Readings for today. Sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie.
The Christian theologian Robert Jenson passed away this week. He was an amazing man, pastor, and scholar. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re normal. Even if you’ve never heard of Robert Jenson, his work almost certainly shaped the life of someone else who helped shape your life for the good. Globally regarded and a Minnesota Lutheran. A mentor and fellow Texan one-time told me that there, in Texas, all the denominations are at least partly Baptist. You’ve got Baptist Baptists, Methodist Baptists, Episcopalian Baptists, even Catholic Baptists. Episcopalians are Baptists who can drink. It’s the same kind of thing up here, Wisconsin/Minnesota, but instead of Baptists it’s a cultural tug of war, a tie between the Catholics and Lutherans. Lutherans like Robert Jenson, who shaped us for the good. It’s good to thank God for such a lover of Jesus. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
Theologians write a lot, and not always plainly, but one of Jenson’s most famous sentences was alarmingly simple: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”
In that simple sentence, Jenson does a couple of things. First, he connects the Old and New Testaments, saying that it is the same God at work through the same people all throughout. One persistent, stubborn, beautiful mission working its way to fulfillment in Jesus. Israel, made a light to enlighten all people, salvation unfolding. Second, Jenson recognizes in Jesus the second exodus. You remember the first exodus: that’s Israel being delivered out of slavery in Egypt. Charlton Heston, walls of water, Pharaoh, plagues, and all the rest. Resulting in freedom for God’s people. Not just freedom, but impossible freedom made possible. The kind of freedom most of God’s people didn’t think to hope for any more because the lengths it would take to get there from where they were seemed utterly unattainable. Better to eat cucumbers in slavery. But over and over in the days after that impossible day, the scriptures would talk about what happened this way, “When there seemed to be no way, God made a way.”
You remember that exodus. Much later, when Jesus takes his buddies up on the mountain, and there is a terrifying cloud, and Moses and Elijah, and Jesus turns all glow-bug on them, do you remember that? The gospels tell us that Jesus was about to accomplish his departure, but the word for departure is exodus again. In other words, it’s the same God, persistently, stubbornly, beautifully working God’s mission to fulfillment, one more time. In other words, slaves are about to be set free again. In other words, the impossible is about to become possible and the freedom the disciples couldn’t even think to ask or hope for is about to become accomplished for them and for us. Freedom for God’s people one more time. This time from death. From death? How? Death is the original dead-end. But when there seemed to be no way, God made a way. So Christians come to this table and have learned to proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Time and again, this is the way of God’s people, remembering, proclaiming, living: once there was no way, but God made a way!
Think about that. Think about how this refrain, this faithful chorus, runs counter to how, even Christians, often talk about life and how it works. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Well, one door closed, but another one opened,” as if the naturalness of the path was a validation of it? As if the path of least resistance bears the stamp of divine approval. But Jesus, when he talks about doors at all, doesn’t talk about moving from door to door until you find the unlocked one. He talks about a widow, persistently banging on a neighbor’s door, in the middle of the night, until the neighbor gives up and comes down. And after the day faith died for the disciples, after that dark Friday they hadn’t yet learned to call Good, and they’re there, gathered in a room behind locked doors because of their fear, Jesus doesn’t find the door locked and move on. Where there seemed to be no way, God made a way. He stands before the the ones who’d cried, lied, and denied him and they tremble in his presence and he breathes his peace and forgiveness on the ones he is determined to call his friends. Impossibilities be damned. Christians don’t make a way by ourselves, but we have learned that our God has a knack for showing up at dead-ends, God has a heart for dead-ends, even us. And because God has a heart for dead-ends, Christians pray that, with God’s help, we are unlearning the fears that control us. Because when there was no way, God made a way.
All I want to say today is that when Jesus is talking to his church in Matthew’s gospel - and it’s one of a small handful of places where the word “church” comes up in the gospels - when he’s talking to those who gather in his name, and he’s giving instructions for what to do when one person hurts or disappoints another person, he’s not just giving moral rules for civil engagement and getting along, he’s inviting his church - his body - to embody with each other the truth that they worship the God who makes a way when there seems to be no way. Even with each other. In other words, when we pursue reconciliation, we proclaim resurrection. When we step toward the ones that others run from, we proclaim the God “who raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”
This stepping forward isn’t the same as condoning or ignoring or using platitudes to smooth things over. It is confronting. It is saying, “You hurt me, but I won’t settle for a future in which we both hide from the truth and each other along the way.” Because the opposite of confronting isn’t condoning, but hiding out of fear. And our lives are defined by these attempts to avoid from one another. Call it hating from a distance. You can see this dynamic at work in the antagonisms that drive our society, people separating into “us versus them.” It is as if, from our quarantined perches, we wait, perversely hoping that that side will really screw up, say the unforgivable thing, because then we will be justified in moving on without them. We will talk about, but not to, and it feels almost right on social media screens, but then we remember, we glimpse some part of the person, still there behind the label that has justified our desire for a future in which they don’t exist. Only by now we can’t imagine how we’d ever step back toward the other across the chasm of antagonism. That’s not far-fetched; that’s the way of the world. And it’s not just the way of the world on the cultural meta-stage, but in my heart, too! And maybe yours. One time I noticed myself taking notes every time someone hurt me, let me down, or disappointed my expectations, in a given day. I even made a kind of daily habit of it. Rather than take those notes back to the others with the opportunity for them to help make the situations right, I made the notes so that I could remember to complain to my real friends later. Of course, “real friends” were supposed to be those who would agree with me and justify my righteous anger. And given how painful it can feel to be hurt by another person, you can make the case for what I was doing. Writing others off is a defensible position to take. But Christians have been saved from fear and so where others give up, we show up in hope.
How else can you explain lives like that of Nelson Mandela? Imprisoned in his country for decades. Called a terrorist by our country for organizing military resistance against state-enforced racial oppression. Freed and put in power, elected president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela refused vengeance on his enemies and instead sought a future in which the truth about the evils of apartheid would, case by case, be seen and spoken through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu), pain would be legitimated, forgiveness would be extended and gradually received, and the still-healing people would learn to step toward God’s good future together, making room at one table for everyone.
Sometimes, most times, it would be easier to give up than to do what Jesus says to do in Matthew’s gospel, especially when time and circumstance give you the upper hand on the ones who rejected you. But where others give up, Christians show up in hope. Because the stone the builders rejected (that’s Jesus) has become the chief cornerstone. Because once there was no way, but God made a way. Because to pursue reconciliation is to proclaim resurrection. Because the God we worship today is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.