Sunday, March 25, 2018

Not what it looks like—a sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Not What It Looks Like
Mark 11.1-11, Mark 14.1-31
25 March 2018, Palm/Passion Sunday

Mark 11.1-11 (NRSV)
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 14.1-31 (NRSV)
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’
 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep will be scattered.” 
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.


Can you imagine how confusing that first Holy Week must have been for the people around Jesus? Even his closest friends didn’t understand what was going on. I wonder how many of them felt like they were missing something in the moment—like there was more to this than meets the eye, or like there was something under the surface and things were not really as they appeared. I sometimes think the only people who truly understood were the religious leaders who wanted Jesus killed—they saw that he was changing everything, and what that would mean for their power, where others could not, and often still cannot, see past the trappings of a children’s story.

When they entered Jerusalem, the people tried to make it a triumphal procession like that of a king or military leader—cutting branches from the trees and tossing their cloaks in the road so Jesus wouldn’t get dirty riding into the city. The disciples treated it like a victory parade, singing praises, and getting the crowd to cheer along. Now, I love a parade as much as the next person—floats, and people throwing candy, and marching bands. But that Palm Sunday procession was not really what it looks like. This parade was more like a protest. No big war-horse, no army with its pikes and plumes and shields, no bugler announcing the arrival of the king, no perfect choreography or costumes. Instead it was a ragtag bunch of peasants clustered around a rabbi on a donkey colt. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone riding a donkey, but let’s just say that it isn’t even slightly graceful. No matter what you do, everyone looks ridiculous on a donkey. Now imagine a donkey colt—small, unruly, spindly legs, uncertain about carrying this load. For Jesus to choose to enter Jerusalem this way was the ultimate act of satire, of political theatre. By doing so he shows what is truly ridiculous: relying on the empire and its trappings of violence and power. 

I don’t know how many of you have been following the news out of the States the past few weeks, as teenagers across the country have taken matters into their own hands and begun organising major political and protest actions. The first was a day a couple of weeks ago when they walked out of their schools in the middle of class, protesting gun violence, and then yesterday there were marches around the US, hoping to get the attention of politicians and voters. The school walkout was criticised by many white adults as just a way to get out of lessons, and some school administrators took over the student action and made it into 17 minutes of remembrance for the victims of the most recent mass shooting, rather than a protest action. It’s so easy to do—to turn a protest, a political satire, into something sanitised and safe and domesticated. But like the first Palm Sunday, there’s more going on than meets the eye, and this isn’t just another parade. We ignore the deeper meaning here at our peril, as students join Jesus in showing us all the reality of empire and what it demands of us.

As the week went on, Jesus kept trying to show what God was truly doing, but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see. The woman anointing Jesus was scolded for her action, and when Jesus insisted she had done a good thing, that was apparently too much for poor Judas. But he wasn’t the only one confused about what Jesus was doing...through the ages, we too have turned Jesus’ words around and missed the point. He says “the poor you will always have with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish” and we have decided that means that there will always be poverty...when it’s far more likely that we should understand it to mean that the church, the Body of Christ, will be found with the poor...that our place is beside and among those whom the world has cast aside, not locked in our safe sanctuaries set apart from the consequences of capitulation to empire.

At the Passover dinner, everyone knew what to expect, as the ritual had been the same for hundreds of years...and yet even then, it wasn’t what it looked like. Jesus broke bread and poured the cup and with just a few different words, changed everything. And notice: the betrayer is at the table, sharing the feast. The denier is at the table, sharing the feast. The deserters are at the table, sharing the feast. And not one of them understands what is happening. At the first Lord’s Supper, as at every single communion table since, the people at the table entered into a mystery, in all their unworthiness, in all their confusion, in all their brokenness...and Jesus met them there, and handed them bread and wine, knowing that each time their eyes would be opened a little bit more, but that none of us would ever truly comprehend the grace of that moment. 

So why do we often insist that people must be able to understand what is going on before they can be admitted to the sacrament? It seems to me that even now, we have missed what is truly happening and focused only on the surface. But this meal is not what it looks like.

If that can be true of the stories we think we know so well, could it be true of other things too? What if what we think Jesus was all about is only one layer and there’s more to the story? He died for our sins, that’s true. But what does that actually mean? I think we have too easily decided that means that God required blood—that there was no other way God could continue to love humanity unless a sacrifice was made to appease God’s wrath. And that’s where we’ve stopped, despite the fact that there’s only a tiny bit of scripture to support that idea, and despite the fact that it portrays God in a pretty horrifying light. 

One theologian describes the deeper reality this way:
“The cross is not God's justice: it's our injustice, and God's grace anyway. The cross is not Jesus' sacrifice to God to pay for our sins. They're not paid for: they're forgiven. No payment is needed. Jesus' sacrifice is not to God: God demands nothing. Jesus' sacrifice is to us, to show us God's forgiveness: that even in our evil God loves us and calls us to love. The cross is what it looks like when love meets fear. And it is love that saves us." (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

As we enter this Holy Week together, I hope we will look for the deeper meaning, for the reality beneath the surface. I hope we will read between the lines and see that Jesus is showing us a way of life, a way of love, a way of hope...a way that changes the world, and giving himself to us so we can give ourselves to him. Because the demands of empire grow greater by the day, and we cannot afford to keep paying them. The world cannot afford Christians who sanitise the story and make it safe for children...the children themselves are begging for more truth, more depth, and more passion. 

And in this Holy Week, I hope we will allow for some confusion. We will not be the first nor the last to feel a little off balance, to wonder what we might be missing, to have questions or doubts or uncertain hope as we encounter this story that is far more than it looks like. And so I invite you to take a moment to think about a question you would like to ask Jesus about his life or his ministry or his teaching, or about the events of Holy Week and Easter...any question at all is allowed, there are no silly questions, no doubts or confusion that are wrong or bad. And then write your question in the center of the cross you received when you came in. We bring all our fear, and hope, and wondering, and uncertainty, and hope, and questions to God and place them on the cross, knowing that Christ can handle it—after all, he lived with his not-very-bright disciples for years, and he even shared the Last Supper with them when they understood nothing and he knew they were about to run away. Just put your question there, and then fold the four arms of the cross over, closing it up like the tomb. And when the offering is collected, place your question in the bag, an offering of your deep self to God. 

May it be so. Amen.

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