Sunday, April 14, 2019
Walking the Way: Homily for Palm/Passion Sunday
It’s not often you get such a wide swing of emotion in one Sunday’s readings. I want you to think about it: at the start of this service, we were rejoicing and shouting Hosanna and hailing Jesus as our king. It was easy to imagine ourselves to be walking in the way of Jesus. Twenty minutes later, we are shouting, “Crucify him!”
That’s right—“We” are shouting those things.
The immediacy of scripture is that we imagine ourselves within the stories, as one does with all great literature, whether fictional or non-fictional.
But there’s a danger in that, too. If we forget the contexts in which our gospels were written, if we forget that each one of them was written for a specific audience that was very different from us, we run the risk of getting sideways in our understanding of what actually is going on. Worse, we commit the mistake of “anachronism,” in which we place our modern context as a bracket or even a straitjacket over scripture, and we end up once again trying to “tame” Jesus and “tame” the gospel to fit our own preferences and understandings.
As I wrote in my priest’s reflection in the Beacon this week, the liturgical decision to combine observation of the joyous Palm Sunday service with the pathos and despair of the Passion Narrative into one service stems partly from the suspicion that many worshipers might not hear the Passion narrative at all if it was not observed the week before Easter. There is an assumption that a sizeable proportion of Episcopalians do not attend Holy Week and in particular Good Friday services—and honestly, that might be true.
I am hoping, however, that all of you will decide to fully observe Holy Week as much as you can—beginning with Palm/Passion Sunday today—(see? You’re off to a great start!). Then we have a kind of pause at the beginning of the week, and I urge you to spend each day with a special devotion, to contemplate the enormity of Christ’s death for us on the cross. I will provide links for those devotions on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram during the week from the “Journey to the Cross” section of the website d365.org, a collaboration between the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
And then, please come for Maundy Thursday, with its commemoration of the birth of the Eucharist; Good Friday, recounting Jesus’s trial and execution and our meditations before our Stations of the Cross; and the Great Vigil of Easter, the holiest commemoration in our calendar (even more holy than Easter Sunday, in fact).
So you all are hopefully going to bust that myth wide open, and you’re going to experience the beauty of the Triduum—that fancy word that means “three days”—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then the silence of Saturday until the Great Vigil helps us proclaim resurrection and reconciliation for all creation.
I was oh, so tempted to let this Passion Narrative stand on its own—because really, what else but this story emphasizes exactly the cost of love that God is willing to bear for us? And then, this week, came the news from my home state of a woman who attempted to terrorize Jews and other targeted groups with vandalism, painting swastikas and slurs all over public spaces in central Oklahoma—including churches.
So there is one thing that has to be said. Although we didn't hear it in our dramatic version read together today, in the Bible, the Passion Narratives include language that blames “the Jews” for the death of Jesus-- over and over again. At the time of the gospels’ composition, those hearing this narrative were themselves likely Jews, and they understood this to be shorthand for “the authorities.” Those authorities at the time of Jesus’s execution were both Roman and Jewish. BOTH.
And yet the Romans do not get blamed. Against all other historical evidence we have—and there is evidence—Pilate was not some befuddled coward who was afraid of the crowd. He had absolutely no problem being ruthless in executing people without cause and did so plenty of times. The fact is that it was in the best interest of the early Jewish Christian communities to go easy on the Roman culpability in order to save their necks.
Because by the time the Gospels were written, the Romans had just gotten finished crushing a Jewish uprising in 70 AD. The cherry on top was their utter destruction of the Temple—after desecrating it first. And the gospel writers had some bitterness against the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, who had urged against the uprising to begin with, not to mention their religious quarrel with followers of “The Way” over who Jesus was accepted to be.
That’s the context we have to remember: when the gospels say “the Jews,” what they mean is “the leaders.” But we don’t get that context. And so, over centuries, these gospels led to marginalization and prejudice against out Jewish brothers and sisters.
