Palm Sunday, Year C, 2016

The Passion narrative seems particularly resonant this year, with its scenes of crowds shouting for a sacrifice to ease their anxiety, hoping for blood to appease their anger. We see now that these kinds of crowds are not a historical relic, but part of the human condition. I know many of us are deeply anxious about the current political situation in our country, for good reason, but I do think Jesus has good, if somber news for us today.

Going back to the Palm Sunday reading, you may have noticed a few things. There are no palms for one thing. Jesus’ disciples lay their coats for Jesus, not palm branches. And no one shouts “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Instead they shout,

“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Luke is deeply interested in peace, and the particular peace that Jesus brings to a violent and oppressive world. The disciples’ words echo the words of the angels who appear to the shepherds upon Jesus’ birth.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But, there is one key difference. The disciples do not shout “peace on earth”, they shout “peace in heaven”. Perhaps they are still hoping Jesus will exercise military power, organize the Jewish population to overthrow the Roman military rule. We think of the group of disciples here as being a joyful contrast to the bloodthirsty crowd that calls for Jesus’ death. But even these disciples, who have been following Jesus, may want blood. They are thrilled that Jesus is finally traveling to Jerusalem, that he is finally going to set straight the powers of the day.

But of course, the only blood Jesus intends to shed is his own.

After his betrayal, Jesus meets the violence of the crowds in Jerusalem not with resistance, but with a clear sense of who he is, and a deep trust in God’s providence for him. Jesus does not achieve peace by trying to make everyone happy. Jesus doesn’t hold press conferences and try to appease the Romans, the corrupt powers in Jerusalem and his ordinary followers. No, Jesus remains completely clear about his values—following God means loving God and your neighbor. He knows his Father will be with him, even as he trembles in fear in the Garden.

We don’t get to the resurrection in today’s readings yet, so I’ll leave us here, standing before our crucified Jesus. Standing before our God who was willing to face us at our violent worst, who was willing to love us through our own violence, even when violence is not what he wanted from us.

The good news is that Jesus loves us through our worst, and that he shows us a way of peace in a violent time. Peace does not mean avoiding conflict, but being true to our Christian values even if it becomes costly to us. The final promise we make in baptism is to: Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This means respecting the dignity of people of every religion, every race, every nation and every political party.

The Bishops of the Episcopal Church recently met and released the following statement:

We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Our bishops know we are sinners and we are saints. We have the capacity for violence and the capacity for reconciliation. Developing a spirit of reconciliation is hard, hard work. Picking a side and the demonizing every person who disagrees with us is much easier, but we are the light of the world, we are the body of Christ. And like Christ, we are called to be out in the world actually encountering and relating to people who are different from us. Jesus was in conversation with Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and Romans. Jesus spoke with outsiders and insiders. The early church was a hodgepodge of Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, those in power and those out of power.

We can be clear about our values while still treating people who think differently than we do with dignity. We can disagree about policy related to immigration or ISIS while agreeing to be friends. But our promise to treat each person with dignity, and Christ’s overwhelming love for all humankind makes it impossible for us to embrace racism, hatred of the refugee, and hatred of Muslims.

Following God is costly. Jesus was willing to lose everything—power, privilege, even his life. Are we willing to follow?

Palm Sunday, Year A, 2014

During our Lenten program the last few weeks, I’ve been helping Daniel and Audi with the kids as they prepared to sing for you all today!  One day, when Daniel was leading a conversation about Palm Sunday, one of the children raised his hand and said something along the lines of, “Why do the same people who cheer Jesus on then go on to murder him?  It’s creepy!”

He is absolutely right, the events we read on Palm Sunday are super, super creepy and deeply unsettling.  How do the same human beings go from shouting Hosanna to their king to screaming “Let him be crucified!” And it raises an even more unsettling question.  Does the same conflict lodge in our hearts?  Would we so easily betray our God?

I like to think of this as The West Wing versus House of Cards problem of the human condition.

Stay with me.  For those of you who don’t know, The West Wing was a drama written by Aaron Sorkin which aired on NBC from 1999-2006. House of Cards is currently in its second season and can be found on Netflix.

Both shows are about United States politics and both have quite a bit of focus on the Presidency and the President’s staff.

But the two shows have very different points of view.  The West Wing is largely about the importance of serving the country.  Episodes focus on inter-personal relationships, yes, and there is plenty of romance, but the characters seem genuinely invested in passing policy to make the country a better place.

The fictional President Bartlett was committed to bettering the country even if it hurt him politically.  At one point, when he is about to make a controversial decision, his chief of staff, Leo, gathers the staff and says the following:

We’re gonna lose a lot of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues; we’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this Country, and let that be our legacy.

