Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whiplash Sunday

Palm Sunday is so odd!  Who needs two gospel readings in one service?  We are somehow supposed to begin the morning jubilant and excited.  "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!"  We are supposed to cast off our winter cloaks and lay them on Jesus' path, damping down the dust on the road and showing honor to this great teacher we have been listening to and following for some part of these last three years.

And then, just as we settle into the pews after singing All Glory Laud and Honor, we are confronted by the end of the week and are cast again as that same joyous multitude but this time, we are demanding Jesus' life!  Just like that we go from praise to spitting.  It's the kind of shift in thinking that gives me a crick in my neck and an ache above my eyebrows.  What's more, reading this story as we do 2,000 years after the event (give or take a few dozen years) gives us a warped sense of what happened.  Too bad the multitude of disciples didn't have Luke's manuscript handy at the start of the week so they could see and hear clearly.
You see, those folks understood the significance of the Mount of Olives, how the Messiah was supposed to come from there.  They likely thought the donkey a strange touch but some of them knew there is prophetic writing to back it up.  But they didn't have Luke's description of the scene like we do.  They were too busy being in that place, feeling the excitement and joy and looking forward to what was surely to come next - the victory of the Messiah over the Roman oppressors.

We, though, see the scene through Luke's eyes.  We feel the sense of the multitude that victory and triumph belong to Jesus even as we see the paradox of that victory in the image of this king riding on the young donkey, certainly not an animal fit for a king.  Try as we might, we cannot manage to be so caught up in the crowd's emotion that we miss that detail.  Luke makes it stand out for us.

And few who were there likely heard the Pharisees rebuke Jesus, demanding that he silence the people.  Would they have understood the reference to the stones crying out in Habakkuk?  There the stones cry out for injustice done against the peoples: war and violence, slave labor and degradation.  Here, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the stones would cry with that same message for he has spent his entire ministry speaking for these same peoples - those marginalized by war, economics, greed and even religion.

Now on the other side of the city, another triumphal entry is occurring.  It is the season of the Passover when tempers run high in Jerusalem.  So Pilate, the Roman governor is coming into Jerusalem with his troops to make sure that the peace is kept throughout the festival.  His entry is far more regal with his servants and troops arrayed before and behind him.  No one dares get close enough to lay down a cloak or palm branch here.  Pilate himself likely rides in on a fine horse or in a gilded chariot driven by a personal slave.  Yes, Pilate is coming to bring peace, too, peace to the territory of Judea and especially the city of Jerusalem, the peace of submission to a mightier nation. 
Yet the multitude knowing what is happening on the other side of the city, still shouts out, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.!" They, too, expect peace, the peace of the kingdom of God brought about by the reign of Christ.

But again, we cannot really share their enthusiasm.  It seems naive to us who watch the drama year after year from such a great distance, a distance of more than time.  We know what will happen when these two great figures meet.  There is nothing peaceful in the encounter.  It is painful, confusing and maybe even a little embarrasing.  When you hear the Passion, have you ever felt like someone sitting in the stands saying, "Come on Jesus, you can turn this around.  You've got the power and the words to change their minds and make them see the light.  Just do it!"  You know who is going to win and you know it looks like you are backing the loser.  This time, we hope the story will end differently, that the orchestra will break into Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Jesus and Pilate will clasp hands in solidarity and stride off for a festival banquet.
God doesn't do peace like that.  "The peace of God," says the hymn, "it is no peace  but strife closed in the sod.  Yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God."

The multitude of disciples is all gone now.  They have wandered away all week long as the peace they longed for seems less and less likely to occur.  Enough of them stayed long enough to be turned against Jesus and to demand his death.  The last eleven have put great distance between themselves and Calvary by the time Jesus is nailed on the cross, fearing for their own lives.  No one wants to be crucified, after all. 

Even Pilate doesn't get the peace he expected to bring to this city.  The Jewish leaders have dragged him into this interreligious warfare despite his best attempts to stay out of it.  And those leaders of faith and Temple get no peace, either.

We don't feel peace, either, do we?  This is one of those times when the grace of God, the peace of God, the love of God seem to have withdrawn from us.  For we know that we are the multitude of disciples.  We get caught up in the excitement and joy and sometimes we are convinced to turn away.  We are uncomfortable playing the part of that multitude when they cry, "Crucify him!" because we know we have done so and will probably do so again even though we try hard not to. 

But, my brothers and sisters, do not fear.  The love, the peace and the grace of God surround us now just as the disciples were surrounded.  Whether we find ourselves bold enough to stand at the foot of the cross or too afraid to come very close at all, God is standing with us.

God is with us all this week as we hear the stories of that first Holy Week.  Let us allow ourselves to feel that presence, to share God's pain and sorrow just as God shares ours.


Jennifer said...

Very beautiful! You take us from triumph to tragedy with an important reminder about the presence of God. Thank you!

Sr. Heather said...

Wonderful! I like how peace weaves through. It never ceases to amaze me how I'll notice a thread in the tapestry of scripture, one that I'd never noticed before... or maybe some threads grouped together that I'd never seen woven that way. Enjoy your Whiplash Sunday, and your well-earned clergy nap!

Sophia said...

I love the title, Margaret, and the musings on our own feelings and wishing we could intervene as we hear the story now knowing the ending.

I did have a couple of concerns I hope you won't mind if I mention. The whole multitude of disciples did not abandon Jesus....In contrast to the male disciples (except for John, in his Gospel) every Gospel emphasizes that Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples were faithful to the end and stood by Jesus at the cross. They get so little attention in liturgy and preaching that I always like to emphasize that in teaching and preaching on the Passion.

I also think, given the history of Christian blaming of the Jews for the crucifixion, and the fact that most people in the pews still believe that, that we have to be super careful about how we preach on these texts. So I love how you emphasize that it was only the Jewish leaders (and only some of them--certainly not Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) that wanted Jesus crucified. But this is worked against to some extent by the emphasis on the whole Palm Sunday multitude, mostly Jewish, switching to "crucify him" as well as by the emphasis on Pilate being unwilling to get involved.

Pilate's protests and hand washing in the Gospel are 1) hypocritical and self-serving and 2) deeply reflecting the conflicts between Jews and Christians by the time the Gospels were written. He was a brutal person who did not hesitate to use violence to shore up Roman power, which was threatened by popular messiahs like Jesus--and if he actually was reluctant to kill Jesus why would he have had him brutally beaten first and killed in such a painful and humiliating way? Also, despite the dramatic preaching (and movie) tradition of showing huge numbers of people before Pilate, I have read that archaelogists believe that they have found his courtyard--and about a hundred people could fit in it, at most. The average Jewish person in Jerusalem who had been happy to see Jesus enter probably wasn't there, and would have been sad to hear about his execution.

Thanks so much for listening to my perspective.