Rev. Ben Campbell | 9.19.21

Going to Jerusalem

I’ve seen that house in Capernaum – or at least, what some scholars think was that house. Perhaps you have seen it too. Maybe some of us can go to Palestine next year to see it together.

Over the previous several days, Jesus had told his apprentices that he knew he must go to Jerusalem, where all the authority of the nation was, and that he would almost certainly be killed there. Somehow the disciples had passed over this message. That evening he outed them. On the way to Capernaum that day, they had not been talking about their dangerous and prophetic mission to Jerusalem. They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Really!

So Jesus took this moment, this last quiet moment in Capernaum, to teach them the two principles of his mission – the principles which were central to his vocation and to twenty centuries of followers thereafter:
1) You are a servant, not a commander.
2) The basis of your action is to care for every child.

You all know the passage, and you all know the principles. They are not complicated. Service, not self-advancement. And whatever you do, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, capitalist or socialist, use the welfare of children as the measure of your success. It’s not complicated. But it’s absolute. Servanthood and welcoming children.

Maybe the disciples heard him, and maybe they didn’t. Probably they heard something, and it percolated down into their consciousness as they went through the years. But what they didn’t hear – until it was too late – was what it meant to go to Jerusalem.

That’s not unusual. Forgetting about Jerusalem is a worldwide disease. It is actually THE worldwide disease, — the great spiritual disease of humankind. Jesus unearthed it for all the world to see. And people have been trying to cover it up ever since. There’s no vaccination against it.

Just to be clear, I could be talking about the real Jerusalem – the city in Palestine where Jesus was going that next day – because, God knows, the injustice and racial conflict and misery and violence he found have continued century after century, and are still there today.

But this is Virginia, not Palestine. Jerusalem is a universal symbol — the paradigm for every city in the world. For us, going to Jerusalem is going to Metropolitan Richmond. The disciples didn’t get it then, and every generation of Jesus’ followers seems to have to relearn it, in every nation in the world:

Jesus had to go to his Jerusalem. We have to go to our own Jerusalem.

*****

As all of us know and know only too well, this is a strange and holy day for anyone to be standing here in this pulpit. When I first came to Richmond in 1970, Jack Spong would stand here on Sunday. I came to love him. But more than that, I learned ministry from him. Today, Jack, I stand humbly with you and the heavenly choir, grateful for your witness and stunned by your departure.

A little over a week ago, Jack sat with us here at the funeral for another priest and dear friend, Fletcher Lowe. Fletcher had been the new rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter in 1970 when Jack had just come to St. Paul’s. Together, the two of them ministered in this city in that decade, and then went forth to four more decades of service, before returning here to worship with us.

May their souls, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

What I want to say today, and what is so special about these two men — one thing they had in common — is this:

Both Jack and Fletcher saw that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem. Most preachers don’t see it as clearly as these two did. But they did, each in his own way, and they taught me and thousands of Christians and non-Christians throughout several generations that this was necessary. They taught them by their words, but most especially by their actions.

That is, they understood that the word of God is not simply about studying the Bible and going to church, singing and praying. It is that. It must be about that. Our prayer and collective spiritual life and theological study are the essential base for ministry. But Jack and Fletcher both understood as well that God’s word is about equity and justice, and therefore it is about intervening in the structures of society.

Both of them understood – and taught – that they were in Metropolitan Richmond for the same reason Jesus had to go to Jerusalem; that the Kingdom of God was breaking in to human life. The breaking in was for sake of the entire city, the entire population, regardless of religion or race or socioeconomic status.

In their visions, all would be affected by the prophetic word – by the Isaiah 58:12 program of St. Paul’s, by Jewish-Christian dialogues, by the careful and prophetic study of scripture, by the addressing of city government, by interreligious collegiality, by steady work for the abolition of the death penalty, by constant work against racial discrimination, by thoughtful and expansive theology, by influencing state legislatures, by inclusive ordination practices, by good liturgy, and by the use of church funds to affect public purposes.

Jack and Fletcher taught us this. Church was not just about church. Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, and metropolitan Richmond, and Newark, and Lynchburg, and to every city in the world.

*****

What are the characteristics of Jerusalem, — of every Jerusalem through the ages – that must be confronted by the living and active word of God?

The injustice and greed of Jerusalem that Jesus uncovered were couched in hiddenness, hypocrisy, and collusion. The authorities and Pharisees didn’t bother to look at the poor and oppressed. They hid from them. They claimed, hypocritically, that they were serving God while they participated in the oppression. And all of the people of privilege, no matter how much they disliked or competed with each other, colluded in maintaining the system of inequity.

That’s what Jerusalem was like. That’s why they had to get rid of Jesus.

In every generation, going to Jerusalem means this: Bringing hidden things to light; exposing hypocrisy, even if it is your own; and breaking the collusion in oppression. That’s what it means here in Central Virginia as well.

*****

It was a tense night in the small house in Capernaum.

Jesus was describing the journey to almost certain death in Jerusalem that would begin the next morning. He was talking to a group of disciples who didn’t really believe his foreboding vision and were debating which one of them would end up in a superior position in the new regime they were sure Jesus would magically inaugurate.

And then a child came into the room. In that time, there was no scenario in which an attending woman would not have rushed in to seize the trespassing youngster – or at least that the child would have been ignored and sent packing.

But as you and I know, the opposite was the case. Jesus welcomed the child, and then spoke with everyone about what he was doing: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Of course, it’s a theological and political purpose statement, Jesus’ ultimate criterion for a just and equitable society. [PAUSE]

But there’s something else true here, with which I’d like to close with you this morning:

The child, welcomed in Jesus’ arms, is the acceptance of God in the present moment. He or she is the statement of faith and hope in God’s future.

The conversation had been intense, about facing death, about ambitious apostles, — about heavily armed Roman soldiers and self-serving high priests, — about hypocritical Pharisees and oppressed peasants. Then, against all protocol, the child ran into the room. Everyone’s anxiety shot up – except Jesus.

Simple truth. Time of quiet. True relationship. Genuine, spontaneous love. The life is so obvious in the child. To welcome a child you must be fully present. You must put the rest of it aside. In fact, you become a servant. You surrender your own agenda and your own specialized vocation. You become present in the moment. As you surrender, Light returns. Hope returns.

The child gave the tense, even tormented disciples what nothing else could give in that moment – the presence of God.

That is the Holy Spirit. That is what we must always seek. That is the truth in which we rest. That is the recognizable source of fundamental change. That is what, so that real transformation may occur, Jesus brings to our own tormented, inequitable Jerusalem. Watch for it.
AMEN.