He then asks each of the staff if that sounds all right to them, and they each reply

I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

And not only did characters focus on big, arching policy, they were even interested in the little guy.  Every so often the show would focus on some average citizen who had a specific problem or concern.  The most moving of which was probably when Toby was approached by the police because a homeless man who had been wearing a coat Toby had donated to charity had been found dead.  Rather than simply distancing himself from this stranger, Toby begins to learn about him, and ultimately fights for him to be buried with military honors, when he discovers the homeless man was a veteran. Plots almost always brought the human stories of policy to the forefront.

Even the main characters were shown to serve their country sacrificially.  C.J. Crane gave up a half million dollar salary as a PR flack in California.  Sam Seaborne walked out of a lucrative law firm. Ainsley Hayes gave up becoming a powerful player in Republican politics to serve as a lawyer in a democratic administration, because she believed it was the best way to use her gifts to serve the country.

The West Wing presents a really positive view of humanity.  It shows the hopeful, optimistic, cooperative, joyful parts of our soul that we see displayed by Jesus’ followers on Palm Sunday.  Jesus’ followers have seen the face of God and they are ready to celebrate and honor God.  Unfortunately, humanity is more complicated than the picture presented on The West Wing and on Palm Sunday.

House of Cards, the Netflix political drama, presents the other extreme of humanity.  The main characters are Frank Underwood and his wife Claire.  When the series begins, Frank is majority leader of the House of Representatives.  Like President Bartlett he is a Democrat, but the resemblance ends there.  Frank’s only goal is to accrue power.  And he’ll accrue power using any means necessary.  He bribes, he lies, he has affairs, he blackmails, he even has people killed.  All so that he can move up the chain of power.  At one point he turns to the camera and says, ““For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”  There is a plot thread about a piece of policy, but the content of the policy doesn’t really matter to Frank.  All that matters is that he can manipulate the situation so that he comes out a winner.  There aren’t very many good hearted people in the show.  Those that are usually end up losing their jobs or their lives.

Honestly, I’m not sure Herod and Pilate rose to the level of Frank Underwood’s villainy.  But they were part of the political machine that was so interested in power and status quo that they were willing to kill God to keep their thrones.

Most actual human beings fall somewhere in-between the worlds of The West Wing and House of Cards.  We are more like the crowd in Jerusalem.  Excited about God one minute, and another minute willing to turn our back on Jesus if it means we can gain more power, money or even more comfort.

We seek to serve the common good, until it makes more sense for us to go into a career that will pay off our student loans.

We care about the downtrodden, but we buy our jeans from companies that force their employees to work in dangerous conditions.

Someone even recently shared with me that their seminary classmates would steal books others needed for papers.  These are SEMINARY STUDENTS!

We are a mixed up people!  We want to follow God, but just can’t seem to stick with it.  How many of you abandoned your Lenten resolutions?  I know I did!

How does Jesus react to this change of mood in Jerusalem?  Does he try to run away when things go south?  No.  Does he turn to the hostile mob and yell at them for their betrayal?  No.  Jesus stays the course.  Jesus continues to love humanity, even in the face of our betrayal.  He calmly journeys to the Cross even with full knowledge of how fickle humanity can be when it comes to loving God.

He knows that we are The West Wing people who will join the Peace Corps and volunteer at soup kitchens and he knows that we are House of Cards people who will betray those closest to us, who will be unforgivably selfish.  He knows all of this about us, probably even before Palm Sunday.  He’s probably learned about it from watching his disciples, from living with a family, from being human.  He’s probably learned this about us from reading Scripture.  Abraham was a hero and a liar.  Moses was a brave leader and a murderer.  King David delighted in the Lord and had his lover’s husband killed.  Scripture is full of the contradictions of human beings.  Jesus has probably felt these contradictory impulses rise in his own spirit, and turned to his Father for help.

In fact, this conflict we have, of being lovingly made in God’s image but also spectacularly sinful, is why God became incarnate in Jesus in the first place.  And even when Jesus experiences this awful tension, he does not abandon us.  He walks toward the cross.  He stays true to himself.  He obeys his Father, because we cannot.

Jesus did not abandon the crowd at Palm Sunday.  Jesus did not abandon the crowd on Good Friday.

Jesus does not abandon us, either.  Whether we are at our most Christlike, selfless and giving, or whether we’re completely horrible and greedy, Jesus walks alongside of us.  But Jesus doesn’t leave us where we are.  Jesus beckons us to follow him, to walk the path he has laid for us, to celebrate our relationship with him by living into our best selves.  And he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen our resolve and to give us peace.

We invite you to join us on Jesus’ journey this week, as we remember our rejection of God, and God’s triumphant defeat of our apathy.  The story of Holy Week is your story, your story of betrayal and redemption, a story more exciting than any television drama.  Don’t miss out.

Amen.

