For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. There is:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NRSV)
For Jesus, as he stood on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, it was a time to weep. There is another occasion in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. When a group of Pharisees comes to warn him of a plot to kill him, he laments Jerusalem’s habit of killing the prophets and stoning those sent to it. Jesus declares that he wanted to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 14:31-35).
Five chapters later, as the procession into Jerusalem we call Palm Sunday is underway, Jesus stops to take in the view. There lying in front of him is the city of David. Standing in the center of the city is the Temple that Herod rebuilt and expanded into one of the ancient world’s greatest wonders, making Jerusalem an important site of pilgrimage and commerce. Jesus should be happy. He should be rejoicing. But as he looks out at the city, he begins to weep, because the city is unable to recognize the presence of God in its midst. Therefore, they will choose a path that leads not to peace or justice, but destruction.
By the time that Luke writes this Gospel, the city of Jerusalem and its Temple will lie in ruins. The wars against the Romans that lasted from 66 to 70 CE ended with the destruction of the city and its Temple. But, it didn’t have to happen this way. Unfortunately, the people chose the wrong way and suffered the consequences.
When Jesus weeps over the city, this isn’t merely an emotional response at a perceived loss. This is a lament. And according to Fred Craddock:
A lament is a voice of love and profound caring, a vision of what could have been and of grief over its loss, of tough hope painfully releasing the object of his hope, of personal responsibility and frustration, of sorrow and anger mixed, of accepted loss but with energy enough to go on. [Luke: Interpretation, p. 229).
As Jesus continued the procession into the city, he ends up in the Temple, where he overturns the tables of the religious marketers hoping to profit off of the people’s piety. Of course, before long Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. Thus, another troublemaker will be out of the way. Except that’s not the end of the story.
The reason that Jesus weeps is that the city seems blind to the presence of sin in its midst and its need for repentance. He weeps because the residents don’t seem able to recognize God’s presence. And that inability will have disastrous consequences.
That was then, but what about now? What word does Jesus have for us this morning?
In reflecting on this passage this past week, my thoughts went to the city in which we all live. And by city I mean the entire metro-Detroit region – on both sides of the divide between Detroit and its suburbs. Two weeks ago we gathered at First United Methodist Church of Birmingham to participate in the Metro Coalition of Congregation’s Action Assembly. During this assembly we heard updates and calls to action on the issues of health care, immigration, human trafficking, and regional transit. We heard stories about real life people caught up in modern day slavery. We heard stories about a broken immigration system and a health care system that works well for some, but not for many others. We also heard updates on the efforts to finally create a truly regional transit system for Metro-Detroit. In our time together, we asked the question – what would God have us do?
A few days after this assembly, Pastor Louise Ott, Justin Erickson, and I met with Oakland County’s Deputy Executive. We wanted to get his sense of where regional transit is going. We wanted to know where the roadblocks are and how we can help remove them. I’m pleased to say that it was a productive meeting. We even offered our churches as sites for town halls in preparation for the upcoming SMART millage.
What I heard from our Scripture this week is that Jesus weeps over the city. Although Detroit has a grand history, there has long been a dark lining to this history. Back when Edgar DeWitt Jones first came to town in 1920, Reinhold Niebuhr was serving as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. Although Niebuhr would leave Detroit in 1928 for Union Theological Seminary, where he became one of America’s leading theologians and social ethicists, during his time here he spoke out clearly against the presence of injustice in the city. He also spoke against the complicity of the churches in this injustice.
During his time in Detroit, Niebuhr kept a journal, which he published after his move to New York. It’s called Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. As he served Bethel Evangelical Church, he became disturbed by the inhumane conditions endured by the factory workers building cars for a growing middle class. He was also disturbed by the unwillingness of the city’s clergy to stand with the unions in pursuing better wages and more humane working conditions.
He wrote this in 1926:
I wish that some of our romanticists and sentimentalists could sit through a series of meetings where the real social problems of a city are discussed. They would be cured of their optimism. A city which is built around a productive process and which gives only casual thought and incidental attention to its human problems is really a kind of hell. Thousands in this town are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink and make merry. What a civilization! [Niebuhr, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic. (Kindle Locations 1133-1136).]
Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because it failed to heed the voice of God. On this day in March, as we continue our Lenten journey, what is Jesus saying to us? What responsibility do we have for changing the realities of our neighborhood, so that it is not “a kind of hell” where “thousands in this town are really living in torment?”
The causes of this hellishness might be different today than in Niebuhr’s day, but I believe that Jesus continues to weep over cities, states, nations. Wherever injustice is present, where war rather than peace reigns, Jesus will weep. So how should we respond?
On another occasion Niebuhr wrote the following – perhaps in frustration from being at too many conferences where religious leaders talked about doing the right thing, but never moving toward action.
Sermon after sermon, speech after speech is based upon the assumption that the people of the church are committed to the ethical ideals of Jesus and that they are the sole or at least chief agents of redemptive energy in society.
But, Niebuhr complained that too often we stay with general ideas and don’t move toward specifics. Of course, when it comes to offering specifics:
If that suggestion is made, the answer is that such a policy would breed contention. It certainly would. No moral project can be presented and no adventure made without resistance from the traditionalist and debate among experimentalists.
Niebuhr was a realist. He was also a doer. It wasn’t enough to talk about ideals when there’s work to be done. Yes, there might be resistance. The preacher might get some flack. But we must move to specifics. That was the message that Martin Luther King gave to white clergy as he sat in a Birmingham jail. Now was the time for action.
Detroit is in trouble, but so are the suburbs. The trouble may not seem immediate out here, but we’re all in this together. One of the possible bridges to a new day for the people of Metro-Detroit is the creation of a truly effective and affordable public transit system. It will benefit young adults who want to live in the city. It will also help residents of both the city and the suburbs get to their jobs in an efficient and effective manner. It’s even friendly to the environment. The question is – are we listening to each other and as we listen to each other, are we recognizing the presence of God in our midst? And if we do, are we willing to follow God’s pathway to peace and justice in our world?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
3rd Sunday of Lent
March 23, 2014