Jerusalem! Jerusalem! At the Cross-Road!

This post is Michael's sermon for Sunday, 13 March 2022, at Emmaus Road Mennonite Fellowship

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

Luke 13:31-35

Two weeks ago, a few of us were in the nation’s capital for a conference. On the days the conference wasn’t meeting, we walked among museums, monuments, and memorials pausing to reflect upon their meaning – the Smithsonians, WWII; Washington; Vietnam; Korea; Martin Luther King, Jr. I used to teach my students that the National Mall was created as an expansive outdoor cathedral filled with sacred symbols of American faith and values, a civic religion of capitalist and colonial American exceptionalism not simply meant for benign observation but for shaping minds and hearts and, yes, for worship. “Be careful,” I used to tell them, “even as moved as you are, about what you’re being taught there.”

Lincoln and King, yes, sacrifice, yes, “freedom isn’t free,” we heard a veteran tell a group of students – okay. But underlying that message is the veneration of the military and the glory of war, and even more subtly, a toxic national macho masculinity at the root of so many of our nation’s problems. And as we stood in front of the Capitol building, we went from awe to anger as the images and sounds of 14 months prior, January 6, 2021, flashed before us. Washington DC is all about religion, a national, civic, exceptionalist religion. Be careful, especially now, as we ponder our national response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all the while avoiding our own bloody, colonial hands.

“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you weren’t willing.” Jerusalem, like in Jesus’ day, still wields real-world political, economic, military, and moral power; even more, in the hearts and minds of people there and around the globe, it is a complex symbol imbued with deep spiritual meaning, what is both right and what is terribly wrong about religion. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.”

Shortly before this story, Jesus is transfigured, Moses and Elijah, a glorious vision, then, with those fateful words, Luke says, “he resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it.” He knows what lies ahead. “I must be on my way,” he says, “because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” But not before he tends to the poor and the hurting.

He’s at a crossroads, the point where he shifts his attention from his teaching and healing to the consequences of it all, he embraces his fate, he knows he will be killed for what he’s been doing – it is his destiny. There comes a time at each stage of our lives when we somehow must make peace with our pasts, forgive others and ourselves, come to grips with our regrets, so that we can embrace what lies before us. Each stage of our life is like that. Each day is like that.

Fast forward again to Washington DC. One of the days we spent in the National Museum of the American Indian, my first time there. I was moved by the intricacy of each tribe’s worldview, their multi-tiered maps of the universe, their diverse origin stories – eagles, ravens, bears, buffalo; corn, maize, and wheat – the sacred in all things. But I was saddened, too, by other maps, maps showing where these tribes had been displaced by broken treaties, dispossessed of their tribal lands at our government’s hands, displays documenting the Trail of Tears.

And on Ash Wednesday – so appropriate – we were first in line for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, my second time there. There’s a permanent exhibit, “Making A Way Out of No Way!” – how African Americans survived and thrived and strengthened their communities in the midst of racial oppression.

But this poem, too, by Langston Hughes, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”:

You tell me that hitler // Is a mighty bad man. // I guess he took lessons // from the ku klux klan …
Cause everything that hitler // And mussolini do, // Negroes get the same // Treatment from you …
I ask you this question // Cause I want to know // How long I got to fight // BOTH HITLER—AND JIM CROW.

Ash Wednesday. And in our time, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd – let’s say their names. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – too soon, much too soon. Black Lives Matter. It was a hard Ash Wednesday.

“Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” “America! America! God shed his grace on thee!” How dare we sing! Not here! Not about any of this. Our Indian sisters and brothers, our Black sisters and brothers, our poor sisters and brothers, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, our refugee sisters and brothers – not upon any of this was God’s grace shining!

Let’s make it really real: “America! America! That kills the prophets and stones those sent to it!”

And while we’re at it: “Indiana! Indiana! That values open carry over permits, that sacrifices its children on an altar of guns!”

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings … and you were not willing.”

A moral judgment stands over our nation. It was Black theologian Cornel West who said, “America needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine it and remake it.” America at a crossroads.

Back now to Jesus’ day, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. But before he goes, he still had work to do. “Tell that old fox, Herod,” he says. Herod the fox, Jesus the hen who gathers her chicks – and you know what happens when you mix foxes and chicks. I’m coming, he says, “because prophets can’t be killed outside Jerusalem.” He knows what will happen to him.