As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine noted, it’s vital to point out how much passages like these have been used through history to demonize Jewish people, to call them “Christ-killers,” to justify pogroms and hatred and violence against our Jewish brethren time and time and time again—or even to claim that Christianity is “better” than Judaism.
So come for all the Holy Week services—especially the Easter Vigil, where we will the salvation story starting with the creation of the universe through the story of the Exodus, through the prophets to the amazing discovery by Mary Magdalene and the other women who never abandoned Jesus even at the tomb.
Hearing those readings help us remember that the salvation of humanity begins from the beginning of time. God is ever making the heavens and the earth, and calling us back from the foolishness of Adam in thinking he could decide things himself. Remember when THAT all went wrong, the first thing Adam and Eve did was to hide. To think they could hide from their disobedience and the consequences of it. Just like we all do.
Yet Jesus, who is a new Adam, is not hiding from anyone. Instead, he boldly walks out to those looking to seize him. Instead of rebellion, Jesus acts out of perfect obedience, love, and unity with God. Instead of Adam choosing sin in opposition to love, this new Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, chooses to act in love in opposition to sin.
Once again, God knows his love will be met with rejection. This Adam is truly God’s son. Once again, we find the one who wants to give us everything, and we react with doubt, rejection, and fear. Those who come to arrest Jesus are seeking a rebel; but instead they find God in the shape of Jesus.
Yet we still refuse to recognize God as God. Instead WE rebel. WE want to be in charge. Yet Jesus will go willingly into custody for a crime he has not committed, and place himself in the hands of evil, of fear and sin, so that he may show that the love of God always wins out over evil, over fear, and over sin. We need to remember to hear “the people” instead of "the Jews" in the reading of the gospel passage today, because this passage in particular has been used throughout the centuries to justify anti-Semitism, and that is completely wrong.
WE are the ones-- all of us-- who put Jesus on the cross. We are there as Jesus is being questioned and condemned, and we are there as Jesus is executed although not guilty of any crime.
We are Adam and Eve, and we are also the disciples, we are the chief priests and the crowd, and we are Pilate and the soldiers. Each one of those groups represents something about us.
WE are Adam and Eve: We are the ones who run away and hide from the ones we love, and then wonder why we are alone. We are the ones who want God to be powerful enough to grant our wishes, yet weak enough to do our bidding.
WE are the disciples: We are the ones who ask to sit at the place of honor and but shun the shame of Calvary.
WE are Judas: We reject those we’ve pledged to love, betraying them when they won’t do what WE want.
WE are the chief priests and Pharisees: We are the ones for whom a thousand signs are never enough proof.
WE are Pilate: We are the ones who choose inaction in the face of wrong.
WE are the crowd: We are the ones who blindly follow our leaders, even to cheering the slaughter of innocents.
WE are the soldiers: We are the ones who take part in a thousand cruelties, both small and enormous, in the names of doing our jobs.
And all these sins add up. These sins are what put Jesus on the cross.
We want to believe that terrible events like crucifixion and injustice are the work of people who are evil. Yet the line between good and evil doesn’t run between us, it runs within us. It starts with how we respond to fear. So many of the people involved in the Passion narrative are filled with fear born out of mistrust. And this applies to us as well. We have created a society where we have elevated distrust, doubt, and betrayal to art forms, after all. When we lash out at those we love, when we destroy relationships out of dread that we could get hurt, we choose the way of anxiety rather than the way of trust—not to mention we ironically get the very thing we feared. Jesus calls us to a different way.
The Way of Jesus is the Way of trust, the Way of wonder, the Way of kinship with all people and all creation, the Way of the strong standing up for the weak, the Way of forgiveness, the Way of healing. That’s why these stories mean something to us—and this one today is the greatest story ever told.
But these stories also contain a challenge-- to be like Jesus. The challenge is to give up the way of fear. Jesus’s passion narrative as we hear it in today and always shows us not the way to die, but the way to live. Walking the Way of Jesus, in the name of love.
Preached at the 505, 8:00 and 10:15 services at St. Martin's Episcopal Church for Palm/Passion Sunday, April 14, 2019.