When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
He wasn’t a great preacher because he was brilliant, although he was. He wasn’t a great preacher because he could turn a phrase, although he could He wasn’t a great preacher because he excelled at biblical interpretation, but it turns out, he was pretty damn good at that too. But the first time I heard him preach, I knew it. He was the best preacher I had ever heard.
He would finish writing sermon notes 15 minutes before the start of the service, and often didn’t finish until halfway into preaching it. He told jokes every week, but they failed to elicit laughter a good 95% of the time, except, of course, from himself. He laughed every single time. Every preacher has had a sermon where they struggle to figure out where they are going and end up going nowhere. For him, these sermons weren’t just an accident, they were a feature of his preaching style. Great preachers aren’t disqualified by bad sermons. They’re made by preaching great ones. He had some misses and, honestly, more misses than most, but he had more great sermons, more unbelievably great sermons, than any preacher I ever knew, including preachers from the dozens of churches I’d been to before, any that I ever listened to online, or any professor from my seminary. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out what made him better than any one else. All I knew was that Pastor JP Hong towered above all of them.
And I wanted to preach just like him.
It was about the end of my first year interning at Culmore UMC. I was finally figuring out what I was doing as a the youth pastor and just becoming comfortable participating in the church service. It was a normal week for me, but I knew that it was a hard one for our pastor. JP received on of those random phone calls that just ruins your week and all of your plans. A kid was dead. If I recall correctly, it was suicide. Someone was calling around just hoping that a minister wouldn’t have plans and would say yes. JP, of course, said yes. He cancelled his other plans. I didn’t get all the details of what happened. I couldn’t go to the funeral so I wasn’t really involved, but the word was that it was a horrible, tragic situation. JP did the best he could.
Sunday morning still showed on time and JP was trying to finish the sermon after a hard week. I walked into his office with the youth group and they gave him a hard time about being late again. As the sermon started, I thought I wasn’t going to get his best. Things started to regress. The sermon clearly wasn’t going as he planned. The sermon drifted from the topic to his own struggles. To what he faced the past week. Then to his struggles as a pastor. To his doubts. His face reddened. He began to cry. “Your pastor needs help.” Afterwards he was silent for some time. I sat frozen. I didn’t know what to do.
The text this week is about shame. Most preachers won’t preach about it though. They’ll preach about love, about loving your neighbor or about loving yourself. I preached one of those, “you’ve got to love yourself” sermons myself. It was horrible.
Jesus has faced a series of trap questions, tests and public debates all with the intention to shame him. His opponents believe that if they can publicly shame him, then he may lose some of his support, and all of the trouble that this peasant from Galilee is causing will go away. They take their best shots, they send in their best guys. Jesus wins. Every time.
They try one last time in a desperate attempt. This time, it’s the Pharisees. They ask a question in the attempt to criticize whatever he says. If they get him to make a mistake in his answer, they can embarrass him in front of all of his followers. So they test him hoping he makes a mistake, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus almost never answers direct questions. To do so in a public debate in an honor/shame culture means legitimizing your questioning by someone else. Jesus almost always responds with a question of his own in a type of scriptural interpretation tennis match. But here, he answers the question. Strange. “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” It’s actually a pretty standard, traditional answer, which is another strange thing about this encounter. He follows it up with another pretty standard thing to say (although connecting these two together doesn’t seem to be common at all). He continues, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Pharisees don’t have an immediate objection. How could they? It’s a standard answer presented in a pretty unique way. They’ll have to think about it. Huddle up together to try to challenge him. But Jesus, doesn’t give them anytime. Instead, he goes for the kill. He intends to shame them.
“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Jesus has already given a standard answer to theirs so they reply with the same defensive tactic. “The Son of David” they reply. It is critical at this point to remember that the question the Pharisees asked is not a legitimate question here in the Gospel of Matthew. They’re attempting to publicly humiliate Jesus in front of his supporters in a culture run by honor and shame. Jesus doesn’t play nice. He doesn’t win the argument just by being right. He wins by shaming his opponent. They thought he was just testing them, but it was a trap. “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”
The Pharisees didn’t think Jesus was smart enough to trap them. After all, he’s just a peasant from Galilee. But still, they can’t answer his question. They think they are morally and intellectually superior to Jesus but are exposed as fools. They lost to a Galilean peasant. And their reward is a healthy dose of public shame. No one dares to ask him anymore questions. Just for good measure, Jesus goes off on a rant to rub the shame in even more. Jesus’s followers have got to love it. They’ve been oppressed, embarrassed, and shamed for far too long by too many groups. Finally, they’re on the winning side.
