“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” 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: crowds come out to him because he can touch them and make them well, and his parables and way of life provide a glimpse into the way God wants things finally to be. 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, both victories for all of us who support marriage equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people as both a civil and religious right. 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, the day before was a day of tragedy. On Tuesday the same court that extended marriage equality effectively gutted the central provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act. On Tuesday I found myself as dejected as I would find myself elated on Wednesday. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, when I was in high school. Its passage—indeed, the whole Civil Rights Movement—was part of the process by which I came into the life of the church. I remember what that movement achieved and what that achievement cost. I remember its adversaries: Lester Maddox and George Wallace and Bull Connor. I remember its martyrs, too: Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and Johnathan Daniels. So even though I’m a white person, 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.
When the news of the decision came down on Tuesday I thought, “I can’t believe I live in a country that has turned back a signal victory of the Civil Rights movement.” And as I struggled to make sense of this news, I remembered a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals I had read in graduate school when I was writing my dissertation on him. Emerson lived in Concord Massachusetts in the nineteenth century. In the years before the Civil War, the Congress passed what’s known as “the compromise of 1850”: in exchange for admitting California to the Union as a free state, Congress also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that made it a crime to give shelter to a runaway slave, even in the northern free states. As you can imagine, those opposed to slavery were outraged: average citizens had to decide whether they would uphold or break what they felt was an unjust law. Here is what Emerson had to say about it:
This is not meddling with other people’s affairs,—this is other people meddling with us. This is not going crusading after slaves who it is alleged are very happy & comfortable where they are…but 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, taken all this risk to get away from his driver & recover the rights of man. And this man the Statute says, you men of Massachusetts shall kidnap & send back again a thousand miles across the sea to the dog-hutch he ﬂed from. And this ﬁlthy enactment was made in the 19th Century, by people who could read & write. I will not obey it, by God. [Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals 1851]
“And this ﬁlthy enactment was made in the 19th Century, by people who could read & write.” What would Emerson say about a similar decision made in the twenty-first century by people who can read and write, too? As the great John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman who was beaten almost to death twice during the Civil Rights struggle said in response to Tuesday’s ruling,
The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes. [John Lewis, Washington Post, June 25, 2013]
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, a man who set his face to go to Jerusalem. We are a public church, and public churches cannot be neutral where issues of justice are at stake. Jesus goes to Jerusalem not out of anger but out of compassion. Jesus goes to Jerusalem because he stands with and for those who are up against it. Jesus goes to Jerusalem because the God he calls his Father is One who loves and blesses and accepts everyone as they are and desires that all God’s creatures have love and have it abundantly. Jesus does not go to Jerusalem alone. He calls us to go with him.
Following Jesus as he sets his face to go to Jerusalem is part of what it means to be a Christian. 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 go with Jesus to Jerusalem because we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. 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. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice.
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. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice. We must together call on Congress to restore what the Court has taken away. We must defend and rebuild the Voting Rights Act.
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing what it would cost him. So did the Civil Rights leaders make that same journey to Selma and Montgomery. Listen to what Jesus says to those who would follow:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” [Luke 9:51-62]
I’m sure there were people in the Jesus movement who wondered why their leader was taking this step. They knew him as a healer and a teacher, and now here he was entering the public arena. Christianity has never been entirely about private suffering or personal joy. It’s always been about our public, social struggles as well. Thus Christianity has always engendered resistance. The earliest Christians were persecuted largely because they dared to care for the poor, sick outcasts of the Roman world. Christians have been martyred over time because they challenged the powers of their own day. Christians are persecuted around the world even today because they dare to make their private compassion a public virtue.
As we exult in the joy of victories for our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, we must also weep with the pains and losses of our brothers and sisters of color. Racism is an insidious disease from which none of us—no matter how good our intentions—will ever entirely recover. If you don’t believe me, just ask Paula Deen. In following the One who set his face to go to Jerusalem, let us as the 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.
Let us go to Jerusalem with Jesus full of the joy and hope that brought him there. Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, and you and I have each other as companions on this wonderful journey of justice and love and grace. Today we both rejoice and lament. Tomorrow we take up again the work of standing with Jesus and God for those whom Jerusalem (or Washington) would oppress. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, and we must go there with him. Let us, together, clean up and reverse this filthy enactment. That will be hard work, but it will be a joyful and transforming journey, too. Amen.