The Way of Jesus: Confronting Oppression, Celebrating New Life
This sermon is available in audio format.Download Audio Sermon: Jered Weber-Johnson - Jun 30, 2019
As I read today’s gospel lesson, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’ve started on a trip, left the house, only to remember there was some critical piece to my trip still waiting back on the kitchen counter. You know, like when you’re halfway to the airport and you remember you left your cell phone’s charger plugged into the wall in the office? Or, maybe you’re on your way to the store and you realize all of your reusable shopping bags are in the closet? Maybe you are running late to a party, and you are about to park in front of the house and realize the present is still at home? What do you do? Do you go back? Do you risk being extremely late to the party or missing your flight?
This morning Jesus sets his face, Luke tells us, he begins his mission to Jerusalem, and one gets the impression that nothing is going to turn or dissuade him from this path, his mission — Jesus is on his way. The phrase “set his face” marks a turning point in Luke’s gospel. To say that Jesus is ‘on his way’ is to acknowledge that Jesus is on a collision course with Jerusalem and everything that it holds. Jesus is ‘on his way’, and it is clear that nothing, not inhospitable Samaritans or disturbingly vengeful disciples, or reluctant would-be followers can or will stand in his way. Jesus is now on a mission to the cross.
Nothing will stand in his way as he sets about the life-threatening, urgent, and dangerous work of challenging the authorities who held the power of life and death over him and over the world of his day. Earlier in this chapter Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, and this sending, the ministry that the disciples did, caught the unwanted attention of Herod. Now Jesus sends out even more, surely attracting even greater attention from authorities even more powerful than Herod. As liberationist scholar and New Testament theologian Justo González, reminded me this week, Jesus is “throwing down the gauntlet before those who would oppose the mission and facing the consequences.”
But, it is important to note, ‘the way’ is not just Jesus’, it also belongs to those who follow him — it belongs to us, as it does to those who came before, and to those who come after us, until God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. As González writes, “in setting his face to go to Jerusalem Jesus is making a decision that many Christians through the centuries would have to parallel. It is a decision to confront the powers of oppression.” I have been reading González’s commentary on Luke this year as the church returns to Year C in the lectionary, a time when we focus with great intention on the gospel of Luke as our primary gospel each Sunday. González is helpful as a liberation theologian in reminding me that the work of faith is not just private and spiritual, it is communal and political. He reminds me that where I sit protected behind so much privilege is not the norm for Christians across the ages, even Christians in this age, or indeed all persons, across history. More to the point, González reminds us that the gospel, especially Luke’s gospel, is written with an eye toward liberation and justice – not just personal piety and inner transformation, important though those things may be. The way of Jesus is intended to cast down the mighty from their seats and lift up the humble and meek. The way of Jesus promises that the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent empty away. And, the way of Jesus is ours to follow. Which means, we will always be about the work of confronting oppression.
Confronting oppression is no easy task. It is important to remember that oppression is not always synonymous with evil. Oppression cloaks itself in propriety and respectability. Oppression is most often ensconced in society by leaders and laws. As González writes,
“The religious leaders that Jesus would be confronting in Jerusalem were basically good, religious people. They were not above conspiring against those who questioned their authority, or who would endanger their precarious support from Rome; but still, they did all this in defense of religion, and the text gives no indication that they thought they were doing evil. The political structure that Jesus and his disciples would be confronting was not necessarily bad. On the contrary, Roman authorities prided themselves on the Pax Romana and the civilization they had spread throughout the Meidterranean basin.”
Which ought to have eerie overtones from life in the present day. Religious leaders today cover up sex abuse scandals and the wage gap between men and women in paid ministry positions. And, in the wider world, some of the worst horrors are committed lawfully, daily, by governments like ours, both Democrat and Republican. Let us never forget phrases like “collateral damage”, which attempt to gloss over the hundreds of innocent lives lost by the drone strikes of now three administrations, in our several wars in the middle east. We would be wise to remember terms like “feared for his life” and “stand your ground” which led to the lawful shooting of Philando Castille and Trayvon Martin and so many more innocent black men and boys like them. It is presently the position of our own government that separating asylum-seeking children from their parents and detaining them in filth at our border is lawful. And, not so long ago, it was considered lawful to arrest, harrass, abuse, and discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Trans, and Bi people. This month we recall the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising when queer folk, many of them Trans and persons of color, stood up and pushed back, even violently, in protest against the legal harrassment the local government brought against them. That protest and confrontation with the powers and authorities of the day led quite quickly to an organizing movement for Civil Rights for the LGBTQ community – a movement that continues to this day, and which led in this state and states like ours, in this decade, to establishing marriage equality, and nationally to the abolishing of the defense of Marriage act. Here at Saint John’s we got involved in that movement, and I am proud we did. But, it is important to recall that long before us, in the days and years following Stonewall, and even before, there were communities of faith, many of them Episcopal like ours, breaking the laws of the land and violating the canons of this church, to create safe spaces for LGBTQ people, marrying, burying, and allowing the full expression of gender and sexual identity in their churches and in their communities.
This courageous following of the Way of Jesus created the context out of which new rites of marriage and renaming were created, rites like the one we will use as our friend and member of this faith community marks her transition from Neil to Jennifer, a time of great rejoicing. Because the way of Jesus is so universally conflated with the way of the Cross, we often view discipleship and following Jesus as being a rather grim reality, a process fraught with loss and struggle and pain. And, to confront oppression, these things are undoubtedly true. To be sure, those Samaritans were likely not being unwelcoming and inhospitable, rather they likely could see that Jesus was on a mission to confront the powers that held sway over their lives. They were acting prudently to disassociate themselves with Jesus and his disciples, because undoubtedly to welcome Jesus was to welcome swift retribution and backlash from the Romans. Yet, when the Samaritans reject Jesus, he does not act with retribution, he reminds his disciples that with God there is grace. Later in Luke’s gospel the Samaritan will feature in a parable about God’s grace and inclusion as the hero of the story. In Jesus, God is on the move reconciling and renewing and pushing past all the boundaries that divide and separate the children of God. In the way of Jesus, Jennifer is joyfully claiming her truest god-given self, and with it the way of new beginnings and hope. So it is, as Luke’s gospel tells the full story, the way of Jesus is also a way of joy and life and celebration. Luke more than any gospel recounts the abundant feasts and meals and celebratory moments that Jesus presided over as he went on his way – a reality that led many in the first century to regard him as a glutton and a drunk. Jesus lived with Joy, and his way brought new life and liberation to many. What’s more, if the way of the cross is real, then it is a way that leads to resurrection, and transformation, with power to overcome even death and the grave.
Finally, as our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, the way of Jesus is the way of Love. In fact, he is quick to remind us, if its not about Love, then its not about God. This morning the call to follow is urgent and risky as ever. It is a call to leave everything, to not look back, to not hold back, to follow on a collision course with the oppressive forces of this world. Whether that call leads you to speak up for refugee children horrifically being caged and held on our borders, or push back against the still persistent homophobia and sexism that spews forth on the news and on the streets in our world, or whether you will fight back against the destruction of our planet and the pillaging of our environment, Jesus says to us – come and follow. He has set his face and is on the way. It is a way of confrontation and a way of risk, just as it is a way of liberation, joy and new life. This morning the way is open and waiting – will you follow?