One of our Scriptures for today offers a ringing phrase that surely should unite all Christian believers: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Ahhh . . if we could only agree on which way the way goes, and what is truth, and how we should live the good life!
But even our other two Scriptures seem to offer very contradictory portraits of what that way and its truth and life are all about.
One portrait seems to elevate Christians to the top of the world in majestic and imperial splendor, for Peter’s Letter announces: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. Some Christians (especially in certain denominations) love all the majesty and royalty they can get (not mentioning any names!).
But then there’s that other portrait: those first Christians in Thessalonica—a city in Macedonia. The people “who have been turning the world upside down” all over the empire and who were “all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor.” Trouble-makers, provoking controversy in the congregations, antagonizing the crowds even getting themselves arrested—”dragged before government authorities.”
That verb “dragged” pops up repeatedly throughout the Book of Acts. Apparently, to be an early Christian was to be dragged!
Of course, earlier on Saint Paul, when he was known as “Saul,” in his persecution mode against the early church, was the dragger and not the draggee. Scripture records that Saul was “dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison.” But then came Damascus Road and that incomparable missionary career—and Paul increasingly became the object of the dragging.
In Lystra, he was first stoned, then dragged out of the city and left for dead.
In Philippi, Paul and Silas were seized by slave owners and dragged before the authorities, stripped, beaten, imprisoned, and finally escorted out of town.
Back in Jerusalem, Paul was dragged out of the Temple, arrested, and bound in chains.
But all these misadventures only fulfilled Jesus’ own warnings that the disciples would be “dragged before governors and kings” because of their faithfulness.
Now this sermon does not insist that, when you depart from this Cathedral, you go out and get yourself dragged right away! To the extent that this nation remains a truly free society, that should be a rare experience for any of us.
But the struggles of faith and freedom in our own American heritage should remind us that there has been a lot of dragging—and much worse—for the sake of overcoming slavery, and winning women’s right to vote, and workers’ rights, and civil rights, and “the things that make for peace.”
This morning, let us simply ask if there are any purposes for which we would be willing to stand accused of “turning the world upside down”—whether or not we would ever become anybody’s “draggees.”
Last Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, five days after the killings in a Colorado high school, our Dean Nathan Baxter preached powerfully on America’s youth living in “the valley of the shadow of death.” He appealed for the transformation of a culture that “celebrates violence, romanticizes it, commercializes it, sexualizes it, and passes time with it as entertainment.” That would require some turning upside down, as this week’s proliferation of shots and bombs, cranks and pranks, all over this continent, has made terribly clear.
Violence wears many faces—and has many sources. It involves much more than bullets and bombs and those who cater most profitably to this sick fascination with killing.
There is a deeply implicated, deeply American issue in our “culture of death” that might persuade you to do some turning upside down or inside out: the fact that this country remains the only Western democracy that still retains the death penalty. Since changes in the makeup and opinions of the Supreme Court in 1976, hundreds of Americans have been executed. Thousands more wait on death row. But more than fifty persons on death row have narrowly missed execution and have been released when found not to be guilty after all. We will never know how many innocent persons have been mistakenly executed.
It is this capricious crap game of capital punishment, biased against persons of color and persons of poverty, that led Justice Harry Blackmun to declare in 1994 that he was “unwilling to tinker with the machinery of death” any longer because of “the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error” under a system in which the constitutional requirements of justice as fairness cannot be met.
To be sure, capital punishment gratifies the spirit of judgment and vengeance against actual, or alleged, criminals. But the e is absolutely no persuasive evidence that it serves effectively to deter homicides. More persuasive is the evidence that executions, by their dehumanizing impact, cause more murders than they prevent. Which is why prosecutors so widely believe that the death penalty makes law enforcement more difficult.
The abolition of capital punishment in America can only happen if and when our culture’s conception of justice is made less vengeful—and more redemptive, restorative, and reconciling.