Whether we recognize it or not each one of us stands at a crossroads, too. I’m 68, two years older than my mom when she died. I look around the room here, some of you much younger and I remember those days rather wistfully; and some of you older, and I pray I make it that long. It doesn’t matter if we’re 15 or 50 or 80 – we will make choices today that will impact the rest of our lives, no matter how much time we have left. What will we choose? This is not a rhetorical question. What choices will you make today?

A crossroads, a cross on a road, the crossroad before the cross. You look back over your life and know what they are, those decisions, that led you to this place, this time. Too often choices are made for us by forces over which we have no control. But there always comes a time when we must choose – big decisions and small ones, too.

I’m coming, Jesus says to tell Herod, but first there’s healing to do, demons to cast out. We need to name the demons of tribalism and exclusivism, militarism and exceptionalism – in our country, here in town, political, social, even religious, even in the church. (You’re here because you confronted demonic powers in one of the other churches in town). What cures do you need to perform – in your community, in your families, in yourself? What friendship, what compassion can you give? What healing does your heart need? Who do you need to forgive? What do you need to forgive in yourself? A crossroad.

Here’s the secret. Even though Jerusalem was where the powers were most powerful, where Jesus would die, it was also the place of his rising. Each of us has our own Jerusalem. Have you ever held your life up to a mirror, a place of sheer honesty about who you are, both darkness and light, taken stock of your dreams, your choices, your regrets, the hurts you’ve inflicted, the wounds you bear – have you ever been that honest with yourself? I think it’s one of the hardest things in the world to be honest with yourself; it’s much easier to hide from ourselves and look away. Denial is the way we protect ourselves from ourselves. So like Jesus, we have our own crossroads, our own Jerusalem of the heart.

After church today, I’m heading to the home of Marsi Lawson to plan the memorial service for her husband of 50+ years, and my dear friend, Jerry, who died of lung cancer after an eleven-month struggle (he was diagnosed last year on Valentine’s Day). That whole time he said he didn’t fear death, that the diagnosis was a Valentine’s gift, that it had set him free. I tell you that because he died in Parkview ICU on Monday, January 31, but the previous Wednesday, the family had a choice to make – to either let nature take its course or a “Hail Mary,” an induced coma, hoping they could get the infection inflicting him under control. Jerry chose the coma; this is what he said, “I want to make the hard choice; I still have things I want to do.” He told sons, Eric and Kurt, then Marsi, “I love you,” then they induced the coma – those were the last words he ever spoke. I was with Marsi in the ICU with Jerry the night before he died, I held his hand, stroked his forehead. Is there a hard choice you have to make? What do you still need to do? The crossroad, the cross on the road.

So here we are, another Lent, a time for such honesty, for courage, for betting it all … if we dare it. The very place where we confront the powers at their strongest – outside us, inside us – is the place of our freedom. If we dare it. There is no other place – remember, “it’s impossible for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem” – we gotta go to Jerusalem, we gotta die there, die to self, there’s no other way, if we want to be free. What do you need to die to, what’s your Jerusalem, so you can live, and live abundantly? The cross on the road. Because being set free is one thing; living free, living free is quite another.

Like I say, being honest with yourself is so hard, but perhaps the hardest thing in the world is to love one another. Simply love one another.Alice Walker in her magnificent, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, put it like this:

There is always a moment in any kind of struggle when one feels in full bloom. Vivid. Alive. One might be blown to bits in such a moment and still be at peace. … During my years of being close to people engaged in changing the world I have seen fear turn into courage. Sorrow into joy. Funerals into celebrations. To be such a person or to witness anyone at this moment of transcendent presence is to know that what is human is linked, by a daring compassion, to what is divine.

Jerusalem. Rosa Parks on a bus. A young Gandhi at a train station in South Africa. Victor Frankl in a concentration camp. Nelson Mandela in a prison cell. Palestinians under occupation. Martin Luther King on a mountaintop. My friend, Jerry, in an ICU. Each one, no longer captive to the past, making the hard choice no matter their circumstance, choosing freedom, daring freedom, channeling that freedom into lives of courage and compassion, healing and love. Each one of them, their Jerusalem. And Michael Spath, too, and you, and you, and you, each one of you … Lent, 2022.

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