by Daniel Harrell
We’re walking through portions of Mark’s gospel most of this Lent—using Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary. The exception is next Sunday when we welcome Dr. Karoline Lewis, Assistant Professor of Biblical Preaching from Luther Seminary, who will speak from the gospel of John, a specialty of hers. Ironic, I know. Not that John and Mark are opposed to each other. Both have Jesus marking out the hard, cross-shaped road of discipleship. As Dr. Lewis will read next week, Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” It’s the same thing Jesus says in Mark, though last Sunday Jesus couched losing your life in terms of losing your lifestyle. A rich man ran up and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus answered, “Go, sell however much you own, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” As we all know, the rich man couldn’t do that, and neither can most of us.
Jesus disciples, however, had given up everything, and in turn Jesus promised not only that they would inherit eternal life in the hereafter, but they’d get a right rich life in the here and now too: a hundredfold return in houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and fields—albeit with persecutions. How was this possible? I suggested last Sunday that Jesus meant the hundredfold return metaphorically: houses and fields were code words for contentment, and brothers and sisters were code words for community. In other words, we the church, the body of Christ, serve as each others’ hundredfold return on earth—as hard and as challenging as that can be. Being present to one another in the more difficult times of life, bearing each others’ burdens will cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle and time.
Many of you loved that idea. And loved that sermon—one of you went so far as to call it the perfect sermon—which I’m not exactly sure what to do with, aside from saying thank you and praise the Lord. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut this morning—why mess with perfection?—except that the true measure of sermonic perfection is the effect any sermon has on our life as a congregation afterwards. As Jesus always said, “A tree is known by its fruit.” That’s why, at the risk of sounding cheeky, I should probably respond to sermon compliments with something along the lines, “it’s too soon to tell.”
This being the case, the closest thing to a perfect sermon I’ve ever witnessed was preached many years ago by David Fisher, the former Senior Minister of Colonial Church. I was sharing with some of you last weekend about how David preached his perfect sermon while we were both serving at Park Street Church in Boston back in the 90s. David was mid-sentence regarding the resurrection hope we have in Christ when an usher rushed up to the pulpit and urgently slipped him a note. One of our long-time members had just keeled over dead in his pew. David read the note, looked over and observed that, sure enough, the pew seat which this longtime member occupied every Sunday—and where he had been sitting when the sermon started—was now vacant. David paused to pray for the dead man and his family as doctors in the congregation assessed the situation. Not missing a beat, he then applied his point about our resurrection hope to this very moment. No sooner had he finished that point, than the longtime member who was dead, bless his soul, suddenly sat up, revived. Needless to say, David Fisher went home feeling pretty good about that sermon.
The good feelings lasted only until the medical exam came back reporting that the man had in fact only fainted. The usher had overreacted and felt utterly humiliated, so much so that he resigned his usher post and thought about leaving the church. We managed to talk him out of that, but just barely, the shame he felt was so strong. Most regarded his shame as another overreaction, a disproportionate response given the situation. We inhabit a culture in which shame is regularly minimized and considered toxic to our self-esteem. Best to let it go and move on. However for this usher, an Asian-American man, honor and shame meant everything.
I was reminded of this last week during the theology class I’m teaching at Bethel Seminary. Our guest was an Asian-American pastor, who remarked how so many Lenten observances in American churches, in focusing on the cross, focus mostly on the horrific physical pain Jesus endured. For modern Americans, the avoidance of pain is our utmost concern. We can even handle death as long as dying doesn’t have to hurt. It’s the physical suffering that we fear. For Asian cultures, however, shame is much worse than physical pain. As this pastor saw it, the true horror of the cross was the horror of public disgrace. To die on a cross was to hang naked and fully exposed, humiliated and unable to hide yourself, dishonored for all the world to see and scorn. The was crucifixion’s intent: it was cruel and unusual. No wonder the disciples were always so offended whenever Jesus told them he would take up a cross. It was scandalous. In ancient cultures, pain and suffering were just common parts of everyday life. The avoidance of shame was their utmost concern.
And yet University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that shame, “our most primal emotion as humans,” ironically “tells the truth that certain goods are valuable and we have failed to live up to them.” She asserts that shame can serve as a “morally valuable emotion, playing a constructive role in development and social change” for both individuals and societies. Shame is “essential for protecting our relations with people and groups whom we love and upon whom we are dependent;” shame serves as a “guardian of our desire to be worthy people.” Nevertheless, allowing for the benefits of shame remains difficult, especially in church circles where shame is viewed as “religious guilt,” detrimental to one’s spiritual health. It’s hard to hear Jesus’ shameful death tell the truth about our own sinful condition. The injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion was intended to rouse shame on the parts of its perpetrators—not only the Romans and the Jewish authorities—but all whose sins made his death a necessity, including you and me. A proper response to Christ’s death on the cross is not sympathy for his suffering as much as our shame for having caused it—a proper shame that properly motivates us to become people worthy of it.
Proper shame tells the truth and inspires transformation throughout Scripture. This morning’s parable form Mark is a prime example, told against the religious authorities who eagerly conspired to have Jesus killed for what they considered to be his blasphemy and his threat to their way of life. The parable was a story they would have already known. It came straight from Isaiah chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard… he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” The Jewish religious authorities would have known the vineyard to be a metaphor for Israel, bad fruit a metaphor for disobedience and the vineyard owner a metaphor for God. Jesus takes a few liberties with Isaiah’s imagery which Jesus being Jesus was at liberty to do. He shifted the focus off the bad fruit and onto the ones who grew it: a band of tenant farmers whom he introduced into the story.