But, we know the end of the story. It’s not as if Jesus keeps on winning public debates and everybody recognizes how smart and fantastic he is. Sooner or later, Jesus, like the rest of us, has to deal with the cross. Naked, tortured and alone dying on a cross with insults written over his head covered by a crown of shame. The cross is shameful, and if we forget it, we lose the whole point of the story.
In Matthew 22 and the rest of these public debates, Jesus shames his opponents and brings honor to his disciples and followers. But with the cross, Jesus is not only shamed by his opponents, but we learn that all of his followers who once call him “Lord” abandon him, that all of them are shamed too. The cross is not just the shame of his followers in the 1st century. It’s our shame too. Who among us is ready to be baptized with his baptism? Who among us is ready to stand before the cross? I’m not. Like everyone else, I would run.
The cross doesn’t end with shame. It ends with resurrection. It ends with forgiveness. God uses shame to put us in our place, but he does it by the ethic of what Jesus calls the greatest commandment. The shame of the cross is our opportunity for repentance. The shame of the cross is God’s plan to reconcile us with God’s self and with each other. God turns life to death, weakness to strength and shame into honor. And if our text this week has anything to say about it, this is true for everyone.
I was just sitting their frozen. The kids in the youth group at Culmore UMC always sat next to me. For once their eyes were glued on the pastor instead of their cell phones. It wasn’t anything that he said, it was the silence. The best preacher that I had ever heard was silent in the pulpit and couldn’t go on. All I could see were tears.
Braulio, our other intern pastor, stood up and walked to the front. He put his arms around JP and whispered something in his ear. Braulio told all of us that our pastor needed us. He invited us to stand and walk to the pulpit to lay hands on our pastor. The church circled around him and reached out. Braulio prayed. He prayed for strength. He prayed for courage. He prayed for mercy. He prayed for love. He prayed for our congregation. He prayed for our community. He prayed for our pastor. He prayed, thanking God for JP. The church was alive. The Holy Spirit was real.
When he ended, he told JP to sit down in the pews. Braulio finished the rest of the service.
I was training to learn how to be a pastor. I thought I was ready to do it. In contrast, Braulio wasn’t ready to be a pastor. He was one. To be honest, when I thought about how I handled the situation, doing nothing, compared to how Braulio handled it, with love and grace, I was ashamed. I had waited all this time to become a minister in the church when I could have spent it been simply ministering to others all along.
I could never quite explain before what it was that made JP a great preacher. He was smart, he was eloquent and had an interesting take on the bible, but I had seen all that before. I couldn’t figure it out, but as I left church that day, I knew. The sermon where he couldn’t even finish, that he couldn’t prepare enough beforehand to get it right, that didn’t even go anywhere, that was his best sermon. It was a great sermon. In the pulpit, and really everywhere else, he was genuine, he was honest and especially, he was vulnerable. Even if he was ashamed, it was laid right before us. If he struggled, he let us know. If the bible made him question something, if it made him question everything, he questioned right then and there in the pulpit. The path that he took to follow Jesus Christ, even if a meandering one, was made known to every person in the pews, but he was walking it. He told us how to follow Jesus Christ not just through biblical object lessons, but by his footsteps and his falls. Vulnerability. A willingness to be shamed by the gospel. A willingness to let that shame change who he was and repent. And to lay it in front of those that he served with the trust that God would sort out the rest. That’s what made him great. There was no one else like him.
And I wanted to preach just like him.
But if you want to preach like that, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to go through some dark places. You have to be willing to go all the way to the cross, or at least, be willing to go with the help of God. More importantly, there’s no learning to do it like that. There’s no education. There’s no training. You just do it. And most of the time you will do it poorly. Until the time comes when you’re at your worst and you’re ashamed, God turns your death to life, weakness to strength and shame to honor.
This blog will often be about what I did wrong, about what I’m ashamed of, and about what I regret, after all, it’s a theological blog by someone who’s called and is on the run. But, It isn’t an attempt at self-punishment nor is it an attempt to draw positive responses from others. It’s just something I learned from a great preacher and from a peasant on a cross. For Christians, vulnerability with regards to our flaws is our greatest protection from them and exposing our shame is our greatest weapon against it. This is true only if God can use it by demanding the church bear each other’s sins and live with each other’s shame as if it were our own.
How do we love God? By loving our neighbor as ourselves. How do love our neighbor and how do we love ourselves? The only way is to be shamed by the cross — being forgiven and being reconciled to each other with such love and devotion that other’s shame, mistakes and sin become our own.