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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service – click on the video camera icon.
September 19, 2021
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a
Our Gospel lesson takes us into the heart of tension between Jesus and his disciples. The disciples wanted a Jesus who was a safe bet—teach, heal, take action, model love. We don’t mind this nice message, as long as it stays that way. But the Gospel always cuts much deeper. Love is not enough. As Jesus revealed more about the essence of his presence, it felt more dangerous. He spoke about a strange direction that the disciples didn’t want to hear or could not understand–about a God from beyond becoming our God from below with us in our deepest suffering, about a God who shatters our ego to enter our hearts, about a God who will not sit still as we strut around with our independent agendas. Jesus was not an energetic motivator for healthy living. God realizes we are beyond simply needing the “juice to produce” a better life. Our wounded lives and our broken world cry out for major surgery. Jesus does not come to simply make bad people good, but to make dead people alive.
His life is the surgical tool—crib, community, cross, crypt, clinch—the biography of Jesus. In the crib of Jesus, God becomes us in the flesh. In community, Jesus brings those on the outside to the inside. In the cross, he descends with us into the depths of our darkness. In the crypt, he looks death in the face without fear as we will all do one day. In the clinch, the power of the resurrection, the deal is sealed—with God’s great YES, nothing is impossible. All of this is the story of the cross—the knife of God’s surgical invasion into our darkened world. Luther made it abundantly clear—“The cross alone is our theology.” Moltman, another scholar wrote, “The theology of the cross is not a single chapter in theology; it is the key signature for all Christian theology.”
This theology of the cross, wrote Luther in the 16th century, is contrasted with what he called the theology of glory—which for now I want to rename as the theology of the self, which is a close translation. This tension between the story of the cross and the story of the self is always alive in our own lives and is apparent in our Gospel lesson. Jesus is forecasting the way of the cross—the betrayal, the killing, the tomb, the surprise called resurrection. The disciples are afraid and confused by all this. It’s too much. So they distract themselves by doing what we do when we don’t want to deal with something—we argue. Jesus overhears them and asks what they are arguing about. They froze. They are silent, embarrassed. Why? Mark writes, “they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.” You’d be silent too if you were caught by Jesus with your pants down. Faced with the cross, they run to themselves. Summoned to turn their eyes upon Jesus, they turn their fists toward each other about who is better, faster, bigger, smarter.
Isn’t competition built into the fabric of our lives? Some claim we get better through competition. Maybe. But it typically doesn’t stay that way. Our world is dominated by the measuring impulse–are you up or down, included or excluded, wanted or dismissed, better or worse, promoted or demoted, desired or not desired, invited in or forgotten, accepted or rejected, winner or loser. These are the kinds of questions that can keep us up at night, churning with worry, distressed, hurt, angry. But, it gets worse because we tend to define ourselves— our worth, our value, by how we are measured in life. How we are measured over our lifetime by others can easily become our god—because we use it as the standard to define us. And what we allow to define us becomes our god.
However, the story of the cross raises up a different standard—treasuring, not measuring. Measuring gives us information, but treasuring defines us—a world of difference. Measuring comes and goes, but treasuring in the arms of a loving God is a lifetime guarantee that never ends. Measuring easily divides people. But treasuring brings us all together at the foot of the cross. In measuring, there are ghettos of people up and down, in and out. In treasuring we see ourselves and others under the bright light of the cross. All of us, regardless of how we are measured, are all treasured alike as ones for whom Christ died. Treasuring is spacious. Measuring narrows and divides. Treasuring is the heartbeat of the cross.
But the story of the self is very persistent and seeks to dominate our lives. Consider what I call “contemptuous conviction”—a plague in our world and in the church. It’s good for us to have passionate convictions that give voice to our values. This is all part of the mature life. But when you add “contempt” to the mix, things dramatically change. Contempt is fueled by what Jonathan Haight in his book The Righteous Mind calls the sickness of self-righteousness. The social scientist John Gottman calls contempt the most corrosive element in all relationships. What is contempt? Contempt is taking the moral high ground, looking at others who hold other opinions as lesser, misguided, stupid, idiotic. And from this one-up stance the other is dismissed, demeaned, disregarded and demonized. “Who could be friends with someone who thinks like that!” Have you ever heard that? “How in the world can anyone believe that?” Have you ever heard that? We gather ourselves into toxic tribes who bind together in beliefs, are blind to others views, and then blast them away—bind, blind, and blast. The formula for pulverizing polarization in the world and, sadly, in the church too often. Savannah Heschel writes of this danger: “We have a tendency to become our opinions; instead of merely having them, we embody them. Then if someone doesn’t like my political view, I am the enemy. It’s that kind of transformation of a political view into a human enemy that’s very dangerous.”
