Today’s Gospel recounts a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. Up to this moment, he has lived and worked in Galilee, far from the center of things, and he has been known primarily as a healer and a teacher. But now, as Luke tells us, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus will leave his native area and go into the center of religious and civic life. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem both literally and figuratively. He’s going to the capital city, and he’s taking his critique to the heart of Roman and Jewish life.
In our own capital city, this past week has been a time of triumph and of tragedy. On Wednesday night hundreds of people gathered here in the Cathedral’s nave to celebrate the two Supreme Court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
It was a joyful night, full of laughter and tears,
as those who had suffered so much discrimination savored a cultural and legal turning point in our shared march toward justice.
But if Wednesday was a day of triumph, Tuesday was a day of tragedy when the same court that would extend marriage equality effectively gutted the central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark of the civil rights movement. I remember what that movement achieved and what that achievement cost. I remember its adversaries and its martyrs, too. The civil rights movement is precious to me because my youthful participation in it brought me into contact with Christians, and those relationships drew me into the Church.
As I struggled to make sense of the news from Tuesday, I remembered a passage from the nineteenth-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals of 1851 regarding the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime to give shelter to a runaway slave—even in Emerson’s “free” home state of Massachusetts. As you can imagine, those opposed to slavery were outraged. “This is not meddling with other people’s affairs,” Emerson wrote. “This is other people meddling with us.” The Fugitive Slave Act thwarted citizens engaged in “defending a human being who has taken the risks of being shot or burned alive, or cast into the sea, or starved to death or suffocated in a wooden box [to] recover the rights of man.” Worse still, as he observed, “this filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God.”
What would Emerson say about a similar decision, made in the twenty-first century, by people who can read and write, too? In the words of the great John Lewis, who was twice beaten almost to death during the civil rights struggle, “The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act.” So along with Emerson, I have no choice but to call Tuesday’s decision rolling back the heart of the Voting Rights Act “a filthy enactment.” That it was made in the twenty-first century, “by people who could read and write” and who know better, makes it not only filthy but shameful. We must together call on Congress to restore what the Court has taken away. We must defend and rebuild the Voting Rights Act.
Now before you begin to think that this is another instance of the dean going all political on you, think what it means for us to be followers of Jesus. After all, Jesus does not go to Jerusalem alone. He calls us to go with him. Christianity has never been only about our own personal, private piety. We go with Jesus to Jerusalem because we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are really following Jesus, we try to care as much about the sufferings of people we don’t know as we do about our own children and parents and spouses and friends. The way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice—and public churches like this Cathedral cannot be neutral where issues of justice are at stake.
In following the One who set his face to go to Jerusalem, let us—as a community that embodies his love and purpose—set our faces to go there, too. Let us, with Jesus, stand with and for those who are up against it. Let us, with Jesus, hold ourselves to account as we seek to live out God’s values in a broken world. Amen.