(Quotes from The West Wing found in Nathan Paxton’s wonderful article, “Virtue from Vice:  Duty, Power, and The West Wing.)

Palm Sunday, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

 

In the room, she pours the nard over Jesus’ head, slowly.  It drips down his neck and soaks his tunic, some catches in his beard, reflects the light of the candles in the room.  Jesus can feel it soaking into his skin, feels it slippery between his fingers.

 

Later, Judas nervously walks, tap-tap-tapping his fingers in his empty pocket.  Breathing heavily, unable to shake the smell out of his nose.

 

In the room, she touches Jesus’ head.  She lays her hands on the healer, on the demon-chaser, on the resurrector of Lazarus.  She feels his curls, sees his cowlick, traces his part with her fingers.

 

Later, Judas in the dark, in the cold, sees the door.  He reaches out, feels its heft, waits for a moment. Breathes.

 

In the room, she ignores the murmurs.  She knows what she is doing.  For a year she’s been saving.  Her coins hidden in jars in the kitchen, under her mattress, buried in the garden.

 

Later, outside that door, Judas remembers.  Remembers having a job, having money in his pocket.  Remembers how easy it was to buy what he needed.  Remembers being respected, having prospects.  Remembers giving it all up, remembers the sacrifice, remembers following,.

 

In the room, she remembers.  Remembers her suffering, remembers how far Yahweh seemed, tucked into the temple, guarded by fierce, unsympathetic priests.  She remembers the very presence of God appearing, out of nowhere, and touching her, healing her.  She remembers how his words changed everything she thought she knew.  She remembers following.

 

Later, Judas faces the priests.  He shuffles his feet, looks down, speaks too fast, they have to ask him to repeat.  He does.  Slow grins light up their faces.  Judas feels relief and a surge of nausea all at once.

 

In the room, she feels Jesus’ warmth through her fingers.  She prays silent prayers.  Prayers that he might be spared, that he won’t feel alone, that he will know how loved he is.

 

In the room, Jesus sees them both.  Sees his death in both their eyes.  Sees her silent acknowledgement, feels her hands anointing him, blessing him.  Jesus sees Judas, too.  His shifty eyes and nervous hands.  His sneer.  His back.

 

Later, she wipes the perfume off her hands.  She hears about the soldiers.  She weeps.

 

Later, Judas feels the coins weigh down his pocket.  He runs his fingers through them, listens to them clink against each other.  Cold.  Hard.  Satisfying.  He looks around, realizes he is alone.

 

Later, she waits underneath the cross with the others.   She grips his mother’s hand.  She hears his last breath.  She experiences the deep silence, the emptiness, the end.

 

But later.  Oh, later!

 

Palm Sunday, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

Palm Sunday is a day packed with words and imagery, so instead of a traditional sermon, I’ll be leading you all through a guided meditation.  Do not panic, no one will be asked to access their inner child or spirit guide.

What I would like you to do is to relax as best you can in your pew.  Uncross your legs, put both your feet on the floor, put your hands in your lap and take a few deep breaths, slowly breathing in and out.

You can keep your eyes open or close them.  Whatever is the most comfortable for you.

Let us begin.

You are part of the crowd who has been following Jesus.  What was your profession?  How long have you been following Jesus?  What have you seen along your journey?

You see Jesus heal two blind men.  How do they react? What it is it like when you make eye contact with them?  In what way are you hoping Jesus will heal you?

As you get closer to Jerusalem, you notice Jesus send his disciples out to get a donkey and a colt.  They come back and Jesus sits on one of the animals.  Suddenly the crowd is overcome. Images of past kings riding into victory into Jerusalem begin to overwhelm you.  You start to catch the excitement of the people around you. What do you hope Jesus will do in Jerusalem? Look around at the crowd.  What are some of the different reasons members of the crowd have followed Jesus?

You keep following Jesus into Jerusalem.  Jesus storms into the temple and starts throwing over tables and whipping people!  How does this make you feel?  How do you respond?

Suddenly, the authorities are all over Jesus.  The Scribes and Pharisees storm into the temple and look around trying to see if they recognize anyone in the crowd.  A few of them look right at you.  What happens to your body?  Does your heart start to race? What are the risks to you and your family to be associated with Jesus? Do you stick with Jesus or try to slip away?

The rest of the week, Jesus and the Pharisees seem locked in one long battle.  Jesus says parables and the Pharisees try to catch him breaking the rules.  On the days when the Pharisees aren’t coming to challenge Jesus, the Sadducees are.   Everyone around you is becoming more and more tense.  Finally, one day, Jesus just lets completely loose and starts insulting the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He insults them like you’ve never heard before and at least four distinct times says “Woe to you, Pharisees and scribes, hypocrites!”  How does this direct confrontation make you feel?