To be an advocate for this is to stand on the platforms of nearly every major Christian denomination in the United States. The Roman Catholic bishops of this country have been most emphatic and persistent in calling for an end to death penalties. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, when invited to address the Criminal Law Committee of Cook County, said: “Capital punishment is an example of meeting violence with violence . . . [but] we must find ways to break the cycle of violence which threatens to strangle our land.”
Now if you really want to be a good Christian—and therefore to turn something upside down—but you don’t want to take on the entertainment industry, or the gun lobby, or the criminal justice system, let me mention two other possibilities, both concerning the great capacity of this most powerful, most wealthy nation to help overcome violence around the world.
The first concerns the serious recent ruptures in America’s relations with the United Nations—most blatantly in our failure to pay our financial obligations, now amounting to aver $1.5 billion. While that’s less than the cost of one Trident submarine, or the cost of a few days bombing in Yugoslavia, it’s enough to cripple the UN’s potential for peacemaking and peacekeeping, to threaten the loss of our government’s vote in the UN General Assembly, and—as already happened a few days ago—to forfeit U.S. leadership of the UN Development Program for the world’s poorer countries.
At one level, the problem is a matter of arbitrary power in the hands of a particular Senate committee chairman. But more fundamentally, it reflects the collapse of effective public support of the United Nations by churches and Christian citizens. Fifty-five years ago, it was the public campaign for U.S. membership in the UN, led by the churches, that prevented a return to the reckless isolationism that followed the First World War.
The present delinquencies and dropping out of UN institutions also amount to recklessness. They are a profound national embarrassment, to say the least. But this has become a dismal dynamic contributing to the uncontrolled violence in the Balkans, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. It is a predicament that begs to be turned upside down.
Now one more way to cope with violence: a way urged upon us by one who has preached here before—and who will be with us again for Christmas and will help usher us into the new millennium: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize recipient, herald of truth and reconciliation in South Africa, and the prophet of jubilee 2000.
Actually, that’s this Cathedral’s main theme for the new millennium: “Jubilee 2000: Proclaiming God’s Reconciling Love in a New Era.” But for Desmond Tutu, Jubilee 2000 has a very specific reference: to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries. The biblical principle of the Jubilee says “everything belongs to God; all debts must be cancelled in the Jubilee Year to give the debtors a chance to make a new beginning” at least for the poorest of the poor.
The Archbishop did not say the debts should be “forgiven”—for the really serious question here is whether the creditors need to be forgiven as much as, if not more than, the debtors in this world in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.
Much of the violence within and among the poorest countries, especially in Africa, is the consequence of such inequalities and the lack of life-sustaining institutions. In Mozambique, 50 percent of the national budget goes entirely to paying just the interest on loans. That’s twice as much as on education; four times as much as on health. It is a country where one in every six babies dies before a first birthday—and where life expectancy is only 45—fully 30 years less than for us Americans. Those are facts of brutal systemic violence, but we can do something about it if we are willing to turn some economic policies upside down.
Religious movements don’t often crash the business section of the Washington Post—but just two days ago, there in the midst of the stock market reports, the capital gains news, and federal budget projections, appeared the names of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope John Paul II, and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign—credited with helping persuade the leaders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that they must move much more swiftly and substantially to reduce the debts of the poorest nations.
So: we have these and many other opportunities to help transform our “culture of death” and our world of unnecessary suffering. Chances are pretty good that you can involve yourself in any of them without being dragged before governing authorities—although you’d perhaps want to drag yourself before them to testify to your Christian faith—and love.
But what about that other portrait of Christians offered by Saint Peter: “royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people”?
Dear Friends: To be a priest is not merely to preside over the liturgies of the church. It is to be a loving companion of the people in all their joys and sufferings and sorrows. It is (at least we Protestants believe) a vocation not limited to the ordained but open to “the priesthood of all believers.” And it is to engage in actions that offer some hope that the suffering and sorrows of the world may be much diminished by our faithful discipleship.
That’s the royal way to be holy, to be God’s own people, as you turn this world rightside up! Amen’.