There has been a lot of weeping in the Washington-metropolitan area over the last few days. Not long ago, an 88-year-old man walked into the Holocaust Museum and fatally shot the security guard who had just held the door open for him. Last Monday, a Red Line Metro train crashed into the rear of another Metro train in northeast Washington, D.C., killing nine people and injuring dozens of others. And, to top it all off, on Thursday, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, died of cardiac arrest, grieving fans all over the world—including a multitude who live right here in the nation’s capitol.
These high profile tragedies, however, are but a small sampling of the daily pain and misery faced by urban dwellers continually plagued by senseless violence, disproportionate incarceration, unfair sentencing, inadequate housing, high unemployment, poor schools, rampant drug and alcohol addiction, insufficient health care, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and excessive rates of HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, and other life-threatening diseases.
Just as Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives to behold a breath-taking view of the holy city of Jerusalem adorned in all its glory, so I can imagine that if Jesus approached Washington, D.C., from the south, traveling up 395 north toward the 14th Street bridge, he would descend upon a similar breath-taking city, this one with gleaming monuments, stately memorials, and white-washed federal buildings.
But we must not forget that as Jesus approached the beautiful city of Jerusalem, an interesting thing happened—instead of rejoicing, he wept. He wept because he realized that the appearance of peace in the city did not necessarily indicate the presence of peace. He wept because he understood that the official Jerusalem—the wealthy, the aristocracy, and even the religious leadership—did not genuinely represent the unofficial Jerusalem—the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And he wept because he foresaw that the city was destined for destruction since its people “did not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.” Or, to put it another way, they did not appreciate that God incarnate, i.e., God in the flesh—the God of love, justice, freedom, inclusion, and equality for all of God’s children—was in their very midst in the person of Jesus the Christ, and they failed to recognize him.
Therefore, as we follow him in this nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, after weeping, does an interesting thing. He makes his way directly from the town square to the church house. He moves from the city, in general, to the temple, in particular. And I submit that perhaps the reason for this move, in the mind of Jesus, was that if the people fail to recognize God in their midst, what better place to investigate the reason for this failure than the one place where God’s presence should be undeniable—the community of faith? But, unfortunately, when Jesus enters the temple, he discovers not that it is a “house of prayer” [for all people, as it says in the Gospel of Mark], but that it has become, instead, “a den of robbers.” It has become not a safe place, where helpless men and women, boys and girls can be affirmed, uplifted, and empowered, but where they are exploited, misused, and abused. And so, all of a sudden, his weeping turns into sweeping, as he “drive[s] out those who were selling things there.” And, according to the Gospel of John, he did not simply drive them out with harsh words or by turning over a few tables, but also by “making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple”! In other words, not only has peaceful weeping now turned into violent sweeping, but also patient exhortation has now turned into righteous indignation.
What is the message in all of this for us today? The message is that God expects the church of God to be a model for the people of God. The church, i.e., “the body of Christ,” should be a microcosm of the Kingdom of God. Yes, I know that even the church is an imperfect organism, but let’s not forget that we do serve a perfect God. This God is not too surprised when society gets it wrong—i.e., when worldly human beings hate, judge, condemn, use, exploit, discriminate against, oppress, and persecute one another based on differences of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. That is why Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.
But God really gets upset when the church gets it wrong. For the church is supposed to be the leaven that makes the whole batch of dough rise. The church is supposed to be the remnant. The church is supposed to set the standard, be the example, and become the new paradigm for a new day. The church is supposed to lead the way in becoming an inclusive fellowship by demonstrating the creative, liberating, and enriching power of God’s unconditional love and uncompromising justice. The church is supposed to break down the barriers that divide us—not erect them. The church is supposed to be a part of the solution—not a part of the problem.
But for far too long, the church has tended to lag behind society rather than lead society. In opposing racism, the church has lagged behind. In opposing sexism, the church has lagged behind. In opposing classism, the church has lagged behind. In opposing slavery, the church has lagged behind. In opposing the Holocaust, the church has lagged behind. In opposing genocide, the church has lagged behind. In opposing apartheid, the church has lagged behind. In opposing militarism, the church has lagged behind. And, indeed, in opposing heterosexism, the church has lagged behind.
And so I leave you with this question? When will the church stop acting like the presumptuous puppy dog who runs boldly out in front of the dog’s owner, as if the dog knows where the owner is going, when all the time, the poor dog doesn’t have a clue? Here, in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capitol, particularly at a time when we have a richly diverse community and not only have an African-American mayor, but also our first African-American president of the United States of America, the church has a unique opportunity to reclaim its prophetic role by leading this city to become a model of freedom, justice, and equality for the world—a place where to be different does not mean to be deficient, and where every human being is given a chance to realize his/her full, God-given potential. Why can’t Washington, D.C., for instance, be a place where a church like the Washington National Cathedral, in upper northwest, can partner with a church like Covenant Baptist Church, in far southwest, working together “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” I don’t know about you, but I think we can do it!
For as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and as Howard Thurman once observed: “I have always wanted to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”