After that event, Jesus turns to you, the crowd, and starts telling you these horror stories of suffering that are going to happen to you.  He says,

Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Are you terrified?  Where is the healing Jesus you had so come to admire?  Who is this angry man in front of you?

You are relieved when Jesus and his disciples disappear for awhile.  You need some time to breathe, to think about what is happening.  You need to think about where your loyalties lie.

One night you see some commotion in the street.  You follow the crowd and suddenly you’re in a garden and there Jesus is again.  But this time, Jesus is being arrested.  There is shouting and the clanging of swords, but Jesus seems strangely calm in the midst of the chaos.  Jesus’ arrest makes you sad, but also relieved in a way.  There is something about it that seems inevitable.  What feelings flood you as you see him taken away?

The next time you see Jesus, you are at the Passover festival.  The mood is not as festive as years past.  The word of Jesus arrest has spread throughout Jerusalem.  You see so many different reactions around you.  Some people are clearly devastated.  Some seem triumphant.  Others seem anxious and on edge.  How are you feeling?

You hear that the governor is going to make an announcement, so you shove your way forward to get a better look.

You hear Pilate’s voice yell out:  “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

What do you yell?

Most of the people in the crowd around you, are yelling Barabbas.

The governor now asks, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

You think back, to the Jesus you saw healing and teaching in the countryside.  And you think about the Jesus who stormed through the temple, argued with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who got himself arrested.  You think about the Jesus who spoke words about a terrifying apocalypse.  You look deep inside yourself and make your decision.

What do you yell?

Palm Sunday, Year C, 2010

We have just read the entire Passion of our Lord.  But I want us to take a step back to Palm Sunday, to find ourselves with Jesus and the disciples, outside of Jerusalem, awaiting the final chapter of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

We are reading through the Gospel of Luke this year, and the Palm Sunday reading is a little different from the readings in Mark and Matthew. There are no palms, actually.  No hosannas, either.  And the crowd that cheers Jesus on is not the crowd of locals that will soon shout “Crucify!”, but a large group of Jesus’ own disciples.

These disciples have been with Jesus along his journey, they have heard him speak of Jerusalem and of his own death over and over again, and yet they are still caught up in the moment, caught up in the memory of all the wonderful things they have seen Jesus do.  Together, they praise God in one voice, shouting

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

The disciples love Jesus, and are glad that God sent Jesus to them, but you get the sense here that they are still wrapped up in the idea of Jesus as an earthly king who is going to rise up against the Romans and bring the Jewish people back to political power.

Jesus does not rebuke them, or try to finesse their expectations.  He knows that even if they have the details wrong, their impulse to praise God is a good impulse.

The disciples are going to go through a huge emotional and spiritual journey.  They are going to experience the death of their friend and king and have to reframe their entire experience with Jesus.  They are going to have to grieve the loss of what they thought would be, and experience the wonder of the risen Jesus on their own terms.

And, to me, at least, there is something really beautiful about Jesus allowing them to have their joy and their hope, even if the joy and hope is misdirected.  In fact, Jesus tells the Pharisees that if his followers did not praise him stones would cry out in their place.

Praising God, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing.  Jesus trusts himself enough, and trusts his Father enough, to know that Jesus’ death and resurrection will speak for themselves.  Jesus does not have to persuade or convince his disciples with words.  The very act of his resurrection will be enough to make them understand that Jesus’ kingship was never about earthly power, but about changing spiritual reality. For now, it is enough that his followers praise him and his Father.  Their praise does not have to express a perfectly formed and correct theological thought.

We, too, get wrapped up in hoping Jesus will do things for us in this world.  I’ve known people who swore God provided them parking spaces.  We all know sports teams, actors, and musicians who credit their award winning performances to God.  (My husband swears some of those shots Butler made Thursday night in the NCAA tournament had to be helped by the Holy Spirit.) People certainly said their prayers one way or the other during the last election and during last week’s Health Care Reform vote.  Those prayers may have been meaningful or superficial; they may reflect gratitude for something God has no interest in whatsoever! But the impulse to praise God, the impulse to give God credit for our successes is a good one.

When we praise God, we point to something true about God.  We point to God as creator, provider, caretaker, redeemer, savior.  And the more we praise God, the more we will come to realize that our praise of God can come independent of our personal circumstances.  The reality of God’s faithfulness is the reality of the resurrection.  God offers us new life whether we are getting parking spots or not, whether our sports team wins or not, whether our political party is in power or not.  Jesus’ death and resurrection apply to our lives no matter how rich or how poor we are, no matter how happy or sad we are. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is so important to our souls that it transcends any other circumstances in our lives.

So, this Holy Week, we invite you to join us as we follow Jesus’ story in Jerusalem.  We invite you to experience the last supper, Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ glorious resurrection.  And we trust that whatever is going on in your life, the good news of God’s resurrection will make you want to praise God, too.