family was not religious at all, but we got to Mass on occasion. Sometimes I caught a ride to Mass with the Catholic family down the road, and we owned a family Bible containing pictures of Christian art. That was just enough for me to be caught by the image of a suffering God on a cross.

Actually reading the Bible seemed to be out of the question. What were you supposed to make of this sprawling mass of whatever it was? And I had no idea whatsoever about Christian doctrine, but the cross caught my attention. What was being said in this stunning, disturbing, violent image? What sort of religion shows the God figure opening his arms to his enemies and dying on a cross? That question caught me long before I knew there was any such thing as theology. The crucifixes in Catholic churches and the paintings of Good Friday drew me into the Passion of Christ. Christ crucified broke through my everyday horizon of lower class culture, and the next [inaudible 00:07:03].

Then the stunning witness of Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement similarly broke through, eventually melding in my thought and feeling, with the cross of Christ. Breaking through comes closest to describing it. An intrusion of something that called my environment, and school, and everydayness into question, seizing my attention, opening a horizon beyond Bay County, and compelling me to question a great deal of what they taught in high school about America, The Great. Rev’d King was assassinated when I was in high school, and he became no merely a great moral leader and critic of American racism, he was a Christ figure who died for us. The exemplar of the peacemaking and justice making way of Jesus. That was the sum total of my religious world view when I squeaked into college, mostly to play sports. All these years later, it is still my bedrock.

On the lecture circuit, I meet people every week for whom Christianity is a ruined word. When they ask why I am a Christian, I try to explain that I was drawn long ago into the question of what it means to follow Christ. The story of Christ draws me like a magnet into its gravitational force. The meaning of suffering, the acceptance of my limitations and failures and pain, the gift of Christ saving death for me, the challenge to overcome every form of exploitation and violence in the world, the willingness to give my life to other, and the promise of new life that it brings. I am held and energized by these experiences. They got me through ten years of watching my beloved spouse lose her fight with cancer, and they shape my understanding of how I should live.

Three Sundays ago, the Gospel reading from Luke told us the enemy way of loving Christ reveals the Grace of God. Today, Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering her brood under her wings. How we think about God should be shaped by what we see in Jesus. In the Gospels, the disciples never get it. They're stuck in conventional piety and nationalism, and they just don't comprehend the spiritual drama in which they have a role. To them, God is a sky father who determines everything, and religion is about doing things to incur God's favor. The search for God is the search for strength through God's omnipotent power, and when they lose faith in God, it's because they don't see God acting in a dramatic way. So we're told that when Jesus hung in his death agony on the cross, the disciples fled the scene, and the Roman soldiers yelled at him, "Come down from there and then we'll believe in you."

Certainly, they were being contemptuous toward Jesus, but from their standpoint, it was a reasonable test. The Messiah should be powerful, a conqueror. If you're really the Messiah, come down from the cross and then we'll have sufficient reason to follow you. But the Gospel is that God is revealed through redemptive suffering and compassion, not overpowering force. The Grace of The Redeemer is revealed through weakness. As Paul told the Corinthians, "The way of the cross is foolishness to those who believe in this dying world, but to us, we're safe from that spiritual death. It is nothing less than the very power of God."

Horace Bushnell, a nineteenth century theologian in Harvard, Connecticut put it this way. "There is a cross in God before the wood is seen upon Calvary, hid in God's own virtuate self, struggling heavily, enburdened feeling through all the previous ages and struggling as heavily now." That sentence scandalized [inaudible 00:11:43] in 1866. Neo-Calvinist New England theology was totally geared to deny that God experiences moral suffering. To be a theologian was precisely to be skilled at explaining away the last words of Jesus on the cross.

The early church was a kingdom movement, fixed on "Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, and pour yourself out for the poor and oppressed." It was an illegal, pacifist, [inaudible 00:12:18] sect that worshiped as divine, a criminal who was crucified by the empire. Later, the church's legal status changed dramatically, engendering wholly new ethical questions. What does it mean to exercise power in a morally responsible way? At what point is it morally imperative to prevent the slaughter of innocents? For the early church, these questions were unimaginable. To us, they're elementary.

I teach social ethics for a living, and in my field we spend a great deal of time [inaudible 00:12:59] the differences in ethical obligation for majority and minority communities in differing social, political, and economic contexts. The way of Jesus means different things in differing communities and contexts. Always, there is the slippery task of discerning what God is doing in any situation. The Gospels give us a picture of Jesus to help with this problem. I believe that this picture is more important than any historical detail or unscriptural witness and any doctrine we might derive from it. In theology, we have debates about everything, and for every biblical text, we have debates about historicity, oral transmission, redaction, literary form, interpretation.

But you don't need a theory to catch the crucial theme in the Gospel. The picture of Jesus that comes through to us, a figure filled with God's spirit who preached about the Kingdom of God, and loving your enemies, and made an impression of divinity. Good theology does not say that unearned suffering as such is redemptive. We are indebted to feminist and womanist theology for stressing this point, and I believe that Dr. King got this right, although this is a disputed point among theologians. Having suffered much, King sought to make his suffering a virtue to save himself from bitterness and to call white racists to repentance. In his experience, unearned suffering offered the opportunity to turn suffering into something redemptive. Suffering itself was not redemptive, but suffering could be made redemptive when people struggled against it in the name and way and spirit of Jesus.

Jesus did not talk about things that we talk about in my field. He did not talk about problems, approximate means, and ends, theories of justice, intersectional criticism, critical race theory, calculated consequences, postcolonial criticism, or defending structures of justice. The Gospel has no theory of politics or economics, per se, but the teaching of Jesus impales us into the struggle for a just and peaceable world, and holds us there whether or not we succeed. That is its social relevance. To love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself is not merely the content of an impossible ethical ideal. It is the motive force of the struggle for the flourishing of all human life and creation.

The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry, throws you into the struggle, keeps you in it, helps you face another day. We're not in control, and it's not up to us to make history come out right. In drawing closer to God, we are thrown into work that allows others to share in the hearts, and that is enough. After our struggles have ended, it is the ever gracious God of Light and Love who will make something of them. The words are from second Peter. "God's divine power is granted to us, all things that pertain to life and goodness, that through these, we may overcome the violence that is in the world and become our takers of the divine nature."