Contemptuous conviction is pervasive, it is cancerous, and it is deadly—in our communities, our families, our marriages, and in the church. In this kind of world, relationships are fractured, sometimes forever, because it feels unsafe. Sometimes ones who hold other voices are asked to leave because “they won’t get on board.” No room to learn. No room for compassion. No room for people of mixed and contrasting beliefs to dwell together in peace. The cost of speaking out is too dangerous. We like to champion diversity and inclusion. But when it comes to different opinions and beliefs, watch out! There is growing tolerance for intolerance.
Do you believe this? There are many good and faithful and wise and reasonable people who hold a variety of views, a continuum of beliefs (not just binary, right or wrong) on volatile subjects such as abortion, vaccination, gun control, political affiliations, immigration, sexual orientation, an array of church policies, and a host of theological doctrines and principles such as biblical interpretation and discipleship. Do you believe that there may be a variety of responses to all these issues by faithful, good, reasonable people? That would require both the suffering and hospitality of the cross and God’s deepest love. But we tend to take short cuts. We tend to like consonance, not dissonance, and opt for being true believers that separate the world into good and bad, right and wrong, smart and stupid. The fear of voicing a different view leads individuals into underground, hidden conversations. Faith, hope, and love could become powerful resources. But in this kind of contemptuous culture, they are merely bumper stickers. Is the cross big enough for all of us or only for us who agree with each other? We handcuff diversity and kill Jesus. When our rigid rightness dismisses others, when the vote dominates over the love, we are enemies of the cross and we crucify our Lord again and again and again. The cross is for us, but it’s also because of us. In the shadow of the cross, repentance is the only true posture.
What to do? We are often blessed with sacred stories that come alive in the secular world. Here’s one that is like a parable about what might be possible. Two Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia, huge personalities, both served on the court for almost 30 years. They were polar opposites. They disagreed more than any other two justices on almost every issue from same sex marriage to gun rights. Their relationship was considered improbable. If they were in the church, they would sit on opposite sides, sing the same hymns, but would not speak with each other, and would gossip about each other in underground jabs. Collaboration would be unthinkable.
Strangely, however, for decades they were regarded as the best of friends. Scalia once said of Ginsberg: “What’s not to like, except her views on the law!” Ginsberg said this: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas.” They believed in their ideas, argued their opinions thoughtfully, advanced them vigorously…but it was all absent of contempt. True diversity of thought. Their friendship prevailed. They included their spouses. They welcomed debate with decency, sometimes laced with levity. Again, let’s be clear. Strong convictions are not a problem. It’s the contempt, a failure to be curious, a failure to learn from the other, a failure of compassion, and a militant dismissing of the other which is both pathological and sinful. This story about Ginsberg and Scalia is different. Ginsberg once summed it up: “I will never let the vote destroy the love.” Love is the antidote for the virus of self righteousness.
There are many secular resources to help us build bridges of possibility over the rivers of resentment such as Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy and the group Braver Angels that brings together the reds and blues and other political divides into conversations. Then there are a host of communication tips and tools–learn to bend without breaking, invite don’t impose, find the kernel of truth in the other’s point of view, look for the common Yes before debating the different Nos, bracket your beliefs enough that you can hear the other one into speech, as Nelle Morton advises. And so on.
While all this can be useful, research has shown that you can be expert on all the communication skills and still fail…because the problem is less about skill and more about spirit, especially a spirit that swims in the swamp of darkness. Only radical surgery can truly save our spirits imprisoned in the tomb of self righteousness. Only the Spirit of the crucified and risen one can break us open to see the other not as alien, but as child of God. In short, under the cross, we are incapable of truly loving that which we have dismissed and demeaned. But under the cross, we are loved into loving. Under the cross our feeble will and self righteousness is exposed. Under the cross, with nothing to offer, we are loved into loving. Our real gift to the other is not our own inadequate love, but the love of Christ, working through us, that receives the alien other in a new way. We need to understand this critical reality. We are not the source of our loving. We are simply the pipelines for a love that is much greater than we can ever produce. That’s why Jesus lifts up a child as the model—weak, small, dependent, loved into loving who is not imprisoned by the ego agendas of life. We have to regress to progress. We have to get out of the way so that Christ can love through us.
In the political and church wars of the 16th century, Rupertus Meldenius wrote this critical line: “In the essential, unity; in the nonessential liberty; in all things charity.” The cross invites us not to forget this, as St. Paul wrote: “I know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” That is the essential and the only essential. As Douglas John Hall has written, everything else might be important, but is nonessential. We think too much of our cherished convictions and opinions, often elevating them to the level of the essential, the sacred, and untouchable. When we do that, Hall writes, we commit idolatry and diminish the one essential, the one place where all are invited to gather, the one thing that matters most, the place of spaciousness, the home of solidarity, the heart of God’s deepest love—the cross of Christ.
Carry with you the words of the hymn—”Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.” This is our one essential. May you all be blessed with this daily, fresh, new reality of the resurrection. Amen.