It was customary for prosperous absentee landowners to lease out land to tenants who would manage the vineyards, farm the land, turn a profit and then pay rent with a percentage of those profits. The absentee owner in this story happened to be very absent—off in some far country—so he sent a servant around at harvest time to collect the rent. The tenant farmers, for some inexplicable reason, decided they weren’t going to pay. So they grabbed the servant, beat him up and sent him away empty-handed. The owner sent another servant whom the tenants insulted then pelted with rocks. The owner sent still another servant and this one the tenant farmers murdered! It was ludicrous. Still, the vineyard owner kept sending servant after servant and the tenants kept beating and killing them all. The vineyard owner was either a sucker for sedition or unbelievably long-suffering.
Finally, all out of servants, the owner decided to send his only beloved son. (An obvious tip-off to those who’d been at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and heard God refer to Jesus that way.) “Surely they’ll respect my son,” the owner reasoned, due to either some very odd logic or to his being incredibly naïve. What father in his right mind sends his child into a bad neighborhood where he knows they regularly brutalize and kill people? Having already gotten away with murder, the tenants say to each other, “This is the heir to the vineyard! Come on, let’s kill him too and the inheritance will be ours!” How did they figure that? They were renters, not relatives. What sort of idiots were these farmers? Their lease arrangement was customary and profitable. Were they trying to cover up the bad fruit their work had produced? When the son arrived, they killed him and tossed his body out of the vineyard without even the decency of a proper burial. Did they really think the owner was that far away? What would the vineyard owner do to them once he finally returned? Jesus answers this one: “The vineyard owner will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Then Mark adds in verse 12 how the religious rulers “knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them.” And yet they had no shame.
Jesus tried again. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Of course they had. They’d devoted years to training and study, they had their Bibles down pat. They were Masters of Divinity. They knew Psalm 118:22, which Jesus quoted, by heart: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’.” The religious authorities had always considered this verse to be speaking about them, the true chosen people. They were the rejected stone whom God would make the cornerstone. That Jesus would apply this honor to himself infuriated them. In effect Jesus declared himself to the true vine, the obedient child of God, the tree who bore righteous fruit; the one who would be despised and rejected for doing so, for making the chosen people look bad, for shaming the religious leaders. Shame is a powerful thing. It can evoke transformation. But it can also provoke violence.
In his most recent and disturbing book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, eminent black theologian James Cone addresses the church’s complicity in the common practice of murdering African Americans as a means of social and political control after the demise of Reconstruction. Like ancient crucifixions, lynchings were torturous, public spectacles. And more often than not, they were carried out by “good Christian folk”—people of genuine faith, deluded into believing that a dedication to white supremacy was part and parcel of their Christian identity. It is no coincidence that most of the lynchings from the late 19th to mid-20th century occurred in the Bible Belt. Churchgoing lynchers were often murdering other churchgoing Christians who were of the same communion: Baptists killed Baptists and Methodists killed Methodists. It’s how Dr. Cone ties the lynching tree to the cross: each was an unjust atrocity perpetrated by chosen people against one of their own, or in the case of the cross, against the chosen one.
As tenants of the vineyard, Israel’s religious leaders committed a double atrocity: they not only unjustly executed God’s beloved Son—along with all the servant-prophets who had previewed his arrival—but they outrageously ventured to usurp what belonged to God for themselves. It’s easy to write off these religious leaders as power-hungry malcontents whose illusions of entitlement blinded them into seeing themselves as immune from reaping what they’d sown. And yet, while the gospels tend to group these leaders together as one insidious lot and label them Pharisees, there were those among them whose faith in God was genuine. There were Pharisees who devoutly studied their Torahs, who worshipped sincerely, who cared for people, aided the sick, thoughtfully preached, who diligently obeyed the law while they fervently awaited the coming Messiah. Yet surprisingly the gospels make no distinction between the faithful and the deceitful when it came to the crucifixion. The good Christian Pharisees were guilty too.
As were Jesus’ own disciples. Sure they had given up everything to follow Christ, but once it looked like they might actually have to lose their own lives and honor, they gave up Jesus. No wonder they were so scared when he rose from the dead. Luke has them mistaking Jesus for a ghost. John has them hiding out for fear of the religious authorities, but having heard that Jesus was loose from the grave, they were also afraid of what he might do to them. They were ashamed of how they had treated to the Lord who loved them so, especially Peter who denied Jesus three times. When it came time to stand by his Lord, he lied about ever knowing who Jesus was. Nevertheless, Jesus forgave Peter three times over and told him to go out and feed his sheep. Lead his people. Build his church. Change the world.
The stone that the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone. “This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” You probably know next verse of Psalm 118 by heart: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The shame that provokes violence also evokes transformation. Grace does that. Black theologian James Cone concludes that the horrific acts of lynching in America became acts redeemed by time; ethical examples of unearned violence that cleared a pathway for racial reconciliation. The same shame that provoked violence evoked transformation. Cone ties it to the power of the cross. The shameful cross that violently crucified Jesus shamed the prodigal Peter, and shames us too, back into the everlasting arms of God and then out into the world to feed and serve as Christ. May the communion table that makes us mindful us of Christ’s death shame us for our part in it. And may that shame transform us by grace into a fruitful vineyard of God.